According to the traditional account unquestioningly accepted by all Muslims in the Middle Ages, around the year 610 Muhammad, an illiterate forty-year-old Arab, began to receive revelations from Allah that were relayed to him by the Archangel Gabriel. After Muhammad’s death in Medina in 632, these revelations were written down and collected in the Qur’ān. It is important to note that, while the Prophet was not himself in any sense divine, the revelation he received is regarded as the eternal word of God, making the Qur’ān a sacred text in a sense that the Bible is not.
According to Muslim belief, the Qur’ān supersedes the earlier Jewish and Christian revelations. During his lifetime, the Prophet faced considerable opposition from his own tribe, the Quraysh, as well as from other Arab tribes and from the large numbers of Jews then living in the Hijaz. The Quraysh were mostly idol-worshipping polytheists who rejected the new and somewhat austere monotheism of Islam (which in Arabic literally means “submission”). In 622 Muhammad was forced to withdraw from Mecca to Medina, and Muslims date the start of their calendar from this event. Ultimately, Muhammad returned in triumph to Mecca. After Muhammad’s death, Arab Muslim armies went on to conquer the rest of the Arabian Peninsula. They occupied the territory of the Persian Sassanian Empire as well as much of the territories formerly ruled by the Byzantine emperor Heraclius. By 750 the armies of Islam had reached the frontiers of China in the East; in the West they had conquered most of the Iberian Peninsula and pushed on into parts of modern France and Switzerland.
After Muhammad’s death, political and spiritual leadership of the Islamic community passed successively to Umar, Abû Bakr, ‘Uthmān, and ‘Alī, who were later referred to as the so-called Rightly Guided Caliphs; the Arabic word khalifa, or caliph, means “deputy” or “successor.” The caliphate of ‘Alī was tumultuous, and his sons were killed by supporters of the Umayyad clan. The Umayyad dynasty monopolized the caliphate from 661 until 750. Since almost all that has survived concerning the Umayyads was written by historians and propagandists of the ‘Abbāsids, who eventually displaced them, the Umayyads did not receive a good historical press. It was in the Umayyad period that the schism between Sunnī and Shī‘ite Muslims began to form, although the two rival versions of Islam were only slowly articulated. The rift was originally a political one concerning the leadership of the Muslim community. The Shī‘a (a word that means “party”) maintained against the partisans of the Umayyads that only descendants of ‘Alī, the Prophet’s cousin, and Fātima, the Prophet’s daughter (and the wife of ‘Alī), could rightfully assume the caliphate. In the longer term, the Shī‘a would develop their own distinctive and somewhat esoteric theology as well as their own rituals and law schools. Even so, distinctions between the two versions of Islam were not as hard-edged in the medieval period as they have since become, and many Sunnīs had Shī‘ite sympathies and vice versa.
Sunnī Muslims are so called because of their adherence to the Sunna, that is, the sayings and doings of the Prophet, later established as legally binding precedents. These precedents, which supplemented those legal rulings to be found in the Qu’rān, could be extended, and were, by various analogical procedures and formed the sharia, the religiously based law. In time, four major madhhabs (law schools) developed within the Sunnī community. These were the Shāfi‘ī, Hanafī, Mālikī, and Hanbalī madhhabs, which tended to differ one from another on relatively minor points of ritual and law. Most North Africans adhered to the Mālikī madhhab, whereas Turks tended to favor the Hanafī mad- hhab. The Hanbalī madhhab was particularly rigorous; many of the leading preachers of jihād (holy war) were Hanbalīs. Not only did the sayings and deeds of the Prophet furnish much of the core of Islamic law, they also guided Muslim individuals in such everyday matters as sleeping and eating.
The five pillars of Sunni Islam are: the shahādah, the attestation of faith in Allah and his Prophet Muhammad; salāt, prayer, performed, if possible, at five fixed times during the day; zakāt,charity; sawm, fasting, especially during the month of Ramadan; and the hajj, pilgrimage to Mecca. Jihād, or “holy war” (but more literally “striving”), is sometimes referred to as the sixth pillar of Islam. It is sanctioned by several passages in the Qur’ân and imposed a twofold duty. First, it was incumbent on the Muslim community as a whole to extend Muslim territories by fighting; second, it was incumbent on every able-bodied male Muslim to respond to a call to arms to drive out infidel aggressors who had occupied territory previously held by Muslims. Sufis and pietists also wrote about the inner jihād, an interior struggle by the individual to purify him or herself. Conversion to Islam only requires the would-be convert to pronounce the shahādah, the attestation of belief in Allah and his Prophet, in front of witnesses. The Muslim conquerors rarely put pressure on their newly conquered subjects to convert, in part because the conquered peoples paid an extra poll tax, known as jizya. Christians, Jews, and Sabians (the Ahl al- dhimma, or “People of the Pact”) were tolerated under somewhat circumscribed circumstances. Conversion from Islam to another faith was and is punishable by death.
The Umayyad caliphate was overthrown in 750. Although many who took part in the uprising had hoped to see a descendant of ‘Ali and Fātima installed as the new caliph, in fact power was usurped by the ‘Abbāsids, a clan descended from the Prophet’s uncle al-‘Abbās. The capital of the caliphate was moved from Damascus to the new city of Baghdad. By the time that the First Crusade (1096-1099) arrived in the Near East, the ‘Abbāsid caliphs only enjoyed a nominal, ceremonial authority, and they were under the tutelage of the Turkish Saljûq sultans. Moreover, many territories that had formerly been part of the ‘Abbāsid caliphate had either broken away or professed a merely formal allegiance to the caliph and sultan. In particular, Egypt and much of North Africa had come under the suzerainty of the Shi‘ite Fātimid caliphs. Muslim Spain never formed part of the ‘Abbāsid caliphate, but from the late eighth century to the early eleventh century it was ruled by a branch of the Umayyad clan.
In general, Turkish generals, warlords, and mamlûks (slave soldiers) tended to exercise effective power in the fragmented territories of the Near East. Atabegs, Turkish military governors whose rule was based on the pretence of “protecting” Saljûq princelings, controlled key cities in Iraq and Syria. Together with Palestine, Syria was a war zone where Fātimid armies fought against partisans of the Saljûqs. The struggle was also an ideological one, and during the Saljûq period madrasas (religious colleges) were established for the study and propagation of Sunni theology and law. At the same time, Sufism, which had hitherto been a form of mysticism mostly pursued by individuals, began to develop a more institutional and populist character. Sunni patrons established quasi-monastic centers, variously known as zawiyas, khanqas, or ribāts, for the pursuit of the Sufi life.
After the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258, a puppet ‘Abbāsid caliphate in Cairo was established under the “protection” of the Mamlûk sultans in Egypt (which was suppressed by the Ottomans in the early sixteenth century). The Mamlûk sultanate derived much of its prestige from its elimination of the Frankish states of Outremer, which was completed in 1291. The Mongols, who had at first seemed to threaten the very survival of Islam, converted to that religion in large numbers in the course of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. Throughout the Middle Ages, Muslims’ confidence in their religious and political destiny remained high, despite the shock caused by the fall of Granada to the Christians of Spain in 1492. Only after the Ottoman Turks started to surrender Muslim territory in the Crimea and Balkans from the late seventeenth century onward did some Muslim thinkers begin to ask themselves whether the traditional Muslim ways would suffice to counter the growing military and economic power of the West.