Origins of Islam

ISLAM              Session three

Item #2 of Outline:  Origins of Islam

Arabia in 600 AD, as today, has a land area of approximately 830,000 square miles (about 3 times the size of Texas).  The vast majority of Arabia is arid, volcanic desert hostile to human habitation.   Summer temperatures  regularly exceed 120 degrees F.  Scattered among this desert are lifesaving oases which provide water and food for the nomadic residents and their flocks.  To the west is a coastal strip of fertile land where the wells do not dry up, the plants bear fruit all year round and the pastures support all kinds and numbers of hoofed beasts (#18, P. 13).  Arabia’s coastline with the Red Sea from the Gulf of Aqaba in the north to the border with Yemen is 960 miles; in total from the Gulf of Aqaba to the southern tip of the Arabian Peninsula its coastline is 1,200 miles long.

The people of Arabia, identified by their tribes, were divided between the farmers and nomads or merchants.  The latter were noted by their trading in perfumes, animals, animal oils and other merchandise along with their practice of raiding caravans and oases.  The harsh climate and its people hardened by the daily coping with their environment made Arabia  uninviting to outsiders.  Most of those who did venture into or across Arabia made their way in armed caravans which were prey for indigenous raiders.

There were two main cities in Arabia 600 AD, both near its western border with the Red Sea.  Medina which was (and is) situated about one-fourth of the way south of its northern border and about 112 miles inland from its western border with the Red Sea was a thriving agricultural center.  Mecca an oasis town and financial center was located about 112 miles south of Medina and 50 miles inland.

Arabia in 600 AD was not a nation.  It had no unifying authority, no sovereign identity, and no “Arabian” army.  Its residents were tribal members who identified with, were loyal to and were subject to the rules and disciplines of their tribe.

Arabia was, thus, a loose amalgamation of hundreds of tribes; each with its own god or goddess.  These diverse “divinities” were associated with celestial bodies, animals, trees, stones and other objects.  A shrine in Mecca, the “Kaaba”, was home to more than 300 idol statues.  The moon and its “off springs” were favorite gods of several tribes.

This is the setting for the introduction of Islam to Arabia early in the seventh century.  Let us now focus on Europe and how its chaotic condition facilitated the spread of Islam westward from Arabia.

Europe, 600 AD

By 600 AD Europe was in what historians refer to as the “Middle Ages” or “Medieval Period” which is usually marked from the collapse of the western segment of the Roman Empire in 476 AD to approximately 1500 AD, the beginning of The Renaissance.  For more than 500 years the Roman Empire ruled Europe and  profoundly influenced  every aspect of European culture; especially the areas of religion, law and forms of government.

In 285 AD the Roman Empire divided itself into East and West segments.  In 330 AD, Constantine transferred the main capital from Rome to Constantinople (also known as Byzantium and present day Istanbul). The Eastern Roman Empire then became known as the Byzantine Empire.  During the fourth and fifth centuries the Western Roman Empire was under assault from both within and without.  Most historians mark the end of the Western Roman Empire with the surrender to the Germanic warlord, Odoacer, in 476 AD.

The effect of the collapse of the Western Roman Empire was to deprive Europe of a unifying power and to throw it into centuries of turmoil marked by replacing Roman law with Germanic tribal “law”, a de-emphasis of academic pursuits,  competition among the Germanic tribes for territorial control, neglect of the infrastructure and other factors which were grossly different from life under the Roman Empire.

This weakening and fracturing of Europe made it vulnerable to any strong, dedicated armed force bent on expanding and imposing its will.  As we shall see, Europe’s vulnerable condition was used to great advantage by Islam in expanding its first empire.

The next session will begin with the third “bullet” of item number two of the outline: Muhammad, brief biography.