Shattering the Sacred Myths - Chapter 9

A Rational History of Islam


Muhammed’s life story and a summary of what he believed. Details the spread of Islam through conquest.

Most of the Arabian Peninsula is a dry sandy desert. The early inhabitants lived a nomadic lifestyle, breeding camels and herding goats and sheep in the scrublands on the borders of the desert. The first settlements appeared around 2000 BC along the coastlines and in the rocky oasis regions along the coast of the Red Sea.

Arab society was organized into tribes, with each person depending on their tribe for survival. Each tribe attempted to maintain control over an oasis, and wars frequently broke out between tribes over access to fertile land and water. Battles between the tribes often led to cycles of murder and vengeance that lasted for centuries.

Trade between Persia and Egypt was carried by camel trains across the Arabian desert. Desert oasis towns grew into regional trading centers where Arab merchants traded spices and other commodities with the Syrians, Egyptians, and Persians. Merchants along the southern coast also traded goods with African merchants across the Red Sea.

A variety of religious beliefs existed throughout the Arabian peninsula before Islam. Some desert tribes believed in ancestral spirits and practiced human sacrifice, others worshipped the ancient goddess of fertility. Many believed in a supreme god and also in a number of lesser gods and goddesses who were his children.

Jewish tribes had long been settling throughout the peninsula. They owned some of the best land and maintained their wealth and power by controlling much of the trade, especially in metals and weapons. Christian missionaries were busy establishing churches in Arab cities, and many Arab tribes had converted to Christianity. Arab kingdoms in Syria and Egypt were devoutly Christian.

For over one thousand years, the Greek and Roman empires had battled against the Persian Empire for control of the Middle East. After the fall of Rome, the Greeks formed an alliance with Christian Arabs in order to defeat a series of Persian invasions. The Persians also formed alliances with Arab tribes, paying them to join the fight.

The Greeks believed that God was the Trinity, but Arab Christians rejected this idea, believing that God was a single entity. This dispute led to persecutions and assassinations and eventually the Arabs broke off their alliance with the Greeks. Regional power was now beginning to favor the Arabs, but in order for them to realize this power, they first needed to unite behind a common cause.

Mecca was an important religious center long before the appearance of Islam. Pilgrims journeyed from all over the region to worship the idols contained in its many sacred shrines. The most sacred shrine contained a black meteorite that was believed to have supernatural powers because it had fallen from the heavens.


Muhammad was born around the year 570 in Mecca. His father died before he was born and his mother died when he was still a child, leaving him to be brought up by his grandfather and later by his uncle. As a young man, he traveled with the trading caravans from Mecca to Syria. When he was 25, he married a wealthy older widow and became the manager of her business interests.

Muhammad developed a passion for religion. For years he studied and discussed the Jewish and Christian scriptures and spent much of his time contemplating God in the hillside caves outside of Mecca. He formulated his own uniquely Arab interpretation of religion, based loosely on the biblical scriptures but also incorporating Persian ideas.

Abraham was the mythical forefather of the Jews. His faith in one universal God was said to have been so strong that God promised his descendents possession of the land of Israel. But the Jews had twice been removed from the land, supposedly because of their disobedience to God, and the Christians were guilty of corrupting the faith by claiming that God had a son.

Muhammad believed that the Arab people were also the descendents of Abraham through his first son to an Egyptian slave girl. Muhammad figured that if he could teach the Arabs to embrace Abraham’s original faith in one God, then the Arabs could claim to be the rightful heirs to Abraham’s religious tradition.

When Muhammad was about forty years old, he started preaching to his family and friends. He called his new religion Islam (meaning “surrender to God”). He claimed that it was not a new religion but rather an old one that had freed itself from the corruptions of Judaism and Christianity. Muhammad declared himself to be the last of the biblical prophets. Those who accepted Islam would be called Muslims.

Muhammad preached that there is only one God and that he is almighty and all-knowing, and that he represents justice and fairness, kindness to orphans and widows, and charity to the poor. And although God is compassionate, he will inflict harsh punishment upon those who defy him. Muhammad’s words had the power to stir the emotions of those who listened ...

The righteous are those who believe in God, and the Day of Judgment, and in the angels, and the holy book, and the prophets. They share their wealth with their family, and with orphans, and the helpless, and with travelers in need, and with beggars. They attend to their prayers and give to charity. They are true to their promises, and are steadfast in trial and adversity and in times of war.

Such are the true believers. Such are the God fearing. They will be blessed and forgiven by God, and a generous provision shall be made for them. As for the unbelievers, it is the same whether you warn them or not, they will not have faith. God has closed their hearts and ears. Their sight is dimmed and an agonizing punishment awaits them.

