A Guided Tour

by Beryl Ratzer

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Table of contents:
1. Mohammed
2. Caliphs
3. Umayyad and Abbasid empires
4. Koran
5. Hadith
6. Shiite Islam and its offshoots - Druze, Bahai and Achmedian
7. Fatimid and Ayubi empires, Crusaders
8. Ottoman empire
9. Twentieth century
10. Pillars of Islam
11. Prayer beads
12. Djimi

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1. Mohammed

Mohammed the Prophet, founder of Islam, was born in Mecca, in present-day Saudi Arabia. At the time of his birth c. 570 CE, his family, members of the Hashemite clan who were part of the greater Quraysh tribe, controlled the holy shrine known as the Ka'ba. This same black stone, which is today venerated by millions of Muslims throughout the world, was once a pagan shrine dedicated to other gods and goddesses. This period of paganism, prior to the advent of Islam, is known as jahiliyya. Today, Muslims circle the Kaba seven times during the Haj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca.

Neither the Christian Byzantine empire to the northwest nor the Persian empire to the east, both weakened by decades of war, controlled the Arabian peninsula. Extensive trade, free markets, and a never-ending procession of caravans led to prosperity and the urbanization of some of the nomadic Bedouin tribes of Arabia. As a traveling salesman, Mohammed was familiar with the Christian Byzantine world. His wife, the widow of a wealthy merchant, was a prominent businesswoman.

When he was about forty years old Mohammed began receiving revelations from God and over the next ten years he tried to persuade his fellow Meccans to abandon their worship of pagan gods, but with little success. Not even members of his own tribe, the Quraysh, hearkened to his preaching.
On July 16th 622 Mohammed and his seventy followers left Mecca for Yathrib, later to be known as Medina. This event is known as the hijra and this date is the beginning of the Muslim calendar. However, as Muslims follow a lunar calendar, which is eleven days shorter than the solar calendar (and is not intercalated as is the Hebrew calendar) the Muslim year is not 1384 (the number of solar years that have passed since 622) but 1426.

While in Mecca Mohammed had tried to convert only his own tribe, the Quraysh, to his newly revealed God, in Medina he no longer limited his efforts. By stating "before it there was the Scripture of Moses; and this is a confirming Scripture in the Arabic language" (Sura 46:12) he assumed that the Jews of Medina would support him. Those who didn't were either killed or expelled from the Arabian peninsula.

To attract the local pagan population to his new religion he organized a series of raids on passing trade caravans, sharing the booty with those who joined him. These raids were so successful that he decided to attack the annual Quraysh caravan laden with goods from Syria. Although fewer in number, the Muslims, as his followers were now called, beat the Quraysh at the battle at Badr, which is considered a defining moment in Islamic history.

Success is a magnet and his army had swelled to 10,000. In 630 Mohammed conquered Mecca, which became his religious capital, and he stood poised to extend the umma, the community of Islam, beyond the Arabian peninsula. But in 632 he died without a direct heir.

2. The Caliphs

According to the Sunni branch of Islam, on his deathbed Mohammed appointed Abu Bakr, a close friend and one of his earliest converts, father of his favorite wife Aisha, as caliph, his successor. According to the Shiite branch of Islam the successor should have been Mohammed's closest male relative, Ali, his cousin and husband of his daughter Fatima, but Abu Bakr usurped this role.

Within two years, Abu Bakr died, and, following tribal tradition and as prescribed in the Koran, Mohammed's companions met in shura, consultation, to choose a successor. Omar, also one of the original converts to Islam, was murdered after serving as caliph for ten years. He was followed by Othman who was also murdered. After a wait of twenty-four years, in 656 Ali was chosen as the fourth caliph.

The Umayyad tribe of Othman, which had no legitimate claim to the caliphate, opposed Ali and, after he too was assassinated, Muawiyya, leader of the Umayyad army, without convening a shura, pronounced himself caliph. Not satisfied with that, he severed the link to Mohammed's family and moved the capital of the Islamic empire from Medina to Damascus. Mecca remained the cultic and religious center.

Not all Muslims accepted these moves and Ali's followers, led by his son Hussein, formed a party, Shi-ate Ali, to lead the dissension. In 680 the Umayyad army attacked and slaughtered a force led by Hussein. Hussein was killed near Karbala in Iraq, perhaps the most important Shiite shrine and mosque, and the site of an annual Shiite pilgrimage. Even during these years of internecine wars, murder and assassinations, Muslims consider this time to be the 'golden years' of Islam.

