Founded in the 600s by the Arabian prophet Muhammad, Islam is today one of the world’s largest religions, followed by millions of people throughout the world. Those who adhere to the beliefs of Islam are called Muslims. The largest Muslim communities exist in Southwest Asia, North Africa, Indonesia, the Indian subcontinent, and Central Asia. Muhammad, who was born in Mecca, Arabia, in about 570, preached that only one God-Allah-exists and that he-Muhammad was God’s messenger. In Arabic the word Islam, which means “submission to [the will of] God,” illustrates the fundamental tenet of the Islamic religion-that each believer should surrender to the will of God. Islamic scripture, which is written in the Qur’an (the holy book of Islam), teaches God’s word as told to Muhammad.
In the early 600s, when Muhammad began preaching in Mecca, most people scorned him and rejected his teachings. However, with his followers from Yathrib (Medina, or Al-Madinah), Muhammad took over the city of Mecca, destroying idols and turning the shrine at the Ka’bah into a mosque. Since that time, Mecca and Medina have been the sacred cities of Islam, and the Ka’bah its holiest shrine. After Muhammad died, his successor, Abu Bakr, launched a holy war, or jihad, in an effort to spread Islam and to establish control over Arabian tribes. Going forth from Mecca and Medina, Muslim armies conquered Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Iran (which was then Persia), Afghanistan, the Indus River Valley, North Africa, and most of Spain.
Those conquered were not forced to accept Islam, but they were obligated to pay a tribute. Gradually, however, the Islamic religion spread to many of those brought under Muslim control. A distinctive Islamic civilization and culture, which was noted for its architecture and art, developed throughout Southwest Asia and North Africa. During centuries of expansion, consecutive dynasties reigned over the Islamic empire, each headed by a religious and political head called the caliph. Each dynasty and caliph made their mark, large or small, on the empire. The Umayyad dynasty (661-750), for example, successfully conquered parts of North Africa and the Indus River Valley region. The Abbasid dynasty (750-1258), however, may be most famous for its fifth caliph, Harun al-Rashid, who ruled the empire during its zenith. A lavish patron of the arts, Harun reigned, for the most part, over a peaceful and prospering empire.
The development of various industries, such as textiles, metals, and paper, led to an expansion in trade and an even greater prosperity for the empire under Harun’s reign. Stories of the extravagant wealth of Harun and his court are romantically captured in ‘’The Thousand and One Nights.’’ The first Islamic mosques, which were modeled after Muhammad’s private courtyard at Medina where he worshipped, were simply plots of ground that were marked as sacred. As conquests furthered the spread of Islam, mosques were built in every center taken over by Muslims. In some cases, such as with the Byzantine cathedral Hagia Sophia at Constantinople, existing sanctuaries were converted to mosques.
Mosques are designed to house the thousands of followers who gather and worship, especially for Friday services. The Great Mosque at Samarra, begun in the 800s in central Iraq, was designed so that thousands of troops could worship together. The vast floor plan of one of the Islamic architecture, the Great Mosque of Cordoba was built in stages, with the first section being built between 785 and 786 and with further additions being made in the 800s and 900s. In largest Islamic mosques, the Great Mosque of Cordoba in Spain, is divided into 19 aisles by 850 marble columns.
Considered to be a classic example of early 1236 this Cordoba mosque was converted to a Christian cathedral. In addition to the area for prayer, features of Islamic mosques include a semicircular niche, which points to the direction of Mecca; a pulpit, reserved for the prayer leader; and sometimes a minaret, or tower, attached to the outside of the mosque, from which the call to worship is proclaimed five times each day.