The Day of Judgment

The Day of Judgment was invented by the Persian prophet Zoroaster around 700 BC and it became the central theme of Persian religion. It was an effective way of instilling the fear of God into people, allowing priests to more easily control the minds of believers, even convincing them to sacrifice their lives for the sake of a heavenly reward.

The ancient Egyptians were obsessed with life after death, but the early Jewish prophets made no mention of it. They did not seem so eager to drag their religion into deeper superstition for the sake of a cheap morality. Although many early Christians were opposed to the Book of Revelations, its description of the Day of Judgment was eventually adopted by the Christian religion.

With the Persians and Christians both believing in heaven and hell, and with most other people being naturally superstitious about death, Muhammad embraced the Day of Judgment as the foundation of his new religion. Hope for reward and fear of punishment in the afterlife became his only solid argument for believing in God. He said ...

Every soul will get what it deserves on the Day of Judgment. On that day, a trumpet shall sound and the dead will rise up from their graves. The gates of heaven shall swing open and angels will surround the throne giving glory to the Lord. The earth will shine with the light of the Lord, and the book will be laid open.

It will be a day of disaster for the unbelievers. They will find their deeds written down in the book. Nothing will be missing from the greatest to the smallest detail. Every soul shall know what it has done and what it has failed to do, and every soul shall be treated accordingly, for God knows everything, even the innermost thoughts of men.

The righteous will return to the Garden of Eden, whose gates will open wide to receive them. They will be adorned with gold and precious jewels and dressed in robes of silk. Resting comfortably with modest virgins for companions, they will feast on abundant food and drink. This shall be your reward on the Day of Judgment. Our gifts can have no end.

But a terrible fate awaits the evil-doers. A voice will cry, “Cast into hell every hardened unbeliever, every opponent of charity, every doubting sinner. Hurl him into the fierce, tormenting flames!” Here boiling water shall be poured on their heads. Their bodies will be immersed in fire until their skin is thoroughly burned. They will burn here in hell, a miserable resting place, where they will drink boiling water, rotten blood, and other horrible things.

After Muhammad began preaching, many of his friends became enemies, despising him for speaking out against the shrines and other objects of worship that were attracting visitors to Mecca. “Are we to renounce our gods for the sake of a mad poet?” they asked. Over the next ten years, Muhammad continued to preach in Mecca, gathering around him a small but dedicated band of followers.

The Koran

There were no important works of literature written in Arabic before Muhammad’s time. Most stories were passed down by word of mouth. Muhammad composed verses which were at first committed to memory by his followers and were later written down by scribes to form chapters of his holy book, the Koran. He claimed to have been given his revelations by an angel named Gabriel, although references to the angel in the Koran are vague and open to interpretation.

Muhammad summarized the Jewish and Christian scriptures, adapting them to Arab ways. He offered the Arabs a simple interpretation of the Bible written in a style that was easy to understand. The Koran uses colorful language, switching rapidly from one subject to the next, repeating the same stories over and over with slight variations each time. Muhammad said ...

The Koran has been revealed to you in Arab language so that you may spread the word to other men, and so that they may give thought.

In this way, we have inspired you with knowledge of righteousness when you knew nothing about faith or scripture. We have made it a light to guide those who we wish to serve us. They shall now be guided along the right path, the path of God. All that is in the heavens and on the earth belong to him, and all things shall return to him in the end.

The Koran mentions most of the Bible’s main characters from Adam and Eve to Jesus and Mary. Muhammad regarded Jesus as an important prophet but was outraged by claims that he was the son of God ...

Those who say that the Lord has fathered a son are preaching an outright falsehood. The very heavens above would crack open, the earth would break apart, and the mountains would crumble to dust before the merciful Lord ever fathered a son, because it is not in his nature to have one.

Muhammad rejected the importance of Christian forgiveness, instead preaching that revenge was the proper form of justice. He reasoned that crime would be discouraged by the fear of revenge. He failed to acknowledge that forgiveness is always the conclusion of careful thought, whereas revenge is only an expression of blind instinct.

War against Mecca

The authorities in Mecca grew increasingly hostile towards Muhammad’s new religion. Persecution against his followers became so intense that many of them were forced to flee. When the citizens of Mecca finally threatened to kill Muhammad, he fled north to the oasis town of Medina, where he was soon joined by hundreds of his followers.

An uneasy balance of power existed between Arab and Jewish tribes for control of Medina. Muhammad and his followers joined this power struggle by forming strategic alliances with other tribes. His position was strengthened by gaining converts.

