In a cave near Mecca, amid the mountains and deserts of Arabia, a caravan driver sought religious truth in his solitary meditations. When he was 40, a bright presence came to him in his first revelation. Shaken and questioning his experience, but with encouragement from his wife, Muhammad became convinced that he had experienced a true communication from God. More revelations followed over a period of approximately twenty years. These became the Qur'an, believed by Muslims to be the purest revelation from God.
From a persecuted prophet with a small following, Muhammad became a successful military and political leader. He extended Islam over his former opponents in Mecca and then throughout Arabia. After his death, Islam continued to spread rapidly. Within a hundred years, the Muslims ruled an area between two and three times the size of the Roman Empire.
Muhammad proclaimed a surrender or submission to the one powerful and transcendent God who was also worshiped by the Jews and the Christians. These two religions received the true revelation but had contaminated or misunderstood it in various ways. He therefore saw himself as the last of a long line of prophets, clarifying God's will in a definitive and final way.
Islam stresses the power of a God who controls every detail of life. Religion is viewed as a strongly ethical enterprise and provides patterns for ideal living on both the personal and the sociopolitical level. The Five Pillars of Islam define core religious practices. A simple and straight-forward creed proclaims one God, with Muhammad as his messenger. Prayer is to be performed at five prescribed times a day, facing in the direction of Mecca. Charity to the poor is the third pillar that helps create a compassionate heart in the believer and a more just society. Fasting during the month of Ramadan is the fourth pillar, and pilgrimage to Mecca at least once during one's life is the fifth.
A dispute over Muhammad's successor led to the split between the Sunni and Shiite branches of Islam. The Sunnis comprise nearly eighty-five percent of all Muslims and ruled over the Muslim world during its golden age, which spanned nearly five hundred years. This golden age saw significant developments in law, science, philosophy, and the arts. The Shiites believe that the true hereditary successors of Muhammad possessed a special spiritual power. Most suffered a martyr's death at the hands of the Sunni usurpers.
The Sufis embody Islam's mystical element. They emerged as a reaction to the wealth, luxury, and excesses surrounding the powerful caliphate and sought a return to simplicity. Often in conflict with religious authorities, Sufis seek a direct experience of God in this life. Sufi missionaries helped in the spread of Islam, and Sufi poets created some of the world's greatest poetry.
Islamic architecture produced the great mosques with their tall towers and huge domes. They convey a sense of simplicity and grandeur, of harmony and balance, that echo the values and convictions of Islam. Islamic art has combined elements of both the austere and the ornate, from prayer rugs and gardens inspired by images of paradise to elegantly written and chanted verses of the Qur'an.
Islamic civilization began to be eclipsed nearly 500 years ago by the West, but has experienced resurgence in more recent times. Islam continues to gain converts, and it has also spread through emigration. Traditional Islam is grappling with challenges from secularism, new styles of government and commerce, the roles of women and men, and the onslaught of Western popular culture. Highly varied responses are being attempted by different Muslim societies.
Dissimilar values and social ideals have led to conflicts between Islamic and Western cultures that shape many geopolitical issues today.