THE WORLD OF ISLAM

The name Islam is derived from an Arabic phrase meaning "Submission to God." Its followers call themselves Muslim meaning "one who submits. Because of its Arabic origins, Arabic is the exclusive language of Islam. It should be noted, however, that Muslims did not invent a new Islamic society; rather it was fashioned by a blend of elements of Arab, Persian, Greek, and Indian cultures. Although Islam drew influences from other societies, it thoroughly transformed those societies which it absorbed, and became the political framework for trade and diplomacy over a substantial portion of the Eastern Hemisphere. Many Islamic lands became part of a larger society known as dar-al-Islam, meaning "house of Islam."

The birth of Islam is reflected in the geography of Arabia which is mostly desert with a few scattered oases. Those who traditionally occupied the area were nomadic people known as Bedouin, who were organized into family or clan groups and who depended on larger networks of kinship for support if the need arose. Cooperation with kin often made the difference between life and death in an area as unforgiving as the Arabian Desert. The people developed strong senses of loyalty and closely guarded their common interests.

Arabia was also important in long distance trade networks of the post-classical era. Many commodities were offloaded at ports on the Persian Gulf and transported by caravan to the Mediterranean ports. By the fourth century, C.E., Arabia was an important link between China and India in the far East and Persia and Byzantium in the West. With the collapse of classical societies, merchants often abandoned the old land routes for sea routes which connected with land routes in Arabia. Mecca became an important city for trade and as a juncture for caravans.

Islam was founded by Muhammad ibn Abdullah, known to Muslims simply as Muhammad, the Prophet. He was born c. 570 C.E. into a wealthy merchant family in Mecca, but both his parents died before he was six. He was thereafter raised by his grandfather and uncle, who provided him with an education. As a young man, he went to work for a wealthy widow named Khadija, whom he later married. This gave him some prominence in trading circles in Mecca, but did not earn him entry into the elite society of the city. By age thirty, he had established a comfortable life for himself.

Arab society at the time recognized many Gods, goddesses, demons, and nature spirits whose favor they sought to curry through sacrifices and prayer. Many Jewish merchants also worked in the area, and many Northern Arabs had converted to Christianity. Muhammad had a basic understanding of both faiths; although he was not well versed in either.

At about age forty, Muhammad suffered a series of seizures, during which he said that he had visions of the angel Jebreel (Gabriel) who delivered messages to him to be delivered to the people. (Interestingly, Gabriel is recognized by both Christians and Jews as an archangel and messenger of God.) The message delivered by Jebreel was:

There was only one God, "Allah," who ruled the universe.

Idolatry and the recognition of other gods was wickedness.

Allah would bring judgment on the world; he would reward the righteous and punish the wicked.

Allah had sent previous prophets, including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, however their message was either imperfect or had been rejected by those who heard it.

Muhammad was Allahís last messenger who would bring the perfect message to humanity.

Muhammad never intended to found a new religion; rather he said he came to reform the one true religion. He did share his faith with family and close friends, as he believed his vision had instructed him to do. Over time, the circle of people who were interested in his message grew into a sizeable minority in Mecca.

Muhammadís message was delivered orally; he himself was illiterate. As his community of followers grew, a number of them committed his teachings to writing which were preserved in the Quran, literally, "the recitation," which is the holy book of Islam. It is a book of magnificent poetry and communicates Muhammadís understanding of Allah and his relation to the world, and also serves as the authority for Islamic doctrine and social organization. In addition to the Koran, other works known as hadith include sayings attributed to Muhammad or provide accounts of his deeds. Many have been used to interpret the Quran. Other important works include works describing social and legal customs, biographies of Muhammad and commentaries on the Quran, although none of these are as important as the Quran and the hadith.

