Islam was founded by an Arab merchant named Muhammad who saw himself as the fulfillment of a tradition ranging from Abraham through Moses and Jesus to his own conception of the relationship between the community and the one God, Allah. The recitation of his teachings, recorded in the Qur'an, was shared with other people throughout the Middle East, Europe, Africa, and much of the world. During several centuries of stagnation in the West, Islamic scholars preserved, communicated, and extrapolated from the classical period's achievements in philosophy, science, and medicine.
Like philosophy, religion deals with vital questions about human experience and the guidance of conduct, but its methods and appeals are typically quite different:
- Use of revelation instead of reason as a source of evidence.
- Focus on the sacred in distinction from the worldly.
- Reverence for the supernatural instead of concern with natural explanation.
- Appeal to emotional feelings through ritual reenactment.
- Preservation of long-term convictions with little allowance for doubt or change.
- Community emphasized more greatly than individual thought.
Judaism, Buddhism, Christianity, and Islam are four of the world's great religious traditions that have persisted for many centuries.
Judaism emerged three thousand years ago with the move from Egypt to Canaan of a group of Hebrew tribes led by Moses, who introduced monotheism, or belief in a single deity. For their descendants, political success or failure was understood as divine reward or punishment. In the centuries that followed, the civilization grew more organized and gradually developed an extensive literature, written scriptures that were interpreted, communicated, and enforced by generations of rabbinical teachers. Liturgical practice included chants, music, responsive reading, and public prayer. Despite their later absorption into Hellenistic societies and later cultures, the Jews have preserved their tribal and religious identity through successive generations.
Buddhism arose during the same period in India, from the life and teachings of Siddhārtha Gautama. Years of spiritual searching and meditative practice led him to believe that life involves suffering that can be escaped only by cultivating humility, selflessness, and nonattachment. Variations on Buddhist teachings spread throughout India, Tibet, China, and Japan.
Christianity combined elements from messianic Judaism, mystery cults, and Hellenistic culture to fashion an ethical faith system that emphasized compassion and forgiveness. Jesus himself was a gifted teacher who enriched and expanded traditional concepts from scripture but attracted crowds whose instability threatened authorities from the Roman Empire. After his death, the apostle Paul developed a theology of sin and redemption, expressed in writings that soon became the core of Christian scriptures, known as the "New Testament." Eventually, the movement was accepted by the Roman Empire and became an official part of culture in Western life. Its worship incorporated Jewish elements along with the ritual celebration of Jesus's death through the Eucharist.