Basics of Islam

Islam is an Abrahamic monotheist religion dating back 1400 year. It is one of the largest religions with over 1 billion believers. The Islamic prophet Mohammed was born in Medina in modern day Saudi Arabia and wrote the Quran in Arabic. Mohammed acknowledged the both the Jewish and Christian prophets that came before him, ensuring a close connection between the 3 religious texts.

Five pillars of Islam

Islam has 5 principle rules known as its pillars:

  1. Faith (shahada) > Belief in a single god: There is no god other than god and Mohammed is his messenger

  2. Prayer (salat) > Prayer towards Mecca occurs 5 times each day with kneeling and reciting of the Quran

  3. Charity (zakat) > Muslims are obligated to give to the needy

  4. Fasting (sawm) > During the holy month of Ramadan, Muslims must fast during daylight hours

  5. Pilgrimage (hajj) > All Muslims are obligated to visit Mecca for prayer at some time in their life

Campfire in the evenings in Wadi Rum

Pre-Islamic Arabia

Prior to the emergence of Islam, the Arabian Peninsula was home to both Christians and Jews. These major monotheistic religions were however in the minority as polytheistic religions were most prevalent. The polytheistic beliefs followed deities and spirits that mostly related to nature. This form of animism worships idols and the Kabaa was a pilgrimage site with hundreds of idols. Settled communities often worshipped deities that would vary slightly from location to location. While nomadic tribes worship was more structured around deceased elders. Many of the local deities were represented by the Nabatean through carvings across southern Jordan.


Abrahamic religions are those that can be traced back to the Torah and stories of Abraham. Muslims recognise the regions preexisting monotheistic religions and consider prophet Mohammed and the Quran to provide a clarification of previous misinterpretations in the bibles. It is useful to understand that Jesus, the Christian prophet was raised Jewish. Likewise Mohammed was raised Hanif, a reference to monotheism, likely Christianity. Each of these prophets built on the existing religious beliefs of their communities rather than developing completely new faiths.

Mohammed was born in Mecca in 570, expelled to Medina after preaching Islam, later returning with a large army to conquer Mecca. He received gods message from angel Gabriel at the age of 40 and begins to share the message. Initially he shared his message in secret and after publicly preaching, Muslims began to be persecuted. After rumours his assassination was being planned he fled to Medina. He built an army eventually conquering Mecca, and uniting most of modern day Saudi Arabia before his death in 632.

Prominence in the world

Islam spread significantly in the century following Mohammed’s prophecies. The expansion of the religion also contributed to the expansion of the use of the Arabic language and ensured it would remain prevalent until present day. In the 21st century Islam is present across the entire world, even the most isolated countries have minority populations. The majority Islamic nations are also widespread. All nations encompassed within the Arabian peninsula with the exception of Israel, which was created in 1948 and populated mostly by migrants from Europe. Further east, Muslim majority nations in span all of Central Asia and across Iran and Pakistan as well as Bangladesh and Sri Lanka. Indonesia, the archipelago nation that links Asia to Australia is majority Islam and is among the furthest nations within the continent. Both India and Russia have states that are majority Islam. Moving west towards Europe, Turkey, and the previously Ottoman outposts in Bosnia, Albania and Kosovo are majority Islam. Islam is in the majority across northern Africa. Egypt, Sudan, Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, Morocco and Mauritania, Burkina Faso, Niger & Chad are all majority Islam. While Senegal, Mali, Burkina Faso, Ghana, Togo, Benin & Nigeria are all majority Islam in the north. Muslim reached southern Spain, when Muslims crossed from Morocco into Andalusia.

goats graze of spring wild flowers in front of red desert cliffs of Wadi Rum

Spread of Islam

Much like the Roman empire and its influence was responsible for the spread of Christianity. The military campaigns of the Arabs played a major role in the spread of Islam. In the decades following Mohammed’s death the Arab armys quickly expanded their influence. The Persian and Byzantine were weakened to their north after a long bilateral conflict. The Arabs quickly took control of modern day Iraq and Syria. They then shifted their focus to Egypt which was still under Byzantine control. Quickly taking control of much of the African Mediterranean coastline. Then shifted their attention back towards taking control of the Persian heartland.

The rapid expansion of the Arabic empire ended in 1956 when Ali was appointed caliphate and it was contested by the Umayyads. This caused a split that would significantly halt the Arab advance. However despite this setback the majority of the modern day Muslim nations had already been brought under Islam within 25 years of Mohammed’s death. Over the following 100 years the Umayyad would further expand the empire into Morocco and southern Spain to the west and into India to the east. The initial expansion of the Arab empire was religiously tolerant and did not endeavour to convert conquered populations. It was later under the Abbasid dynasty that widespread conversions occurred.

Sunni-Shia division

The Sunni-Shia schism relates to a separation in views between the who should succeed prophet Mohammed as the leaders of the Islamic world. The Shia believe that the leader must be from Mohammeds family. The Hadith refers to a statement by Mohammed shortly before his death that Ali (his cousin) will be Mulwa which translates roughly to guardian. Shia consider this an indication that Ali should be Mohammeds successor. Sunni however believe that it does not explicitly state any requirement for leadership.

Following Mohammed’s death, Abu Bakir is appointed first caliph, then Umar second and Uthman third. Ali is appointed forth caliph, with Shia adherents of the view he should have been the first caliph. At this time the Umayyid’s associated with the third caliph and in particular Muawiyah who would later become the sixth caliph oppose his appointment. Civil war breaks out and eventually Ali is assassinated, his son Hassan (also grandson of Mohammed) becomes the fifth caliph but does not have strong support and therefore concedes the title to Muawiyah on the condition that the position will be elected going forward. Muawiyah instead appoints Yazid his successor and Hussein (brother of Hassan) objects to the appointment. In response Yazid takes his army and slays Hussein and his entire family.

Ali had shifted the capital to Kufa in Iraq during his reign and his sons had loyal followings there. As the Shia lost control influence, the Sunni expanded the empire and their influence grew. The Shia became increasingly a minority with influence contained to modern day Iraq and Iran.