From Hobson's Choice
One of the major religions of the world. It is fairly distinctive in that it regulates both the life of the community and individual members. Because of this, in majority-Muslim societies that came under the unwilling domination of the Trans-European Project, Islam was usually the formative ideology of resistance.
An Extremely Brief Synopsis
Most of what is known about Islam's origins is to be found in the Qur'an, or recitations of the Prophet. According to this account, Muhammad bin Abd'allah (570-632) began to receive messages from God through the Archangel Gibril (Gabriel). Some time after this, he amassed followers with his call for a reform of religious practice in Mecca. Since this conflicted with the commercial interests of Muhammad's own clan, the Quraysh, he was compelled to flee to Yathrib (Medina). Here he became the leader of a radical community.
The year of Muhammad's journey to Yathrib, and his founding of the commonwealth (madinah) there, is the starting point of the Muslim calendar: al-Hijirah 0, or 622 CE in the Western calendar. The period of Muhammad's direct rule over the Islamic community of believers is known as the Salaf; from it, the Sunni denomination Salafism takes its name. During this time there was almost continuous war with Mecca; in 630, the forces from Yathrib conquered Mecca and removed the relics from other Arabian religions from the Kaaba. The rest of the Arabian Peninsula quickly acknowledged Muhammad as leader.
Theology & Implications of Islam
In order to understand Islam, it is useful to have some general familiarity with the region of the Arabian Peninsula and with the various religious traditions that existed there before. The reason for this is, without such knowledge, much of the message makes no sense. Islam represents both a critique of the existing social order and an injunction for a new way of living; it is meant to incorporate solutions to persistent problems faced by the ummah (community of believers).
In order to unify the pursuit of personal righteousness (ma'ruf) with the commonweal, Islam uses the concept of a path (sunnah). Should all society follow this path, one might expect that general well-being will follow. Hence, many of the restrictions in Islam that seem senseless to Europeans and North Americans, are actually quite compelling in the context of the ecology where Islam took root and flourished. Muslims emphasize the importance of the law as unifying Islam. Islam is simple; its legal code is reasonable; its strictures impose humane and civil conduct. Hence, problems in Islam represent efforts to evade the law.
The duties required of Muslims include:
- profession of faith (shahada): "I believe there is none worthy of worship but God and Muhammad is the prophet of God." (ašhadu 'al-lā ilāha illā-llāhu wa 'ašhadu 'anna muħammadan rasūlu-llāh);
- ritual prayer (salah) five times daily, towards the Kaaba in Mecca;
- alms giving (zakat); the foundations of the Muslim social welfare system;
- fasting (sawm) during the month of Ramadan;
- pilgrimage to Mecca (hajj) at least once during one's lifetime.
There are some distinctions between the Shi'a and Sunni understanding of these duties, but they are actually minor.
Islam and Empire
Click on map for larger image
DATES: al-Hijira (622 CE) to the Ottoman Empire (c.1520-1919); mostly, about how this region developed culturally and politically.
The Arabian Peninsula is a world apart from the rest of Islamic civilization. The barriers that matter are the blazingly hot regions surrounding the heartland, the Nejd, and the cruel rocky plateaux that shields the Hijaz. Human settlement in the region was confined to oases and coastal hamlets. As a result, a huge amount of human energy was devoted to communications and trade. One method was via the Gulf and the Red Sea; here, the ease of navigation tended to encourage the development of excellent seafarers, such as the Kuwaitis and the Omanis. In the interior, trade was conducted through caravans running from port cities in Yemen or Oman, to Palestine and Iraq. This lead to several paradoxes of ancient Arabian life.
The first was the absolute sanctity of private property. Communities which did not develop this point of view were bypassed by the caravans, and quite usually reduced by military attacks. For most of the history of the peninsula, heresy was tolerable but disregard of private property rights was not.
The second was a keen recognition of the limitations of individual providentiality. In other words, humans could survive only with the freely-supplied assistance of others. The most providential, clever, and hard-working man could be ruined in an afternoon by a natural disaster or the loss of his flocks. Or, in a society where people made their living on highly specialized crafts that they were taught by their father, the loss of a market could ruin the most conscientious practicioner. When a single hegemonic power, such as the Roman Empire under Trajan, was able to control the Red Sea, then trade naturally bypassed the Hijaz; when the Axumite Empire invaded Yemen, it also disrupted commerce with through the Hijaz.
This paradox lies at the heart of Islam and afffects everything about it. Regardless of whether one is a believer in the divine provinance of the Qur'an or not, one can see how the emphasis in Muslim societies around the world came to reflect their respective, distinct needs (the notion of which Qur'anic injunctions are most urgent varies quite a lot from region to region). In Western societies, the notion that private property is sacred goes hand in hand with the notion that individual initiative is so fundamental that anything alternative is either wicked or foolish. Self-identified "libertarians" in the USA will insist that Social Security has sapped the human impulse to provide for the future; if there were no public services, humans would allegedly supply them on their own (and do a better job). Most socialist movements (outside of Islam) tend to point out the clash between private property rights and social justice; as long as private property rights are a fetish, then it will be impossible for the community to provide for the unfortunate, indigent, members.
