An Influential Religion and a Vast Empire

With 1.9 billion followers, today Islam is one of the world’s largest religions, second only to Christianity with 2.4 billion. Islam also dominates most of the Middle East, Africa, and Central Asia. But how did this religion grow to dominate so much of the world?

Symbol of Islam known as the “Crescent and the Star.”

Muhammad the Prophet was born in 570 AD in the city of Mecca, modern-day Saudi Arabia. At 24 years old, Muhammad married a wealthy widow, who helped him to become a prosperous merchant. When he was 40 years old, Muhammad started to claim to have what he described as the “ringing of a bell” in his head. After some time of this, Muhammad, believing he was phrophetic, began to preach on the street the one true God (Allah). After turning down bribes to keep quiet from Mecca’s polytheistic authorities, he was persecuted. Muhammad was disowned by most of his family and fearing for his life, fled to Yathrib, later known as Medina, the city of the prophet. The people of Yathrib received him better than in Mecca with many of them converting to Islam. Muhammad was appointed ruler over the city and soon afterwards a series of wars broke out between Mecca and Medina. Eventually, Muhammad and his forces captured Mecca with Medina occupying the city. In celebration of his victory, Muhammad led a pilgrimage to Mecca with his followeres. This is known as the Hajj, which Muslims still take today. Not long after the march to Mecca, Muhammad died.

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, Israel, where Muslims believe Muhammad ascended into heaven.

There are five pillars, or practices, of the Islamic religion which every Muslim must follow. These are Shahada, Salat, Fast of Ramadan, Zakat, and the Hajj. The Shahada is the Muslim declaration of faith in which the person proclaims, “There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is His prophet.” This proclamation is said during one’s conversion and daily prayer. The Salat is the main Islamic prayer, said five times during day at dawn, noon, afternoon, evening, and night. This prayer differs slightly according to the time of day. Next is the Fast of Ramadan. During this fast, Muslims celebrate the revealing of Islam’s holy book, the Quran, to Muhammad. Muslims are not allowed to eat or drink from sunrise to sunset for a whole month. However, fasting is pardoned for young children, pregnant women, the sick, or the elderly. The Zakat is almsgiving where Muslims are required to give at least 2.5% of their pay (excluding taxes) to the poor. The last of the five pillars is the Hajj, the pilgrimage to Mecca. Every Muslim must take this journey at least once in their life. Once there, the pilgrims complete multiple ceremonies, including walking seven times around the Kaaba, walking between two mountains, and pretending to stone the Devil.       

Muslim pilgrims at the Kaaba shrine in Mecca, Saudi Arabia.

As the Islamic religion spread throughout the Middle East, so did their empire. The first leader or Caliph of the Islamic Empire was a man named Abu Bakr, who was the father-in-law of Muhammad and one of the first converts to the religion. As Caliph, he fortified Islam’s control over the Arabian Peninsula. The second ruler of the Rashidun Dynasty was Umar, who was a good friend of Muhammad. Sadly, he didn’t rule for long before being assassinated by the Persians in 644. After his untimely death, a man named Uthman succeeded him. Uthman expanded the empire to include Armenia, Persia (Iran), and parts of Afghanistan. In the last period of his reign, rebels rose up in the empire. Following a few years of this rebellion, Uthman was killed by the revolutionaries and was replaced by Ali, who was the fourth and final Caliph of the Rashidun Dynasty. Ali was the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad and the first male convert to Islam. Some people argued that Ali was the first rightful Caliph and that the three before him were illegitimate rulers. This controversy led to a split in the religion creating two sects. Sunnis make up 75-90% of the modern Islamic population and believe that Ali was the fourth legitimate Caliph, not the first. Shias make up 10-20% of the modern population and believe that Ali was the first rightful Caliph and that the three before him were illegitimate. Like Umar, Ali’s life ended in assassination. Over the next 500 years, the Muslims would slowly chip away at land belonging to the Byzantine Empire and, in 1400, would finally fall completely to the Ottoman Empire, the successor of the Islamic Empire. In 1918, after WWI, the Ottoman Empire would be split up into the modern countries of the Middle East.

Map of the Islamic Empire’s expansion. The yellow is land acquired during Umayyad Dynasty, which succeeded the Rashidun Dynasty.

Islam’s influence stretches over the entire globe, some due to the vastness of their former empire. The religion, particularly impacting most of the land outside of the West, Islam is still the second largest religion in the world.

1 thought on “An Influential Religion and a Vast Empire

  1. Superb essay. I think your images do a nice job illustrating the story, and I especially like the map; it really shows the true vastness of the empire. Excellent job!

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