Arabic Peninsula Religions
Photo Credit: Islam

Pre-Islamic Arabia (early 6th century CE)
To fully understand the history of Islam, it is important to understand what life was like in pre-Islamic Arabia.  In the sixth century, the south was heavily populated by settled agriculturalists with well-developed intellectual institutions and technology, but the rest of the Arabian Peninsula was farmland.  Those who lived there had a harsh life, as most of its inhabitants were pastoralists.  These Arab nomads, called the Bedouin, often herded camel or raised sheep and goats near towns with farmers and oases.  One of these such towns was Yathrib, later to be named Medina, a village important to Islam.  There were also seaports connecting trade bringing merchants through the desert in caravans.  The Banu Quraysh, the Prophet Muhammad’s tribe, belonged to this very successful trade.

Since people roamed freely throughout the Arab deserts, there was no centralized government, only tribes.  Clan loyalty ruled the tribes and each was headed by a chief, chosen by his charisma, who defended the tribe and its sacred symbols, along with settling arguments and entertaining guests.  This system maintained peace and justice through the fear of revenge.

As religion is key to the study of Islamic history, it is important to note the significance of cultic polytheistic practices of the time.  Most people worshiped various gods, idols, and sacred objects, as well as believed in soothsayers.  They had harams, or holy sanctuaries, which provided a space for refuge and to settle inner-tribal disputes.  These places, such as the Ka’ba, housed their many gods and was considered highly sacred, and therefore fighting was forbid in the area around it.

Although nearly all of Arabia was polytheistic, most had been exposed to monotheism through the already existing Abrahamic religions, as those believers were slowing moving farther into the Arabian Peninsula.  Most of this exposure resulted from the southwest and the desert in the north near the Byzantine Empire.  Rulers by this time were starting to convert to Christianity and therefore created pockets of monotheistic practitioners.  Zoroastrianism was also in southern Arabia due to Sasanian Persia’s adoption of it as a state religion, all of which played a large role in the development of the new religion, Islam.


A brief history of Islam’s beginnings

The Life of the Prophet (570-632CE)
Islam’s beginnings can be traced back to sixth-century Saudi Arabia, during which time the man widely known as Islam’s original leader, Muhammad, was born in 570CE. He spent his childhood among Bedouin nomadic tribes, considered the “true Arabs” because of their retained cultural heritage. Orphaned at a young age, he was then sent to live with his grandfather, an important merchant. Upon his grandfather’s death, he went to live with his paternal uncle and his cousin, Ali. There, he became a shepherd. A charismatic young man, Muhammad became known as “the trusted one” due to his status as a shrewd trader and community leader. He met his first wife, Khadija, and they became business partners.

In 610, at age 40, Muhammad went on his own to escape the city life in Mecca. It was then that he began to hear the voice of God. He was visited by the angel Gabriel, who presented revelation to Muhammad which would later become the basis of the Qur’an. Three years later, Muhammad, now called the Prophet, went public with his revelation, that there is only one God. He developed a following in Mecca, which precipitated a growing opposition in the city. The opposition created trouble for the Prophet, and he was kicked out of Mecca. He undertook a journey, called the Hijra, to Medina, where a new religious community was formed with Muhammad at its head. The Hijra, completed in 622, marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar.

In Medina, the Muslims began to arm themselves to fight, in the event that they were attacked. Battles broke out and the Muslims were the ultimate victors. The Prophet was allowed back into Mecca. Muhammad and his followers marched to the Kaaba, a sacred space in Mecca and destroyed what they considered idols to false gods within the holy building. In 630, the Prophet returned to Medina, where he spent the remainder of his days until his death in 632.

