A Brief History of Islam

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This information is one of several contextual resources provided as part of Wheaton College's 2023 Core Book program. This year, we are reading Daniel Nayeri's Everything Sad Is Untrue. Learn more about Core Book.


A Brief History of Islam

by Alex Massad, Wheaton College Assistant Professor of World Religions

There are many discussions one could have regarding Islamic history and tradition. This, though, is not an exhaustive history of the Muslim tradition. Nor is this even a full history of the rise of early Islam in the seventh century. What this brief essay will do is provide important informative touch points to contextualize Daniel Nayeri’s narrative in Everything Sad Is Untrue—especially the parts he talks about in the section titled “A HISTORY LESSON” starting on page 179. In particular, this essay presents traditional Muslim narratives regarding the life and career of Muhammad ibn Abdallah, referred to in Islam as the Prophet Muhammad, important nuances between the Sunni and Shi‘a narratives regarding this early history, and the importance of Shari‘a and its manifestation as Islamic jurisprudence.

640px-Hejaz-EnglishMartinCollin, CC BY-SA 3.0 <https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0>, via Wikimedia Commons

Hijaz, the western region of the Arabian peninsula, during the late sixth/early seventh century, was inhabited by a mostly nomadic Arab population. These people were primarily polytheistic, with some Christian and Jewish tribes, and relied heavily on trade and caravan raiding. Pre-Islamic Arabs would trade from the base of the Arabian peninsula. They joined Indian Ocean trade routes up to Damascus, which connected them with the Byzantine Empire. The city of Mecca, a good center for trade, was particularly important, for in this city, many Arab tribes kept the representations of their gods, which made it sacred ground in which fighting was prohibited

Muslim tradition holds that in the year 610 CE, one particular Arab trader named Muhammad ibn Abdallah was praying in a cave on mount Hira outside the city of Mecca. He encountered the angel Gabriel who elicited revelation from the mouth of the Prophet. Muslims consider the words which Muhammad spoke at the request of the angel Gabriel as the first ayat (Arabic for “sign” or “verse”) of what would become the Qur’an:

Recite in the name of your Lord who created
Created man from a clotted substance
Recite, and your Lord is the most generous
Who taught by the pen
Taught man that which he knew not (96:1-5)

This moment launched what would become a twenty-two-year prophetic career that would establish the second largest religion in the world today – Islam.

Generally, the Prophet Muhammad’s career divides into two periods. First, there is the period from 610-622 where he lived in the city of Mecca, preaching his message of monotheism to the various Arab tribes and winning several converts. However, this message of monotheism threatened the Quraysh, one of the larger Arab tribes, which controlled Meccan trade. Among the many reasons that the Quraysh felt threatened was that the message of monotheism undermined the commercial importance of Mecca as the city that housed the Arab tribe’s idols. Thus, in 622 CE the Quraysh plotted to murder the Prophet Muhammad. Yet, in what Muslims saw as a series of miraculous events, Muhammad escaped to a city to the north named Yathrib (subsequently renamed Medina) along with his followers. It is this moment of becoming migrants that Muslims mark the first year of the Muslim calendar. This migration, or hijra, required the Prophet Muhammad’s followers to decide whether to stay with their tribes or leave and form a new community – the community of believers. It is this formation of a new community of believers that established what would later become the Muslim community and marks the first time in history that Muhammad’s followers declared a distinct identity.

The second period of Muhammad’s prophetic career spans from 622-632, during which period, Muhammad’s followers defended themselves against the Quraysh’s attempts to root them out.  Muslim forces conquered Mecca in 630 CE.

The Prophet Muhammad lived just two years after taking Mecca and uniting the Arabian peninsula under his teachings and leadership.

Sunni and Shi’a – Division over The Prophet’s Successor

In the early Muslim community, authority was generally assigned according to the length of time one had followed the Prophet Muhammad. According to Muslim tradition, the first person to follow the Prophet Muhammad was his wife Khadija. However, she had died before the hijra. The second to follow the Prophet was his cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib, who also offered his life by sleeping in the Prophet’s bed when there was a plot to murder Muhammad so that he could escape to Yathrib. Among the last to follow Muhammad were those of the tribe of Quraysh.

