As with any religion, in order to understand Islam fully we need to know something about the cultural and historical context in which it was founded. While Hinduism, Taoism, Judaism, and many indigenous and shamanic traditions from northern Russia to Africa and South America took shape over centuries, Islam, like Christianity and Buddhism, was the offspring of one charismatic figure. In the 7th century, Arabia was just beginning to catch up to the rest of the civilized world in wealth and productivity. Because of the harsh desert climate, for many centuries the Arabs had been unable to generate the agricultural abundance that could produce the kind of wealth that had allowed other regions in the world to progress economically and culturally.
The tribe to which Muhammad belonged, called the Quraysh, based in Mecca, had grown especially wealthy from trade. With their newfound wealth, however, many Arabs began to be aware of severe social inequities that had developed within their desert society. Money and resources were concentrated in the hands of a few powerful clans, and those outside were no longer taken care of as they had been in the older nomadic society.
Muhammad, who had worked as a young man on the caravans that plied the trade routes of Arabia, was aware that his people needed a religion that would offer alternatives to the idolatry, drunkenness, and blood feuds, and the harsh treatment of women, orphans, and the poor that characterized Arabian society at the time. He was confronting many of the same issues that the ancient Hebrews had begun to address almost 2000 before, and that Jesus had re-emphasized in his brief ministry almost 600 years before Muhammad. The renowned scholar of Islam Karen Armstrong writes, “Muhammad did not think he was founding a new religion, but that he was merely bringing the old faith in the One God to the Arabs, who had never had a prophet before. It was wrong, he insisted, to build a private fortune, but good to share wealth and create a society where the weak and vulnerable were treated with respect. If the Quraysh did not mend their ways, their society would collapse (as had other unjust societies in the past) because they were violating the fundamental laws of existence.”*
Through the Quran, Muhammad would convey to the Arabs their own equivalent of the Torah and the Gospels; their Sabbath would be on Friday rather than Saturday or Sunday; and in place of the synagogue and church, Islam would offer the mosque, combining the teaching and praying functions of both.
* Karen Armstrong, Islam: A Short History, New York: Modern Library, 2000.
Note: Islam from a Non-Muslim Perspective
When speaking about Islam from a Non-Muslim perspective, as when describing Judiasm or Christianity from outside those traditions, it’s important to note that Muslims would not necessarily agree with the assessment that Muhammad was “influenced” by Christian and Jewish scripture or by the monks and rabbis he met in the deserts of Arabia, or that he saw a need to correct social problems of his time and place. Muslims simply believe that God — Allah — revealed these things to Muhammad through the medium of the angel Gabriel, and charged Muhammad with the task of conveying His revelation and implementing it on earth. For Muslims, the main goal of life is to discern God’s will as it is expressly stated in the Quran, and to live life accordingly.