The Kaaba today
Photo source: Flickr: Citizen59

The Rightly-Guided Caliphs (632-661CE)
After Muhammad’s death, there was no consensus about who should succeed the Prophet as Islam’s leader, or caliph. Some thought only a direct relative of the Prophet could be Islam’s steward in his place, and advocated for Ali ibn Abi Talib, the Muhammad’s cousin and brother-in-law, to lead. These believers would form the Shi’a tradition. Others believed that the caliph need not be the Prophet’s relative, and wanted Abu Bakr to succeed Muhammad. These Muslims would form the Sunni tradition. In the end, Abu Bakr succeeded the Prophet and became the first of four leaders to come after Muhammad, called the Rightly-Guided Caliphs. He ruled from 632 to 634 CE. Abu Bakr was the Prophet’s father-in-law, the father of his second wife, Aisha. He was the first person not related to the Prophet to convert to Islam. A spiritually-inclined man, Abu Bakr had a good reputation and was well-known for getting multiple tribes to accept Islam. Under his rule, the collection of the Qur’an likely began and Islam expanded toward Syria and Iraq.

Umar led the Islamic Caliphate after Abu Bakr, from 634 to 644 CE. He was a companion to the Prophet and an early convert. He was a strong-willed man and a good military leader. Under his rule, Islam spread over more of Syria, as well as to Persia and Egypt. Umar was responsible for the removal of non-Muslims from the Arabian Peninsula and for the institution of al-Hijri dating, beginning with the year of Muhammad’s Hijra to Medina. He established a council to appoint his successor. Uthman ruled after Umar, from 644 to 652 CE. He was not a companion of the Prophet, and though his family used to persecute Muslims, they became converts. His rule was marked by nepotism and a rule through wealth. Uthman’s reign ended when he was killed by rebels. After Uthman’s death, Ali finally came to power, and ruled from 652 to 661 CE. He was spiritual, like the Prophet, and a good leader. He decided to move the capital to Iraq, a decision which angered many. Also disappointed that Ali did not attempt to avenge Uthman’s murder, many Muslims lost faith in Ali as a leader, and as a result, he too was killed.

Ali’s party wanted Hasan, Ali’s son, to succeed his father. But the Umayyad dynasty was growing in strength. Its leader, Mu’awiyah , came to power after Hasan’s brief rule. Hasan’s brother, Husayn, attempted and failed to take control from Mu’awiyah. He was killed in the pursuit, and Mu’awiyah was instead succeeded by his son, Yazid.

The Umayyad Dynasty (661-750CE)
Mu’awiyah and Yazid thus began the Umayyad dynasty’s rule of the Islamic Caliphate.  Mu’awiyah ruled as caliph between 661 to 680CE.  Mu’awiyah moved the capital from Kufa to Damascus. He later appointed his own son Yazid as the next ruler.  Yazid ruled between 680 and 683CE.  The rest of the caliphates were elected to rule, whereas Yazid was appointed by Mu’awiyah, making him the first leader appointed by his father. Familial  succession soon became the norm for the caliphs.

The Marwanids (684-750) ruled after Yazid.  They were a line of Umayyads that were responsible for most of the dynasty’s leadership.  The Marwanids were tasked to subdue the Kharijite and Shiite rebellions.  In addition to having to deal with the Arab people, they had to deal with non-Arabs as well.  The Marwanids managed a large empire.  They were well-known for having built the Dome of the Rock.  During this time, the Arabic language was centralized across the empire, with the help of Persian grammar.

In the second half of the seventh century, Muslim forces conquered Northern Africa after Syria, Egypt, and Persia united into the heartland of Islam.  Although Islam made its way into North Africa early, its integration was a slow and turbulent process.  In 711, the Umayyad armies sailed to India and West to Southern Spain.  Traders carried Islamic beliefs to Africa, China, and Southeast  and Central Asia.  Islam did not find solid roots in China since the nation had a set culture with strong beliefs and Confucianism as its primary religion.  Islam was brought to sub-Saharan Africa by the Khajirites through trade routes and migration and it was spread to East Africa by the western colonization and slave trade.  Islam fought with native religions of Africa but later was a combined with some of these native religions.  Sufism also emerged during the Umayyad dynasty.  The Umayyad dynasty ended with the Marwanids and was followed by the Abbasid dynasty.

