Where did Islam come from? According to the Muslim worldview Islam is the natural religion of all holy men on earth. According to this line of thinking every holy man from Adam to Noah to Abraham to Moses to the Israelite prophets to Jesus (in their eyes he is merely a man and there will be much more on this later) were in all fact Muslims. All these were messengers from Allah to the world to prepare the way for the final revelation to the last messenger Muhammad. So then it is with the sudden appearance in history of this Muhammad that we see the beginnings of Islam as the world has come to know it, Muslim myths aside.
Muhammad was born in the caravan outpost of Mecca in the Hejaz, about 70 miles inland from the Red Sea on the Arabian Peninsula in the year 570 AD. To put the time frame in perspective this is about a century after Odoacer deposed the last of the Western Roman Emperors, the boy Caesar Romulus Augustulus, in 476 AD. This date has traditionally marked the end of the Roman Empire (in the West at least), though it was not the end of the Roman world. One hundred years later when Muhammad was born the Roman world and the unity of the Mediterranean basin still very much existed. The squabbling barbarian kingdoms of the West had sought neither to depose the Roman way of life nor the Church but to claim it as their inheritance, and they continued to pay homage to the very much still alive empire in the East and its monarch in Constantinople whose realm included Greece, Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and North Africa as master (in theory at least) of the world. Where this world was not united however was in the Church sad to say. By the year of Muhammad’s birth the Church had been riven by heresy, schism, and discord over the nature of Christ for a quarter of a millennium. The lands on the northern edges of the Arabian Peninsula had by that time been buzzing with these Christological ‘controversies’ (as we have come to call them) and with a full host of rival heretical theologies for a period of time that was longer than the history of the United States as a country at the time of writing. This then was the world that Muhammad was born into and it could not have failed to have an impact on his life.
Muhammad was orphaned at an early age; his father died either before his birth or during his infancy and his mother at the tender age of six. He would end up being raised first by his grandfather Abdul-Mutallib and, after his death, by his uncle Abu Talib. As a result of this Muhammad seems to have exhibited a great devotion to the care of widows and orphans throughout his life. His grandfather and his uncle were successful members of a growing merchant class in the Mecca of the day and their trade missions took them far afield and into the Christian world. Islamic tradition records that the twelve year old Muhammad accompanied Abu Talib on a journey to Damascus where they lodged at the renowned monastery of Busra. A Syrian monk is said to have recognized the young Muhammad as a great figure sent by Allah and begged his uncle not to take him into Damascus for fear of harm coming to the child at the hands of the city’s Jews. Abu Talib immediately sold all of his trade goods for a lesser price and went back to Arabia. There are echoes in this account both of Saul of Tarsus and his Damascus road experiences and of the priest Simeon’s recognition of our Lord at the Temple in Jerusalem and the subsequent flight of the Holy Family to Egypt more than half a millennium before. Whatever one makes of this tale it does show an early familiarity with the Catholic world by this man whose followers were, in the not too distant future, to launch such an assault on that world.
Muhammad then grew in wealth and respect and experienced great success in the field of international trade that culminated in his marriage to a wealthy widow fifteen years his senior named Khadija. Muhammad is recorded to have spent much time during the next several years meditating in the mountains and caves outside of Mecca. Then one night in his fortieth year he entered the cave of Hijra outside Mecca and heard the voice of an angel who called himself Gabriel and gave him this command:
اقْرَأْ بِاسْمِ رَبِّكَ الَّذِي خَلَقَ خَلَقَ الْإِنسَانَ مِنْ عَلَقٍ اقْرَأْ وَرَبُّكَ الْأَكْرَمُ الَّذِي عَلَّمَ بِالْقَلَمِ عَلَّمَ الْإِنسَانَ مَا لَمْ يَعْلَمْ
Read in the name of thy Lord Who creates – creates man from a clot, read and thy Lord is most Generous, who taught by the pen, taught man what he knew not. (Qur’an, 96:1-5)
Though it lies near the end of the book this is generally agreed by Muslim scholars to have been the first of the utterances of the angel that Muhammad recorded in the Qur’an. These utterances all compiled together into this one work would go on to change the face of the earth. They would build the foundation of the only serious rival that the Catholic Church has ever had in this world. So it is to the Qur’an that we will turn in the next section. For there is much to read concerning our Lord and his Mother (oddly enough) in this strange text. And it is from these accounts that I think we can begin to draw some conclusions about what Islam really is and from where it comes.
Pray the Joyful Mysteries of the Rosary on Monday for the See of Constantinople, the Sorrowful Mysteries Tuesday for the See of Antioch, the Glorious Mysteries Wednesday for the See of Jerusalem, the Luminous Mysteries Thursday for the See of Alexandria, and the Sorrowful Mysteries on Friday for the See of Carthage; for their liberty and their salvation and the restoration of their ancient position as pillars of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic Church in communion with the See of Peter in Rome and for the conversion of the Jewish people and the conversion of the Muslim peoples.