11: Arabia


The Dome of the Rock

Key Terms

  • Mecca
  • Medina
  • Muhammad
  • Qur’an
  • calligraphy
  • Five Pillars
  • Hegira
  • House of Wisdom
  • Cordoba


  • To detail the life of Muhammad and the Five Pillars of Islam
  • To present the Qur’an and the arts relating to the Qur’an
  • To sample the classics of Islamic architecture
  • To outline the contributions of Muslims to mathematics, optics, medicine, and trade
  • Know and understand the significance of Cordoba, Mecca, Medina, and the House of Wisdom.
  • Know the terms associated with calligraphy, the Five Pillars, and the Hegira.

I. Historical Context – Pre-Islamic Arabia

  • A. Divided by Blood: Infighting among Arabian Tribes
    • The tribe was central to life; to be without a tribe was to die of thirst or be robbed and killed in a matter of days
    • “Gang” Violence and Vendettas
    • Arabia plagued by constant infighting which made Arabs suspicious of one another; no Arab unity
    • Islam offered a unified community (Ummah)

  • B. Divided by Gods: the acceptance of many deities
    • Different deities meant different allegiances
    • Ongoing conflict and rivalry
    • Lack of stability
    • The monotheism of Islam meant that all were to be judged the same, worship the same, and believe harmoniously

  • C. Divided by Gender: focus on manliness (muruwwa)
    • Before Islam, there was very little regard for ‘all humanity’
    • One focused primarily on the feats of the men in one’s tribe to bring the tribe honor and prestige
    • Islam changed this individualistic focus to one of humility before God

  • D. Divided by Egos: establishing a legacy
    • In Pre–Islamic Arabia, one was focused on making a great name for themselves
    • Men challenged themselves to accomplish such feats that poets and warriors would recite your tales and bring honor to your tribe.
    • The Islamic belief in the Day of Judgment did away with the focus on fame, as God became one’s judge

  • E. Divided by Ancestral Traditions: revering the old ways
    • Before Muhammad, there was a focus within a tribe to revere their unique tribal customs and history
    • This includes the reverence of the ancestors of one’s tribe.
    • Islam changes the focus from one’s ancestors to God

II. Politics

  • Muhammad ibn Abdullah, 570 - June 8, 632
  • Early Life
    • Born 570 CE, orphaned by six, and raised by his uncle
    • Worked as a merchant and shepherd
    • Probably lived in Mecca from 570-622 CE
    • During this time he begins meditating in a cave, is visited by the angel Gabriel, and is commanded to recite the Qur’an
    • About 3 years after Muhammad receives the Qur’an, he begins preaching publicly (613 CE)
    • Because they denounce polytheistic practices, Muhammad and his followers are persecuted in Mecca
  • From Mecca to Medina and Back
    • In 622 CE Muhammad is warned of a plot to assassinate him
    • The people of the city of Medina, who had embraced Muhammad’s teaching, encourage him to move there
    • Muhammad and his followers emigrate to Medina and live there until 632 CE; This is called the Hegira
    • In 630 CE, Muhammad marches on Mecca and takes control
  • The “Seal of the Prophets”
    • Muhammad is the last prophet of God (Qur’an 33:40)
    • This ensures the Qur’an is the final and ultimate word of God

III. Religion—The Five Pillars of Islam

  • Shahadah (Declaration of Faith)
    • Belief in the oneness of God
    • Islam literally means submission to God

  • Zakat (Alms)
    • Giving alms is required, though there are rules to ensure justice
    • Promotes solidarity with the community because hardships are shared by all
    • Belief in the finality of the prophethood of Muhammad

  • Sawm (Fasting)
    • Fasting during daylight hours during Ramadan
    • Abstain from food, drink, smoking, and worldly pleasures
    • During the entire lunar month of Ramadan
    • Those exempt from fasting: pregnant women, those who have not reached puberty, those who are infirm

  • Hajj (Pilgrimage)
    • Holy pilgrimage to Mecca in present–day Saudi Arabia
    • Everyone on Haj must wear simple white garments with no mark of national or financial identity in a ‘castless’ atmosphere

  • Salat (Prayer)
    • Ritualized daily prayer performed five times a day
    • Sets the tone for the day and divides the day into intervals
    • The prayers are a reminder of the five pillars
      • Shahadah-one recites the declaration of faith
      • Salat is performed
      • Sawm-one refrains from engaging in the world during prayer
      • Hajj-one turns attention to Mecca
      • Zakat-a portion of the day is given to Allah

IV. Texts

Qur’an 2:143

And thus we have made you a just nation, so that you may bear witness unto the rest of mankind.

  • A. Qur'an
    • The Qur’an is believed by Muslims to be the final word of God
    • Revealed by the Angel Gabriel
    • Muhammad received the Qur’an in a cave in the desert over several years.
    • Made up of 114 Suras (Chapters)
    • 8 Suras are named after people
      • Al-Fatiha (1): Recited 17 times a day, with every prayer
      • Yunus (10): The Qur’an’s chapter about Jonah
      • Ibrahim (14): The Qur’an’s chapter about Abraham
      • Maryam (19): The Qur’an’s chapter about Mary
    • Important Figures in the Qur’anic Text
      • Prophets: Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus
      • Others: Adam, Satan, Hagar, Mary

  • B. Hadith
    • Sayings of Muhammad
    • Recorded by followers after 100 years of oral tradition
    • Interpreting the Hadith
      • Majority of Muslims consider hadith to be clarifications of and supplements to the Qur’an
      • Sunni and Shia interpretation of hadith differ based on who recorded the hadith
    • Controversy over the Hadith
      • Some reject hadith based on a verse in the Qur’an that states “Nothing have We omitted from the Book” (6:38)
      • Hadith are said to have three sources of corruption: political conflict, sectarian prejudice, and a desire for clarification rather than re-creation

V. Islamic Art

  • Calligraphy
    • “Beautiful Writing”
    • Decorative features in mosques
    • No depictions of divinity in mosques
  • Architecture
    • Purpose is community
    • Mosque - gathering place for prayers
    • Minaret - tower from which the call to prayer is made five times a day
  • Significant Examples: 

VI. Historical Context

  • A. Division in Islam
    • Split occurred after Muhammad’s death
    • Adherents either flocked to a relative of Muhammad or a leader in the community
    • Islam spread throughout Africa, Middle East, Asia, and beyond

  • B. Sunni Muslims
    • The Community
    • Majority (about 85%) of Muslims are Sunni
    • Originally, the followers of the Caliphate after Muhammad’s death
    • No centralized power setting dogma of belief
    • Social and political authority invested in Caliphs, rulers
    • Religious authority belongs to religious community

  • C. Shia Muslims
    • Minority (about 15%) of Muslims are Shia
    • Originally, the followers of Ali, Muhammad’s closest male heir
    • Led by Imam, who provides spiritual and political direction
    • Social, political, and religious authority invested in the Imam, a direct descendent of Muhammad who is sinless and infallible

  • D. The Abbasid Dynasty
    • Built House of Wisdom in 833
    • Translation and preservation of Greek texts

VII. Contributions to the West

  • Mathematics (algebra, zero, decimal fractions)
  • Science and medicine (optical lenses, disease research, hygiene, hospitals, surgical tools)
  • Agriculture (food sustainability through irrigation and crop rotation)
  • Windmills
  • Coffee
  • Language (algebra, cotton, mattress, sheriff, chess)