History of Islam
Islam is a major world religion, founded in Arabia and based on the teachings of Muhammad, who is called the Prophet. The Arabic word islam literally means “submission,” but as a religious term in the Koran, it means “submission to the will or law of God.” One who practices Islam is a Muslim. According to the Koran, Islam is the primordial and universal religion, and even nature itself is Muslim, because it automatically obeys the laws God has ingrained in it. For human beings, who possess free will, practicing Islam does not involve automatically obeying but rather freely accepting God’s commandments. A Muslim is a follower of the revelation (the Koran) brought by Muhammad and thus is a member of the Islamic community. Because the name Muslim is given in the Koran itself to the followers of Muhammad (Koran 22:78), Muslims resent being called Muhammadans, which implies a personal cult of Muhammad, forbidden in Islam. They also object to the spelling Moslem as a distortion of Muslim. Although exact statistics are not available, the Muslim world population is estimated at more than 1 billion. Islam has flourished in diverse climatic, cultural, and ethnic regions. It has begun to grow rapidly in the U.S. The major groups comprising the world community of Islam include the Arabs (North Africa and the Middle East); sub-Saharan Africans (from Senegal to
Somalia); Turks and Turkic peoples (Turkey and Central Asia); Iranians; Afghans; the Indo-Muslims (Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh); Southeast Asians (Malaysia, Indonesia, and the Philippines); and a small percentage of Chinese. In Europe, Islam is the second largest religion after Christianity. In Muhammad’s time (c. 570–632), the Arabian Peninsula was inhabited by nomadic Bedouins engaged in herding and brigandage, and by city-dwelling Arabs engaged in trade. The religion of the Arabs was polytheistic and idolatrous. Nonetheless, an old tradition of monotheism, or at least a belief in a supreme deity, existed. Jewish and Christian communities probably contributed to a growing receptivity to monotheistic doctrines, although neither Judaism nor Christianity proved attractive to the Arabs. A number of monotheistic preachers preceded Muhammad but had little success. Muhammad Muhammad began his ministry at the age of 40, when, he claimed, the archangel Gabriel appeared to him in a vision. Muhammad confided to his family and close friends the substance of this and succeeding visions. After four years he had converted some 40 persons to his views, and he then began to preach openly in his native city of Mecca. Ridiculed by the Meccans, he went in 622 to Medina. It is from this event, the Hegira that the Islamic calendar is dated. At Medina, Muhammad soon held both temporal and spiritual authority, having been recognized as a lawgiver and prophet. Arab and Jewish opposition to him in Medina was crushed, and war was undertaken against Mecca. Increasingly, Arab tribes declared their allegiance to him, and Mecca surrendered in 630. At his death in 632 Muhammad was the leader of an Arab state growing rapidly in power. Muhammad’s central teachings were the goodness, omnipotence, and unity of God and the need for generosity and justice in human relations. Important elements from Judaism and Christianity were incorporated into the emergent religion, but it was rooted in the pre-Islamic Arabic tradition; such central institutions as the pilgrimage and the Kaaba shrine were absorbed, in modified form, from Arabic paganism. Muhammad, in reforming the pre-Islamic Arabic tradition, also confirmed it. The Classical Period During the first centuries of Islam (7th–10th cent.), its law and theology, the basic orthodox Islamic disciplines, were developed. Theology is next in importance to law in Islam, although it is not as essential as Christian theology has been to Christianity. Theological speculation began soon after Muhammad’s death. The first major dispute was provoked by the assassination of the third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan (575?–656), and subsequent political struggles. The question was whether a Muslim remains a Muslim after committing grave sins. A fanatical group called the Kharijites maintained that the commission of serious sins, without due repentance, excludes even an observant Muslim (who continues to subscribe to the articles of faith) from the Islamic community. Good works, therefore, and not just faith, are essential to Islam. The Kharijites came to regard almost all Muslim political authorities as impious, and after numerous rebellions, they were finally suppressed. A more moderate faction of Kharijites, called Ibadites, survived, however, and still exists in North and East Africa, Syria, and Oman. The Mutazilites The translation of Greek philosophical works into Arabic in the 8th and 9th centuries resulted in the emergence of the first major Islamic theological school, called the Mutazilites, who stressed reason and rigorous logic. The question of the importance of good works persisted, and the Mutazilites maintained that a person who committed a grave sin without repenting was neither a Muslim nor a non-Muslim but occupied a middle ground. Their fundamental emphasis, however, was on the absolute unity