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Introduction to Islam Resource

RESOURCE: Introduction to Islam Resource

Origins and the Life of Muhammad the Prophet

Islam, Judaism and Christianity are three of the world’s great monotheistic faiths. They share many of the same holy sites, such as Jerusalem, and prophets, such as Abraham. Collectively, scholars refer to these three religions as the Abrahamic faiths, since Abraham and his family played vital roles in the formation of these religions.

Islam was founded by Muhammad (c. 570-632 C.E.), a merchant from the city of Mecca, now in modern-day Saudi Arabia. Mecca was a well-established trading city. The Kaaba (in Mecca) is the focus of pilgrimage for Muslims.

The Qu’ran, the holy book of Islam, provides very little detail about Muhammad’s life; however, the hadiths, or sayings of the Prophet, which were largely compiled in the centuries following Muhammad’s death, provide a larger narrative for the events in his life. Muhammad was born in 570 C.E. in Mecca, and his early life was unremarkable. He married a wealthy widow named Khadija. Around 610 C.E., Muhammad had his first religious experience, where he was instructed to recite by the Angel Gabriel. After a period of introspection and self-doubt, Muhammad accepted his role as God’s prophet and began to preach word of the one God, or Allah in Arabic. His first convert was his wife.

Muhammad’s divine recitations form the Qu’ran; unlike the Bible or Hindu epics, it is organized into verses, known as ayat. During one of his many visions, in 621 C.E., Muhammad was taken on the famous Night Journey by the Angel Gabriel,  travelling from Mecca to the farthest mosque in Jerusalem, from where he ascended into heaven. The site of his ascension is believed to be the stone around which the Dome of the Rock was built. Eventually in 622, Muhammad and his followers fled Mecca for the city of Yathrib, which is known as Medina today, where his community was welcomed. This event is known as the hijra, or emigration. 622, the year of the hijra (A.H.), marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar, which is still in use today.

Between 625-630 C.E., there were a series of battles fought between the Meccans and Muhammad and the new Muslim community. Eventually, Muhammad was victorious and reentered Mecca in 630.

One of Muhammad’s first actions was to purge the Kaaba of all of its idols (before this, the Kaaba was a major site of pilgrimage for the polytheistic religious traditions of the Arabian Peninsula and contained numerous idols of pagan gods). The Kaaba is believed to have been built by Abraham (or Ibrahim as he is known in Arabic) and his son, Ishmael. The Arabs claim descent from Ishmael, the son of Abraham and Hagar. The Kaaba then became the most important center for pilgrimage in Islam.

In 632, Muhammad died in Medina. Muslims believe that he was the final in a line of prophets, which included Moses, Abraham, and Jesus.

After Muhammad’s Death

The century following Muhammad’s death was dominated by military conquest and expansion. Muhammad was succeeded by the four “rightly-guided” Caliphs (khalifa or successor in Arabic): Abu Bakr (632-34 C.E.), Umar (634-44 C.E.), Uthman (644-56 C.E.), and Ali (656-661 C.E.). The Qu’ran is believed to have been codified during Uthman’s reign. The final caliph, Ali, was married to Fatima, Muhammad’s daughter and was murdered in 661. The death of Ali is a very important event; his followers, who believed that he should have succeeded Muhammad directly, became known as the Shi’a, meaning the followers of Ali. Today, the Shi’ite community is composed of several different branches, and there are large Shia populations in Iran, Iraq, and Bahrain. The Sunnis, who do not hold that Ali should have directly succeeded Muhammad, compose the largest branch of Islam; their adherents can be found across North Africa, the Middle East, as well as in Asia and Europe.

During the seventh and early eighth centuries, the Arab armies conquered large swaths of territory in the Middle East, North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, and Central Asia, despite on-going civil wars in Arabia and the Middle East. Eventually, the Umayyad Dynasty emerged as the rulers, with Abd al-Malik completing the Dome of the Rock, one of the earliest surviving Islamic monuments, in 691/2 C.E. The Umayyads reigned until 749/50 C.E., when they were overthrown, and the Abbasid Dynasty assumed the Caliphate and ruled large sections of the Islamic world. However, with the Abbasid Revolution, no one ruler would ever again control all of the Islamic lands.

Essay by Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis


Almost as soon as the Arab armies of Islam conquered new lands, they began erecting mosques and palaces, as well as commissioning other works of art as expressions of their faith and culture. Connected to this, many aspects of religious practice in Islam also emerged and were codified. The religious practice of Islam, which literally means to submit to God, is based on tenets that are known as the Five Pillars (arkan), to which all members of the Islamic community (Umma) should adhere.

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  1. The Profession of Faith (The Shahada)

The profession of Faith (the shahada) is the most fundamental expression of Islamic beliefs. It simply states that “There is no God but God and Muhammad is his prophet.” It underscores the monotheistic nature of Islam. It is an extremely popular phrase in Arabic calligraphy and appears in numerous manuscripts and religious buildings.