Muhammad’s conflict with Mecca intensified over the following years. His followers attacked Meccan trading caravans and Meccan forces lay siege to Medina. The Arab tribes in Medina forgot their old rivalries and united behind Muhammad. He promised them a reward in heaven if they undertook to protect him with their lives and accept him as their leader. He said ...

He who is prepared to die fighting for the cause of God, whether he dies or triumphs, he shall be richly rewarded.

Do you fear the heat of combat? Hell is hotter! Paradise is waiting for you!

Muhammad continued adding new chapters to the Koran, but the nature of his religion was changing. New verses reflected the thoughts of a warlord engaged in constant battle ...

Those who attack God and his apostle and spread disorder in the land must be put to death or crucified, or have their hands and feet cut off on opposite sides, or be banished from the land. They will be shamed in this world and harshly punished in the next, except for those who repent before you destroy them. For you know that God is merciful and forgiving.

The Jewish tribes in Medina were naturally skeptical about his claim to be one of their prophets. They ridiculed him and later conspired against him. His early respect for the Jews turned into bitter resentment. He used his growing power to banish one Jewish tribe from the city. He later accused the remaining tribe of treachery in his war against the Meccans and the men of the tribe were slaughtered.

Believers, do not take the Jews or the Christians for friends. They are friends only to each other. Whoever of you seeks their friendship shall be treated like one of them. God does not guide such wrongdoers.

Having established an Islamic government in Medina, Muhammad introduced new laws and punishments which covered everything from ownership of property to marriage and divorce. Some laws promoted equality and social justice, while others were simply reflections of the existing culture of tribal warfare and harsh desert justice.

The Muslims formed alliances with desert tribes and battled for control of the surrounding countryside. Jewish tribes offered fierce resistance against the growing Muslim army but were eventually defeated. Those who did not convert to Islam were put to the sword and their women and children enslaved.

Believers, make war on the infidels who dwell around you. Deal firmly with them. Know that God is with the righteous.

God has sent forth his apostle with guidance and the true faith to make it triumphant over all religions, however much the idolaters may dislike it.

No longer able to defeat the Muslims, the Meccans signed a peace treaty. But Muhammad was dissatisfied with the terms of the treaty and his army eventually marched into Mecca and its people and places of worship were converted to Islam.

As a concession to the old religions, Muhammad embraced existing religious traditions such as the feast of Ramadan and the pilgrimage to Mecca to see the sacred meteorite.

Muhammad’s final years

Muhammad preached that it was the duty of all Muslim men to fight for the establishment of an Islamic world empire. He said that defeated populations must accept Islam or be put to the sword. Jews and Christians were to be offered the alternative of paying a special tax for being non-Muslims.

Muhammad later decreed that there should be no other religion in Arabia than Islam. Faced with a choice between conversion and death, some Christians chose to die, while many others converted their churches into mosques.

The Koran contains laws for managing slaves. Muslim men were permitted to keep any number of female sex slaves. This provided a strong motivation for his followers to go out and conquer in the name of Islam.

Arab men were traditionally allowed to take as many wives as they pleased. But Muhammad limited each man to only four wives. Muhammad said that God made men superior to women, and so women must always obey the commands and satisfy the needs of their husbands.

After the death of his first wife, Muhammad married ten other women. In one of the last chapters of the Koran, he admonished two of his wives for being jealous of his intimacy with a Christian slave girl. Before he died, he issued a special revelation forbidding any of his wives from marrying again.

In the years following Muhammad’s death, there was some confusion about the contents of the Koran, with several different versions in circulation. An authoritative version was eventually issued by the ruling clerics and all other copies were burned.

Those who compiled the Koran were unsure of the original order of the chapters, so they were arranged in order of length, with the longest chapter first and the shortest last.

Early Arab conquest

Muhammad had succeeded in unifying the Arab tribes under a single leadership. He sent messengers to warn neighboring kings and emperors to embrace Islam, but he died before he could undertake any further conquests.

Convinced that God and history were on their side, an army of warriors on horseback set out to complete Muhammad’s mission to bring the entire world under the political control of Islam. Any gold or other riches taken from the conquered lands were to be shared among the Arab tribes, encouraging them to stay in the federation.

The Muslims easily forced the Greeks out of Palestine, Syria, and Egypt. The largely Christian populations were tired of paying taxes to the Greeks. The Arabs among them welcomed their brothers and embraced the new faith, which was much less complicated than Christianity and much easier to believe.