The Flight to Medina: As Muhammadís teachings grew in popularity, it brought him into conflict with the ruling elite of Mecca, primarily over religious issues. His comments that only Allah was god was offensive to the polytheistic Arabs. His comments tended to disparage deities and spirits who had long been thought to exercise influence over human lives, which made his comments dangerous. Also, since Muhammad denounced greed as a moral wickedness which Allah would punish, the wealthy merchants of the city were offended. He attacked idolatry which posed an economic threat to those who operated shrines to deities that attracted pilgrims and merchants to Mecca. The most important shrine was a black rock, most likely a meteorite, which was thought to be the dwelling of a powerful god. The rock was housed in a cube-like building known as the Kaíaba. Muhammad constantly attacked the idolatry of worship at the Kaíaba, which drew worshipers from all over Arabia, and thereby brought in substantial income to the city. The end result was the Muhammad and his followers were increasingly persecuted.

Many followers fled to Abyssinia (modern Ethiopia) to avoid persecution. In the year 622, Muhammad himself fled Mecca and joined followers in the city of Yathrib, a rival trading city. The Muslims called their new home Medina, meaning "the city of the Prophet.") Muhammadís flight to Medina constitutes the hijra or hegira, meaning "migration." The year, 622, is the year One on the Muslim calendar.

In Medina, the Muslim community continued to grow. Muhammad organized them into a community known as the umma, literally "the community of the faithful." He provided that community with a comprehensive legal and social code, led them in daily prayers to Allah and in battle against their enemies in Medina and Mecca as well as in other areas. At times he organized raids against caravans from Mecca to provide for the communityís economic needs; but remembering his own difficult childhood days, he provided relief for widows, orphans, and the poor. Giving alms became a prime moral virtue.

While at Medina, Muhammad began to refer to himself as "the prophet," or "the seal of the prophets," that is the final prophet through whom Allah would reveal his message. Muhammad accepted the teachings of earlier prophets, and held the Old Testament and the Christian New Testament in high esteem. Allah was, to him, the same God worshiped by both Christians and Jews; he was omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. His message, however, he taught to be more complete than that made available to Christians and Jews.

The Establishment of Islam in Arabia: Muhammad and his followers had always planned to return to Mecca some day. In 629, they arraigned with the city authorities for a brief pilgrimage to the Kaíaba; but were not happy with this short visit; so they returned in 630 and conquered the city. They forced the elite of the city to accept Islam and imposed a theocratic government dedicated to Allah. They destroyed the pagan shrines and replace them with mosques, which sought to instill a sense of sacredness and community where Muslims gathered for prayers. The only idolatrous monument they did not destroy was the Kaíaba. It still remains as a sacred site for Muslims. Muhammad and his followers denied that the Kaíaba was the home of a deity; but preserved it as a symbol of the greatness of Mecca. Only the faithful were allowed to approach the shrine, and in 632, Muhammad led the first pilgrimage to the site. This became the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca still practiced by devout Muslims.

After Mecca was within their control, Muhammad and his followers began campaigns against Bedouin tribes and other towns. By the time of his death in 632, (shortly after the first hajj, most of Arabia was under Arab control.

Islamic Beliefs: Islamic faith is based on the following principles:

One God (Allah) who is all knowing and all-powerful.

The Day of Judgment will come Ė all faithful must be ready. All actions must be geared towards judgment day, and the rewards of heaven.

The Muslim view of heaven is quite different from the Christian view. To the Muslim, it is a paradise with lush green gardens, refreshing streams of water (an image that would have to be appealing to people who lived in a desert.) The saved would be clothed in rich silk clothing, would lie on brocaded couches, nibble on grapes and other fruits, enjoy delicious beverages, and enjoy the company and services of physically attractive people. Those who suffer and die for the faith are immediately ensured the benefits of heaven. Interestingly, many of these pleasures, such as wine and sexual freedom are strictly forbidden during life; but are rewards for the faithful after death. Those who die fighting for the faith believe that they are leaping into paradise, and are rewarded with 72 virgins.

When one considers this, and considers the fact that those who attacked the U.S., particularly New York on 9/11/01 were all young men with little experience with the opposite sex, one can see how they could be deluded.

Strict moral behavior. No alcohol, gambling, usury, cannot eat pork, sexual impropriety was strictly forbidden.

All persons are equal in the eyes of God. This is one reason why Pakistan, which is Islamic, often comes into conflict with India. India is predominantly Hindu, which stresses traditional inequality through the Caste system; although both were once part of the same country, the differences are severe.