3. The Umayyad and Abbasid Empires

The schism between Sunni and Shiite was now irreversible. The Umayyad dynasty continued the Muslim conquest through what had been the Byzantine Christian Empire. Eventually Arabic would become the dominant language and Sunni Islam the dominant religion throughout the Fertile Crescent (Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Jordan and Israel of today), Asia Minor (Turkey), Egypt and the North African coast (Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco).

In order to neutralize the religious importance of Mecca and to emphasize the centrality of Damascus as the capital of the Umayyad empire, the status of Jerusalem, important to Jews and Christians, was elevated. The Dome of the Rock, built on the site of the destroyed First and Second Temples of the Jews, was an exact replica of the Christian holy site, the Church of the Holy Sepulcher.

With political acumen the Abbasids, members of the Hashemite clan and related to both Mohammed and Ali, were able to put together a Muslim coalition of Sunni and Shiite, Arab and Persian, to bring the Umayyad rule to an end. The capital now moved to Baghdad. Mecca regained its former glory. Jerusalem and the Dome of the Rock lost their importance and remained irrelevant to Islam apart for a short interval during the Crusader period and again when conquered by Israel in 1967.

During the Abbasid rule, while Europe was living in the Dark Ages, Arab literature and science flourished. It was during this time that probably the best known caliph, Harun al-Rashid, the lover in The Thousand and One Nights, the caliph of Sinbad's travels, sent the emperor Charlemagne a water clock which astounded the Frankish by its advanced technology.

Both Harun al-Rashid and his son al-Ma'mun were instrumental in acquiring the literature of the ancient Greeks which had been stored, unread for centuries, in the libraries of Byzantium. Books on astronomy, medicine, and mathematics were translated into Arabic, but apparently less emphasis was placed on the Greek humanist philosophers. For a short spell the Mu'tazilites, neutralists, were able to openly discuss their belief in free will, which was at odds with the orthodox doctrine of divine predestination. |

4. The Koran

The traditional Sunni belief is that the Koran has existed for all time and was revealed to Mohammed at a time of God's choosing. From this it is clear that the Koran, and by extension, Islamic doctrine, is eternally changeless and cannot be questioned.

The sayings of Mohammed, which had been preserved by scribes in his audience, were collected by Abu Bakr and for a time there were different versions. Twenty years after the death of Mohammed Othman appointed a commission that produced what became a standard version of the Koran although the Shiites use a version with minor differences.

The Koran is made up of 114 suras. The first sura has seven verses which are repeated a number of times, in Arabic only, by Muslims as they prostrate themselves in prayer five times a day, always facing the direction of Mecca. The remaining suras are not arranged chronologically but according to length, starting with the longest, 286 verses, and ending with the shortest, 6 verses. Each sura has its own heading which includes a name for each chapter and details as to whether the contents were revealed in Medina or later in Mecca. In Arabic, as in Hebrew, the vowels are a system of dots and dashes which were only finalized in the tenth century when the meanings of unclear words were settled by the consensus of orthodox scholars. Although some of the content is unique to Islam there are many stories and references that resemble those of Jewish and Christian sources.

Sura 2 is titled "The Cow" and can clearly be attributed to the "red heifer without defect or blemish and that has never been under a yoke" (Numbers 19:2). Sura 12 is titled "Joseph" and adds some details about Joseph's confrontation with Potiphar's wife. There are also many inconsistencies and contradictions but by the tenth century these are no longer discussed or debated.

Generally those studying the Koran are not seeking a deeper insight into the meaning of the words and never debate the contents as do Talmudic scholars. They are memorizing the text and the best students are those who can recite the most suras.

5. The Hadith

As the Islamic faith centered on the umma, the community, it became necessary to develop a social and legal system to consolidate the expanding empire. Of the approximately eighty verses in the Koran dealing with legal matters, most related to women, marriage, family, and inheritance, all subjects that were of concern to the predominantly tribal Bedouin society in which Mohammed lived.

To expand the source material for laws and rulings needed in governing an empire, in the ninth century all the sayings and doings of Mohammed which had been collected in the century after Mohammed's death, known as the sunna, the Prophet's way, were codified in the hadith, the reports. The shari'a, the divine law, is derived from the Koran and the hadith. As both are seen as divine, there is no room for change or compromise.

