Core Evolution of Islam

At the time of Muhammad, the Quraysh tribe in Makkah was becoming rich and successful. Yet Muhammad believed it lacked what we would call community spirit: it neglected in its wealth those things Arab tribes had done to protect the weakest and look after the collectivity first. These demands were to find their way into the Qur'an.
One area of Makkah was deemed a sacred and safe place for traders: the Pagan Ka'bah. In that place, merchants forgot their tribal disputes and it facilitated doing trade. Something of this equalitarian forgetting of difference now takes place during the Hajj when pilgrims discard their own worldly clothes and wear white. Everyone loses their differences of wealth and tribe at the Hajj.
Arabia enjoyed the impact of a number of Jews, some hostile to Muhammad (and they became the more influential, and thus he broke with Judaism as a whole) and some friendly. Muhammad was deeply religious, and used Ramadan for religious observance and went off to a mountain cave for retreat. He was taunted by some of the Jews that the area had no revelation of its own. This played upon him, and eventually he came to experience revelation when he described what he had to recite to friends and others, some of whom remembered and some of whom wrote down what he said. Some twenty years on the recitation was gathered into versions and later a book.
Muhammad learnt his Bible from the Jews, especially the sympathetic ones. He learnt the order of prophets and the importance of Abraham as a key prophet and his facility in the story for not just a nation from isaac but from Ismael.
One of the local Arabian Jews' stories was about Ibrahim (Abraham) having been in the desert in Makkah, which drew the area into their revelation. Muhammad incorporated this into his revelation. This story was that Hajar (Hagar) and Ismael (Ishmael) had been banished into the desert when Sarah had grown jealous of the rival wife and child. It said that a spring called Zamzam had been miraculously discovered when the baby was seriously thirsty. It is notable that the Hajj is centred around Abraham (Ibrahim) (and Adam too) rather than Muhammad.
Originally Muhammad had his followers pray two then three times a day, which was raised to five times a day on the basis of his apparent Night Journey which connected him to Jerusalem. It was also to Jerusalem that the Muslims faced at first when they prayed. When he broke with the Jews of the area, he had his followers pray to the Ka'bah, their own sacred site, recovered when Muhammad and his followers won the Battle of Badr in 630 CE and they were able to take Makkah itself without bloodshed. The sacred site was then secured to monotheism and not to its Pagan past.
Knowing the order of prophets, this became the basis of the revelation: that God reveals himself to prophets perfectly but that the message becomes corrupted over time, something which his Islam had come to solve. The Angel Gabriel was a powerful all encompassing angel to deliver this one message: Islam thus began with the first prophet, and there had been effectively an infinite number (thousands) of prophets. One source for view of revelation corrupted was the Christian Trinity. He also believed in writing (assuming he was illiterate, writing was a magnificent affair but easily undermining) and even Jesus (Isa) wrote his revelation to be corrupted in later Gospel writing. Muhammad's God is more impersonal than even the Jewish God, but people can make themselves God-like by being God-observant and there is no suggestion of original sin (another corruption).
So the idea that religion evolves through experience was not part of Muhammad's understanding. Yet Muhammad can be understood precisely this way: putting the Qur'an into date order rather than size order shows Muhammad answering the community's gathering questions. His revelation was responsive to the community, and of course Islam has an earthly history of putting the Qur'an together and expanding across the world. Also, rather than dealing with failure as Christianity has to do (in developing a theory of atonement rejected by Muslims), Islam from revelation to community to book to expansion is all about success. Thus Jesus could not die upon the cross (another corruption, this time of history) but was raised up by God before his death and no prophet chosen by God could be a failure.
Much later the Bahai faith took up the theme of revelation in the same manner, and decided that God is unknowable but the prophets have shown God-like qualities so that they are manifestations, not incarnations, of God. It is not that previous religions are wrong: they just have a partial view of God who is, in totality, unknowable. The best that can be done regarding knowing God is to view the prophets. So the same idea of a line of prophets is adopted and adapted, except Bahais see prophecies not corrupted but for defined ages (whereas for Islam it is one prophecy and therefore corrupted) and the adopted idea of progressive revelation, which is not an Islamic concept. The Bahai Faith also attempts to include more than the near Eastern religions as its prophetic line, though it is in base origin a Shaykhi-Shi'ite view of returned messiah for judgment, then spiritualised, Westernised, internationalised and bureaucratised into a religion with an administration of democatic centralism. Islam carries the notion of totality without these adaptations and evolutions, although the observer can analyse its evolution at its very origin.


Adrian Worsfold