A man is allowed to have up to four wives, but only if he can support them.

Jews and Christians are dhimmis, "people of the book," and therefore should be protected. (the Book being the Hebrew Scriptures).

All Muslims have the obligation of jihad; meaning "struggle," or "self exertion." It typically means a struggle against sin; but oftentimes has been translated to mean "holy war."

The Five Pillars of Islam:

o One should recite the Islamic Creed at least five times each day: "There is no God but God, and Mohammed is his messenger."

o One should pray five times each day; beginning at dawn, and at appointed times during the day. From the minarets of the Mosque, a call to prayer (a loud wailing chant) is the call to prayer, when all bow towards Mecca and pray.

o One has a duty to support the poor.

o During the holy month of Ramadan, one must fast during the daylight hours. One may eat only during nighttime hours.

o If possible, one should make at least one pilgrimage or hajj during his lifetime to Mecca.

Aside from the duties ascribed by the Five Pillars, Islamic holy law known as Sharia developed after Mohammadís death, and offered guidance on proper behavior in almost every aspect of life. It is drawn from the Quran and early accounts of the life and teachings of Muhammad. Guidance on marriage, family life, inheritance, slavery, business, and political authority as well as crime are contained within the Sharia. As a result, Islam became a way of life with social and ethical values derived from religious principles, not just a religious doctrine.

The Expansion of Islam: Muhammad made no provision for a successor after his death, as a result of which many former followers renounced their faith and reasserted their independence in order to break free from control by Mecca. However, military successes allowed the religion to extend its influence beyond Arabia and led to the rapid growth of Islam as an international society.

Immediately after Muhammadís death, his advisors selected one of his closest friends, Abu Bakr, to serve as Caliph. (Deputy) He and other Caliphs led the umma as lieutenants or substitutes for Muhammad. Abu Bakr became head of state for the community as well as chief judge, religious leader, and military commander. Under his command, the followers launched new offensives against towns and clans that had renounced Islam after the death of the prophet. Within a year, they were compelled to accept Islam and the rule of the Caliph.

Islamic forces, fighting with the zeal of new converts, attacked the Byzantine and Sassanid empires at a time when both were weakened form conflicts with each other and from the uprisings of overtaxed peasants and repressed ethnic and religious minorities. Between 633 and 637, a scant few years after the death of Muhammad, they had captured Byzantine Syria and Palestine, as well as Mesopotamia. They later conquered Egypt and North Africa, and in 651 brought down the Sassanid dynasty. Persia was incorporated into the Islamic Empire. Subsequently, they extended their authority into Northern India, northwest Africa, and also crossed the Straits of Gibraltar into the Iberian Peninsula from whence they threatened the Franks in Gaul.

Even though it expanded rapidly, the Islamic Empire faced internal problems, primarily the method of selecting Caliphs. Immediately after Muhammadís death, leaders of the most powerful Arab clans had negotiated among themselves and appointed the first four Caliphs. Differences arose, and led to the formation of two separate sects of Islam:

The Shia sect, which became the most important and lasting of the alternatives, and observed by the majority of Muslims. Shia Islam originally supported the appointment of Ali and his descendants as Caliphs. Ali, Mohammadís cousin and son-in-law, had been candidate for Caliph after the death of Muhammad, Abu Bakr had more support. He later was chosen fourth Caliph, but was assassinated, and most of his relatives killed by a group who proposed their own candidate for Caliph. Aliís followers organized the Shia ("party") and fought furiously to return the Caliphate to Aliís line. The Shia adopted doctrines and rituals separate from the other faction, the Sunni ("traditionalist") group, who accepted the early Caliphs as being legitimate rulers.

Shiite Muslims observe holy days in honor of leaders and martyrs to the cause. They teach that the descendants of Ali are infallible, sinless, and divinely appointed to rule the Islamic community. They also support interpretations of the Quran that support the partyís views.

The problem of succession was temporarily resolved by the establishment of the Umayyad dynasty. Although descended from a powerful Meccan merchant family, they established their capital at Damascus, Syria and ruled from that city. Their tightly centralized rule and favor shown to fellow Arabs caused problems, however. They ruled the House of Islam as conquerors and their policies reflected the military aristocracy of Arabia. Members of the elite were appointed as administrators of conquered peoples, and they distributed wealth which they extracted from conquered territories among this class.

