Islam is an Arabic word meaning both 'Submission to God' and 'peace'. The followers of Islam who are called Muslims are found all over the world. There are over 100 crores (over one billion -1,147,494,000 Source: The World Almanac,1999) of Muslims all over the world and out of this around one-tenth live in India alone.
Islam is not only a religion but also a particular way of life. The followers of Islam are governed by their religious teachings. Muhammad, the prophet of Islam, was born in Mecca in about 570AD. In about 610 AD, God sent his first message to Muhammad. Messages came to him from god till his death in 632AD. These messages were recorded by the companions of Muhammad. The collection containing these messages is called the 'Quran', the holy book of Muslims. The sayings of Muhammad which were distinguished from the words of god, were collected and are known as 'Hadith', the second most important source of Islam.
The Arabs called Muhammad, 'Al-Amin' or 'The trustworthy man' and respected him greatly. But when god sent through him the first message of Islam, there was stiff opposition against Muhammad from all sides. The opposition kept mounting, so Muhammad was forced to leave Mecca in 622AD. It is from this year that the Muslim calendar starts. Muhammad arrived in Medina where people listened to Muhammad and accepted him as a true prophet. The people in other towns challenged those who had already become Muslims and war became inevitable. However, when Muhammad died in 632AD, not only the whole of Arabia had embraced Islam but also his religion called the Perfect Religion was fast spreading in many lands.
The death of the prophet of Islam posed the problem of succession. One group of Muslims wanted a person from the family of the prophet to be his successor. This group was known as the 'Shias'. The other group, the 'Sunnis', wanted the successor to be chosen by majority opinion. The majority went in favour of Abu Bakr, who was chosen as Caliph. The Sunnis won, but this brought about two broad divisions of Muslims. After Abu Bakr, two more caliphs-'Umar and Uthaman'-were chosen. Then Ali, the son-in-law of prophet Muhammad and a candidate chosen by the Shias from the very beginning, became the fourth Caliph of Islam. These four Caliphs are known in Islamic history as the Pious Caliphs.
Islam was revealed by god to the prophet of Islam at a time when Arabia was witnessing a period of ignorance and tribal wars. A common cause of wars was the dispute over which god was superior to the others. Each Arab tribe had its own god. Islam substituted one god in place of so many and brought the Arab tribes together under the supreme Islamic belief that there is only one god. From the belief in the unity of god, Islam went on to preach the unity of mankind.
The great force with which the message of the 'Quran' spread from Arabia to the whole of Mid-Asia and other far-off lands, gives proof that it had an easy appeal for the human beings.
It was the Arabs who went for trade with various countries, carried the message of Islam forward along with their merchandise.
The great increase in knowledge in all fields that followed the birth of Islam was a result of the great emphasis laid by the 'Quran' and by the prophet, on the acquisition of knowledge from whatever source, was available. The 'Quran' states clearly the importance of people who seek knowledge when it asks: 'Say, shall those who have knowledge and those who do not have it be considered equal?'. The great contribution of Muslims to literature is to be seen in books like the 'Arabian Nights' and their contribution to art and architecture in many thousands of buildings, from the giant and majestic palace of Al-Hamra in Spain to the Taj Mahal in India.
The mystics of Islam, known as 'Sufis', played an important part in spreading the message of universal love and toning down the aggressive trends in Islam. Islam's spirit of brotherhood helped in loosening the rigidity of the caste system.
It will be observed that the cultures of the Muslims in various parts of the world have remained unchanged. This proves that Islam never attempted to uproot people from their own cultures. On the other hand, it has allowed them to nurture their culture within the broad framework of the basic beliefs and practices.