Whirling Dervishes, followers of Sufi mysticism
Photo Source: Flickr: Vladimer Shioshvili

The Abbasid Dynasty (750-1258 CE)
The Abbasid dynasty demonstrated itself as a sort of reform movement to the Ummayad dynasty, which initially built upon the ideas of Shi’i ideology.  They soon allied themselves with the Sunni’s  and repressed the Shi’ite movements. They defined Baghdad as the capitol.  Baghdad  later fell to the Turks by the ninth century.  The empire was stretched thin, the grasp of control was fleeting and losing control of political power and ideology.  As the empire was declining, a struggle against invaders (e.g. the Mongols) split the empire, slowly making it disintegrate (e.g. fleeing Ummayads set up caliphate in Spain).  The Abbasid dynasty ended during the Mongol Invasion.  The caliphate ceased to exist which is ideal for Islamic rule.

The Ottoman Empire (1301-1922) 

The Ottoman Empire was one of the largest and arguably most powerful Islamic empires to date. The Empire originated from humble beginnings, starting out as small tribal alliance lead by a religious solider of faith named Osman. This tie to faith lead Osman and those under his guidance to a life of great devotion to Islam, which later became a major pillar of the state. The Ottoman Empire continued to expand from the 15th to the 19th centuries. Their main purpose was not only to protect holy Muslim places of worship such as the Masjid al-Haraam in Makkah and the Prophet’s (Peace be upon him) burial site, but to also protect all of the Muslim world. Islam was key to the rise and expansion of this Empire, and greatly affected its government and people. For example, the observance of each of the five pillars of Islam, declaration of faith, fasting, daily prayer, alms-giving, and pilgrimage to Mecca, greatly shaped the thinking of the people of the empire. Unlike other empires of the time, the Ottoman Empire’s rule was greatly non-secular which lead to the development of a religious bureaucracy and great level of public approval. Though today’s state of Turkey employs the use of state secularism, the Ottoman Empire would not have flourished had it not been for the amount of influence of Islamic history and law.


The Spread of Islam into Southeast Asia (1400s)


The arrows show the spread of Islam from Arabia to Southeast Asia.

Photo Credit: Cornell Library Guide

A common misconception is that the Middle East is the hub of Islam, yet Indonesia, a Southeast Asian country, is the country with the largest Muslim population. The spread of Islam into Southeast Asia has often been overlooked, yet it is important to the history of Islam and the concept of Jihad, or struggle, that does not necessary end in blood. Southeast Asian ports were very important to Arab traders and Chinese merchants, and it was through trade that Islam was spread into this region. In the 13th and 14th century, Arab traders began to have influence in locals’ lives. These traders introduced locals to Islamic beliefs, and Sufis in particular were very helpful in the conversion process. During Muhammad’s life, he had fought many battles to fight for the conversion of others into Islam. However, what was so special about this part of Islamic history is that while they preached to the locals and helped establish Islamic centers in a mostly peaceful manner, they let the locals incorporate Islam into their lives, which was already influenced by Hinduism and other beliefs, without completely taking away their previous identities. Indonesia was one of the first locations to be converted, while coastal cities played an important role in leading the path of conversion throughout the region. In the 16th century, the invasion of western countries slowed down the process of the spreading, but did not put it to a stop completely. By the 18th Century, Islam had spread to southern Philippines and the Malay Peninsula. Southeast Asia had a very diverse culture with influences from many countries and beliefs, yet Islam did a spectacular job of blending in and adding to the mix and the effects of it can still be seen through Southeast Asian art and culture today.



“The Spread of Islam.” Yale. Acessed December 4, 2015. http://www.yale.edu/yup/pdf/cim6.pdf

“Islam, The spread of Islam to Southeast Asia.” International World History Project. Accessed December 4,2015.http://history-world.org/islam7.htm

“The arrival of Islam in Southeast Asia.” Asia Society. Accessed December 4, 2015.http://sites.asiasociety.org/education/islam_in_seasia/curriculum-arrival.htm


Wahhabism and terrorism (1700s)

Wahhabism is a religious movement of Sunni Islam named after Muhammad Abd Al-Wahhab (1703-1792), an eighteenth century preacher and scholar. It has been variously described as orthodox and fundamentalist. This movement by some scholars is a kind of restoration of the concept of tawhid (pure monotheistic worship).

