24 September 2015

#History of World Civilization, Day Twenty-Four


What were the basic tenets of Islam, as taught by Muhammad?

The basic tenets of Islam are described in what Muslims call the Five Pillars of Islam. These are the basic beliefs that all Muslims must strictly observe in order to prove their devotion to the faith.

First, they must profess the “Shahadah,” or creed of Islam. “There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his messenger.” Islam is a monotheistic faith devoted to “Allah,” sometimes but not often referred to as “God,” as revealed in the Quran. Muhammad is believed to be the only direct messenger of Allah, although they nominally claim the history of Abraham (whom the Jews consider their father) and accept the authority of Judaism’s Old Testament prophets, except when they conflict with the Quran.

Second, believers must practice daily prayers, five times a day, at specific times if possible. These prayers are believed to be direct communication with Allah, expressing worship, devotion, and gratitude. They should be recited in Arabic and the worshipper must prostrate himself in the direction of Mecca, specifically facing the Ka’ba, located in the center of Islam’s holiest mosque, the Al-Masjid al-Haram, the holiest site in Mecca, which is the holiest city in Islam. The Ka’ba is a square building housing a black stone that, according to the Quran, was built by Abraham and his son, Ishmael. Some modern scholars believe the building was originally a pagan Nabatene temple.

Third, Muslims that can afford to must give Zakat (alms) to the poor and needy. This is a requirement, not a voluntary donation, and is reckoned as 2.5% of one’s assets per year. Devout Muslims are encouraged to give more as a voluntary offering called “sadaqah” (charity).

Fourth, Muslims must fast (abstain from eating food, sometimes from food and water) during the daylight hours of the holy month of Ramadan, the ninth month of the (lunar) Islamic calendar, corresponding to 18 June to 16 July in 2015 on the Gregorian calendar. Muslims fast for much the same reason some Christians do, to focus one’s attention on God, express dependence on and gratitude for one’s material blessings, and to encourage repentance from sin.

Fifth, at least once in the believer’s life, any physically and financially able Muslim must make the Hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca during the holy month of Dhu al-Hijjah, the last of twelve months in the Islamic calendar. Millions of pilgrims descend on Mecca every year for this enormous event, involving several rituals intended to mimic events in the life of Abraham. Since a 2009 census estimated a worldwide population of 1.57 billion Muslims, and in 2014, the Saudi Arabian government reported a little over 1.4 million pilgrims that year, it seems that it would take some 1,121 years for all of them to make the pilgrimage, even without duplicates. Clearly, a fair number of Muslims need to get on the stick.

Explain the success of Islam as it spread across Arabia and the entire Middle East. Why was Islam successful in converting and conquering so much territory in such a short period of time?

Despite a significant and enduring split in the seminal Muslim umma (the collective community of all Muslims) over the proper succession of the caliph following the death of Muhammad in 632 AD, Islam spread rapidly from its birthplace in Arabia. The doctrines of Islam, condensed into the Five Pillars, were relatively easy to learn and follow, even without years of studying the Quran. The extreme devotion of its followers should not be overlooked. Muslim merchants and travelers were not shy about discussing their faith, zealously sharing Islamic teachings with anyone who would listen, and many who would not.

A significant factor however, is a relatively unique religious concept known as “jihad.” The word literally means “struggle,” i.e. the struggle of Islam to convert non-Muslims. For many Muslims, however, the practical meaning was “holy war.” Muslim armies fought to subdue the lands they entered, spreading both the religious and political dominance of Islam as they conquered their neighbors. The Bentley text euphemistically refers to Islamic warriors “compelling” populations to “convert” to Islam. While in many places the new Islamic rulers were ostensibly lenient with people of other faiths, areas conquered by the Muslims did not doubt who was in charge, nor that it was beneficial for one’s prosperity, if not longevity, to at least profess Islam and keep one’s real beliefs out of sight.