Thus, when Muhammad died in 632 CE, the issue of who should succeed Muhammad became urgent for the community. On the one hand, there was precedent for granting authority according to the length of one’s companionship with the Prophet. On the other hand, there was political power that existed outside those pious traditions.

The majority Sunni Muslim community (about 88% of Muslims today), those who held political power immediately after the Prophet Muhammad’s death, tells the story of succession differently than the minority Shi’a Muslim community (about 12% of Muslims today). In the United States, 55% of participants in a 2022 Pew Forum study identified as Sunni, 16% identified as Shi’a while the rest said “they are just a Muslim.” The majority of Shi’a, about 68-80% live in Iran, Pakistan, India, and Iraq. Lebanon also has a sizable minority of Shi’a living in the south of the country, about 27% of the population.

Here’s the Sunni approach to the story. After the Prophet Muhammad died, the leaders of the Muslim community gathered together and decided that a council (shura) should elect the Prophet’s successor (khalifa/caliph). The shura chose the Abu Bakr, the Prophet Muhammad’s father-in-law and an early companion. Although he succeeded in maintaining the coherence of the Muslim community by waging a series of wars against those tribes that tried to break away, he died just two years later, in 634 CE. The shura council then elected Umar ibn al-Khattab, who was known for his piety and for his early companionship with the Prophet as well. Under his leadership, the Muslim tribes expanded out of the Arabian Peninsula by eliminating the Persian Sassanian Empire and taking the majority of the Byzantine Empire’s territory in the Middle East and North Africa. However, Umar was assassinated in 664 CE.  At this time, the shura council elected Uthman ibn ‘Affan. His election was contested because even though he married one of the Prophet Muhammad’s daughters, he was from the Quraysh tribe. His leadership resulted in the codification of the Qur’an and some further expansions of Muslim territory. Yet, in 656 CE, a riot broke out around his home because of his contested authority and several unpopular decisions—these led ultimately to Uthman’s death. The shura council then elected Ali ibn Abi Talib as the fourth caliph.

Islamic Conquests in the 7th-9th CenturiesNetchev, Simeon. "Islamic Conquests in the 7th-9th Centuries." World History Encyclopedia. Last modified June 08, 2021. https://www.worldhistory.org/image/14212/islamic-conquests-in-the-7th-9th-centuries/.

The election of Ali ibn Abi Talib as caliph is where the Sunni and Shi’a narratives begin to drastically diverge. From the Sunni perspective, Ali’s ascension to the caliphate was part of the historical process of shura councils electing the most rightly guided of Muhammad’s companions. Thus, the Sunni tradition calls the first four caliphs “the rightly guided ones” (al-rashidun). However, there was a faction of Muslims who believed that Ali was supposed to be Muhammad’s successor from the beginning. The partisans of Ali (shi’a ali) believe that on the way back from his final pilgrimage to Mecca, Muhammad declared at the oasis of Ghadi Khum that Ali was to be his rightful successor, just as Aaron succeeded Moses. Thus, from the Shi’a perspective Ali was the rightful heir to Muhammad from the beginning and the shura councils erred in appointing Abu Bakr, Umar, and Uthman.

For the Sunni tradition, generally, the caliph was a political figure but not a religious authority. The caliph was to uphold Muhammad’s teachings, maintain justice, and defend Muslim territory. However, the caliph was not generally seen as an authority to interpret the Qur’an or to answer Muslim’s questions about their faith. Instead, religious scholars filled this role for the Sunni community.

