Islam in the World

570 CE Birth of Muhammad

Born in the city of Makkah on the Arabian peninsula, Muhammad was orphaned at a young age and raised in his uncle’s house. Muhammad married an older widow, Khadijah, for whom he had worked in the caravan trade. As a merchant, he was known as “al-Amin,” the trusted one.

610 CE Muhammad Receives First Revelations of the Qur’an

While meditating in a cave near Makkah, Muhammad the merchant heard the voice of an angel commanding him to “Recite!” and declaring that he was chosen to be the Prophet of God. He continued to receive revelations, which he recited to his wife and a small group of followers. These messages carried warnings of divine judgment and an invitation to return to the ways of the earlier prophets, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. Stressing the unity of God, universal community, and social justice, these revelations challenged the foundations of tribal and polytheistic Makkan society.

622 CE The Emigration (Hijrah) from Makkah to Madinah

Facing mounting persecution at the hands of tribal leaders in Makkah, Muhammad and a group of followers emigrated northward to Yathrib, where Muhammad was invited to make peace between feuding tribes. This event marked the beginning of the Muslim calendar, as Muhammad began the process of shaping a new community based on the revelations he had received. The city was later renamed Madinat an-Nabi, “the city of the Prophet,” and is known today as Madinah.

632 CE Muhammad Dies 

After successfully uniting many of the Arab tribes under the banner of Islam, Muhammad established the rituals of the Hajj during his “farewell pilgrimage” to the Ka’bah in Makkah. He became ill and died as his army prepared an expedition to Syria.

632 – 661 CE Expansion and Division Under the First Four Caliphs

Under Abu Bakr, the Prophet’s first successor, rebel Arab tribes submitted to the path of Islam. The second caliph, ‘Umar, established military regimes to govern Egypt, the Fertile Crescent, and much of Iran. ‘Uthman standardized the text of the Qur’an and expanded the empire in every direction. ‘Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad and considered the first Imam by Shi’i Muslims, presided over a community increasingly divided after the murder of ‘Uthman. A member of the Khariji faction eventually killed ‘Ali, ending what many Muslims call the period of the “rightly guided caliphs.”

661 – 750 CE Umayyad Dynasty Rules from Damascus

Political and military power shifted to Damascus when Mu’awiyah assumed the caliphal seat. Syrian Arabs led expansion into Spain and India. A regular centralized administration developed, while opposition groups of various opinions called for a return to the norms of Muhammad’s time.

680 CE Battle of Karbala and Death of Husayn

The Umayyad caliph Yazid I succeeded his father, and his troops brutally crushed a rebellion by ‘Ali’s son, Husayn, grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. Shi’i Muslims commemorate this event with a passion play, or Taziyah, which reenacts the martyrdom of Husayn, who became the symbol of Shi’i resistance.

721 – 801 CE Rabi’ah, Sufi Woman

Known for her devotion and love of god, Rabi’ah Al-Adawiyyah was among the first Muslims to follow the Sufi path. She was said to have walked through the streets of Basra, Iraq, with a torch in one hand and a bucket of water in the other, declaring: “I want to pour water into Hell and set fire to Paradise so that these two veils disappear and nobody worships God out of fear of Hell or hope for Paradise, but only for the sake of eternal beauty.” She is considered to be the most famous female Sufi saint.

750 – 1258 CE Abbasid Dynasty Rules from Baghdad

When Abbasid forces defeated the Umayyads of Damascus, a remnant of the latter escaped to Spain, where the dynasty continued to rule a prosperous kingdom in Cordoba until 1037. The Abbasids established Baghdad as the new center of political, cultural and religious power. The early Abbasid caliphate witnessed the formation of the four major schools of Islamic law, the compilation of authentic hadith, medical and scientific advances, the flowering of Arabic and Persian literature, the translation of much Greek philosophy into Arabic, the development of the mystical path of Sufism, and great philosophical and theological debates.

c. 700 – 900 CE Major Legal Developments Occur

Abu Hanifah and Malik ibn Anas provided the foundations of the Hanafi and Maliki streams of interpreting Islamic law (shari’ah) in the 8th century. Around the turn of the 9th century, Al-Shafi’i developed a system for combining the Qur’an, the sunnah of the Prophet Muhammad, the consensus of the Muslim community, and the analytical reasoning of legal scholars in the making of legal decisions, thus forming the third school of Islamic law. A fourth stream of interpretation followed the thought of Ahmad ibn Hanbal, who in the 9th century argued for a stricter adherence to the Qur’an and sunnah than did the other schools. Definitive collections of the Hadith of the Prophet were made by Al-Bukhari and Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj Nishapuri in the 9th century.