and justice of God. They declared God to be pure Essence without attributes, because attributes would imply multiplicity. Divine justice requires human free will, because if the individual is not free to choose between good and evil, reward and punishment become absurd. God, because he is perfectly just, cannot withhold reward from the good or punishment from the evil. As rationalists, the Mutazilites maintained that human reason is competent to distinguish between good and evil, although it may be supplemented by revelation. The theology of the Mutazilites was established as a state creed by the caliph al-Mamun, but by the 10th century a reaction had set in, led by the philosopher al-Ashari (873–935?) and his followers. They denied the freedom of the human will, regarding the concept as incompatible with God’s absolute power and will. They also denied that natural human reason can lead to a knowledge of good and evil. Moral truths are established by God and can be known only through revelation. The views of al-Ashari and his school gradually became dominant in Sunnite, or orthodox, Islam, and they still prevail among most conservative Muslims. The tendency of the Sunnites, however, has been to tolerate and accommodate minor differences of opinion and to emphasize the consensus of the community in matters of doctrine. Medieval Philosophy The Mutazilites were probably the first Muslims to borrow Greek philosophical methods in expounding their views. Some of their opponents used the same methods, and the debate initiated the Islamic philosophical movement, which relied heavily on the Arabic translation and study of Greek philosophical and scientific works, encouraged by the caliph al-Mamun. The first important Islamic philosopher was the 9th-century Arab al-Kindi, who tried to bring the concepts of Greek philosophy into line with the revealed truths of Islam, which he still considered superior to philosophical reasoning. As were subsequent Islamic philosophers of this period, he was primarily influenced by the works of Aristotle and by Neoplatonism, which he synthesized into a single philosophical system. In the 10th century, the Turk al-Farabi was the first Islamic philosopher to subordinate revelation and religious law to philosophy. Al-Farabi argued that philosophical truth is the same throughout the world and that the many different existing religions are symbolic expressions of an ideal universal religion. In the 11th century, the Persian Islamic philosopher and physician Avicenna achieved the most systematic integration of Greek rationalism and Islamic thought, but it was at the expense of several orthodox articles of faith, such as the belief in personal immortality and in the creation of the world. He also contended that religion is merely philosophy in a metaphorical form that makes it palatable to the masses, who are unable to grasp philosophical truths in rational formulations. These views led to attacks on Avicenna and on philosophy in general by more orthodox Islamic thinkers, notably the theologian al-Ghazali, whose book Destruction of the Philosophers had much to do with the eventual decline of rationalist philosophical speculation in the Islamic community. Averroës, the 12th–century Spanish-Arab philosopher and physician, defended Aristotelian and Neoplatonic views against al-Ghazali and became the most significant Islamic philosopher in Western intellectual history through his influence on the Scholastics. Sufism The mystical movement called Sufism originated in the 8th century, when small circles of pious Muslims, reacting against the growing worldliness of the Islamic community, began to emphasize the inner life of the spirit and moral purification. During the 9th century Sufism developed into a mystical doctrine, with direct communion or even ecstatic union with God as its ideal. This aspiration to mystical union with God violated the orthodox Islamic commitment to monotheism, and in 922 al-Hallaj (c. 858–922), who was accused of having asserted his identity with God, was executed in Baghdad. Prominent Sufis subsequently attempted to achieve a synthesis between moderate Sufism and orthodoxy, and in the 11th century al-Ghazali largely succeeded in bringing Sufism within the orthodox framework. In the 12th century Sufism ceased to be the pursuit of an educated elite and developed into a complex popular movement. The Sufi emphasis on intuitive knowledge and the love of God increased the appeal of Islam to the masses and largely made possible its extension beyond the Middle East into Africa and East Asia. Sufi brotherhoods multiplied rapidly from the Atlantic to Indonesia; some spanned the entire Islamic world; others were regional or local. The tremendous success of these fraternities was due primarily to the abilities and humanitarianism of their founders and leaders, who not only ministered to the spiritual needs of their followers but also helped the poor of all faiths and frequently served as intermediaries between the people and the government. The Shiites The Shiites are the only surviving major sectarian movement in Islam. They emerged out of a dispute over political succession to Muhammad, the Shiites claiming that rule over the community is a divine right of the Prophet’s descendants