The Persian Empire was also easily conquered. It had been weakened by decades of war and the inhabitants hated their corrupt and oppressive rulers. A rapidly expanding Arab empire based on equality and social justice promised to be a much more favorable place to live.

Sunni and Shiite

After Muhammad’s death, the leadership of the federation passed on to his closest friends and companions. But after the assassination of their third leader, the authorities in Mecca argued over how to choose the next leader. Civil war broke out and Islam splintered into two main factions, the Sunnis and the Shiites.

The Shiites wanted the leadership to pass down to Muhammad’s descendents. They believed that the highest religious leader is God’s representative on earth with the authority to add to the message of the Koran.

The Sunnis wanted the new leader to be elected by the ruling clerics. They believed that the Koran is the final authority and that there must be no further revelation.

Muhammad’s son-in-law ruled briefly before the commander of the Arab forces in Syria defeated the Shiites and gained control of the empire. He moved the capital to Damascus and his family ruled there for the next hundred years.

Late Arab conquest

The enormous riches gained from the early conquest had given the Arabs a luxurious standard of living. For the next few decades they feasted and made love to their slave girls until the population had increased sufficiently to make further conquest possible. Arab armies were soon pushing onwards in every direction.

They captured all of North Africa and then moved north into parts of Spain and Portugal. The Spanish lived under severe oppression and were happy to see their king defeated. A large Muslim army then crossed the mountains into the south of France before being pushed back by French forces.

Arab armies conquered Afghanistan, Pakistan, and parts of India before moving north into central Asia, finally being stopped by the Chinese.

By now the Arabs were less interested in converting foreigners to Islam. Defeated armies were either killed or enslaved. Breeding with captured slave girls was a more effective way to spread Islam. Those foreigners who saved themselves by converting to Islam were treated as second class citizens by the Arabs.

The infidels to the east were mainly Buddhists and Hindus. The godless Buddhists were pacifists and offered no resistance to the invading Muslim armies. The invaders destroyed the Buddhist monasteries and burned their books. Wherever they went, they killed the men and took the women and children as slaves.

The Hindus were able to offer some resistance, but were unable to prevent the establishment of Muslim rule over large parts of India. The defenders knew what they were up against. If it appeared that a battle could not be won then the men would kill their own women and children and carry on fighting to the death.

A new Muslim empire

By around the year 750, a considerable tension had grown throughout the Muslim empire. The Arab tribes were no longer receiving their share of the profits from conquest. The Meccans accused the leadership in Damascus of abandoning Islam. The Shiites opposed the Sunni leadership. And those who had converted to Islam in conquered lands were demanding the same rights as Arabs.

Tensions erupted into a violent revolution which began in Persia and quickly spread throughout the rest of the empire. The Persian rebels fought to establish a new leadership which represented the aspirations of all Muslims, not just Arabs. After successfully overthrowing the old ruling dynasty, the capital of the empire was moved to Baghdad, and it was here that Islam reached the height of its power and prosperity.

The Hadith

Around 150 years after Muhammad’s death, a number of books were written containing stories that were supposedly passed down by word of mouth to the descendents of Muhammad’s companions. These books, known as the Hadith, quickly became the authorative explanation of the Koran. Despite their questionable authenticity, they are still used today to clarify the details of the religion and its laws.

A collection of laws from both the Koran and the Hadith were compiled into a basic legal system known as Sharia. Sharia is a complete package, intended to be easily implemented in any conquered country. Islamic values were never meant to change, and so the laws were never meant to change either.

Science and philosophy

Arabic became the common language of the Islamic Empire, and the surviving works of Greek science and philosophy were translated into Arabic.

The Muslims established schools and libraries throughout their empire, and while the Church was prohibiting scientific enquiry in Europe, Muslim scholars were busy making important contributions to astronomy and medicine.

While European mathematics was being held back by the use of unwieldy Roman numerals, Muslim scholars had adopted the decimal number system and were busy making progress in the development of new mathematical techniques like algebra.

Some Islamic thinkers tried to introduce elements of science and philosophy into Islam. They wrote that although there can only be one truth, there may be two ways of looking at the truth, religion for the uneducated masses and philosophy for the educated elite. There should be no conflict between religious revelation and philosophical reasoning as long as they both reach the same conclusions about the existence of God.

Other Islamic thinkers rejected science and philosophy. They quite rightly observed that philosophical enquiry tends to drift towards atheism, and that the scientific viewpoint is not compatible with life after death. Permitting free inquiry might inevitably lead to the rejection of Islam.

