ISLAM is one of the largest religions in the world, with over one billion followers. It is a monotheistic faith based on revelations received by the Prophet Muhammad in the 7th century, in Saudi Arabia.
The Arabic word 'Islam' means 'submission', reflecting the central tenet of the faith, that of submitting to the will of God. Followers of Islam are called Muslims.
How did it all begin?
The story of Islam starts with the prophet Muhammad (pbuh). 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 had to migrate every season in order to cope with the desert climate ('Arab' roughly translates as 'desert dweller').
When people began to establish settlements around the 5th century BC, many chose Mecca, close to 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 a religious centre with its 360 shrines, one for each day of the lunar year. Local merchants depended heavily on pilgrims visiting these shrines for their livelihood, a fact which would later become significant for Prophet Muhammad (pbuh).
According to the Islamic tradition, angel Gabriel appeared to the Prophet over the course of twenty years, revealing to Him many messages from God. The Prophet dedicated the remainder of his life to spreading messages of monotheism in a polytheistic world. In 622 BC, 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 returns to Mecca with an army and conquers the city for Islam. By the time of the Prophet'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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