From the Shi’a perspective, however, the religious authority of Prophet Muhammad’s successor resided not in a caliph but in an Imam. An Imam is a person endowed with political and spiritual leadership over the Muslim community. Shi’a believe the Imam is endowed with esoteric spiritual knowledge to interpret the Qur’an by virtue of being part of the Prophet Muhammad’s bloodline through Ali and his wife Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter. Shi’a generally hold that members of the ahl al-bayt (the household of the Prophet Muhammad and his bloodline descendants) hold a special place of honor among Muslim society, but it is the bloodline of Ali and Fatima that produces the Imam. Thus, the partisans of Ali, the group that would become the Shi’a, saw his ascendancy to Muslim leadership in 656 CE as the beginning of legitimate Muslim leadership.

However, Ali’s rule was immediately challenged by Uthman’s cousin Mu’awiya who demanded that Ali persecute those who rioted against Uthman and led to his death. The issue Ali faced was that these rioters were Ali’s supporters and Ali was not inclined to persecute his supporters. Ali’s refusal to bring the rioters to justice led Mu’awiyya, who was a powerful leader within the Quraysh tribe, to declare Ali unfit to rule. Mu’awiyya then led a civil war against Ali’s leadership, splitting the Muslim community between those who followed Ali and those who were loyal to the Quraysh and their power. Ali was assassinated in 661 CE during the conflict, leaving Mu’awiyaa as the de facto leader of the Muslim community. Ali’s fall and Mu’awiyya’s elevation to unelected power created the first Muslim empire – The Umayyad Caliphate (661-750 CE). This first civil war created the first fissure within Muslim society that would eventually widen into the distinct Sunni and Shi’a communities we see today.

It was a subsequent event, however, that cemented a definite separation between Ali’s followers and the Umayyad Empire. Mu’awiyya declared his son Yazid to succeed him, thus overturning the shura system. Upon his death in 680 CE, Yazid I ascended the throne, enraging the Muslim community because of the means by which he attained Muslim leadership and his lack of pious credentials. Ali’s followers, now concentrated in Kufa and Basra, reached out to Ali’s last remaining son Hussain requesting that he come and lead them against Yazid’s unrighteous leadership. Eventually, Hussain was convinced to leave Medina and traveled to Kufa with a cohort of about seventy members from Muhammad’s household (ahl al-bayt). Hearing of this potential rebellion, Yazid ambushed Hussain with over 4,000 troops in 680 CE at the plains of Karbala, slaughtering all the men. They decapitated Hussain and paraded his head around Kufa to show Ali’s followers that they had failed. Yet, Shi’a see this event as Hussain willing to stand up for the oppressed and to fight for truth and righteousness no matter the odds. Arguably, Hussain’s death marks the permanent split between Sunni and Shi’a. Indeed, Shi’a venerate Hussain and weep bitterly when they recount his passion during their yearly commemoration of the Karbala in the form of the ta’ziya play.

An Introduction to Shari‘a

Although Muslims believe the Qur’an is the word of God, akin to how Christians understand Jesus as the word of God, the text does not offer a lot with regard to how Muslims should live on a daily basis. Muslims have had to rely on additional resources to try and ascertain answers to the question “how does God want me and my community to live?” The tradition of discerning answers to these questions became shari‘a. Many incorrectly associate Shari’a with “Islamic law.” More holistically understood, shari’a consists of ethics (akhlaq), jurisprudence (fiqh), and etiquette/manner (adab). Although Everything Sad Is Untrue does not engage directly with shari‘a, apart from mentions of fatwas (p.199) and divorce (p.108-109), arguably the premise for the entire book is that conversion is apostasy from Islam and is against the Iranian legal system’s interpretation of shari’a. Thus, for our purposes this small entry will focus in particular on jurisprudence, which consists of Islamic legal rulings where judges and scholars attempt to discern God’s desires for human interactions. In particular, the goal is to understand how Muslim legal rulings are a long complicated process that attempts to give guidance on how to live a life pleasing to God.

Muslim scholars, in general, looked to four resources to derive judgments regarding how one should live in accordance with God’s desires. The first resource is the Qur’an. However, as already mentioned, it is scant on useful data to rule on human life. The second resource consists of the actions and sayings of the Prophet Muhammad, his sunnah. Muslims find justification for following the Prophet Muhammad as a model for Muslim life in the Qur’an, “Certainly, you have had in the Messenger of God an excellent example for those who hope in God, the Last Day, and remember God often” (q. 33:21, translation mine) (See also Q 7:157; 33:36; 59:7).


