[Below is a
revised version of what I say in my History 121 class about
Islam. Class discussion is likely to move in a different
direction, but the historical narrative below and the readings in
Prothero, Smith, and Novak should help in the understanding of Islam as
a World Religion.]
ROAD TO WHO KNOWS WHERE
ISLAM AND ITS IMPACT ON THE WORLD
Christianity is in general the most successful of the "world"
religions, a religion able to function well as a state-supported,
state-supporting faith, but a religion that arose (and thrived) amid
state opposition, and a religion that can (if need be) survive, not
only without the help of secular authorities, but in the face of
vehement opposition from those authorities.
was a great source of strength both to the Byzantine empire and the
Christian kingdoms that emerged in the West after the collapse of Roman
power. One by one, the Barbarian groups that had threatened Rome
and even annexed much of its territory converted to Christianity.
Once converted, that had an interest in preserving much of Christian
Rome, and many of them inherited the dream of renewing a society like
that of Rome under Constantine. Charlemagne, and the Holy Roman
emperors, for instance, sought to create such societies.
might have grown and spread even more successfully had Christians not
been faced with a great rival religion, Islam. Islam is the 2nd
most successful of the great world religions, and there is at least a
chance that it might supplant Christianity as the world's number one
faith. The likelihood is that Europe will end up majority Islamic in
So where does
this religion come from? Was it created? Discovered?
Revealed? And why is it so successful as a "world"
religion? The place to start is with a look at Muhammad himself.
Life of Muhammad
born in AD 570 in Mecca in what is today Saudi
Arabia. Mecca was hardly the kind of community that one would
expect would produce a world-changing individual. It was
relatively important in the local economy as a center for the caravan
trade and as a site of religious pilgrimage, but it was not a major
player in international affairs, not a place like Rome or Babylon or
Athens, the kind of places that most typically produce world
leaders. Muhammad was orphaned at an early age, and his family
wasn't among the elite types that usually produce world leaders.
At age 25,
Muhammad married a woman named Khadijah. Khadijah was
15 years older than Muhammad, but she was a wealthy woman, and this
marriage had several advantages for Muhammad. It enabled him to
join at least the local elite--but, still, he was by no means even
close to being among the "world changers."
But at age 40
something changed Muhammad's life--and, eventually, the
course of the world. Muhammad began hearing voices--and, at
first, he was troubled, even borderline suicidal. But the voice
assured him that he wasn't going crazy or hearing a demon.
No. Quite the reverse. This was the angel Gabriel
speaking. Muhammad had been chosen by Allah to be his messenger!
Khadijah about the experience--and she believed him,
becoming the first convert to Islam, but not the last. Muhammad
preached his message in Mecca and brought in some additional
was creating trouble in Mecca for people in the religion
business. By teaching that there was only one god, Muhammad was
undercutting those who made money from those involved in the
polytheistic worship ceremonies that had, up to this point, been the
main focus of Meccan religious life. Things got so tense in
Mecca, that, in AD 622 (Year 1 by the Moslem calender), Muhammad's
followers left Mecca for a town to the north, a town at the time called
Yathrib but later called "Madinat al Nevi," the city of the
prophet. We shorten that to Medina.
Muhammad and his followers found wider acceptance and they
were even able to take control. From their base at Medina, they
began attacking Meccan caravans, and the Meccans responded by sending
out forces against Muhammad. After a number of skirmishes, the
forces of Muhammad were eventually triumphant, and, in AD 630, Muhammad
and his men were able to take over Mecca as well. Two years later
(AD 632), Muhammad dies.
seemingly. A footnote to history. None of
the battles fought involved more than a few thousand soldiers or more
than a couple of hundred casualties. Control of Mecca and Medina
wasn't a particularly logical start to controlling a large part of the
world. But shortly after Muhammad's death, his Arab followers
began an expansion nearly unprecedented in history. Within eighty
years, the Moslems controlled an empire that extended west across north
Africa all the way to Spain, dominated Palestine, Syria, and Asia
Minor, and continued east almost to the Indus.
How could this
have happened? Well, Muhammad had created a
religion that united and inspired the Arab people.
What were the
strenghths of this religion, and how did it transform the
Qur'an and the Five Pillars of Islam
One strength of the religion is the Koran (Qur'an), the holy book of
Islam. The Koran is about the same length as the New
Testament. It's language is apparently beautiful and poetic,
making it easy to memorize. But more important than the beauty of
the language: the teaching of the Koran.
themselves often summarize the Koran's teaching in accord with
what are called the Five Pillars of Islam.
summary of the Five Pillars of Islam]
Pillars include the following:
Faith. To be a Moslem was believe certain things.
The basic faith is summarized in what is called the shahada (there is
no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet). The simple
statement of faith is certainly a strength of Isalm. Note
that the is none of the complexity that goes with the Christian
creeds. Say: He is Allah, the One! Allah, the eternally Besought
of all! He
begetteth not nor was begotten. And there is none comparable unto Him.
Prayer. A Moslem is expected 5 times a day to join
public prayer toward the city of Meccas. This is a powerful way
of using social pressure to strengthen religions belief.
Fasting. A Moslem is expected to fast from sun-up to
sundown during the month of Ramadan. Fasting is a powerful tool
in making people focus on their religion faith and to help them feel
they are drawing closer to God.