c. 750- 1492 CE Muslim Rule in Spain

In 756, Cordoba became the capital of Muslim Spain; by the 10th century, Cordoba would be Europe’s largest city. Other Spanish cities, such as Toledo and Seville, flourished under Muslim rule during the 10th-13th centuries. Many scholars believe that Muslim civilization in Europe acted as a crucial catalyst for the European Renaissance: a significant body of scientific and philosophical works from Greek and Persian antiquity had been translated into Arabic and integrated into Islamic thought since the 9th century; in 12th century Spain, these ancient sources were “rediscovered” by Christian scholars. 

878 CE Twelfth Shi’i Imam Disappears 

The eleventh Imam, Hasan al-Askari, died in 873. He reportedly had a son named Muhammad, called al-Mahdi al-Muntazar (the awaited Mahdi), but the young son disappeared shortly after his father’s death. Considered the twelfth Imam, he communicated with the world through four representatives. Since the last of these died in 940 without a successor, no one has had direct communion with the “Hidden Imam,” who is believed to be in Occultation, alive in the unseen realm by the decree of God, and is expected to return as the Mahdi.

909 – 1171 CE Ismaili Fatimid Dynasty

The Fatimids established their dynasty in North Africa in 909, conquering Egypt in 969. From their newly-established capital city of Al Qahira (Cairo), the Ismaili Fatimids created significant educational and cultural institutions within an expansive territory which reached from the Sind to the Atlas mountains. The foundation in 970 of Al Azhar, the oldest university in the world, proved to be one of the Fatimids’ most significant achievements. Al Azhar continues to be a center of religious learning to the present day.

1058 – 1111 CE Al-Ghazali

Born in Persia, Abu Hamid al-Ghazali studied law, philosophy and theology and became a distinguished teacher at the Nizamiyyah school in Baghdad. After a crisis of faith, he retired to Damascus and embarked on a profound spiritual journey. His most famous works, Deliverance from Error, The Incoherence of the Philosophers, and The Revivification of Religious Sciences, describe the result: he found Sufism to be the heart of Islam, putting theology, philosophy and law in their proper place in the service of God. Al-Ghazali’s synthesis of the streams of Islamic thought set the standards for Islamic orthodoxy for centuries and opened the door for the spread of Sufi influence throughout the Islamic world.

1076 CE Rise of Islamic Empires in West Africa

Islamic influence spread southward from North Africa, and by 1076, Ghana came under rule of the Almoravids. From the 12th to the 14th century, the Malian Kingdom flourished in the upper Niger region. During the 14th and 15th centuries, the city of Timbuktu became one of the most important centers of learning in all of the Muslim world, with over one hundred Qur’anic schools and many private libraries.

c. 1099 – 1187 CE Capture and Liberation of Jerusalem

In 1099, the capture of Jerusalem by the armies of the First Crusade resulted in the slaughter of Muslims, as well as Eastern Christians and Jews, at the hands of Western Christians. The Crusades, which began in the middle of the 11th century and continued until the 15th century, were “holy wars” in which Christian armies massacred Muslim non-combatants and desecrated Muslim holy places. In 1187, Salah al-Din (Saladin) liberated Jerusalem from European Crusaders, restoring pride and power to the Muslim rulers of Palestine. In sharp contrast to the Crusaders, Saladin’s armies were instructed to spare Christian and Jewish civilians as they recaptured the city and re-established their places of worship.

1207 – 1273 CE Jalal al-Din Rumi

Born in Persia and raised in Konya, Turkey, Jalal al-Din Rumi became a Sufi shaykh in 1240 CE. He founded the Mevlevi Order; the term “whirling dervish” refers to a member of this Order who performs a twirling ritual dance in remembrance of God. Rumi is considered to be one of the greatest Muslim mystical poets. The Mathnawi, his masterpiece, was written over a period of forty-three years and is composed of six books. 

1258 CE Destruction of Baghdad

The siege and sacking of Baghdad and execution of the Caliph marked the end of the Abbasid Caliphate, long without real political power but still highly significant as a symbol of Muslim unity worldwide. The descendants of the Mongols adopted Islam, and establish major Islamic kingdoms in Central and South Asia.