In early Muslim societies, this clash was not an issue because Arabs and their early contacts understood private property as khalifa, i.e., the right to enjoy the benefits of a thing, and the stewardship of those benefits according to social norms (usufruct, in Latin). Hence, Sharia (Islamic law) assures private property rights and also imposes what most non-Muslims would regard as highly invasive personal restrictions.
Readers are urged to regard this as neither an endorsement nor a criticism of Islam or Sharia; it does contribute somewhat to explaining why Islam tended to spread to a certain climatological zone (in which water and land usage were extremely sensitive to every community member's conduct), and why Muslim communities outside of this climate region tend to vary according to whether they are surrounded by it (such as Iraq, Iran, and Syria) or whether they lie on the periphery (Turkey, Malaysia, Tanganyika).
For the Arabian Peninsula, the emergence of Islam as a world religion occurred with almost nuclear speed. It was facillitated by the proximity of two completely exhausted empires, that of the Sassanid Persians (which collapsed in a single battle, 636) and Byzantium (which barely attempted to defend its Egyptian and Syrian holdings). The Muslim Arabs instantly won the necessary and sufficient basis of legitimacy that their antecedents lost: they could defend the region and administer order, and the Sassaniya could not.
After the Conquest
The seat of power for the Islamic Empire left Medina almost immediately after Ali became caliph (656); it was relocated to the garrison city of Kufah, in Iraq. By the time Ali was assassinated by an estranged follower (661), power had shifted entirely to the garrisons in Iraq, North Africa, and Syria. The period of constant conquest and civil war had utterly wrecked the republican character of the ummah, and the original core state of the Nejd was now a dumping ground for exiles. The loser of the Sunni-Shi'a civil war, Hussein ibn Ali, was dead, and his descendants, the Shi'a imams, were frequently confined to exile in what is now Saudi Arabia. Arabia itself continued to depend on intermittent commerce for survival, plus the Hijazi religious community.
The first madhhab (school of Islamic jurisprudence) originated in Medina; the others were developed mainly in Iraq, although the founders spent time there. After the 9th century, the Hijaz suffered from political instability, such as the conquest of Mecca by the Ismaili Shi'a of al-Hufuf [930*]; it therefore sank into complete isolation, except for the trickle of hajji via whichever polity that happened to control the Hijaz. After 1000, this was the Ismaili regime in Egypt, the Fatimids; after 1512, it was the Ottoman Turks (except for an interval 1803-1818, when the Saudis conquered the Hijaz). The population of the Peninsula sank to historic lows and was encircled by European protectorates by the mid-19th century.
- ↑ Long before the advent of Islam, Mecca was a center of pilgrimage and worship among the Arabian peoples.
- ↑ The liturgical year in Islam is 354 days in length, so anniversaries occur more frequently in Islam. See Islamic calendar, Wikipedia.
- ↑ For an example of this, see Khalid Baig, "Whose Islam," Albalagh (date unknown). The gist of the article, whose sentiments are entirely commonplace, is that there really are no consequential rifts in Islam and people invoke them solely to weasel out of obvious religious duties.
- ↑ Perhaps Sayyid Qutb (d.1966) would say if he read that. Possibly he would berate me at great length. However, Qutb (usually, and somewhat haphazardly, characterized as the ideologue of modern Islamic militants) himself insisted that the only period of true Islamic rule was the Khilafat-i-Rashida (622-661) plus Mu'awiya's reign (661-680). Mu'awiya I fought and won a fitna with the rashidun caliph, Ali, so I am a bit confused as to how the period 622-656 AND the period 656-680 get lumped together as the golden age of Islam. Obviously Yazid I HAS to be excluded because there's no doubt he killed the grandson of the Prophet, Hussein ibn Ali, a crime for which there may be no forgiveness in Islam. But either one believes the differences between Ali and Mu'awiya could have been resolved (because they are small) or one believes they are fundamental, and therefore either Mu'awiya or Ali was fighting a just war against the other. In which case, the period of the fitna cannot possibly be included as an era of salafiyyah virtue.
Moving right along, we have the problem that somehow, something that the rashidun caliphs did led immediately to two civil wars (fitna) and to the loss of Arab sovereignty (the designation of Syria and Egypt as "Arab" is moden). The splintering of the Islamic polity into multiple warring zones occurred in a period when the Arabian diwan (list of worthies) were sweeping all before them. Qutb himself, ever a bundle of contradictions, blames the conquest of wavering non-Arabs (Social Justice in Islam; Paleo Ideofact), but insists the problem will be fixed when the entire human race is brought into the House of Submission.
Someone reading this site for the first time might imagine I am saying "Qutb's writing proves Islam is an aggressive religion," but I am emphatically not saying any such thing. I am saying that the khilafat-i-rashidun, through global conquest, brought about the destruction of the egalitarian and republican character of the ummah, and even Qutb relies on this argument to explain why the rashidun era was succeeded by fitna. I'll cheerfully add that, in 680, Europe was a miserable backwater with no influence on anyone.
- St. Martin's College Overview Of World Religions—Islam
- Fordham University Internet Medieval Sourcebook— Islam
- Islamic Texts
- Paleo Ideofact: excellent, critical articles on Sayyid Qutb
- Social Theory & Islam
- "Asim Qureshi, Maqāsid and Mill: A Comparison of Basic Justice," Hot Coals