Unlike the Jewish Talmud which preserves the debate within Judaism and follows the sages reasoning on their interpretation of the laws of the Torah, creative interpretation in Islam does not exist.

6. Shiite Islam, Druze, Bahai and Achmedian offshoots

The Shiites remained faithful to their Imams, supreme guardians of the faith, and to Ali, Hussein and their descendants. (In Sunni tradition an imam is simply the leader of the prayers in a mosque). The dominant Shiite belief is that there were twelve Imams, the eleventh disappearing mysteriously in 873, and henceforth known as the Hidden Imam.

Within Shiite Islam, including small splinter groups such as the Ismaili sect, all believe that the Hidden Imam will reappear and, as the Mahdi, will rule over all Islam. (This seems to be a parallel to the Jewish and Christian concept of messiah). This belief has resulted in a number of breakaway groups and new religions.

The first were the Druze, who believe that Nebi Shu'eib, Jethro, father-in-law of Moses, was revealed as a Mahdi in Fatimid Egypt. The second was the Bahai faith which began in 19th century Persia when the Bab declared himself as the fore-runner of the Bahu Allah, founder of the faith. The third was in 19th century India when the Achmedian sect of Islam was founded, a sect which is pacifist and does not believe in jihad, religious war.

7. Fatimid and Ayubid Empires, Crusaders

As the power of the Abbasid empire declined they were challenged by the ascending Fatimid dynasty which seized power in Tunisia and then in 969 in Egypt where they founded the Al Azhar mosque and theological college that became the leading center of Shiite learning. At its peak the Fatimid empire left only Iraq and Iran under Abbasid rule.

The Crusader conquest of the Christian holy places begins in 1099 and their successes and failures are to a large degree dependent on the unity of, or friction between, the Fatimid and the ascending Ayubid dynasty, founded by Salah al Din Ayubi, a Kurdish general in the Seljuk army, better known as Saladin, who fought against Richard the Lion Heart.

In 1171 Ayubi conquered Egypt, ending the Fatimid Shiite rule and making Al Azhar is the leading center of Sunni Islam. When the Mongols conquered the Abbasid empire in Iraq in 1258 the Shiites thrived once again. The complexities of modern Iraq with its division between Shiite, Sunni, and Kurd, can be traced to this period. Persia was, and remains, Shiite. Just a few years earlier in Egypt, the Mamelukes, the mercenary slaves brought to protect the Ayubi caliph seized power. Islam now began its spread into pagan Africa and Buddhist and Hindu Asia.

8. Ottoman Empire

In 1512 the Ottoman empire, which was founded in 1259 and conquered Constantinople and the Byzantine empire in 1453, acquired Islamic supremacy when it overcame the Egyptian Mamelukes. Under Suleiman the Magnificent the Ottoman empire included Arabia and Persia, the Fertile Crescent, Egypt and the north African coast, Asia Minor, and most of Greece and Hungary, but failed to conquer Vienna.

In 1744 a tribal Bedouin sheikh, Mohammed ibn Saud, and a conservative Sunni preacher, Abd al Wahhab, joined forces and asserted their rule over the Arabian peninsula. In 1802 the Saudi army sacked the Shiite town of Karbala and destroyed the shrine dedicated to Imam Hussein, thereby cementing the hatred between Saudi Wahhabism and Shiite Islam. The following year they took control of Mecca and Medina only to lose them to the Hashemite dynasty in the beginning of the twentieth century.

The Ottoman empire restored its rule over the Arabian peninsula but the British created new independent sheikhdoms in Kuwait, Oman, Bahrain, and the Emirates. In 1881 Egypt came under British rule. The European powers and Russia were on the march and by the end of the First World War the Ottoman empire had shrunk to Turkey alone.

9. Twentieth Century

The League of Nations (which pre-dates the United Nations) confirmed the British mandates over newly created Palestine and Iraq and the French mandates over newly created Lebanon and Syria. The League of Nations also confirmed the right of the Jewish people to a homeland in Palestine. The Hashemite dynasty was awarded the 'kingship' of Iraq to compensate them for once again losing Mecca and Medina to the Saudi dynasty.

In order to placate Abdullah, whose brother Feisal was king of Iraq, Britain divided Palestine. Two thirds of Palestine, all that was east of the Jordan river, now became the Hashemite Kingdom of Transjordan. Palestine, the homeland for the Jewish people, had shrunk to the area between the Mediterranean ocean and the Jordan river.

