The Rise of Islam in Arabia
Faith, Community and Politics
Tribes: During sixth century AD, the Arabs were divided into tribes. Each tribe was led by a chief. The tribal chief was chosen partly on the basis of family connections but more for his personal courage, wisdom and generosity. Each tribe had its own god or goddess, who was worshipped as an idol in a shrine.
Muhammad belonged to the Quraysh tribe which lived in Mecca and controlled the main shrine at Mecca. The main shrine at Mecca was a cube-like structure and was called Kaba. Even those tribes which lived outside Mecca considered the Kaba holy and put their own idols there. In order to do so, they made annual pilgrimages (hajj) to the shrine.
Mecca was situated on the crossroads of a trade route between Yemen and Syria. The shrine at Mecca was a sanctuary where violence was forbidden and all visitors were given protection.
Origin of Islam
It was around 612 AD that Prophet Muhammad declared himself to be the messenger of God who had been commanded to preach that Allah alone should be worshipped. The followers of Prophet Muhammad were called Muslims.
The Muslims soon faced stiff resistance from affluent Meccans because they took offence to the rejection of polytheism. In 622 AD, Muhammad was forced to migrate to Medina; along with his followers. This event is called hijra and it marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar.
Once he reached Medina, Muhammad created a political order to ensure consolidation of the new faith and protection to its followers. The umma was converted into a wider community to include polytheists and the Jews of Medina. He added and refined rituals and ethical principles. The community survived on agriculture and trade, as well as on alms tax (zakat). The Muslims also organized expeditionary raids (ghazw) on Meccan caravans and nearby oases.
These raids provoked reactions from the Meccans and caused a breach with the Jews of Medina. After a series of battles, Mecca was conquered. This helped in spreading Muhammad’s reputation as a religious preacher and political leader. After that, Muhammad insisted on conversion as the sole criterion for membership of the community. Many tribes, mostly Bedouins, joined the community by converting to Islam. In due course of time, Muhammad’s power spread to the whole of Arabia. Medina became the administrative capital and Mecca the religious centre of the emerging Islamic state. The Kaba was cleansed of idols as Muslims were required to face the shrine when offering prayers. The early Islamic polity remained a federation of Arab tribes and clans for a long time.