The prophet of Islam, Mohammed, was born about 1,435 years ago in the valley of Mecca in the Arabian Peninsula. Mecca was already a religious center and place of pilgrimage. The rectangular stone building known as the Kaaba was already there. Pre-Islamic Arabs were tribal polytheists. Among the gods and goddesses worshipped were al-Lat, al-Uzzah, and al-Manat. Superior to these was a deity called Allah whose function was not clearly defined. When Mohammed was born in 570 or 580 CE, Mecca was controlled by the Quraysh tribe, of which he was a member. The tribe had several clans; each clan had a special deity, so the Kaaba was the site of several shrines and objects of worship. Both Judaism and Christianity were practiced in the Arab peninsula at that time.

Mohammed was orphaned young and brought up by an uncle. At the age of about 40, he had the first of a series of visions in which the angel Gabriel revealed the Koran to him. Once his monotheistic mission became clear to him, he began teaching, acquiring both followers and enemies. In 621 CE, prompted by persecution in Mecca, Mohammed entered into an agreement with the city of Yathrib, later called Medina, that he and his followers would be protected there. In 622 CE, Mohammed left Mecca to live in Medina. Muslims call this significant emigration the Hegira. The date 622 CE is Year One in the Islamic calendar.

Aided by the inhabitants of Medina, who included Arabic-speaking Jews, Mohammed became a military leader. He took control of Mecca in 630 CE. Before his death in 632 CE, he’d succeeded in bringing much of the peninsula under his control, requiring submission to Islam as well as political submission.

Mohammed saw himself as a prophet in the tradition of Abraham, Moses, Joseph, David, and Jesus. He was disappointed when Jews and Christians did not recognize him as a continuation of this line of prophets.

Islam is the name of the religion; followers of Islam are called Muslims. Both words derive from an Arabic word meaning “submission” or “resignation.”

The Muslim holy book, the Koran, was assembled into its present form after Mohammed’s death. Muslims believe that the words of the Koran, dictated to Mohammed by the angel Gabriel, are the express words of God as they exist in an eternal, heavenly book. The present-day form of the Koran was established in the reign of the third caliph Uthman (644-656 CE). Another spelling for Koran is Quran.

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