Although there are many resources in the Muslim tradition that contain aspects of the Prophet’s sunnah, it is the hadith collection that contains the most significant data for Muslim jurists. The hadith consist of written down records of what the Prophet Muhammad said and did according to his followers. These documents contain a chain of transmission detailing who told whom, like a game of telephone, followed by a narration detailing an event that happened in the Prophet Muhammad’s life. Not all hadith are considered equal and Muslims have an intricate science to discern which are more authoritative than others.

The second resource Muslim scholars rely upon is their independent rational judgment (‘aql) often to analogize older rulings for contemporary issues. For example, Islamic jurisprudence has historically prohibited the drinking of any intoxicating substance not because it is explicitly prohibited in the Qur’an, but through the use of human analogical reasoning. The Qur’an explicitly prohibits khamr, which is wine derived from grapes, but this is not an explicit prohibition of beer or intoxicating liquid derived from other sources. Muslim scholars judged that the rationale for forbidding khamr was because it caused intoxication, thus stripping a person of their rational faculties and making one prone to sin, not because it was grape wine. Therefore, Muslim jurists conclude that any substance that causes intoxication and strips a person of their rational faculties, such as beer or sometimes marijuana, should be prohibited.

The final resources jurists look to is the consensus of the community (ijma‘). There is a strong hadith where the Prophet Muhammad states, “my community will never agree on an error,” from which jurists decided that the Muslim community as a whole can be a guiding principle for deciding what is licit. Correlative to the principle of communal agreement is the principle of seeking what is best for society (istihsan or istislah). Jurists are to balance legal precedent and  textual data with what is best for the litigants before them and society at large. Ibn Qayyim al-Jawziyya (d. 1350 CE), a foundational Muslim jurist, summarized this principle well, “Sharia is all about justice, wisdom, all about mercy, and all about good. Any rule that takes the shari’a from justice to injustice is not part of the shari’a.” However, it is important for readers to remember that what is defined as “good,” just,” and “merciful” depends on context. It is in this spirit of seeking a just society pleasing to God that legal jurists, sometimes called a “mufti,” issue legal opinions. These legal opinions, or “fatwas,” are theoretically non-binding. However, with the advent of the modern nation-state fatwas can sometimes carry the coercive power of the state. 

It is in this spirit that conversion from Islam is seen as apostasy, a terrible thing for society and for individuals. If one believes that God’s revelation is what is best for society, then rejecting that revelation would lead to social deterioration. It is this line of thought, along with narrations from the Prophet’s sunnah, that results in the majority of muftis to forbid leaving Islam, whether through apostasy or conversion to another religion. In fact, Islamic legal tradition does not differentiate much between apostasy and conversion. In both scenarios a person goes from affirming the Prophet Muhammad and his revelation to rejecting those traditions. It is good for society and for individuals to follow God’s revelation and the teachings that God desires his believers to follow and it would be bad to facilitate rejection of God’s revelation. Additionally, it is beneficial to society for marriages to remain intact. However, it is also seen as beneficial for society that divorces are facilitated if marriage contracts are broken. For example, Muslim marriages involve contracts drawn by the Muslim jurist facilitating the marriage that lays out the terms of the marriage. There are not prenuptials as much as they are attempting to establish clear parameters for the marriage. Frequently, apostasy from Islam is a deal breaker. Although many rulings regarding divorce favor men, divorce cannot be immediate and without cause. The most prominent, and perhaps infamous, form of divorce is talaq, which consists of three successive statements made by the man that he intends to divorce his spouse. The intention of this principle is that the man must establish a certain period of time (1 day to 3 months) between statements to make sure that this divorce is not out of passionate anger but is a dispassionate certainty. Unfortunately, this principle of dispassionate certainty remains in the land of legal theory.

Suggestions for Further Reading