1453 CE Constantinople Falls to the Turks

Constantinople was renamed Istanbul and became the center of the nascent Ottoman Turkish Empire. This empire expanded to include, by the mid-16th century, Asia Minor, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, North Africa, coastal Arabia, Azerbaijan, the Balkans, Hungary, and vassal states in Russia. Noted for administrative genius, social institutions, architecture and public works, the Ottomans provided a sense of spiritual unity and a center of Muslim power for five centuries, until the Empire was dismantled after World War I.

1492 CE Spanish Reconquista Ends Muslim Rule in Spain 

Christians conquered the city of Granada, bringing to a close centuries of Muslim rule in Spain. Within a few years, forced conversion of Spanish Muslims to Catholicism became common.

1494 – 1556 CE Suleyman the Magnificent

Suleyman (Suleiman) I began his rule of the Ottoman Empire in 1520; by the next year, he had captured Belgrade and went on to make significant conquests in North Africa, Iraq, and Yemen. He is often regarded as the greatest Ottoman ruler for both his military achievements and administrative institutions.

c. 1500 CE Beginning of Safavid Rule in Iran

In 1499, Shah Ismail of the Safavid family conquered the Iranian city of Tabriz and established a Shi’i state in Iran. The next year, he was crowned Shah of Iran, marking the beginning of Safavid rule. During the 1500s, art and architecture flourished under the Safavids. The new capital was established at Isfahan under Shah Abbas in 1597, with over 150 mosques, including a stunning royal mosque.

1526 CE Mughal Empire Begins in India

The Emperor Babur established Mughal rule in northern India; the Mughal Empire continued until 1857.

1542 – 1605 CE Mughal Emperor Akbar 

Succeeding his father Humayun at the age of 14, Jalaluddin Akbar became the Mughal Emperor in 1556. Akbar proved to be the greatest of the Mughal Emperors, expanding the empire across Northern India, as well as to Orissa and Gujarat. In addition to his political and diplomatic achievements, as well as his acclaimed support for the arts, Akbar was known for a policy of religious tolerance for his subjects, most of whom were Hindu. Further, he encouraged theological discussions among scholars of different faiths in his “House of Worship” at Fatehpur Sikri.

1564 – 1624 CE Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi

A member of the Naqshbandi Sufi order, Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi advocated a reform of Sufi practices and joined the efforts of the scholars (‘ulama) who opposed Akbar’s syncretic approach in India. Many of Sirhindi’s ideas would prove to echo long after his death in 1624, influencing the conservative development of Islam in India over the next two centuries. 

1703 – 1762 CE Shah Waliullah

Born during the reign of Mughal ruler Aurangzeb, Shah Waliullah advocated the importance of ijtihad, the ongoing interpretation of Islamic law. He opposed the power of the ‘ulama and translated the Qur’an into Persian so that it would be more accessible to educated Indian Muslims.

1703- 1792 CE Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab

The founder of the Wahhabi revivalist movement in the Arabian peninsula, Ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, advocated a return to Islamic practice based on the Qur’an and the Sunnah. He worked for unity amongst the rival Arab tribes and laid the groundwork for the modern Islamic state of Saudi Arabia. Al-Wahhab opposed many popular religious practices as idolatrous. His followers, known as Wahhabis, destroyed Sufi shrines, the tombs of the Prophet and his companions, as well as the tomb of Husayn at Karbala. This movement, despite its iconoclastic excesses, proved to be influential in other parts of the Muslim world, such as Africa and India.

1754–1817 CE Usman dan Fodio

In present-day northern Nigeria, Usman dan Fodio established the Sokoto caliphate in 1809. The establishment of this and other Muslim states in West Africa around this time was marked by a series of jihads, or holy wars, that spread Islam, or a specific version of Islam, throughout the region. Dan Fodio himself was also an important thinker, writing about philosophy, religion, government, and society, particularly about the experience of Islam in Africa. The Sokoto caliphate was established to spread a more strict practice of Islam through the region, and also to work towards greater economic equality and the end of government corruption.