Despite being most often outnumbered, Muslim armies were militarily successful in most conflicts. They were particularly adept at desert warfare, and zealous, if not fanatical. Two primary dynasties, the Umayyad and the Abbasid, ruled Islamic administration for more than 500 years. The rise of Muslim militarism came at an unfortunate time for their two primary opponents, the Byzantine and Sassanid (Persian) Empires, who were weakened by internal strife and external assault. By 800 AD, the Abbasid Empire controlled a huge swath Arabia, Central Asia, Persia, Syria, Egypt, North Africa, and has established a significant presence on the Iberian Peninsula.

Describe the Umayyad and Abbasid dynasties. How were they different? What happened to these dynasties?

The Umayyad dynasty was founded following the First Muslim Civil War in 661 AD by Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan, who had been governor of Syria. He established his capital in Damascus, not Mecca as previous caliphates had been. It was notably tolerant of non-Muslim populations, which enjoyed remarkable autonomy, albeit in a social class below Arab Muslims and Non-Arab Muslims. The empire treated non-Arab Muslims markedly different from Arab Muslims, which led to civil strife.

Expansion continued under the Umayyad, and at its peak it was the largest empire the world had yet seen, stretching from the Northern border of India through Persia, Arabia, Syria, North Africa, and most of the Iberian Peninsula. The caliphate became more of an administrative entity than a religious institution, although the Umayyad rulers were still devout Muslims who considered themselves the true and rightful leaders of Islam. Mass conversions in these conquered lands greatly increased the Muslim population, but reduced the numerical supremacy of Arab Muslims.

Heavy taxation, the increasingly lavish lifestyle of the caliphs, and the altered balance of power as well educated non-Arabs gained in number led to civil dissatisfaction with Umayyad rulers. Non-Arab Muslims resented the preferential treatment given to Arab Muslims, and felt this violated Islamic teachings of equality. Further, the Umayyad rulers led what ordinary Muslims considered greedy and luxurious lives, also in violation of the Quranic traditions. Non-Arab Muslims and non-Muslims found a common grievance in the blatant discrimination by the Umayyad, who forbade anyone who was not an Arab Muslim from holding political or most bureaucratic offices, living in certain areas, even wearing traditional Arab dress. A series of rebellions and a civil war over disputed succession culminated in the overthrow of the Umayyad by the Abbasid in 750 AD.

The Abbasid Dynasty claimed decent from Muhammed through his uncle, Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib. They styled themselves as returning the caliphate to the true bloodline, as well as turning the empire back to the teachings of the Quran, which they felt the Umayyad had abandoned. They moved the capital from Damascus to the newly established city of Baghdad on the Tigris River in modern Iraq. They achieved the overthrow of the Umayyad by uniting diverse factions; non-Muslim Arabs, non-Muslims, and Arabs who felt the Umayyad had become decadent and violated the teachings of the Quran.

This grand alliance almost immediately produced problems. The inclusive Abbasid angered the Arab Muslims. The Abbasid caliph delegated more authority to regional governors, known as viziers. Over the next few centuries, the Abbasid caliph steadily became more of a figurehead, as regional authorities claimed greater autonomy. Baghdad itself flourished as a center of wealth, art, and culture. The sole surviving member of the Umayyad family fled to Iberia and founded his own rival capital. The Abbasid shattered into dozens of de facto states, retaining nominal control from Baghdad until being overtaken by the Selijuq Turks in 1055 AD. The Turks were the real power behind the throne until the Abbasid Dynasty (as it was still euphemistically known) was finally extinguished by the Mongols in 1258 AD.

Both dynasties expanded the reach of Islam and the size of their empires, but by different means. The Umayyad expanded by conquest, and created a distinctively Arab caliphate by excluding non-Arab Muslims and people of other faiths. The Abbasid rose to power by forming a coalition of Umayyad enemies, and expanded their kingdom by inclusive policies and lenient delegation of authority. However, in some ways, their strategy backfired. They found it too difficult to exert even modest control and taxing authority over their far-flung territories. As history often records, a series of rebellions, civil war, and declarations of independence by regional caliphs left the Abbasid weakened, and the Selijuq Turks finally knocked them from the tree.

