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Islamic Civilization









A new drama began to unfold in the 6th century with the awakening of a rival far more dangerous to the West than the German tribes: the new faith of ISLAM.

 MUHAMMAD (570~32) was an orphan, raised by a family of modest means.

As a youth, he worked as a merchant's assistant, traveling the major trade routes. When he was twenty-five, he married a wealthy Meccan widow.

Wealthy himself, he became a kind of social activist, criticizing Meccan materialism, paganism, and unjust treatment of the poor and needy 

When he was about forty a deep religious experience heightened his commitment to reform and transformed his life.

He began to receive REVELATIONS from the angel Gabriel, who recited God's word to him at irregular intervals. 

These revelations grew into the KORAN (a reciting) which his followers compiled between 650 and 651.

 The Message

The basic message Muhammad received was a summons to all Arabs to SUBMIT TO GOD'S WILL.

Followers of Muhammad's religion came to be called MUSLIM (Arabic for "submission" or "surrendering").

 The name applied to the religion itself, ISLAM, has the same derivation and means "submission".

 Elements of Christian, Jewish, and Pagan Beliefs and Practices

The message was not a new one.

A long line of Jewish prophets going back to Noah had repeated it.

According to Muslims, however, this line ended with Muhammad, who was the last of God's chosen prophets and known as "THE PROPHET."

The Koran also recognized Jesus Christ as a prophet, but did not view him as God's coeternal and coequal son.

 Like Judaism, Islam was a MONOTHEISTIC and Theo-centric religion, not a Trinitarian one like Christianity.

 MECCA was a major pagan pilgrimage site (the Ka'ba - a black meteorite that became Islam's holiest shrine - was originally a pagan object of worship).

 Muhammad's attacks on idolatry and immorality threatened the trade that flowed from the pilgrims, enraging the merchants of the city.

Persecuted for their attacks on traditional religion, Muhammad and his followers fled in 622 to Medina, 240 miles to the north. This event came to be known as the Hegira and marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar.

 In MEDINA, Muhammad organized his forces and drew throngs of devoted followers.

He raided caravans going back and forth to Mecca and had his first conflicts with Medinan Jews, who were involved in Meccan trade.

By 624 his army was powerful enough to conquer Mecca and make it the center of the new religion.

 During these years THE BASIC RULES OF ISLAMIC PRACTICE evolved. True Muslims were expected:

  1. To be honest and modest in all their dealings and behavior.

  2. To be unquestionably loyal to the Islamic community.

  3. To abstain from pork and alcohol at all times.

  4. To wash and pray facing Mecca five times a day.

  5. To contribute to the support of the poor and needy.

  6. To fast during daylight hours for one month each year.

  7. To make a pilgrimage to Mecca and visit the Ka'ba at least once in a lifetime.

 Attitude Toward Women

In another distinctive feature, Islam permitted Muslim men to have UP TO FOUR WIVES -- provided they treated them all justly and gave each equal attention - and as many concubines as they wished.

A man could divorce a wife with a simple declaration, whereas a wife had to have a very good reason and go before an official to divorce her husband.

A wife was expected to be totally loyal and devoted to her husband. She was allowed to show her face to no man but him.


In contrast to Christianity, Islam drew no rigid distinction between the clergy and the laity. A lay scholarly elite developed, however, that held moral authority within Islamic society and formed a kind of magisterium in moral and religious matters.

This elite, known as the ULEMA (persons with correct knowledge), served a social function similar to that of a professional priesthood or rabbinate,

Its members were men of great piety and obvious learning whose opinions came to have the force of law in Muslim society.

They also kept a critical eye on Muslim rulers, seeing that they adhered to the letter of the Koran..


The success of Islam lay in its ABILITY TO UNIFY AND INSPIRE tribal Arabs and other non-Jewish and non~hristian people. In a world where Christianity and Judaism had reigned supreme among religions, Islam appealed to Arab pride - for it made Muharurnad history's major religious figure and his followers God's chosen people.


Islam EXPANDED BY CONQUEST throughout the southern and eastern Mediterranean, territories mostly still held today by Islamic states. In the 8th century Muslim armies occupied parts of SPAIN in the West and INDIA in the East, producing a truly vast empire.

In the West, the ruler of the Franks, Charles Martel, defeated a raiding party of Arabs on the western frontier of Europe at Poitiers (today in central France) in 732. This victory ended any possible Arab effort to expand into western Europe by way of Spain

Beginning with Emperor Leo III, Byzantine rulers successful~ defended Asia Minor from Islamic aggression. Muslim disunity alter the 10 century greatly aided Byzantine success.


Despite the hostility of the Christian West to the Islamic world, there was much CREATIVE INTERCHANGE between these two very different cultures

The more advanced Arab civilization, which was enjoying its golden age during the West's early Middle Ages, taught western FARMERS how to irrigate fields.

Western ARTISANS learned how to tan leather and refine silk.

The West also gained from its contact with Islamic SCHOLARS. 

 Thanks to Arabic translators, major Greek works in astronomy, mathematics, and medicine became available to scholars in much of the West for the first time in Latin translation.

And down to the l6th century, alter the works of the famous ancient physicians Hippocrates and Galen, the basic gynecological and childcare manuals followed by western midwives and physicians were compilations by the famed Baghdad physician Al-Razi (Rhazes), the philosopher and physician ibn-Sina (Avicenna) (930-1037), and Averroes (1126-1198), Islam's greatest authority on Aristotle.


How did Muhammad become the messenger of God? What was Muhammad's mission?

Why was Islam so appealing to the Arab people?

What conditions hampered the spread of knowledge in western Europe but not in the Islamic world?







Send mail to Dr. Edrene S. Montgomery  with questions or comments about this web site.
Copyright 1999-2000 Edrene S. Montgomery
Last modified: October 31, 1999