Discontent from ethnic and religious minorities in the empire caused problems. This included Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Buddhists; Indians, Persians, Greeks Egyptians, and nomadic Berbers. Although the Umayyad rulers allowed most of these groups to observe their own religion, they levied a head tax, the jizya on those who did not convert to Islam. Those who did convert were still not entitled to the wealth or authority enjoyed by the Arabic Umayyads and their supporters. Over time, the Umayyad rulers garnered resentment as they devoted themselves to luxurious lifestyles rather than leadership of the umma. Their lackadaisical attitude to Islamic doctrine and morality offended devout Muslims. Soon they faced resentment from the Shiites as well as from the conquered people within their empire.

The Abbasid Dynasty: The end of the Umayyad dynasty came at the hands of Abu-al-Abbas; a Persian Sunni who allied with Shiites and other converts from Southwest Asia He and his followers seized control of Persia and defeated the Umayyad forces in a major battle in 750. Thereafter, he invited remaining members of the Umayyad clan to a banquet to discuss reconciliation; but had their leaders arrested and slaughtered in the midst of the celebration. He then founded the Abbasid dynasty which led the community until conquered by the Mongols in 1258.

Abbasid rulers did not show favoritism to the Arab military elite as had the Umayyads. Persians, Egyptians, and Mesopotamians all held positions of power and wealth. It also was not a conquering dynasty, as had been the Umayyad; although there were occasional military campaigns. They often fought with nomadic people from Central Asia and on occasion with the Byzantines. In 751, an Abbasid army defeated a Chinese army at the Talas River near Samarkand. The Battle of Talas River marked the end of the expansion of Chinaís Tang dynasty into Central Asia, and also allowed the expansion of Islam to the Turkish people.

The House of Islam, dar-al-Islam, grew during the Abbasid era, but not as a result of military campaigns by the Caliphs. Islamic forces led naval expeditions from Tunisia into the Mediterranean and conquered Crete, Sicily and the Balearic Islands. They also seized territories in Cyprus, Rhodes, Sardinia, Corsica, and Southern France. At one point, in 851, an Islamic army attacked and sacked Rome itself. During that attack, they carried off most of the gold and silver in St. Peterís Basilica.

Abbasid rulers were satisfied to rule the Empire they had rather than expand it. They borrowed heavily from old Persian ideas on how to rule a polyglot Empire. Their capital was in Baghdad with governors who represented the caliph in the provinces who implemented his policies. Officials known as ulama ("those with religious knowledge") and quadis ("judges"0 settled disputes and set moral standards. They were not priests, but had a formal education that emphasized the study of the Quran and the sharia. The ulama were pious Islamic scholars who attempted to develop public policy in accordance with Islamic law and custom. The quadis heard legal cases and rendered opinions. The Abbasid Caliphs also maintained a standing army and established ministries of taxation, coinage and a postal service. They also maintained the old Persian road system which they inherited from the Sassanids.

During the reign of Caliph Harun al Rashid, Baghdad became a center of commerce and banking. It boasted a population of several hundred thousand people. Haran al Rashid became a liberal patron of the arts and not only bestowed lavish gifts on his favorites; he distributed money to the poor by tossing coins into the streets. He reportedly sent an elephant and a collection of rich gifts to the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne. After Harunís death, however, the dynasty entered a state of decline. His sons often fought with each other over the right of succession and provincial governors took advantage of the discord to act independently. They built up their own power base and often even seceded from the Abbasid state. Uprisings and peasant revolts also weakened the empire. Abbasid Caliphs soon became only figureheads long before the Mongols ended their reign. At various times, members of a Persian family seized control, and later, the Seljuk Turks from central Asia controlled the state. By the eleventh century, the Seljuk Turks, who had previously allied with the Abbasids and converted to Islam, controlled the empire. They took control of Baghdad and extended their authority to Syria and Anatolia. They were the true source of power for almost two hundred years. The Turkish term for their commander was Sultan, meaning "ruler."