Wahhabism started to have influence with the collapse of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. With the help of the Al Saudi dynasty, Wahhabism spread to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. In 1939, near the Persian Gulf, petroleum was discovered and generated revenue of billions of dollar. This money spent in diverse ways (books, schools, media…) led Wahhabism to a position of strength in Islam around the world. The movement made a kind of investment because Wahhabi Ulama gained control over education, law, public morality and religious institutions in the 20th century. In the past, Ibn Al Saud (Al Saudi dynasty leader during the time of Abd Al-Wahhab) enhanced Islam with the sword because of his political ambitions and Abd Al-Wahhab always rejected that idea and insisted that education, study and debate was the only legitimate means of spreading Islam. It resulted in tension between the two.

The movement lost credibility because of the Gulf war against Iraq in 1991 and the 9/11 attacks which involved Al Qaeda. Wahhabism is believed to be the movement which inspired terrorist groups such as Al Qaeda and ISIS. In fact, after Ibn Al Wahhab death, Wahhabism became more violent despite his teachings which were against most of the terrorist acts we see nowadays. In the 1930s, Wahhabis made rebellion (which they lost) called “Jihad” against the ruler Abd Al-Aziz because he permitted telephones, cars, music, telegraph and smoking which were unknown during the time of the Prophet.

Nowadays terrorist groups like Al Qaeda are influenced by this late type of Wahhabism. Usama Ben Laden who is supposed to have organized the 9/11 attacks was a member of the Wahhabi cult. ISIS was member of Al Qaeda and emerged after differences of opinions with Al Qaeda in the way terrorist acts must be organized. Therefore, we can obviously conclude that Wahhabism or late Wahhabism left its footprints in the modern Islamic world.

Iran’s Development of a Theocracy (January 1978 – February 1979)

Within the historical chronology of the religion Islam, the historical moment of Iran’s development as a theocracy will be moment in Islam’s history which will always be remembered. The state of Iran has not always been labeled as a theocracy. Until the Iranian Revolution in 1979, Iran was considered a monarchy under the rule of Shah Mohammad Reza Pahlavi. The Iranian Revolution was a revolt caused by the major disconnect the people of Iran had against the Pahlavi Dynasty. The leader and figure head of the revolution was Rullollah Khomeini. Rullollah Khomeini had the intentions of taking advantage of the current state of unrest the country Iran was under as a means to push his goals of creating an Islamic Republic. Khomeini utilized the ideas which the Quran spoke as a tool to create a unified front of Islamic organizations and students to be the foundation for his revolution. The Iranian Revolution lasted for approximately two years. The revolution was comprised of a campaign focusing on civil resistance. The main form of resistance used by the revolutionists was having demonstrations with mass numbers of people. The Iranian Revolution was considered a success to those who favored Khomeini’s ideologies. On January 16th 1979, the Iranian Revolution succeeded in their mission to dethrone Shah Pahlavi because he was forced to flee the country for exile. Soon after the Shah’s exile, Rullollah Khomeini became the supreme leader of the country Iran also referred to with the title Ayatollah. The title Ayatollah literally translates to “Sign of Allah”.  Finally, the state of Iran officially became a theocratic government when the constitution was approved as a new theocratic government on April 1st 1979. The development of Iran’s Islamic theocracy will always be seen as a major historical moment for Islam.



Mahmoud M. Ayoub, Islam: Faith and History. (Oxford, England: Oneworld-Oxford,2004), 197-212, 213-228.

Matthew S. Gordon, Understanding Islam: Origins, Beliefs, Practices, Holy Texts, Sacred Places (London: Watkins Publishing, 2010), 99-106.