Although there are many parallels between the history of the various Arab empires, including the schism between Sunni and Shiite, and the history of Europe from Charlemagne to the unification of Italy, including the creation of modern Europe and the schism between Catholic and Protestant, there may be one major difference that we are inclined to overlook.

The Arab world remains the umma it was almost one thousand four hundred years ago. It is still basically a patriarchal society. Clan and tribal loyalties are as demanding, dictating, and constrictive as they ever were. Virtually every Arab, wherever he may be, knows from which tribe he originates and to whom he owes his loyalty. And the one thousand year old shari'a which governs his life has not changed one iota, and it is doubtful if it will in the near future.

10. Six Pillars of Islam:
Declaration, Prayer, Charity, Ramadan, Haj, Jihad

There are five basic principles of Islam which every Muslim is expected to obey.
1) Shahada: the declaration

"Ashadu ein la Allah elah Allah u-Muhammad rasul Allah".

"I declare that there is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger."

Conversion to Islam merely requires repeating this sentence in front of a kadi, a Muslim judge.

2) Dala'h: Prayer
Originally in the direction of Jerusalem but changed by Mohammed to the direction of Mecca, every Muslim is expected to pray five times a day at set times and the call of the muezzin announces to all when the time has arrived . The prayer is a repetition of the first sura between five and seven times. This is accompanied by the rak'a, which is the standing, kneeling, and prostrating of oneself till the head, knees, feet, and arms touch the ground, signifying complete submission to Allah. Women do not have to perform the rak'a in public.

The second prayer of Friday is held in a mosque. Before entering one has to wash the feet, hands, face, and orifices. One performs the twelve raka not on the floor but on a mat or carpet. Friday is also the only occasion that there is a 'hutba, sermon, given by the imam who stands on the minbar, the platform, usually on topical matters and very often inciting. Every mosque has a mi'hrab, a niche, which indicates the direction of Mecca.

3) Ramadan: month  of fasting
Ramadan is the name of the month and the fast, which includes abstinence from food, drink, smoking, and sex, beginning at sunrise and ending at sunset with a special meal every night. As the Muslim calendar follows the lunar months there is an issue in the Muslim world as to where the official sighting of the new moon takes place. Both Saudi Arabia and Iran claim that right and some Muslims follow the sighting in their respective countries. (The same problem existed in the Jewish calendar but the dates for Jewish holidays are set according to the moon sightings in Jerusalem.)

The last night is leilat el khader, the night of judgment, when everyone's fate is set for the coming year. (One cannot but see the similarities to, and the differences from, the Jewish Yom Kippur.) Id el Fit' r is the feast and celebration at the end of Ramadan month.

4) Zaka'ut: Charity
While Muslims are expected to give charity it is generally considered that both wealth and poverty are min Allah, by Allah, so it is not up to man to change what has been decreed. The fact that wealthy Muslims give very little to their less privileged brethren can be clearly seen when we compare what the Western world has given to those afflicted by natural disasters such as earthquakes in Pakistan and the tsunami in Asia.

5) Haj: Pilgrimage to Mecca
Every Muslim is expected to make the Haj at least once in a lifetime and every detail of the various ceremonies and procedures are regulated. Each year two million Muslim pilgrims arrive from all over the world. As all the arrangements are made through the mosques and the wakf, the Muslim religious authorities, in each country, there is no danger that non-Muslims, who are banned from participating in the Haj, would "infiltrate." All expenses are pre-paid, all accommodation reserved in advance. Each country has a quota proportional to their Muslim population. Nothing is left to chance. Pilgrims arrive by plane, boat, and land, each spiritually purified and wearing a special white robe.

Their first station of the pilgrimage, on the 7th day of the month Zu-el-hi'ja, is to circle the ka'ba seven times. The ka'ba is both a black stone about 30cm in diameter , probably a meteorite, which was worshipped by the pagan population even before Islam, and the stone building in which it is kept. In the courtyard there is also a fountain, known as zamzam, and makam Ibrahim, Abraham's footprint. Pilgrims pray at both places.

The pilgrims then walk and run seven times between Zafa and Marwa, two small hills a few hundred meters from the ka'ba, in opposite directions, a distance of about 1 km. The next day they walk about 12 km to Mt. Arafat where they spend the day in prayers and hear a sermon. After sunset they proceed to Muzdalifah where they observe a night of prayers and gather pebbles in multiples of seven, at least twenty-one.