Other sects

Over the centuries, cultural differences forced some groups to break away from mainstream Islam. They formed new religious sects, each with their own unique interpretation of Islam, differing on issues such as monogamous marriage, head dress for women, and variations of Islamic law. Some sects became more progressive while others became more conservative.

The Koran may be good at instilling the fear of hell, but it does not offer thinking people any easy path to spiritual enlightenment. After the spread of Islam, many open minded spiritual thinkers living under its influence were driven to look beyond conventional Islam for better ways of understanding God.

Some used drugs to expand their consciousness. Others achieved spiritual euphoria by dancing around in circles for hours on end. Many left their homes to seek solitude in the mountains and deserts. Through quiet contemplation, they attempted to transcend this worldly life and develop a sense of oneness with God.

The search for spiritual enlightenment under Islam led many to join a sect known as Sufism. Seeing religion as a liberating force instead of a moral burden, Sufi thinkers stressed that true religion was less about having blind faith in scripture and tradition, and more about developing an ever deepening appreciation of God through open minded contemplation of nature.

Jalaladin Rumi was an orthodox cleric in the 1200s who had his mind opened to Sufi wisdom by a vagabond preacher. Rumi embraced peace and love and became perhaps the most respected poet and philosopher in Islamic history. His words were compiled into a book in which he wrote ...

There are two worlds. There is the outer world which appears to exist, and seems solid and permanent, but in truth is an illusion. And there is the inner world that many people deny, and is invisible to the senses, and yet is real and eternal. Once your heart becomes pure and clear, it will become a mirror on which pictures will appear from beyond this earthly realm. Not only will such pictures appear, but also the image of the one who painted them.

Sometimes God shows us the way to go. Sometimes he shows us the opposite way. The work of religion is full of confusion. But it is not a confusion that turns us away from God, it is a confusion that leads us to drink from his love and become utterly intoxicated.

Knowledge about religion is bad for the spirit. Such knowledge is like borrowed money; it does not belong to the one who possesses it. Yet those who study religion wrongly believe that they are acquiring spiritual knowledge. You must become ignorant about religion. You must become ignorant about worldly matters too. In fact you must become completely insane. Whatever may be profitable to you, flee from it. Whatever may advance your interests, shun it. If anyone wants to keep you, curse them. Lend money to those who have no hope of returning it. Ignore danger and walk freely through places that others avoid. Throw away your reputation and be free from shame. Only when you can do all this will you have obtained true spiritual knowledge.

No human behavior is entirely right or wrong, whether it be anger or patience, innocence or deceit. Nothing is absolutely good or absolutely evil. The benefit or harm of everything depends on the situation. For this reason, knowledge is useful and wisdom is vital.

Although Sufism was based upon Islam and Sufi teachers often quoted from the Koran, those who strayed too far from the teachings of Muhammad were accused of blasphemy by conservative clerics and were either persecuted or killed. Rumi’s writings are now banned in many Islamic countries.

The decline of Islam

The Mongol invasion of Persia in the 1200s marked the beginning of the decline of Islamic culture. Baghdad was conquered by the Mongols, its people were slaughtered, its wealth was plundered, and its libraries were destroyed. Central government came to an end and the Islamic Empire splintered into regional kingdoms.

Around the same time, new techniques in the production of paper made the Koran easier to copy, and as copies became more widely available, more Muslims were able to read and interpret it for themselves. Science and philosophy were soon denounced as heresy. For a growing number of believers, the truth had already been revealed in the Koran and anything not conforming to Islamic teachings must be condemned.

The Turks

After recovering from the Christian crusades, the Mongol invasions, and the bubonic plague, Turkish tribes began battling to establish a new Islamic empire. They gained control over much of the old empire, and in 1453, they captured the Greek city of Constantinople and made it their capital.

For the next few hundred years, Turkish armies fought an almost continuous holy war against the Christians, capturing Greece, Serbia, Hungary, and much of south eastern Europe. Twice they invaded Austria, laying siege to its capital, Vienna. But each time they were beaten back by an alliance of European forces using superior heavy artillery.

The end of the empire

After seeing the revolutionary effect that the printing press was having in Europe, it was banned by Muslim authorities as a potential instrument of sacrilege and heresy. Without the free flow of information and ideas, the Islamic world soon became an intellectual, technological, and economic backwater.

As Europe emerged from the Christian Dark Ages, the Islamic world plunged deeper into its own darkness. Without modern technology, the Muslims suffered a long series of defeats against the Europeans. The Islamic Empire was eventually conquered and carved up after being defeated alongside the Germans in the First World War.

Continue to chapter 10 ... Analysis of Ancient Beliefs