  1. Daily Prayers (Salat)

Muslims are expected to pray five times a day. This does not mean that they need to attend a mosque to pray; rather, the salat, or the daily prayer, should be recited five times a day. Muslims can pray anywhere; however, they are meant to pray towards Mecca. The faithful are meant to pray by bowing several times while standing and then kneel and touch the ground or prayer mat with their foreheads, as a symbol of their reverence and submission to Allah. On Friday, many Muslims attend the mosque near mid-day to pray and to listen to a sermon (khutba).

  1. Alms-Giving (Zakat)

The giving of alms is the third pillar. Although not defined in the Qu’ran, Muslims believe that they are meant to share their wealth with those less-fortunate in their community of believers.

  1. Fasting during Ramadan (Saum)

During the holy month of Ramadan (the ninth month in the Islamic calendar), Muslims are expected to fast from dawn to dusk. While there are exceptions made for the sick, elderly, and pregnant, all are expected to refrain from eating and drinking during day-light hours.

Photograph of Hajj in 2011 (photo: @ifatma)

  1. Hajj or Pilgrimage to Mecca 

All Muslims who are able, are required to make the pilgrimage to Mecca and the surrounding holy sites at least once in their lives. Pilgrimage focuses on visiting the Kaaba and walking around it seven times. Pilgrimage occurs in the twelfth month of the Islamic Calendar.

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Prayer and pilgrimage

Pilgrimage to a holy site is a core principle of almost all faiths. The Kaaba, meaning cube in Arabic, is a square building, elegantly draped in a silk and cotton veil. Located in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, it is the holiest shrine in Islam.

In Islam, Muslims pray five times a day and after 624 C.E., these prayers were directed towards Mecca and the Kaaba rather than Jerusalem; this direction (or qibla in Arabic), is marked in all mosques and enables the faithful to know in what direction they should pray. The Qur‘an established the direction of prayer.

All Muslims aspire to undertake the hajj, or the annual pilgrimage, to the Kaaba once in their life if they are able. Prayer five times a day and the hajj are two of the five pillars of Islam, the most fundamental principles of the faith.

Upon arriving in Mecca, pilgrims gather in the courtyard of the Masjid al-Haram around the Kaaba. They then circumambulate (tawaf in Arabic) or walk around the Kaaba, during which they hope to kiss and touch the Black Stone (al-Hajar al-Aswad), embedded in the eastern corner of the Kaaba.

View of pilgrims performing Tawaf (circumambulating) the Kaaba from the gate of Abdul Aziz (photo: Muhammad Mahdi Karim, GNU version 1.2 only)

The history and form of the Kaaba

The Kaaba was a sanctuary in pre-Islamic times. Muslims believe that Abraham (known as Ibrahim in the Islamic tradition), and his son, Ismail, constructed the Kaaba. Tradition holds that it was originally a simple unroofed rectangular structure. The Quraysh tribe, who ruled Mecca, rebuilt the pre-Islamic Kaaba in c. 608 C.E. with alternating courses of masonry and wood. A door was raised above ground level to protect the shrine from intruders and flood waters.

Muhammad was driven out of Mecca in 620 C.E. to Yathrib, which is now known as Medina. Upon his return to Mecca in 629/30 C.E., the shrine became the focal point for Muslim worship and pilgrimage. The pre-Islamic Kaaba housed the Black Stone and statues of pagan gods. Muhammad reportedly cleansed the Kaaba of idols upon his victorious return to Mecca, returning the shrine to the monotheism of Ibrahim. The Black Stone is believed to have been given to Ibrahim by the angel Gabriel and is revered by Muslims. Muhammad made a final pilgrimage in 632 C.E., the year of his death, and thereby established the rites of pilgrimage.


The Kaaba has been modified extensively throughout its history. The area around the Kaaba was expanded in order to accommodate the growing number of pilgrims by the second caliph, ‘Umar (ruled 634-44). The Caliph ‘Uthman (ruled 644-56) built the colonnades around the open plaza where the Kaaba stands and incorporated other important monuments into the sanctuary.

During the civil war between the caliph Abd al-Malik and Ibn Zubayr who controlled Mecca, the Kaaba was set on fire in 683 C.E. Reportedly, the Black Stone broke into three pieces and Ibn Zubayr reassembled it with silver. He rebuilt the Kaaba in wood and stone, following Ibrahim’s original dimensions and also paved the space around the Kaaba. After regaining control of Mecca, Abd al-Malik restored the part of the building that Muhammad is thought to have designed. None of these renovations can be confirmed through study of the building or archaeological evidence; these changes are only outlined in later literary sources.

