Adam Jussila: The Rise of Islam

Islam was not created in a day, but its creation and subsequent rise in popularity in the 7th century was remarkable to anyone who has studied it. It was a combination of luck and brilliant religious and political leadership- some might call it the perfect storm. The prophet Muhammad came out of nowhere to create of one of the most powerful and influential religions of the last two millennia, with his followers going on to create one of the greatest empires in history. This all started when Muhammad received the words of God and decided to spread them to the Arabian people. His ability to orate, write and gain the trust of the people around him set Muhammad apart as a leader and made it possible to nurture Islam until it was able to grow and spread on its own. Had his message not resonated with the Arabian people in as many ways as it did, Islam never would have survived.

The primary text in Islamic faith, the Qur’an, spoke to the people of Arabia as a whole, with its poetic and literary genius reaching beyond Muhammad’s personal reputation and later allowing Islam to spread more widely. Umar ibn al-Khattab, a pagan opponent of Muhammad who was an expert on Arabian poetry, was converted when he heard the Qur’an the first time, struck by its prose and the messages that it preached.[i] Some also claimed that the beautiful prose of it allowed them to know with certainty that they were reading the words of God and not those of Muhammad, who had not been particularly known for his eloquence before becoming a prophet- in fact, by most accounts he may have even been illiterate.[ii] The style of Muhammad’s writing, which was similar to the much-respected poetry of the Arabian people, led the first groups of followers to feel like Muhammad was their prophet, come specifically to lead them along God’s chosen path. They felt that God was speaking directly to them through Muhammad. When they first heard God’s words in the Qur’an it resonated deeply with them, giving Muhammad the credibility and the power to lead them.

Beyond Muhammad’s ability to connect to people through writing, he is portrayed as a very charismatic person to whom people flocked. The eloquence of Muhammad and his ability to make people trust him was vital to his success as both a religious and a political leader. He demonstrated these qualities early on in his life, gaining the title of “the trustworthy” from his fellow tribesmen.[iii] Before becoming a prophet he mediated at least one significant event in which he managed to relieve tensions and dissipate a difficult situation. This particular instance occurred when there were multiple tribes vying for the honor of replacing the black stone that God sent down to Abraham in order to finish building the ka’aba in Mecca. Muhammad managed to make everyone happy by having them each hold a corner of a piece of cloth upon which he placed the stone, and then they all brought it back to the ka’aba together and Muhammad took it off the blanket and put it on the ground.[iv] Instances like this gave Muhammad a good reputation that helped Islam make it through its infancy. His ability to make people trust him and in turn follow him was invaluable for spreading Islam to the first few family members and friends.

There were many conflicts between early Islamic groups and the largely pagan society that they lived in. It required many of the early followers to make significant sacrifices for their newfound faith. Despite being ostracized and pushed out of their homeland in Mecca, the early followers stuck with Muhammad, though, and this was not simply due to chance. Muhammad was a clever person, strategically bringing his people together and beating odds that, at a glance, would appear hopeless. He was able to outmaneuver others on a battlefield as well as work with people in order to compromise and get what he wanted and needed for the ummah (Islamic community). This is very clear when one reads about the Battle of the Trench in 624, when Muhammad decided to dig trenches around Medina, surprising the opponents and winning a major victory for his people even though the odds were against him.[v]

Lastly, Muhammad’s family was especially helpful in solidifying his reputation, due to their loyalty, particularly from his wives. Their willingness to make sacrifices and put their faith in him gave Muhammad even more credibility in others’ eyes. By standing with him and guiding him, his family allowed him to survive and thrive in order to cultivate the first generation of Muslims that would spread his words in years to come. One such instance of this is seen right when Muhammad first hears the angel Gabriel talking to him. Immediately, his wife, Khadija, and his cousin jump up and assure him that what had happened was in fact a revelation. Without this and many other small encouragements, Muhammad may have never even embarked on his mission. It is easy to overlook those that surrounded Muhammad when you read about his extraordinary life, but he would surely have failed in his holy mission if he had not had people to watch his back, to organize things for him, to give him advice, and much more. Through his own abilities combined with those of his family, Muhammad was a very successful leader for the Muslim people.

Muhammad succeeded largely because he had a message that resonated with many Arabians, calling for people to unify and make a community. For the fractured people of Arabia, this was a very appealing idea and under his strong leadership, he continued to gain more followers throughout his life. Islam promoted a variety of behaviors that appealed to a wide audience, including charity for the poor and nonviolence among brothers. People saw him as a virtuous and trustworthy person, surrounded by loyal followers, and eventually his message started to click with people. Before long, the flood of Islam was beyond the control of any single person, all started by Muhammad’s revelations.

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[i] Armstrong, Karen. 2002. Islam. Modern Library paperback ed. ed.. New York: Modern Library.

[ii] IBID

[iii] Mahallati, Jafar. Pre-Islamic Arabia, Lecture, edited by Adam Jussila.

[iv] Mahallati, Jafar. The Life of Muhammad, Lecture, edited by Adam Jussila.

[v] Armstrong, Karen. 2002. Islam. Modern Library paperback ed. ed.. New York: Modern Library.