Muhammad was born in 570 AD in the city of Mecca. The early years of his life he spent as a camel driver, and at age 24, he married and became a respected, prosperous merchant. At the age of 40, Muhammad received his first vision. He was commanded to repeat messages revealed to him by the angel Gabriel. At first Muhammad only spoke to his family and friends of his experience. But, three years after his first vision, he was instructed to "arise and warn" the world about false gods and spread the divine message. From this point on, he began to preach in the marketplace. Muslims believe that Muhammad is the last of the great prophets.
Islam is the religion--Muslims are those who practice the religion of Islam
Muhammad and his disciples were ridiculed and persecuted in the city of Mecca and, in 622 AD, he and his followers were forced to leave the city. They journeyed to Yathrib (later called Medina, "the city of the prophet"). Here they established the first Muslim community. This event marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar. In Medina, the number of Muhammad's followers increased, as did the military conflicts with Mecca. In 630 C.E. Muhammad returned to Mecca and captured it, declaring Mecca the Holy City of Islam. The people of the city converted to Islam and all idols were banished from the Ka`aba.
Two years after Islam's reentrance to Mecca, Muhammad died. Islam was strong enough, however, to withstand this blow, and the religion spread rapidly after his death. Abu Bakr, a loyal friend of Muhammad, became his first Caliph. Twelve Caliphs followed Muhammad. The influence of Islam spread from North Africa to the borders of China.
The Koran is believed to be the literal word of Allah, the Islamic God, whose instrument was the prophet Muhammad. It is believed that Muhammad dictated his visions of the Angel Gabriel to scribes who in turn wrote them down. The Koran, originally written in Arabic, is only regarded as holy if it is in its original language. Thus, any translations of the book are titled "The Meaning of the Koran." Muslims believe the Koran was the last of a series of revelations sent by Allah to humankind. Since the book is viewed as being directly quoted from Allah, it is considered perfect by nature. Muslims do not reject the previous prophets such as Abraham, Isaac, Moses and Jesus. It is believed that they too spoke the word of Allah, but that over time the scriptures of their wisdom have been corrupted by human interpretation.
The hadith is a collection of the sayings and acts of the prophet. Muhammad was believed to be a model human being. Thus, the hadith and Koran together give an insight into the correct ways of life.
Islam grew so rapidly, it became a cultural and political empire. Still, divisions arose after the death of Muhammad. The Muslim community differed over views of leadership. As a result of this, the religion developed into sects.
The Sunnis emphasize the individual's direct relationship with Allah and believe that there is no necessity for a mediator between the self and Allah. The development of this sect arose when the fourth caliph, Ali, a cousin of Muhammad, was killed by a rival tribe called the Umayyads. The Umayyads gained control of a majority of the Muslim community. Their followers became known as the Sunnis.
The Shi`ah were originally the supporters of Ali. They believe that only the decedents of Muhammad should head the faith. The spiritual leaders of this sect are called imams. Within the Shi`ah community, the imams are the conveyors of truth and are believed to be void of sin. During the 9th century AD, the twelfth imam or Hidden Imam, disappeared. Since then, many Shi`ah have built up a belief that the Hidden Imam will someday return to deliver Muslims from evil and restore justice to the world.
The Sufi sect developed as a result of the highly political nature of Islam. Sufi's believe that sincerely religious people should not participate in politics. Instead, believers should strive to be one with Allah by experiencing ecstacy. These feelings of extreme pleasure and happiness are reached through rituals, music and prayers. Sufis condemn those who are motivated by the desire for heaven or the fear of punishment. They believe one should have love for Allah only because of their devotion to the divine. Sufis reject the worldliness of life.