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A Brief History of Islam


Muhammad is seen by non-Muslims as the founder of Islam.  Muslims consider him to be that last and true prophet of Islam.  Islam claims many prophets, including Jesus and many Old Testament prophets.  But Muhammad supersedes all the others and his word is the final word.


Muhammad was born about 570 CE in the city of Mecca on the Arabian peninsula.  He was the son of a well to do merchant, who apparently died before Muhammad was born.  His mother died when he was young and he was probably raised by his grandfather.  Showing quite an aptitude for business and trade, Muhammad married a rich widow at the age of about 25.  This gave him a certain amount of leisure time and he often retreated into the mountains or the desert and spent hours in meditation. 


One of his sites for meditation was a cave on Mount Nur.  It was in this cave, about 610 during the month of Ramadan ( a pagan festival) that Muhammad claimed to have received his first visitation from the angel Gabriel and with that visit his first revelations from god.  At first, Muhammad shared these revelations only with family and close friends, but after about three years he received the command to go public with these revelations.


Muhammad gained some followers - and also some enemies.  Probably because of those enemies, he sent many of his followers to Abyssinia (Ethiopia) and he himself  moved to present day Medina in 622.  There he united many tribes under the banner of Islam and by 629 has raised an army of some 10,000 men.  He marched on Mecca, which fell with little resistance.  In 632, Muhammad died shortly after returning from a pilgrimage (this pilgrimage being the basis for the Hajj or pilgrimage to Mecca).  By then, most of the Arabian peninsula had converted to Islam, primarily by conquest.


The revelations, which Muhammad reported receiving, make up the Quran.  Islam is based on this "Word of God."  The Quran is not the only holy text in Islam.  In addition, the Hadith and Sira literature contain Muhammad's teachings and practices  and are used as sources of Islamic law.


What follows is an abbreviated timeline of Islamic history borrowed from Key moments of Islamic civilization.  Click on the link for the full article.  This timeline is pretty benign, intended to simply highlight major events, with little comment.


570 Prophet Muhammad is born in Mecca.


610 Muhammad receives the first revelation while meditating in the cave of Hira near Mecca.


620 (621) - Muhammad's 'Night Journey,' said to be both a physical and a spiritual journey.  Muhammad was taken by the angel Gabriel to Jerusalem where he met with Abraham, Moses and Jesus, and subsequently ascended into heaven accompanied by Gabriel.  The traditional location of this ascension is at the Dome of the Rock on the Temple Mount in Jerusalem.


622 After persecution in Mecca, Muhammad migrates to Medina. The migration — hijra — marks the beginning of the Islamic era.


623-631 After three battles, Muhammad conquers Mecca and forgives all his enemies. A written constitution is established as the basis of governance.


632 Prophet Muhammad dies after giving his ‘farewell sermon’. Abu Bakr, a close companion of Muhammad, is unanimously selected as the first caliph of Islam.


633-643 After Abu Bakr’s death, the Prophet’s companion Umar al-Khattab is elected as the second caliph. Syria, Iraq, Egypt and Palestine come under Muslim rule by conquest. Jerusalem is captured.


644 Caliph Umar is murdered. An ‘Electoral Council’ elects Uthman ibn Affan, the Prophet’s son-in-law and close companion, as the third caliph.


650-652 Caliph Uthman compiles the Qur’an as it exists today. Islam expands into the Maghrib or North West Africa.  This is Muslim tradition, which also says that Muhammad dictated much of the Quran to scribes during his lifetime.  Many Christian scholars dispute the Muslim tradition and date the earliest full manuscripts of the Quran as 200 years after Muhammad's death.


653-656 Islam spreads to Persia and Byzantium. Unrest spreads in Muslim lands. Caliph Othman dies in a revolt. Ali Abi Talib, the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law becomes fourth caliph, but his selection is disputed. Muawiya, Governor of Syria declares himself the ‘first king in Islam’ in defiance of Caliph Ali.


661-680 The Muslim world begins to fragment. Caliph Ali is murdered. Disputes arise between those who want political leadership to be elected and those who want political and religious authority to reside within the family of the Prophet. Hussain, the Prophet’s grandson and son of Caliph Ali, is killed at the battle of Karbala which becomes the formative event in the emergence of the Shi’a tradition, splitting the Muslim community into two groups — the Sunnis and the Shi’as. The Umayyad dynasty is established in Syria.


700-750 Islam extends into India. Muslims enter Spain and reach the borders of France. The advance of Muslims is halted at the Battle of Tours on the Loire river in France in 732.


751-800 A sophisticated book trade evolves, backed by a thriving publications industry. The great compilers of hadith — al-Bukhari, Abu Dawood, al-Tirmidhi, ibn Maja and al-Nasai — publish their works and ‘authenticate’ the sayings of the Prophet.


800-850 Muslims conquer Sicily.


851-1000 Muslim science and philosophy begin to flourish.


1050-1100 Intellectual war breaks out between theologians, philosophers and Muslim mystics or Sufis. The Crusades, a series of Christian wars against the Muslims, begin with the first crusade in 1095.


1150-1200 Timbuktu is established as a great center of learning and book production. The Kurdish Salahuddin Ayyubi (’Saladin’) takes on the Crusaders.


1250-1300 Mongols sack Baghdad. Abbasid Caliphate ends but the Ottoman Empire is established. After the eighth crusade, when the last Christian city, Acre, falls to the Muslims, the Crusades come to an end.


1300-1400 The religious scholars close the ‘gates of ijtihad’ (‘reasoned struggle’); and establish taqlid (blind imitation) as the dominant mode of thought, leading to ossification in science, learning and innovation. 


1400-1500 The Ottoman Empire expands after the fall of Constantinople. Muslims are expelled from Spain after the fall of Granada. Jewish refugees from Spain take refuge in the Ottoman Empire.


1500-1600 The Moghal dynasty is established in India. Ottoman architect Sinan builds the Blue Mosque complex in Istanbul.


1600-1700 The Taj Mahal is completed in Agra, while the Ottomans lay siege to Vienna


1700-1800 European imperial powers begin to colonize the Muslim world. Universities and institutions of higher learning are closed; Islamic medicine is banned; and Muslims are barred from pursuing higher education. Muhammad ibn Abdul Wahhab establishes the Wahhaby movement in Arabia, Syria and Iraq, insisting on a literalist interpretation of the Qur’an.


1800-1900 The ‘Mutiny’ in India is crushed.


1900-1950 Reformer Jamal al-Din Al-Afghani, together with the Mufti of Egypt, Muhammad Abduh, establish the pan-Islamic movement for reform and ijtihad (‘reasoned struggle’). After eight centuries, the Ottoman Empire collapses. In the Arabian peninsular, Ibn Saud brings warring tribes together to establish Saudi Arabia. Pakistan is established as the first ‘Islamic state’.


1950-2000 Muslim states in Asia and Africa obtain their independence. Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt and Jamaat-e-Islami in Pakistan become the main components of a global Islamic movement. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, six new Muslim countries emerge in central Asia.


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