1804 – 1881 CE Aga Khan I

Born Hasan Ali Shah, Aga Khan I was a direct descendant of the first leader of the Nizari Ismailis, Hasan al-Sabah. In 1840, Aga Khan fled to India and established a community which thrives in South Asia, East Africa, and today, in North America. The honorary title of Aga Khan is passed along to the living Imam who is endowed with the authority to reinterpret Islam and to guide the cultural and religious life of the Nizari Ismaili community.

1848 – 1885 CE Muhammad Ahmad, “the Mahdi”

In Sudan in 1881, Muhammad Ahmad declared himself to be the Mahdi, or “divinely guided one.” Advocating the purification of Islam, his followers triumphed over both the Ottoman rulers of Egypt as well as the British to establish an Islamic state in the Sudan. 

1817 – 1898 CE Sayyid Ahmad Khan

A contemporary of Egyptian reformer Muhammad ‘Abduh, Indian Muslim modernist Sayyid Ahmad Khan founded the Muslim college of Aligarh in 1875. He emphasized the importance of education and advocated loyalty to the British raj. Khan argued against both popular Sufi practices and traditional ‘ulama perspectives, stressing the compatibility of Islam with the modern age and social reform.

1838 – 1897 CE Jamal al-Din al-Afghani

This modern pan-Islamic reformer was born in Afghanistan but brought his message to countries throughout the Muslim world. He taught the importance of Muslim solidarity in the face of both Western colonialism and corrupt Islamic governments, and emphasized the dynamic and comprehensive nature of Islam. Al-Afghani was a highly influential activist and thinker whose anti-colonialist and modernist ideas played a crucial role in many 20th-century reform movements.

1849 – 1905 CE Muhammad Abduh

Egyptian reformer Muhammad Abduh, a student of al-Afghani and contemporary of Indian modernist Sayyid Ahmad Khan, forcefully argued that Islam was compatible with the modern age. Abduh served as the chief judge, or mufti, of Egypt, and made significant reforms at Al-Azhar University. Along with his student, the Syrian reformer Rashid Rida, Abduh published Al-Manar, “The Lighthouse,” which emphasized religious, social and educational reforms. Abduh’ was highly influential throughout the Muslim world.

1876-1938 CE Sir Muhammad Iqbal

The Indian poet-philosopher Muhammad Iqbal laid much of the intellectual groundwork for the creation of Pakistan and is often referred to as “the father of Pakistan.” After receiving a traditional Islamic education, Iqbal continued his studies at Lahore, Cambridge, and Munich. Iqbal argued that Islamic law was crucial to Muslim society and believed that the ideal Islamic state could yet be realized.

1924 CE Caliphate Abolished; Turkey Becomes a Republic

The last Ottoman sultan was deposed by Mustafa Kemal and the “Young Turks” in 1924. Kemal, known as “Ataturk,” or Father of the Turks, led a nationalist revolution and created a secular Turkish state. Swiss legal codes replaced Shari’ah; the Gregorian calendar was substituted for the Islamic lunar calendar; the Turkish language was now written in a Latin, rather than Arabic, script.

1928 CE The Muslim Brotherhood

This revivalist movement was founded by an Egyptian schoolteacher, Hasan al-Banna’, in 1928; it was established on the principle that Muslims should unite as a community of faith, or ummah. Rejecting both nationalism and colonialism, the movement advocated a return to the ideal Islamic community exemplified by Madinah at the time of the Prophet. The Muslim Brotherhood had wide appeal in Egypt and spread through North Africa, to the Sudan, and to the Middle East. Sayyid Qutb was the intellectual leader of this movement until his execution by the Egyptian government in 1966.

1941 CE Establishment of Jama’at-i Islami

The Jama’at-i Islami movement was founded in Lahore in 1941 by the revivalist Mawlana Mawdudi. Like the Muslim Brotherhood, this movement emphasized the example of the Prophet’s community in Madinah, and advocated activism as a means to return to this ideal. Mawdudi was a prolific writer and important 20th century revivalist whose movement continues to the present; it has made a significant impact in Pakistan, as well as Europe and North America. 

1947 CE Foundation of Pakistan as Separate Islamic State 

The creation of Pakistan was both a triumph and a tragedy for Muslims of the Indian subcontinent. “Partition” required mass migrations of Hindus, Sikhs, and Muslims, and violent upheavals resulted in a tremendous loss of life; however, the creation of Pakistan allowed Muslims to live under Islamic law rather than as minority citizens in a secular state.

