Early Development of Islam

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In AD 570 Mohammad ibn Abdullah was born into the family of a caravan merchant belonging to the Hashimite branch of the ruling Quraysh tribe that lived in the prosperous Arabian town of Mecca. In AD 610, at the age of forty, Mohammad began to receive the first of a series of revelations from God which were transmitted to him through the angel Gabriel over a period of 22 years. These directives of moral principles are contained in the Quran (The Recitation), the sacred scripture of Islam.

The Prophet Mohammad preached against socioeconomic inequities and denounced polytheism with its thriving pilgrimage business centered around the Kaaba shrine and numerous religious sites in the vicinity of Mecca. His vigorous reform messages challenged the powerful ruling establishment, threatened their economic and political interests and eventually earned him their bitter enmity.

Forced to leave Mecca in 622, he moved with a group of followers to the town of Yathrib, later called Medina. Here he established a Muslim community-state, consolidating both temporal and spiritual leadership in his person. The migration to Medina is known as the hijra and the creation of a Muslim community (ummah) marks the beginning of the Islamic era. The Muslim calendar, based on a 354-day lunar year, begins in AD 622. From Medina, the Prophet Mohammad fought a series of successful battles and returned to Mecca in triumph in AD 630, shortly before his death in 632.

After the Prophet Mohammad's death, the leaders of the Muslim community chose as his successor or caliph, Abu Bakr, who was one of the Prophet's earliest followers as well as the father of Aisha, the youngest and most beautiful of the Prophet's wives. There were those, however, who favored Ali, the Prophet's cousin and husband of his daughter Fatima. These supporters of Ali were known as Shiat-u-Ali (Party of Ali), later to be called Shia. Ali eventually succeeded as the fourth caliph in AD 656, but this led to civil war in 661 during which Ali was assassinated. Ali's son Husayn led a second rebellion in 680 during which he was killed at the Battle of Karbala which is commemorated by the Shia each year on the tenth of Muharram. Husayn's death marks the division of Islam into Sunni and Shia, ending the period in which the entire Islamic community recognized a single caliph.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress