Historical analysis of the Rise of Islam

Much has been made of Muhammad's role as a merchant, within a mercantile society, in accounting for the dramatic rise of Islam. Historians have speculated that Muhammad was influenced by various forms of Jewish and Christian monotheism, whilst travelling with the merchant caravans. It has also been suggested that the mercantile wealth and influence of Mecca was significant in bringing the rest of Arabia under the control of the Ummah. Others have suggested that a recent transition to a mercantile economy within Mecca had undermined the traditional tribal order, leading to social and moral malaise. Muhammad's preaching can be seen as a response to this decay, offering social and moral reform. Was there a general spiritual crisis in sixth century Arabia? There was certainly widespread eschatological awareness throughout the civilised world at this time, and it is not unlikely that Arabia experienced similar apocalyptic trends.

Another issue to consider is the originality of Muhammad and his message: did he arise out of a milieu of prophets and religious experimentalism? In verse 25:5 of the Koran, there is an indignant denial of an accusation that Muhammad's preaching was no more than a rehash of old stories, "And they say: 'Fables of the ancients he has written'".

How significant was the influence of Christianity and particularly Judaism on Islam? Was there much that was distinctively Islamic already present in Arabia - the notion of the "religion of Abraham" was not an invention of Muhammad's, but had existed in Western Arabia for many years? Alternatively, there are some who suggest that it was not so much the potency of Muhammad's religious message, but rather the ongoing efficiency of his social and political control, enforced by Jihad, or holy war, that accounts for the astonishing success of early Islam. There is so little evidence pertaining to pre-Islamic Arabia that theories surrounding the rise of Islam can only be speculative, however, it is certainly interesting to bear the above in mind when approaching the Koran.

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