History and Growth of Islam

Specific beliefs within Islam may vary widely from country to country or sect to sect.  The material here reflects the beliefs and practices of Middle Eastern conservative Islam, so it is not necessarily representative of most of the world’s Muslims.  However, this information will provide a good foundation for further study.  It is essential to have some knowledge of Islam when reaching out to its followers.

The Beginnings of Islam

Muhammad was born in Mecca, in the land that is now Saudi Arabia, in A.D. 570.   Mecca was the financial and religious center of the region due to the presence of the Kaaba, a black cube-like structure that housed some 360 idols.  Muhammad was greatly disturbed by this idol worship and used to retreat into the desert to meditate on the proper way to worship the true God.  It is said that when he was 40 years old, the angel Gabriel appeared to him with his first revelation from God.  These revelations continued until Muhammad’s death 23 years later.  They were gathered together and are now contained in the Quran.

At first, Muhammad was afraid to repeat what he had heard, but slowly he gathered a small following in Mecca.  He was eventually run out of Mecca by the keepers of the idols in an event that marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar (A.D. 622).  He fled to Medina where his message of worshipping only one God was better received and the number of his followers continued to grow.  By A.D. 630 his group had grown large enough that he was able to return to Mecca, seize it and rid the Kaaba of all the idols.  Muhammad died in A.D. 632 of natural causes without naming a successor.  Islam continued to grow and expand under various leaders through conquest and through contacts via trade.

Islam in the World Today

There are approximately 1.2 billion Muslims in the world today, about 1/5 of the world’s total population.  Though we tend to think of Muslims as Middle Eastern and speakers of Arabic, that group comprises less than 25% of the world’s Muslims.


The vast majority of Muslims live in the area of the world that has been identified as the “10/40 window”–the area between the 10 and 40 degree north latitude lines on the globe.  The country with the largest number of Muslims is Indonesia (171 million), followed by Pakistan, India, Bangladesh and Iran.  The U.S. has between 2.5 and 5 million Muslims.


There are as many as 150 different branches of Islam, but they can be grouped under two main types, with one extra category.

  • Sunni – About 83% of all Muslims are Sunni. In addition to following the Quran, Sunnis try to follow the sayings and actions of Muhammad that were collected after his death in the Hadith books. The Hadith show more clearly how to put into practice the teachings of the Quran. Sunnis believe that the worldwide leader for Islam (called a caliph) should be selected by consensus of the community. There has been no universally recognized caliph since the Ottoman Empire fell and the caliphate was disbanded in 1924.
  • Shia (Shiite) – About 16% of all Muslims are Shia, and they are found mainly in Iran and Iraq. This branch began in A.D. 680 after the death of Husain, the son of Ali. Ali was Muhammad’s cousin and Husain was his last living male relative. Shia believe that Allah provided for the continuing guidance of the community through the Imam (Ali was the first), who must be a direct descendant of Muhammad. With the death of Husain, no legitimate successors remained. There is no Imam today, though in places like Iran the Ayatollah (“a word from Allah”) takes the place of the absent Imam. Shiites follow a non-literal interpretation of the Quran and their own collections of Hadith.
  • Sufi – This is not really a separate branch of Islam but a mystical belief system that cuts across both Sunni and Shia branches. Sufis believe that the soul can rise to the very presence of God and eventually be united with God through prayer and discipline. They often follow a “holy man” who gives spiritual guidance in the search for union with God through self-discipline, mystical intuition, and sometimes music and dancing. Sufis adhere to an allegorical reading of the Quran as the soul’s quest for unity with Allah by following the inward path of love.