Women Of the Iranian Revolution ( 1978-1979)


Photo link: http://img.timeinc.net/time/daily/2009/0906/tehran_viewpoint_0618.jpg

During the Iranian Revolution, which took place from 1978 until 1979, women were being put under a microscope and picked apart. However, this did not stop them from achieving their goals as Muslim women. Prior to the revolution, women were given many rights. Examples of this were; that women were given free education, they had the right to vote and run for parliament. These women had the right to divorce and take custody of their children. The legal age to marry was changed from 13 to 18. These women could also apply to any job that a man could as well.

Unfortunately, the Iranian government went under the rule of Ayatollah Khomeini. All of the laws that were set in place previously were now being taken down. Men could now freely divorce their wives and take custody of their children. The age of marriage for girls was reduced to puberty. Women were no longer allowed to run for judge and were also stripped of many other job titles. Women were also forced to wear the Hijab (or head scarf); if any hair were to stick out they would be severely punished.

Women were not settling for these sanctions placed upon them, they like many other Muslims took to the streets to protest. During the revolution, many protests broke out and women were at the forefront of these movements. One woman, in particular, took a stance to showcase just what women were capable of doing.

Shirin Neshat is a Muslim photographer and filmmaker who showcase the revolution, in what she calls, Women of Allah. Which were a series of black and white photos of the women who fought for their justice. She showed the women of the revolution in a beautiful light that touched so many of its viewers.

After the revolutionary movement took place Ayatollah Khomeini was replaced by Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani. Rafsanjani, put a number of these laws that were abolished back into place. Women still struggled during this time to regain what they had lost. However, many of them were satisfied with their needs met, as far as equal schooling and job opportunities go.


Hillenbrand, Carole. “Women.” In Introduction to Islam: Beliefs and Practices in Historical Perspective, 262. London: Thames and Hudson, 2015.

Esfandiari, Haleh. “The Iran Primer.” The Women’s Movement. 2010. Accessed December 8, 2015. http://iranprimer.usip.org/resource/womens-movement.


The Persian Gulf War (1990-1991)


Photo link: http://collections.museumca.org/?q=collection-item/2010548863

The Persian Gulf War was a conflict between America and Iraq that occurred after years of disagreement. This dispute developed through the influence between politics and religion. Unlike the United States, the Middle East’s political and social agendas are embedded within their religion, which is why the head of Iraq’s affairs, Saddam Hussein, used his religious affiliation as a reason for his political actions. There are arguably more or less events that lead to the Persian Gulf War but utilizing a religious perspective, it can be argued because Hussein declared jihad against Kuwait this action led to the involvement of the United States in waging war against Iraq.

The pivotal moment that brought the accumulation of conflict to its apex, and America’s involvement, was Iraq’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990. Kuwait was invaded, occupied and annexed by Iraq under the leadership of Saddam Hussein. His justification was rooted in the redrawing of borderlines in 1922, where he argued Kuwait not only belonged to Iraq but that they were owed money. He claimed Kuwait had taken millions of dollars worth of oil by drilling into Iraqi territory and argued Kuwait’s overproduction in oil weakened the value of Iraq’s own export.

By invading Kuwait, Iraq absorbed their economic benefits as well as not having to repay their billion-dollar debt for the Iran-Iraq war in 1980. Tremendous political leverage would have been endowed to Hussein, inevitably making Iraq equal to, or surpassing, the United States as a superpower. Understanding the newly acquired political and economic dominance, the coalition allies and United States agreed upon going to war. Due to Saddam Hussein labeling his actions as a religious obligation, this example exhibits how the Middle East’s politics are embedded within religion, which was the reason for the Persian Gulf War.



Hillenbrand, Carole. In Introduction to Islam: Beliefs and Practices in Historical Perspective, 262. London: Thames and Hudson, 2015.

Schwartz, Richard. Encyclopedia of the Persian Gulf War. London: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1998.

Post 9-11 (September 2001- Now)

To be able to accurately study the way that Americans view Islam today, it is very important to look at the shift in their opinions post 9/11. With this being said, researchers have looked into this topic and asked the question, “In what ways have the opinions of Americans regarding Muslims and the Islamic faith shifted after the events that took place on September 11, 2001?” By examining statistics and other studies that were done both pre and post 9/11, it becomes clear that there was a large shift in Americans’ opinions on the Islamic faith, mostly surrounding the topic of the promotion of violence.