Alms. A Moslem is expected to give a percentage of their
income to the poor. This is an important way of helping alleviate
class tension in the Islamic world.
Pilgrimage. A Moslem is expected to make a special
pilgrimage to Mecca. This pilgimage, the Haj, is often a
life-transforming even for Moslems. In addition, it brings
together Moslems from all over the world and tends to be a force to
unite them. Whatever else might separate Moslems, they worship
together with other Moslems when they make their Haj.
War. Yes, that's more than five pillars, but holy
war, Jihad, is so important to the growth of Islam that it is almost a
sixth pillar of the religion. Moslem men are promised that, if
they die fighting for their faith, they go straight to paradise where
all sorts of delights await. George Bush talked of Islam as a
religion of peace. This really isn't true. Islam is a
fighting man's religion par excellence, and fighting peoples again and
again have found it an especially appropriate religion. Sura VIII of
the Koran is an entire chapter/book dedicated to instruction on how to
deal with the spoils of war. And while Moslem soldiers are told
they are not to fight primarily for booty, they are certainly entitled
to enjoy what they acquire in the process of extending dominion of
Allah. Here's some of what Muhammad had to say to fighting men:
"Fight in the
path of God with those who fight with you;--but exceed
not; verily God loveth not those who exceed.--And kill them wheresoever
ye find them, and thrust them out from whence they thrust you out; for
dissent is worse than slaughter; but fight them not at the Sacred
Mosque, unless they fight you there, but if they fight you, then kill
them: such is the reward of the infidels! But if they desist, then
verily God is forgiving and merciful.--But fight them till there be no
dissent, and the worship be only to God;--but, if they desist, then let
there be no hostility save against transgressors."
the death of Muhammad, Holy War began in earnest.
Moslems pushed int o Syria and Iraq (633), Egypt (639), Persia (640)
and eventually Spain (711). How were the Moslems able to expand
Reasons for Moslem Success
Moslems were lucky enough to have a series of capable men
at the top, "caliphs." Caliph is sort for a longer phrase that
means "successor of the prophet of God." The Caliphs
were both the secular and spirtitual leaders of Islam, and, in this
case, the "one strong man at the top" thing worked pretty well--as long
as the Moslems agreed on who that man should be. Not
surprisingly, agreement wasn't always easy, and, relatively early, the
Moslems split over who the rightful Caliph was. This is where the
Sunni/Shiite division starts, with the Shiites believing that only the
successors of Ali should have been recognized as Caliphs.
Moslems were able to expand in large part because the two
great powers of the eastern mediterranean had exhausted one another in
years of fighting. The Persians and Byzantines fought each other
for years, and these struggles left both so weakened that they had a
hard time fending of the Moslems.
Christian resistance was half-hearted. Iconoclasts and
Monophysites preferred the rule of Moslems (who would at least tolerate
them) to the rule of "orthodox" Christians that they regarded as
heretics. Iconoclasts in particular prefered the "no images allowed"
policy of the Moslems to the "idol worshipping" orthodox.
Futher, Christians were allowed by the Moslem rulers to keep their
faith: no need to fight and die when one could remain a Christian if
one wanted. Eventually, however, many of the Christians
converted to Islam because of social/economic pressure. A
Christian paid more in taxes than a Moslem, and many Christians
eventually changed their faith just to lower their taxes.
Moslems had a great knack for adapting what they could
from other cultures. The Persian bureaucratic set up, for
instance, was well designed for governing a large, diverse empire, and
the Moslems found it useful to adopt that set up for their own purposes.
had the ability to absorb/assimilate new converts
easily. Even some of the early Caliphs had initially opposed
Muhammad. An enemy, once converted, became your friend and ally.
is exactly what *men* want in a religion. It's a
challenging religion, but not too much of a challenge. It sets
the bar exactly where we want it: not too high, not too low.
Revenge. Where as Christians are told they must turn the
other cheek, Moslems are permitted revenge if they want to take it,
although showing mercy is to their credit:
prescribed for them therein: The life for the life, and the eye
for the eye, and the nose for the nose, and the ear for the ear, and
the tooth for the tooth, and for wounds retaliation. But whoso forgoeth
it (in the way of charity) it shall be expiation for him. Whoso judgeth
not by that which Allah hath revealed: such are wrong-doers. (Surah
Treatment of women. Whereas Christian men are told to
love their wives as Christ loved the church, Islam puts men clearly in
Men are in
charge of women, because Allah hath made the one of them to
excell the other, and because they spend of their property (for the
support of women). So good women are the obedient, guarding in secret
that which Allah hath guarded. As for those from whom ye fear
rebellion, admonish them and banish them to beds apart, and scourge
them. Then if they obey you, seek not a way against them. Lo! Allah is
ever High Exalted, Great. And if you fear a breach between them twain
(the man and wife), appoint an arbiter from his folk and an arbiter
from her folk. If they desire amendment Allah will make them of one
mind. Lo! Allah is ever Knower, Aware. (Surah 4:34-35).
Divorce. Where as Judaism allows divorce but looks on it
as a great negative and Christianity forbids divorce altogether (or, at
least, allows it only very rarely). Islam allows a man to
divorce his wife for any reason just by saying three times "I divorce
in class. I compare/contrast how Islam and
Christianity deal with giving, lust, etc.]