Reportedly under the Umayyad caliph al-Walid (ruled 705-15), the mosque that encloses the Kaaba was decorated with mosaics like those of the Dome of the Rock and the Great Mosque of Damascus. By the seventh century, the Kaaba was covered with kiswa, a black cloth that is replaced annually during the hajj.

Under the early Abbasid Caliphs (750-1250), the mosque around the Kaaba was expanded and modified several times. According to travel writers, such as the Ibn Jubayr, who saw the Kaaba in 1183, it retained the eighth century Abbasid form for several centuries. From 1269-1517, the Mamluks of Egypt controlled the Hijaz, the highlands in western Arabia where Mecca is located. Sultan Qaitbay (ruled 1468-96) built a madrasa (a religious school) against one side of the mosque. Under the Ottoman sultans, Süleyman I (ruled 1520-1566) and Selim II (ruled 1566-74), the complex was heavily renovated. In 1631, the Kaaba and the surrounding mosque were entirely rebuilt after floods had demolished them in the previous year. This mosque, which is what exists today, is composed of a large open space with colonnades on four sides and with seven minarets, the largest number of any mosque in the world. At the center of this large plaza sits the Kaaba, as well as many other holy buildings and monuments.

The last major modifications were carried out in the 1950s by the government of Saudi Arabia to accommodate the increasingly large number of pilgrims who come on the hajj. Today the mosque covers almost forty acres.

The Kaaba at al-Haram Mosque, 2008 (photo: Al Jazeera English, CC: BY 2.0)

The Kaaba today

Today, the Kaaba is a cubical structure, unlike almost any other religious structure. It is fifteen meters tall and ten and a half meters on each side; its corners roughly align with the cardinal directions. The door of the Kaaba is now made of solid gold; it was added in 1982. The kiswa, a large cloth that covers the Kaaba, which used to be sent from Egypt with the hajj caravan, today is made in Saudi Arabia. Until the advent of modern transportation, all pilgrims undertook the often dangerous hajj, or pilgrimage, to Mecca in a large caravan across the desert, leaving from Damascus, Cairo, or other major cities in Arabia, Yemen or Iraq.

The numerous changes to the Kaaba and its associated mosque serve as good reminder of how often buildings, even sacred ones, were renovated and remodeled either due to damage or to the changing needs of the community.

Only Muslims may visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina today.

Essay by Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay-Lewis

Additional resources:

Hajj Stories from the Asian Art Museum

ArchNet Kaaba essay

ArchNet Al-Masjid al-Haram essay​

Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair, “Mecca” in The Grove encyclopedia of Islamic art and Architecture, Oxford University Press, 2009.

  1. A. C. Creswell, Early Muslim Architecture, Oxford University Press, 1932/revised and enlarged 1969.



About chronological periods in the Islamic world

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Studying the Art of the Islamic world is challenging, partially because of the large geographic and chronological scope of Islam. Islam has been a major religion and cultural force for over fourteen centuries and continues to be so today. At present the Arts of the Islamic World Section is organized into three chronological periods: Early, Medieval and Late. These chronological divisions are modern creations that help scholars to organize information and works of art to interpret them better. It also helps students to understand how works of art and architecture relate to each other in time and space. There were dynasties and empires that controlled different lands and whose periods of rule stretched across these chronological divisions.

The Dome of the Rock (Qubbat al-Sakhra), Umayyad, stone masonry, wooden roof, decorated with glazed ceramic tile, mosaics, and gilt aluminum and bronze dome, 691-2, with multiple renovations, patron the Caliph Abd al-Malik, Jerusalem (photo: Orientalist, CC BY 3.0)

Early Period (c. 640-900 C.E.)

After Muhammad’s death in 634, there were four caliphs later referred to by the Sunni as “rightfully guided,” who succeeded Muhammad. However, from 656 there were conflicts over succession, and two civil wars (656-661 and 680-692) broke out within the community of Muslims. Out of these wars emerged the Umayyad Dynasty, whose capital was Damascus in modern-day Syria. Responsible for the first great monuments of Islamic art and architecture, Umayyad rulers built the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the Great Mosque of Damascus, and the so-called Desert Palaces in Syro-Palestine . The Umayyads ruled as caliphs until 750 C.E., when they were overthrown by the Abbasids. The Abbasids, like the Umayyads before them, ruled as caliphs over much of the Islamic world until 861. Their capital was at Baghdad, and later they ruled from the palace-city of Samarra in Iraq for parts of the ninth century. After 861, the Abbasids lost control of large parts of their empire through a series of uprisings in which provincial governors asserted their independence. A series of local dynasties, such as the Aghlabids (800-909) and Tulunids (868-905) in North Africa, and the Buyids (945-1055) in Central Asia, emerged and ruled, developing regional artistic styles.