In 2010, ABC News and the Washington Post conducted a survey where Americans were asked similar questions to the ones they were asked in the surveys conducted before 9/11. In August 2010, 37 percent of Americans had a favorable opinion on Islam and 49 percent had an unfavorable opinion. Only 13 percent of respondents stated that they had no opinion. With almost half of the respondents registering an unfavorable opinion, this is a notable shift from the studies that were previously done. This without a doubt is the biggest shift from the previous statistics where the majority registered no opinion.

Before the events of 9/11, the opinions of Americans regarding Islam were different than where they stood in the years following. Studies that were done showed that Americans had fairly split responses between negative and positive impressions regarding Islam. However, it is important to not just identify the split between these positive and negative impressions, but look at where the majority of Americans actually found themselves after answering such questions. The majority of Americans actually were stating that they had no opinion about Islam due to the lack of the necessary knowledge for them to participate in the surveys that were done. The opinions of Americans before 9/11 need to be taken into consideration when looking at how greatly it’s events swayed the public.

It is clear when evaluating the presented data that the effects of 9/11 on the American public was great to say the least. With a variety of studies being done anywhere from September 12, 2001 to the 10 year anniversary, the evidence points to the fact that there has been an overall shift in the opinions of Americans regarding the Islamic faith after the attacks of 9/11.



Ernst, Carl W., ed. Islamophobia in America: The Anatomy of Intolerance. New York: Palgrave Macmillian, 2013.


Amina Wadud Leading Prayer (March 18, 2005)      

Photo Source

Amina Wadud stunned the world on March 18, 2005 when she led an Islamic prayer service in front of a mixed-sex audience in a New York City Cathedral. This was one of the first times in history that a female led an Islamic prayer service. Wadud, a world-renowned Islamic feminist and scholar, hosted a mixed-sex prayer service in South Africa in 1994, albeit without the media attention seen in New York City in 2005.

Originally Wadud was scheduled to host the service in a friend’s art gallery, however, due to bomb threats the service was moved into the cathedral. No mosque was willing to host Wadud and the service. However, it is important to note that a group of activists helped Wadud organize this event with hopes to raise the status of females in Islam. Asra Q. Nomani, a renowned author and the principal organizer of the event noted that the service was aimed to dispel the traditional norms found within Islam. Nomani follows Wadud’s view that females should be able to stand in front of any mosque should they so choose.

This was the first moment in which males stood alongside females during a service. Normally, females are expected to enter mosques through a side door and move to rooms on the periphery, where an imam’s voice will play over loudspeakers. Interestingly, only a third of the individuals in attendance appeared to be male.

Prior to holding this service, Wadud concluded that nowhere in the Qur’an does it state that a female cannot lead prayers. However, there are components of the Sunnah that argue against females leading prayers. To contradict this point of view, Wadud often cites the example of a seventh-century female, Umm Waraqa, an individual who stated that she was given permission by Muhammad to lead her household in prayer. However, many individuals, as noted by Sheikh Sayed Tantawl of Cairo’s Al-Azhar mosque, argue that a female is allowed to lead prayer but not within a mixed-sex or male-dominated audience.

Despite Dr. Wadud wearing flowing robes and a headdress, many scholars still felt that she was still in violation of Islamic beliefs and traditions. One of the reasons so many individuals oppose a female leading prayers is because of the long-held belief that females distract males from prayers. Conservative scholar Yusuf al-Qaradawi made this very same point and condemned Wadud on media network al-Jazeera. In many Islamic States, Wadud would have been executed for these acts.



Elliot, Andrea. “Women Leaders Muslim Prayer Service in New York City.” New York Times, March 19, 2005, http://www.nytimes.com/2005/03/19/nyregion/woman-leads-muslim-prayer-service-in-new-york.html.

Stratton, Allegra. “A Woman Breaks a Taboo.” A Woman Breaks a Taboo 134, no. 4733 (2005): 12.