The highest concentrations of Muslims are currently in Asia and the Middle East, with Indonesia’s 550 million people forming Islam’s largest nation.
But Islam is also expanding from its traditional areas into the former Soviet Union, Europe, and North America. In fact, Muslim students today form the largest group of international students in North American universities.
A religion of contrasts
Despite what some consider its “simplicity, rationality, and this-worldliness,” Islam is a religion of contrasts. On one end of the spectrum is a militant fundamentalism; in the middle, a mainstream, cultural Islam; and on the other end, a folk or popular Islam mixed with animistic practices from pre-Islamic religions.
While many Muslims see Shari’a, Islamic law, as unchanging, others make a distinction between the unchangeable message of the Qur’an and the temporal regulations for everyday life. Shari‘a is said to come from four sources: the Qur’an, hadith (traditions about the sayings and deeds of Muhammad), Islamic legal interpretations, and the consensus of the community.
From these varied sources, for instance, come the different practices on a woman’s place in many Islamic societies. In some instances, Shari‘a can be brutally strict, mandating amputations and public floggings for sins. To fundamentalists, conversion from Islam is a capital offense.
Yet alongside this orthodoxy, traditions of animism and mysticism remain. Some Muslims still wear talismans, cast spells, consult Tarot cards, and placate jinns (genies).
“Throughout much of the Muslim world,” writes George Otis Jr. in The Last of the Giants, “the spirits of violence and divination have become familiar house guests.”
And while Islam is a powerful uniting force for the Muslim community, the average Muslim knows little of the contents of the Qur’an apart from a few commonly recited passages.
Islam’s holiest place is the Ka’ba, a massive stone shrine in Mecca, Saudi Arabia. It is 50 feet high and nearly 40 feet square. A smooth black meteorite is embedded in its southwest corner. The Ka’ba is said to have been built by Adam and Eve after they were cast out of the Garden of Eden. Muslims believe the meteorite was given to Ishmael by the angel Gabriel and personally set into the stones by Abraham as he rebuilt the Ka’ba after it had fallen into ruin.
Before the coming of Muhammad, the Ka’ba was a place of idol worship, housing 360 gods. Today the idols are gone. And each year more than two million of the faithful make their pilgrimage to Mecca. Upon returning to their homelands they become, once again, evangelists for one of the fastest-growing religions on earth.
By any standards, Muhammad had little chance of amounting to much in life. Yet during his 62 years on earth, he would light a fire that would one day rule the hearts and minds of hundreds of millions of people. Muhammad never knew his father, who died before he was born. His mother died six years later. The boy was passed to his grandfather and then to his uncle, who cared for him until he was grown.
In the bustling trade centre of Mecca the boy grew to become a respected trader. His travels exposed him to Judaism and Christianity, deepening his interest in spiritual things yet causing him to grow intolerant of the spiritism and idolatry of his people. Nevertheless, his own notion of a sovereign God was mingled with many of the fears and superstitions of his ancestors. One night, after months of meditation on Mount Hira, 40-year-old Muhammad suddenly became aware of a ‘presence.’ Moments later he was caught up in a ‘revelation’ that would prove to be the primal spark of the Islamic religion. There are indications that at first he thought he had been enveloped by an evil spirit. Shaken by his experience, he went home to his first wife, Khadija, who wrapped him in a blanket and persuaded him that he had not been possessed. (The Last of the Giants, George Otis Jr.).
The messages from this and subsequent visitations became what is today the Qur’an, and Muhammad became the prophet of Allah.
Mecca soon became Muhammad’s stronghold, and its Ka’ba, a large stone shrine, became the focal point of Islamic worship. But the people of Mecca, bitter over the loss of their idols, drove out Muhammad and his followers in the summer of A.D.622. They fled to Medina, 250 miles to the north. Muslims mark the year of the flight, or Hegira, as the beginning of their calendar.
Muhammad’s power grew, however, and six years later the people of Mecca conceded the right of Muslims to make the Ka’ba the centre of their pilgrimage.
The rapid growth of Islam was through military, rather than theological, persuasion. In A.D. 630 an army of 10,000 Muslims recaptured Mecca. By the time of Muhammad’s death in 632, Islam’s armies had conquered most of Arabia.
A century after the death of the prophet, Islam embraced more territory than the Roman Empire.