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Setting the Stage The Prophet
A. The Question of Succession B. The Golden Age of Islam C. Fragmentation and Consolidation
III. The Rise of Islam
Before the Prophet
Islam was born in a desert town, but its story stretched far beyond the borders of the Arabian peninsula. Understanding its history will require a comprehension of the size and scale of the Asian continent. The following section is an overview of the history of Southwest Asia up until the major empires that surrounded Arabia at the dawn of Islam.
Trade in aromatics (such as frankincense and myrrh) and spices connected ancient Arabia, Egypt, India, and Africa.
Mecca was one of the key cities along this route.
The Incense Road connects with the Silk Road.
TRIVIA: Who were the ‘Three Wise Men’?
From the Gospel of Matthew: “After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star in the east and have come to worship him... On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshipped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold and of incense and of myrrh.”
A Magi was an astronomer and a follower of Zoroaster. To the east of Judea is Persia. Gold, frankincense and myrrh were all goods traded along the Incense Road.
The Birth of Islam
By 600CE, at the dawn of Islam’s birth,
The Christian Byzantine Empire in Europe and the Zoroastrian Sasanid Empire were exhausting each other through a rivalry that would end by 627. In the Arabian peninsula, the caravan town of Mecca was quickly becoming a prosperous trading center, ushering in urban and commercial changes that put pressure on traditional institutions. Throughout Arabia were the Bedouin tribes who lived on herding and sporadic raids (ghazu) on settlements and caravans.
Tribes were bound together by the muruwah spirit which emphasized courage in battle, patience in suffering, and vengeance to protect the tribe. Most of the tribes were polytheistic, and Mecca served not only as a trading center but a place for the different tribes to house their idols in the Kabah. Tribes living closer to the Byzantine and Persian empires were exposed to Judaism and Christianity, thus the concept of a monotheistic faith is not alien to the Arabs. The Bedouin were gifted poets; oral recitation was a sacred ritual.
Just three things:
1. What was Arabia like before the coming of Islam?
2. What was Muhammad like as a person? 3. How was monotheism a radical idea at that time?
Muhammad (570 to 632) was raised an orphan in a less well-to-do tribe called the Quraysh. He married Khadija and exposed himself to the commercial lifestyle in Mecca. However, he grew increasingly troubled by the idolatry, worldliness, and lack of social conscience around him.
This opened him up to a profound religious experience that would change his life when he was 40 years old.
At first, Muhammad wasn’t well received in his home town of Mecca.
His preaching against their traditional gods and goddesses threatened both (a) their ancestral ways and (b) the Meccan pilgrimage shrine and the lucrative trade it attracted. He fled Mecca in 622 for the town of Yathrib (later Medina) who requested his wisdom in helping them resolve a conflict.
The migration to Medina in 622 is called the hijrah. It is the start of the Muslim calendar and the beginning of the first ummah. Allegiance to the ummah Honesty in public and personal affairs Modesty in personal habits Abstention from alcohol and pork Fair division of inheritances Improved treatment of women Careful regulation of marriage and divorce
Muslim faith is concretized in the Five Pillars of Islam which had an underlying social justice message. I. II. III. IV. V. Shahadah Zakat Sawm Salat Hajj (profession of faith) (charity) (fasting) (ritual prayer) (pilgrimage to Mecca)
Muhammad made faith and harmony among people accessible so long as they ‘submit’ to Allah.
In addition, Muhammad did not see himself as the initiator of a new tradition, but the ‘restorer’ of the original message of God. I. II. III. IV. V. The unity of God Angels Scriptures (the Quran) Prophet-messengers The Last Day
They regarded Jews and Christians as ‘The People of the Book’ who were spiritually superior over the polytheists.
In 630, Muhammad triumphantly returns to Mecca. He casts out idols from the Kabah, declaring the supremacy of the one true God. A tribal confederation is bound by personal allegiance to Muhammad and submission to God.
An Empire of Faith
After Muhammad died in 632, the question immediately turns to who will succeed him.
Abu Bakr, his most gifted student, assumed command of the ummah. He is called the caliph.
“O Men, if you have been worshipping Muhammad, then know that Muhammad is dead. But if you have been worshipping Allah, then know that Allah is living and never dies.” With this, the ummah transcends loyalty to a particular person, but to God himself.
However, some contested that the successor should be a relative of the prophet. His closest relative, his cousin Ali, became the caliph in 656 but was largely contested by rival parties.
He was murdered in 661 and his bloodline was eradicated when his son, Husayn, was murdered at Karbala, in Iraq, at the year 680. Loyalists (partisans, Shia) of Ali claim he is the true imam. Other claimants to the title imam soon followed.
1. The Byzantine and Persian empires were weak and vulnerable. 2. Islam bound the once separated tribes together. Coupled with their experience in warfare, this contributed to incredibly high asabiya. 3. Other people were ready to accept Islam, especially with its emphasis on having no clergy and focus on social justice. 4. Muslims were tolerant and protected their subjects. They did not force conversion and allowed others to continue with their own faith and laws provided they pay a tax (jizyah). 5. Muslims adopted existing systems of government and trade.
The Golden Age of Islam
The Umayyad and Abbasid periods are considered “The High Caliphate” where a politically strong, culturally vibrant, and economically wealthy system led to a “Golden Age” for Islam.
During the Abbasid dynasty, the following emerged:
1. Ulama (“persons of right knowledge”) argued that Muslim law must be
derived from the practices (sunnah) and sayings (hadith) of the Prophet Muhammad, the Perfect Man.
2. Shariah law became the Muslim’s definitive guide for legal, social,
commercial, political, ritual and moral concerns.
3. Sunni Islam was concretized, following three prinicples
1. 2. The umma is a theocracy, ruled by shariah law The caliph is charged with administering the ummah and protecting the Dar al-Islam. A person who professes the shahadah is a Muslim, and those who commit a mortal sin is excluded from the ummah.
In the final years of the Abbasid, the caliphate weakened as power devolved to local leaders such as the amir and religious authorities such as the ulama. One can argue that Islam has a historical tendency to be fragmented (as opposed to China which had a tendency towards unification). 1. Islam is egalitarian; the Quran never really talks about centralized authority. 2. Muslims were an inherently mercantile people. Trade and commerce would flourish with or without the state.
The Muslim world was embroiled in a conflict with Christianity. From 1095 to 1291, the Holy Roman Empire fought to seize control of Jerusalem.
In 1216, Genghis Khan led the Mongols into Persia and Mesopotamia. By 1258, Baghdad is burned and looted.
Between 1450 and 1650, Islamic culture and statecraft blossomed. Instead of one universal empire however, there emerged three, distinctively “Islamic” states. • • • Ottoman Empire in the Middle East Safavid Empire in Iran Mughal Empire in India
By 1700, Islamic civilization was as strong and vital as Europe, Ming China, and Tokugawa Japan.
© Martin Benedict Perez 2011
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