1971 CE Bangladesh Becomes Independent 

The Islamic State of Pakistan established in 1947 was separated geographically into West and East Pakistan. In 1971, sectarian conflicts led to civil war, and East Pakistan became the separate Islamic state of Bangladesh.

1979 CE Revolutionary Regime of Khomeini Begins in Iran

In Iran in the 1970s, opposition grew to the rule of the Shah. The Shah’s security agency, SAVAK, was known for its abuses of power, and despite the country’s oil wealth, many people were living in poverty. In 1978, student riots against the Shah began, and the exiled Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini became a symbol of the student cause. In January of 1979, the Shah left Iran, and Khomeini returned to establish theocratic rule. This revolution served as a source of inspiration for other political movements in the area, while alienating many Muslims and western observers by its excesses.

c. 1990 CE Independence of Muslim Republics from Former Soviet Union

Muslim republics of the former Soviet Union, including Azerbaijan, Kazakhstan, Kyrgystan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, and Uzbekistan, attained self-government.

1993 CE U.S. Muslim Organizations Coordinate Ramadan Observances 

The Islamic Shura Council of North America, composed of ISNA, ICNA, the Ministry of Imam W. Deen Mohammed, and the community under the leadership of Imam Jamil al-Amin, agreed on procedures for the sighting of the moon which begins and ends the holy month of Ramadan. This was an important step in American Muslim unity, as many immigrant Muslims and ethnic Islamic centers still look to authorities in their home countries for official guidance on such matters.

2001 CE 9/11 World Trade Center and Pentagon Attack

The September 11th attacks on the United States, for which the militant group al Qaeda claimed responsibility, had immediate and long-term implications for American domestic and foreign policy, particularly affecting American engagement in Muslim-majority countries. 

2001 – 2008 CE “War on Terror”

Following the attacks of September 11th, President George W. Bush called for a “war on terror” to combat those who carried out the 9/11 attacks and their supporters. While other countries have allied with the U.S. in this effort, the term itself does not necessarily refer to a single policy, but rather is an umbrella expression used to generally include the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003 and America’s war against the Taliban in Afghanistan. America’s foreign policy in this regard has been poorly received by many around the world, exacerbating a “Muslim world” versus America divide. While the “war on terror” is generally used to refer specifically to Bush administration policy, many would argue that the Obama administration has continued to operate in a similar manner.

2003 CE First Muslim Woman wins Nobel Peace Prize 

Shirin Ebadi, an Iranian lawyer, became the first Muslim woman to win the Nobel Peace Prize for her extensive efforts to promote human rights and democracy in Iran.

2004 CE The Amman Message defines a Moderate Islam

This historic document, drafted in Jordan under the auspices of King Abdullah II, is a formal statement written and signed by hundreds of Muslim leaders and scholars around the world representing many branches of Islam, including Sunni and Shi’a, agreeing to a single, tolerant definition of what it means to be Muslim. The document calls for a moderate understanding of Islam, rejecting violence in the name of religion, and calling for tolerance within Islam and of non-Muslims. 

2005 – 2006 CE Danish Cartoon Controversy 

The publication of cartoons depicting the Prophet Muhammad in a Danish newspaper prompted protests in Denmark and around the world, due to the offensive nature of the cartoons and to the fact that depiction of the Prophet is generally considered prohibited in Islam.

2009 CE “A New Beginning” – Obama’s Cairo Speech

On June 4, 2009, President Obama gave a widely anticipated speech at Cairo University to address Muslims around the world in recognition of the divisions between “American” and “Muslim” that were promulgated by the 9/11 attacks and America’s subsequent “war on terror”. An attempt to begin to bridge those divides; the speech was generally well received at the time and raised hopes for improved American-Muslim relations. However, Obama has since been criticized for not following through with the initiative that he made through the speech. 

2011 CE The Arab Spring

Beginning in Tunisia and expanding to many countries in the Middle East and North Africa, the “Arab world” erupted in protest against the dictatorial regimes, toppling the government in Tunisia, Libya, Egypt, and Yemen. While opposition to the old regimes was manifold, the results of democratic elections in Egypt and Tunisia demonstrated a popular desire for a greater connection between religion and politics. The election of Muhammad Morsi, a member of the Muslim Brotherhood, is one example. It remains to be seen the way in which Islam is manifest in both domestic and foreign policy in all of those Muslim-majority countries that have undergone major transitions during the so-called “Arab Spring” of 2011.