Medieval Period (c. 900-1517 C.E.)

Court of the Lions, The Alhambra, Sabika hill, Granada, Spain, begun 1238 (Photo: Jim Gordon)By the tenth century, there was fragmentation and individual dynasties sprang up. These dynasties had varying degrees of control over different parts of the lands where Islam was the dominant or a major religion.

In North Africa and the Near East, certain major dynasties, such as the Fatimids (909-1171), emerged and ruled an area that includes present-day Egypt, Sicily, Algeria, Tunisia, and parts of Syria.  It is also at this time that some of the major Turkic dynasties and people from Central Asia came to the forefront of politics and artistic creativity in the Islamic world. The Seljuqs were Central Asian nomads who ruled eastern Islamic lands and eventually controlled Iran, Iraq and much of Anatolia, although this empire was short-lived. The main branch of the Seljuqs, the Great Seljuqs, maintained control over Iran.

It was also the time of the European Christian crusades, which aimed to retake the Holy Land from the Muslims. A series of small Christian Kingdoms emerged in the twelfth century, as did Muslim dynasties, such as the Ayyubids (1179-1260), whose most famous leader, Salah al-Din (r.1169-93), known in Europe as Saladin, ended the Fatimid dynasty. Eventually the slave soldiers, upon whom the Ayyubid dynasty depended for their military protection, overthrew the last Ayyubid sultan in 1249/50. These slaves, known in Arabic as mamluk, literally meaning “owned,” became known as the Mamluks and they controlled Syria and Egypt until 1517.

 The Mamluks also had to face one of the greatest threats to their reign early on: The invading Mongols. The Mongols and their great leader, Genghis Khan (c. 1162-1227), are almost always associated with blood-thirsty conquest and destruction, but his legacy included the Yuan dynasty in China (1279-1368), the Chaghatay khanate in Central Asia (c. 1227–1363), the Golden Horde in southern Russia, extending into Europe (ca. 1227–1502), and the Ilkhanid dynasty in Greater Iran (1256–1353). The Pax Mongolica (“Mongolian Peace”) includes a great flowering of the arts.

The Ilkhanids, who ruled over Iran, parts of Iraq and Central Asia, oversaw great artistic development in manuscripts, such as those that recounted the Shahnama (or Book of Kings), the famous Persian epic. They were important patrons of architecture. The Ilkhanid dynasty disintegrated in 1335 and local dynasties came to power in Iraq and Iran.

In 1370, the last great dynasty emerged from Central Asia: the Timurids (c. 1370-1507). They were named for their leader, Timur (also known as Tamerlane), who conquered and controlled all of Central Asia, greater Iran, and Iraq, as well as parts of southern Russia and the Indian subcontinent. The Timurids were outstanding builders of monumental architecture. Herat, in present-day Afghanistan, became the capital and cultural center of the Timurid empire.

While artistic production and architecture flourished in Asia under different Islamic dynasties, it also bloomed in the western Islamic lands. The most famous of these dynasties is probably the Nasrids (1232-1492) of the southern Iberian Peninsula and western North Africa, whose most important artistic achievement is the remarkable Alhambra, a palace-fortress complex in Granada, in present-day Spain.

Later Period (c. 1517 –1924 C.E.)

This period is the era of the last great Islamic Empires. The Ottoman Empire, which had started as a small Turkic state in Anatolia in the early fourteenth century, emerged in the second half of the fifteenth century as a major military and political force. The Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453 and the Mamluk Empire in 1517. They dominated much of Anatolia, the Balkans, the Near East and North Africa until the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire after World War I. The Ottomans are famous for their domed architecture and pencil minarets, many of which were built by the great architect, Sinan (1539–1588) for Sultan Süleyman (r. 1520–66). This period is considered the peak of Ottoman art and culture.

The Safavids, who established Shia Islam as the dominant faith of Iran, ruled from 1501–1722 and were the greatest dynasty to emerge from Iran. Architecture, paintings, manuscripts and carpets all flourished under the Safavids. Shah ‘Abbas (r. 1587–1629) was the greatest patron of the arts and the Safavid Dynasty’s most outstanding ruler. In the eighteenth century, a period of turmoil in Persia, the Qajar dynasty  (1779–1924) rose to power and established peace and their rule saw the beginning of modernity in Iran.

The other great dynasty that oversaw a remarkable artistic and architectural output was the Mughals. Founded by Babur, the Mughals (c. 1526–1858) ruled over the largest Islamic state in the Indian subcontinent. While there had been earlier sultanates in what is today northern Indian and Pakistan, the emperors of the Mughal dynasty were patrons of some of the greatest works of Islamic art, such as illuminated manuscripts and painting, and architecture, including the Taj Mahal.

Essay by Dr. Elizabeth Macaulay Lewis

Additional resources:

Islamic art on the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History

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