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Tomb of Ali, the first Imam and the fourth caliph, in Iraq (it was rebuilt about 1500 AD by the Safavids)

Where did Islam come from?

Medieval Islam was closely related to Judaism and Christianity. Like Jews and Christians, Muslims – people who followed Islam – believed that there was only one God. They called this God ‘Allah’. Muslims believed that Moses and Jesus had both existed. They believed that Moses and Jesus were important holy men. And they believed that Mohammed was another holy man in the same line.

History of Judaism
History of Christianity
Mohammed the Prophet
All our Islamic Empire articles

Mosque at Djenne, Mali, built about 1200 AD (around the time of Sundiata)

Mosque at Djenne, Mali, built about 1200 AD (around the time of Sundiata)

What does the Quran say?

The Quran is the holy book of Islam, like the Bible is for Christians or the Torah for Jews. Many of the stories in the Quran are retellings of the stories in the Torah or the Bible. The story of Noah is in the Quran, and the story of Abraham and Isaac. Other parts of the Quran explain how people should behave: they should be kind to each other, build community, and help the poor.

How did Islam spread?

After the Islamic Empire conquered the Sassanian Empire, many Muslims lived there, in what is now Iraq and Iran. Many of those people were Zoroastrians before they became Muslims. So a lot of old Zoroastrian beliefs and holidays, like the holiday of Nowruz, also became common among Muslims.

Who are Zoroastrians?
The holiday of Nowruz

Religion of Islam – A kids’ song with the Muslim prayer in it: “There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his prophet”

Africa, Europe, and Asia

Cordoba mosque

Cordoba mosque in Spain

During the 600s AD, Islam spread across Egypt and then the rest of North Africa, and in the 700s AD it spread into Spain, in Europe. By the 1000s, Islam had spread eastward to northern India and Indonesia, and across Central Asia into China. People converted to Islam south of the Sahara Desert in Sudan and all down the coast of East Africa. Many people converted to Islam in West Africa, and in Chad. Then in the 1400s the Ottoman Empire conquered most of eastern Europe, and many people converted to Islam there, too.

Medieval African religions
Medieval European religions

What did Muslims believe?

Muslims believed that if you did things which pleased Allah, you would have a good life on earth. You would also have a good life after you died. There were five main things Allah liked. People called these things the five pillars of Islam.

The five pillars of Islam

  • Allah wanted you to have no other gods but Allah.
  • Allah liked you to pray to him five times a day, facing toward his most holy place at Mecca, in the Arabian peninsula.
  • Allah liked you to give charity to the poor.
  • Allah liked you to make a trip to Mecca sometime in your lifetime (the Hajj).
  • Allah liked you to fast (not eat or drink during the daytime) during Ramadan, the holy month.

The Call to Prayer

To make sure Muslims prayed five times a day, Muslim mosques had men call them to prayers five times a day. This is a recording of the Muslim call to prayer. You hear it in any Muslim town today, five times a day. It begins “Allah u Akbar”, which means “God is Great”.

What is a mosque?
Kairouan’s Great Mosque

Some other rules of Islam

Also, Allah totally forbade men or women to eat pork. If you followed the religion of Islam, you couldn’t drink alcohol, or make pictures of people, and especially not pictures of holy people like Mohammed.

Wine and wine-making
History of pigs
Medieval Islamic art
Byzantine iconoclasm

But the most important thing was that a good Muslim should worship only Allah, and no other gods. “There is no god but God,” the Muslims said, “and Mohammed is His prophet.”

Eid al-Adha

Like other world religions after about 500 BC – like Christianity, and medieval Judaism, later Zoroastrianism and Buddhism – Islam generally did not have animal sacrifices. People used prayer to communicate with Allah. The only exception was the Eid al-Adha, the festival at the end of the Haj or trip to Mecca. Then Muslims sacrificed a sheep.

Eid al-Adha
History of sheep
The end of sacrifice

Sunni and Shiite

By 650 AD, the followers of Islam had already split into two main kinds. Most Muslims were Sunnis, but there were also a lot who were Shiites. The Shiites believed that their religious leaders were going to come save them like the Messiah.

Sunni and Shiite
What is Sufism?
Later Sunnis and Shiites

Another important part of the religion of Islam was Sufism. Sufis believed in a direct relationship between people and God. Many Sunnis and Shiites were also Sufis.

Did you find out what you wanted to know about the religion of Islam? Let us know in the comments!

Learn by doing: visit a mosque
More about the Quran
And more about the hajj
More about Eid al-Adha

Bibliography and further reading about Islam:


More about the Quran
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