The following morning they continue to Mena where they throw their pebbles at each of the three pillars, symbolizing Satan, in the courtyard. The custom was that at Mena they also purchase a goat, lamb, or sheep for Id al Ad'ha, which commemorates the sacrifice of Ishmael. However, the Saudi authorities no longer allow the slaughter of animals. Instead they provide meat for the worshippers and most will spend three days at Mena before returning to Mecca where they will end the ceremonies by once again circling the Ka'ba seven times.

Although not strictly part of the haj, and rejected by some schools of thought, most pilgrims will continue to Medina where that will visit the burial place of Mohammed.

6) Jihad: War
In Muslim teaching, the world is divided into two parts dar al-Islam, the territory in which Islam rules, and dar al-Harb, the territory of war, where Islam does not yet rule. The Muslim belief is that the latter should become the former. There is no question as to whether actual war should be waged. The only question is when and the answer to that is a purely tactical one. As Mohammed did in his battle against the Quraysh, there is no reason not to agree to a hudna, a temporary truce, and wait until the time is ripe, all the while building a better power base. This is what we see in the relations between Israel and the Palestinians every time the latter suggest variations of a hudna.

There is also an interim stage, dar el-Sul'h, which is Europe of today with its large Muslim population, tolerated and enjoying equal right but hoping to eventually impose, by peaceful means, the rule of Shari'a.

All attempts to whitewash jihad by translating it to mean "struggle to improve ones personal faith" are nave and are certainly not based on a true understanding of Islam.


Many may wonder why Muslims are often seen fingering a string of beads, somewhat similar to a Catholic rosary. These are not "worry beads" but symbolize the ninety-nine attributes of Allah. It is not necessary to say the names in any specific order and not everyone recalls all the names. The first best known are probably ar-Ra'hman the Merciful One; ar-Ra'him the Compassionate One; al-Malik the King.

The thirty-three beads can be round or oval and while they were once amber today they are often olive wood. At the end of a cycle, the prayer, "Ein la Allah elah Allah u-Muhammad rasul Allah," "There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his messenger," is usually recited followed by "Allah u Akbar," "Allah is the greatest."


Dhimma is the status of those who refuse to convert to Islam in areas that have become part of the Muslim world, dar el-Islam. Conversion to Islam was by threat of death, by coercion, or because of the realization that one who did not convert was doomed to an inferior status.

In the early conquests those who refused to convert were sold as slaves and it is a little publicized fact that slavery is very much part of Islam, was conducted by Muslims through the eighteenth and nineteenth century in America and continues with Sudanese Christians who refuse to submit to Islam and, to this day, are sold as slaves.

Wherever dar el-Harb became dar el-Islam the land was expropriated settled by demobilized soldiers, many of whom came from the Arabian peninsula. The earliest Arab villages in Palestine can be dated to this period when the indigenous Jewish and Christian populations were forced to convert or leave. Only on payment of the kharaj, a special tax, was the dispossessed population permitted to farm what had been their land. In addition every non-Muslim male had to pay, in a humiliating public ceremony, an annual jizya, a poll tax. The receipt had to be worn around ones neck or wrist and without it one could not move from place to place. These Djimi paid commercial and travel taxes at a far higher rate than Muslims paid.

As the Djimi had no status in the law, and were barred from weapons of defense, they were constantly the victims of pillage and massacre. It became necessary to buy protection from local sheiks and even from the marauders themselves. Djimi had to wear distinctive clothing so that they could be identified at all times. They could not give testimony against Muslims and thus had no recourse to the law when they were cheated or otherwise abused. Even if convicted of a crime against a Djimi the punishment a Muslim incurred was greatly reduced. Djimi places of worship, both churches and synagogues, were regularly ransacked and kept in a perpetual state of disrepair, as travelers descriptions of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in the 19th century can confirm. Even church bells were banned.

If we would only open our eyes we would see that, despite the freedom Muslims enjoy in the non-Muslim countries in which they reside, these discriminations still exist in many Muslim countries today.

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This article has been reprinted by permission from an email sent by Mrs. Beryl Ratzer on July 7, 2006. Mrs. Ratzer has resided in Israel since 1964, is a licensed Israeli guide, and is the author of A Historical Tour of the Holyland, which is now in its second edition. More material by Mrs. Ratzer and information about her tours may be found at

Comparison chart of Christianity, Judaism and Islam