The Battle for Islam

Islam was fashioned by Muhammad from a platform provided by Judaism. Muslims recognise the Old Testament and acknowledge the legacy of its Prophets and the biblical struggles of Israel.

The Arabs tell the story of Ishmael. The Old Testament hero, Abraham, had two wives, Hagar and Sarah. Each of his wives had borne Abraham a son – Hagar, Ishmael and Sarah, Isaac. Sarah was Abraham’s favourite wife (Oh the trials of polygamy!) and was concerned that Abraham should favour her son as well.

Accordingly she went to Abraham and demanded, “I want you to promise me that my son Isaac will be your heir and successor.”

Abraham conceded to her demand but she was not yet finished.

“Hagar despises me,” she continued, “And hopes that Ishmael will grow up to be your heir. Promise me that you will send Hagar and her son away.”

Surprisingly, this God-fearing patriarch agreed. The next morning he awoke early and drove Hagar and her son from his camp. Hagar carried the boy on her shoulders far into the desert by the Red Sea. Exhausted she collapsed from exertion and thirst and wept in fear that she and her child might perish.

As she sat there weeping, Ishmael kicked the sand in anger. Miraculously, where the boy had kicked the earth a spring of fresh water suddenly gushed from the sand.

When Abraham learnt of the miracle, he came to the spring and nearby built a temple. Near the temple, called the Kaaba, close to the Spring of Ishmael, called the Zemzem, Hagar and her son  remained. There Ishmael grew up, and there he raised a large family. And there the children and grandchildren of Ishmael founded the sacred city of Mecca. The children of Ishmael, son of Hagar and Abraham multiplied into the race that we now call Arabs.

Despite their supposed descent from Abraham, as far as we can tell the Arabs were initially nature worshippers. Whilst they gave some acknowledgment to the memory of their forefathers, Abraham and Ishmael, they also worshipped many idols. It is said that they had 360 idols, one each for the 360 days of the Arab calendar. But above all their gods they had a special god Allah Taala that might be considered the Most High God.

At this time the Arab population was fraught with gambling, drunkenness and strange superstitions. But in 570CE a child was born into the home of an aristocratic family in Mecca. He was named Muhammad. The legend would have it that when he opened his eyes for the first time, he lifted them to heaven and exclaimed, “La ilaha illa Allah, Muhammad rasul Allah.” (There is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is the prophet of Allah.)

We know little about Muhammad’s early life except that by the age of six he had lost both parents. He was taken in by one of his uncles, Abu Talit. Once he was old enough he was hired out as a shepherd’s helper. He spent his childhood and early youth herding sheep. But when he grew older he became a camel driver, eventually leading caravans laden with produce across the deserts to Egypt, Persia and Syria.


In the course of this work, he was hired by a wealthy widow called Kadijah. Muhammad eventually married Kadijah who had three children from her previous marriage. Muhammad was twenty five years old at the time of his marriage and Kadijah was fifteen years his senior. (Depending on which authority you rely on, Muhammad went on to have at least eleven and possibly thirteen wives.)

For many years the couple prospered. Although he could neither read nor write, Muhammad learnt about Judaism and Christianity from his fellow travellers in the trading caravans. It is said, as well, that after his marriage, his wife’s cousin Waraka, who was a Jew, often read the Bible to him.

Muhammad was concerned that the Arabs lived in a virtual spiritual vacuum. He grew accustomed to spending time in the hills surrounding Mecca, meditating on the lot of his countrymen. On one such occasion an angel appeared and stood before him.

“Lo, I am the angel, Gabriel!” proclaimed the apparition.

The angel thrust a golden tablet in front of the terrified man, and commanded, “Read!”

“But I cannot read,” protested Muhammad.

But the angel insisted, and Muhammad, who had never learnt to read, read aloud,

“O thou who are wrapped, rise up and warn! /And thy Lord magnify, /And thy raiment purify, /And abominations shun, /And grant not favours to gain increase, /And wait for thy Lord.”

Kadijah was convinced that Muhammad had actually spoken to an angel and encouraged him to go out again. Muhammad duly returned and again the angel revealed himself and provided more teachings via the golden tablet. These revelations were dictated by Muhammad to his friend and disciple, Abu Bekr who duly recorded the teachings. These provided the foundations for the Koran.

Slowly, the idea that he was a prophet chosen by God began to dawn on Muhammad. Initially he began to teach to his family and immediate acquaintances. As his courage and confidence increased he was driven to go out to the temple to preach where people had gathered to worship their idols. His initial efforts were met with sarcasm and ridicule. But after a while they began to tolerate his preaching, that is while his main message was to give up their idols and worship the one God, Allah. As we saw earlier, the belief in a chief god, Allah Taala was not foreign to them. But Muhammad could not contain himself. He began to preach against the merchants and leaders in Mecca who used the Temple of the Kaaba to enrich and benefit themselves. Consequently the powerful in Mecca began to take exception and to consolidate the feelings of antagonism against him that were widely held. But still he kept preaching.

