Islam began with the Prophet Muḥammad, born in Mecca in 570 c.e. Believed to be a descendant of the Jewish patriarch Abraham, the Prophet is said to have received visitations from the archangel Gabriel in 610 after becoming a successful merchant. During these sessions, Gabriel dictated the Muslim holy book, the Qur’an, and gave instructions on how the faith should be spread through the world. After the death of the Prophet, Islam began an electrifying expansion, usually but not always peaceful, which would eventually place Muslims in nearly every corner of the world. Muslim armies conquered Syria, the Persian Empire, and Egypt in the twelve years after the Prophet’s death. Between the seventh and eighteenth centuries, Muslims had established cities, centers of Islamic thought, and powerful dynasties in Spain, much of France, Turkey, Central Asia, Austria, Hungary, eastern Europe, most of India, parts of China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, southern Thailand, and much of Africa. Muslims have played a significant role in the histories of almost every country on earth, including the United States, where Muslims were first brought as African slaves but now play a prominent role in the cultural and political life of the nation.
Despite its global prevalence, Islam remains generally poorly understood in the West, even by many prominent intellectuals and leaders. There are many reasons for this lack of understanding, but not least among them seems to be unwillingness on the part of Westerners to inquire into Muslim history and belief. This has led to some tragic misunderstandings between cultures: Chief among these is the common misapprehension that Islam is composed of a single, monolithic ideology. In fact, Islam consists of many cultures, each with its own distinct history. Like Christianity, as Islam spread, it came into contact with many different artistic traditions: Some became part of the Islamic mainstream, some dwindled. Traditional theater historically has not fared well in Islamic culture for a variety of reasons, chiefly to do with the purpose of art in an Islamic society.