through his daughter Fatima and her husband Ali. The Shiites believe in a series of 12 infallible leaders beginning with Iman Ali and are thus also known as the “Twelvers.” The 12th and last imam disappeared in 880, and Shiites await his return, at which time the world will be filled with justice. Until that time even the best ruler is only half legitimate. The Shiites, in contrast to the orthodox Sunnites, emphasize esoteric knowledge in a charismatic leader rather than the consensus of the scholarly elite. Other Sects Several small sects have developed out of Shia Islam, the most important of which is the Ismailis. The theological ideas of the Ismailis are more radical than those of the Shiites and are largely derived from Gnosticism and Neoplatonism. Ismailis are found mainly in India and Pakistan; others have recently emigrated from East Africa to Canada. An offshoot of Ismailism is the Druze sect, which arose after the mysterious disappearance in Cairo of the Ismaili Fatimid caliph al-Hakim (985–1021). Many Druzes believe al-Hakim to have been an incarnation of God. In 1841 a young Shiite, Mirza Ali Muhammad (c. 1819–50) of Shiraz, in Iran, proclaimed himself the Bab (“gateway” to God) and assumed a messianic role. His followers, called the Babists, were severely persecuted by the Shiite clergy, and he was executed in 1850. Under the leadership of his disciple Mirza Hoseyn Ali Nuri (1817–92), known as Bahaullah, the Bahais (as the group came to be called) developed a universalist pacifist doctrine, declared Bahai to be a religion independent of Islam, and won many converts in the U.S. Islam in the Modern World The stagnation of Islamic culture after the medieval period led to a reemphasis on original thinking (ijtihad) and to religious reform movements. Unlike the primarily doctrinal and philosophical movements of the Middle Ages, the modern movements were chiefly concerned with social and moral reform. The first such movement was the Wahhabi, named after its founder, ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–92), which emerged in Arabia in the 18th century and became a vast revivalist movement with offshoots throughout the Muslim world. The Wahhabi movement aimed at reviving Islam by purifying it of un-Islamic influences, particularly those that had compromised its original monotheism, and by authority of the tradition established by the early idealized community. Other Islamic reformers have been influenced by Western ideas. The most influential reformist of the 19th century was the Egyptian Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905), who believed that reason and modern Western thought would confirm the truth of Islam rather than undermine it, and that Islamic doctrine could be reformulated in modern terms. Sir Muhammad Iqbal is the most important modern philosopher to have attempted the reinterpretation of Islamic doctrines. Other intellectuals in Egypt, Turkey, and India attempted to reconcile with the teachings of the Koran such ideas as those raised by constitutional democracy, science, and the emancipation of women. The Koran teaches the principle of “rule by consultation,” which in modern times, they argued, can best be realized by representative government rather than monarchy. They pointed out that the Koran encourages the study and exploitation of nature, but Muslims, after a few centuries of brilliant scientific work, had passed it on to Europe and abandoned it. They argued that the Koran had given women equal rights, but these had been usurped by men, who had grossly abused polygamy. Although the modernist ideas were based on plausible interpretations of the Koran, they were bitterly opposed by Islamic fundamentalists, especially after the 1930s. The reaction against modernism has been gathering momentum since that time for several reasons. The fundamentalists do not oppose modern education, science, and technology per se, but they accuse the modernists of being purveyors of Western morality. They believe that the emancipation of women, as conceived by the West, is responsible for the disintegration of the family and for permissive sexual morality. Some fundamentalists are suspicious of democracy because they do not trust the moral sense of the masses. Moreover, modernist leaders and officials in some Muslim countries have failed to improve significantly the condition of the mostly poor and rapidly increasing populations of those countries. Finally, and perhaps most important, the bitter resentment Muslims feel toward Western colonialism has made many of them regard everything Western as evil. During the modern period Islam has continued to win new converts, especially among black Africans and some black Americans, to whom its fundamental egalitarianism appeals. Islam and Other Religions Convinced of the absolute truth of Islam, Muslims traditionally have not sought dialogue with representatives of other religions, although medieval Islamic scholars wrote fairly objective works about them. Recently, however, Muslims have engaged in dialogues with representatives of Christianity and Judaism, recognized in Islam as the two other “religions of the book” (based on revelation). Nonetheless, memories of Western colonialism have generated suspicion and impeded ecumenical efforts.