What was the status of women in the early centuries of Islam?

Early in the history of Islam, women enjoyed nearly equal status with men. While still a patriarchal society, women had rights uncommon to most classical societies. They could own property in their own names, operate businesses, inherit property, and initiate divorce proceedings. Dowries had to be paid directly to the bride, not her husband or male guardian. However, while men were allowed to have up to four wives (following the example of Muhammed); women were allowed only one husband at a time. As Islam grew and developed, the rights of women eroded and Islamic society and law became increasingly patriarchal. Muslims adopted veiling practices of Persian and Byzantine societies, eventually evolving into the hajib, covering everything except the face and hands in public.

How did Persia, India, and Greece influence the realm of Islam?

Islam has arguably been a religion of conquest since Muhammad himself led his armies against the Quraysh. It is unquestionably one of the most expansionist religions in history, and its broad and rapid spread brought it into contact with many diverse people groups. Whether benignly or not, the caliphate subjected much of the Eurasian and North African world to Islamic rule. Islam controlled the lands of Persian, Indian, and Greek culture, and each of these societies left their imprint on Islam, as it left its imprint on them.

From the Persians, the Muslims learned much about governing their newly founded empire. Persian methods of administration helped the caliphate integrate its holdings efficiently, maximizing economic, trade, and taxing opportunities. The Persian kings left a legacy of the king as a wise, benevolent shepherd of his people, who happened to also be an absolute dictator. Although Arabic was the official language of the empire, Persian was the language of the arts, and classic literature such as The Arabian Nights was collected at this time.

Although Islam would not make significant conquests in the Indian subcontinent until the twelfth century, trade and travel between the two domains flourished from the start of the Muslim expansion. The Indians had made significant advances in science, medicine, astronomy, and mathematics. Most importantly, Hindi gifted the Muslims, and the world, with numerals. This system of numbers greatly simplified calculations, with all sorts of applications from astronomy to bookkeeping. Indeed, for modern folk, it is hard to imagine a world without numbers. This computer would not exist, and students would still be inscribing their homework with quill and ink.

The Islamists also greatly admired Greek thinkers. Aristotelian rationalism greatly influenced Islamic thought, particularly in the Caliphate of Cordoba on the Iberian Peninsula. Greek science and mathematics, especially algebra, prepared the foundations on which Muslim advances would be built. It is nice to know that high school and college students have the Greeks to thank for that awful letter-based math course they are required to take.

Describe the political divisions in the Islamic world after Muhammad.

Muhammad left no instructions for choosing a successor after his death. In this vacuum, two schools of thought emerged that still bitterly divide Muslims today.

The majority of Muslims identify as Sunnis. Sunnis believed that the proper successor for the Prophet was his closest companion and father-in-law, Abu Bakr, and installed him as the first caliph. They subscribe to the belief that the leader of the community should reflect the consent of the community, much like the later European notion of the “consent of the governed.” Sunnis consider themselves the true, or orthodox version of Islam, and vigorously persecuted Shiites. The twentieth century president of Iraq, Saddam Hussein, was a Sunni Muslim, who reputedly destroyed Shiite holy sites and murdered thousands, perhaps hundreds of thousands of Shiite civilians.

The Shia, a small but significant minority of Muslims, supported the divine appointment of Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib as the first caliph (substitute) for Muhammad, and the first Imam. As the last and only true prophet of Allah, Muhammed had no heir who would inherit a position of equality, but merely a successor to lead Islam in his absence. Shia consider blood relation to Muhammad a necessary requirement for an Imam, and ascribe to them special divine dispensations for rulership, such as spiritual authority and infallibility. Although Ali actually served as the fourth caliph, his reign was short and he was assassinated while in prayer. His eldest son, Hasan, attempted to succeed to the caliphate, but his Sunni rival, Muawiyah, forced him to capitulate. Sunnis have dominated Islam ever since.

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