ISLAM is one of the largest religions in the world, with over 1 billion followers. It is a monotheistic faith based on revelations received by the Prophet Muhammad in 7th-century Saudi Arabia.
The Arabic word islam means 'submission', reflecting the faith's central tenet of submitting to the will of God. Followers of Islam are called Muslims. But how did it all begin?
The story of Islam starts with the prophet Muhammad. However, Islam rose in a certain historical and geographical context. Before Muhammad and the rise of the Islamic religion, the Arabian Peninsula was originally the home of nomadic peoples who coped with the desert climate by migrating every season ('Arab' roughly translates as 'desert dweller').
When people began to establish settlements around the fifth century BC, many chose Mecca, near the west coast of Saudi Arabia, as their home. It didn't have a favourable climate or many natural resources, but it was the site of the Ka'ba, a large cubical shrine dedicated to various deities.
The religion of the Arab world before the advent of Islam was an animistic polytheism. It was believed that the desert was populated with fiery spirits called jinn. Numerous gods were worshipped, with most towns having their own patron god.
Mecca soon became the religious centre with 360 shrines, one for each day in the lunar year. Local merchants depended heavily on pilgrims to these shrines for their livelihood, a fact which would become significant for Muhammad.
According to Islamic tradition, the angel Gabriel appeared to the Prophet over the course of 20 years, revealing to him many messages from God. The Prophet dedicated the remainder of his life to spreading a message of monotheism in a polytheistic world. In 622, he fled north to the city of Medina to escape growing persecution.
This event marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar. Eight years later, Muhammad returned to Mecca with an army and conquered the city for Islam. By Muhammad's death, 50 years later, the entire Arabian Peninsula had come under Muslim control.
The sacred text of Islam, the Qur'an, was written in Arabic within 30 years of Muhammad's death. Muslims believe it contains the literal word of God. Also important is the tradition of the sayings and actions of Muhammad and his companions, collected in the Hadith.
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