He told his followers, as few of them as there were, that he preached Islam, which meant submission – submission to the edicts of Allah. And he called his followers Muslims, which meant true believers. Those who had “submitted” were required to live their lives on new lines. They must observe five fundamental disciplines, known as the five “pillars of Islam”- affirmation of God, daily prayer, fasting, almsgiving and pilgrimage.

It seems as though Muhammad, himself, did not believe he was creating a new religion. He merely saw himself as the latest prophet in the Old Testament tradition, perhaps another Moses or Abraham come to wean the Arabs off idolatry and restore them to the path of the one true God. Somewhat egotistically, he proclaimed in fact that he would be “the last of the Prophets”.

Gradually Muhammad attracted new followers, but as soon as Muhammad’s disciples began to increase in number the authorities passed a law that dictated that any person who accepted the teachings of Islam should be driven out of Mecca.

Around this time Muhammad’s first wife, Kadijah died and he was grief stricken.

In an attempt to avoid the acrimony that he encountered in Mecca he went to the city of Taif, some seventy miles from Mecca, and preached there. But again he was accosted by the merchants and finally driven back to Mecca.

Eventually a delegation came from Yathrib (now Medina) and asked him to come and preach there. In Yathrib there were many Jews and his teaching of the One God and the hatred of idols resonated with them. Consequently whilst he still lived in Mecca, he had a growing following in Yathrib. Some of the citizens of Mecca became aware of his growing following and determined to kill him. But Muhammad got wind of the plot and mounting his favourite camel, Al Kaswa, fled to Yathrib.

Muslims believe that the night of his flight to Yathrib marked the most important date in the calendar of Islam. It is remembered as Hegira or the Night of the Flight. (It is also called Hijrah, or literally “migration”.)

Muhammad consolidated his support in Yathrib. Even the name of the city was changed in his honour to Medina which meant City of the Prophet. But Muhammad had not forgiven the citizens of Mecca for not accepting him and as a result he became a bandit. Drawing on his expertise as a leader of caravans, he waylaid the caravans that traded with Mecca. Muhammad used the stolen wealth to bolster his authority and strengthen his allies.

Finally the people of Mecca had had enough and determined to subdue Muhammad by force of arms. Muhammad prevailed in the battles that ensued and each successive victory enhanced his reputation as leader and prophet.

Eight years after his flight from Mecca, Muhammad assembled an army of 10,000 armed followers and marched on and took Mecca in the year 630.

It is believed that a mere two years after this (632) Muhammad died. It is claimed that by this time most of the Arabs of the western parts of the Arabian Peninsula had submitted to his prophetic leadership and joined the umma (community of believers). However, one would suspect that the conversion to Islam of these Arabs was less due to the persuasiveness of the religious doctrine, but more due to the savagery of Muhammad’s militias. (A technique not unknown today!)

Whilst in Mecca, and struggling for acknowledgement, Muhammad had promoted a doctrine that was based on peace and love. Later, emboldened by his military successes he became more bellicose. To those who were ready to accept Islam peacefully, he sent his blessings. But to those who rejected him, Muhammad sent word saying, “I, last of the Prophets, am sent with a sword! The sword is the key to heaven and hell; all who draw it in the name of faith will be rewarded!”

After his death, his disciples recorded as well as they could from memory, Muhammad’s sermons and speeches. The assemblage of this material is known as the Hadith and Muslims rely on this as much as the Koran to interpret the Muslim body of belief.

Immediately after Muhammad’s death, Abu Bekr became the successor to the Prophet. He was called the Caliph which has been interpreted as “The Shadow of God on Earth”. (Because Muhammad had proclaimed he was the “last of the Prophets”there was never any suggestion his successor was also a Prophet.) Abu Bekr initiated a huge expansion of Islam to other parts of the world. In less than a hundred years after Muhammad’s death Islam had expanded into Syria, Persia and North Africa. Finally the adherents to Islam managed to go as far as to conquer Spain in the West and to parts of India and China in the East.

However, a schism had developed in Islam. Whilst the majority of Muslims accepted Abu Bekr being anointed as Muhammad’s successor, a minority did not. The minority believed that Muhammad had intended his son-in-law, Ali (Ali Ibn Abi Talib), to succeed him.

The majority group are those we now call Sunni. (Sunni Muslims also go by the name of Ahl as-Sunnah which purportedly means “people of the tradition of Muhammad”). Sunnis believe that the first four Caliphs were rightful successors to Muhammad. They believed that God had not specified a successor to Muhammad and they were within their rights to elect such a person provided whoever they anointed lived according to the Koran and the Hadith.

The minority group, now called Shi’ites, believe that Ali should have succeeded Muhammad and only certain descendants of Ali could be Imams (leaders). They denied the legitimacy of not only Abu Bekr, but also the two Caliphs that succeeded him viz, Umar ibn al-Khattab and Uthman ibn al-Affan.

Ali was finally chosen as Caliph after the murder of Uthman. He moved the capital of the Islamic state from Medina to Kufa in Iraq. Chief among the objectors to Ali’s Caliphate was Aisha who was said to be Muhammad’s favourite wife and was also the daughter of Abu Bekr. The dispute led to a battle in 656 called the Battle of the Camel which was fought at Basra in Iraq and won by Ali’s forces.

There have been many other confrontations between the Sunnis and the Shi’ites and the schism continues until today, unresolved. Whilst the core beliefs are largely the same, the two groups differ somewhat in their day to day practice and in their interpretation of the Hadith and Sunnah (the body of traditional custom and practice).

Whilst in today’s world the Sunni still dominate the Shi’ites in terms of numbers, the latter still control significant territory. Iran is a Shi’ite state. Similarly the government that was put in place after the fall of Saddam Hussein in Iraq has been dominated by the Shi’ites. This was a deliberate move to counter any lingering allegiance to Hussein whose Ba’ath Party was aligned with the Sunnis. In recent years President Nouri al-Maliki has systematically purged the government of all Sunni-aligned personnel.

Now we have Iraq being overrun by the jihadist group, the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). ISIS is an extreme off-shoot of al Qaeda and is aligned with the Sunnis. The land it is currently occupying in Iraq is largely dominated by Sunnis. Because Maliki has alienated them the Sunni are welcoming the ISIS invasion as a liberating force.

Religious tolerance seems almost impossible in those countries (largely Islamic) where there is no separation of the state and the church. Nevertheless in this case thousands are dying and thousands more are likely to die because the followers of a man who believed he was a Prophet can’t agree on the processes of succession that were acted out fourteen hundred years ago.

I thought I would write this essay to help you understand the disturbing events in Iraq. But I suspect I have failed. After rereading my words it still seems inexplicable!

And one might wonder about the wisdom of trying to impose democracy on a society whose priorities are underpinned by such tribal/religious concerns. As I have written previously, such a transition took centuries in the West. It is a sign of our ignorance and arrogance that we should wish to impose such values on these people who for all intents and purposes are still imbued with the mores of Western Mediaeval societies. (I know already that that statement will get me into trouble and I will be declared a Western elitist at the very best!) Recent history has shown the futility of Western intervention and support in progressing democratic ideals in such societies.

The link below will lead you to a previous, related, essay that I have written. (The “comments”are also particularly interesting and challenging!)

Is This the Islamic Dark Age?


3 Replies to “The Battle for Islam”

  1. Thanks Ted. I have always wondered about the origins of Islam and the different sects but I couldn’t be bothered trying to dredge through the pages of academic detail that always goes along with this sort of analysis. You did a great job of cutting to the facts.

    What I found most interesting is that Islam is a religion born of fighting and military action as opposed to Christianity that has much more peaceful and even submissive origins. Despite it’s origins though Christianity has had a pretty violent past. This makes me wonder if the transition from Islam to a belief system that is more suited to modern times, call it contemporary Islam, will have a much longer and more painful evolution than Christianity has had. Not saying that Christianity still does not have violent worshippers but I believe the majority of people who would identify themselves as Christian would not support the take up of arms in defence of their faith today.

    The key for the transition from ancient beliefs to modern ideals has to be education and prosperity. Sadly though whether Christianity or Islam, the main weapon used to defend the faith is control of education. This is why the Internet and radio transmissions are so powerful. Countries can no longer sensor and control education as they once did. The Berlin Wall came down as a result of informed people power and I believe that in the end that will bring down archaic belief systems as well. It will still take time but I am an optimist and expect we are talking perhaps 5 or 6 decades and not 5 or 6 hundred years as was the case in the past. If the Christian West wants to create a more tolerant and understanding world it should be trying to increase living standards and modern day education standards for these militant communities and not assisting them to kill each other.

  2. I wouldn’t call christian history peaceful.

    Even Buddhists can be violent. see Rakhine Riots in Burma.

  3. Thanks Greg & Matt.

    Well, of course you are right Matt Christianity (and other religions as well) have had violence in their histories.But you would have to say in the world currently Islam is the heavyweight champion in the senseless bloody violence division!

    There are many reasons for this some of which I elaborated on in my essay “Is This the Islamic Dark Age?”

    Two of the major reasons however seem to me the Inseparability of Church and State in Islam and the mindless belief that the Koran is the literal word of God as written down by his
    Prophet Muhammad!

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