The Islamic World
The Islamic World
I n ancient times, the Middle East produced some of the most outstanding civilizations in the world. First there was Egypt, along with the Mesopotamian civilizations of Sumer, Babylonia, and Assyria; then there were Phoenicia, Israel, Syria, and—far to the east—Persia. During all this time, the least distinguished portion of the Middle East was the hot, dry Arabian Peninsula. The medieval era, however, would see a complete reversal of roles, as the deserts of Arabia produced a mighty faith that swept up the region in a surge of religious passion that remains strong in modern times.
Preparing the way for Islam (300s–632)
In the centuries preceding the birth of Islam (IZ-lahm; "submission to God"), two ancient powers dominated the Middle East. At one end was the Byzantine Empire, which controlled Egypt and, for many centuries, the strip of Mediterranean coastline between Egypt and Turkey. The other great power in the region was Persia, or more specifically the Sassanid (SAS-uh-nid) Empire, which first emerged in a.d. 226.
Words to Know: The Islamic World
- Voluntary sexual relations between a married person and someone other than his or her spouse.
- A type of mathematics used to determine the value of unknown quantities where these can be related to known numbers.
- A type of ornamentation often used in Arab art, combining plant and sometimes animal figures to produce intricate, interlaced patterns.
- The act of insulting God.
- A successor to Muhammad as spiritual and political leader of Islam.
- The domain ruled by a caliph.
- A train of pack animals and travelers journeying through an inhospitable region.
- The wealth that a bride brings to her marriage.
- A military and political leader in Islamic countries, whose domain is called an emirate.
- Deliberately going without food, often but not always for religious reasons.
- A pilgrimage to Mecca, which is expected of all Muslims who can afford to make it.
- A statue of a god that the god's followers worship.
- The supreme spiritual leader in Shi'ite Islam.
- In economics, a fee charged by a lender against a borrower—usually a percentage of the amount borrowed.
- Indo-European languages:
- The languages of Europe, India, Iran, and surrounding areas, which share common roots.
- A faith that teaches submission to the one god Allah and his word as given through his prophet Muhammad in the Koran.
- Islamic "holy war" to defend or extend the faith.
- Describes ideas common to the spiritual heritage of both Jews and Christians.
- The holy book of Islam.
- Lingua franca:
- A common language.
- A slender mosque tower with one or more balconies on which a muezzin stands to call the faithful to prayer.
- A Muslim temple.
- A crier who calls worshipers to prayer five times a day in the Muslim world.
- A person who practices the Islamic religion.
- The belief that one can attain direct knowledge of God or ultimate reality through some form of meditation or special insight.
- An area of study concerned with subjects including values, meaning, and the nature of reality.
- A journey to a site of religious significance.
- Someone who receives communications directly from God and passes these on to others.
- Scientific method:
- A means of drawing accurate conclusions by collecting information, studying data, and forming theories or hypotheses.
- Of the world; typically used in contrast to "spiritual."
- A term describing a number of linguistic and cultural groups in the Middle East, including the modern-day Arabs and Israelis.
- A branch of Islam that does not acknowledge the first three caliphs, and that holds that the true line of leadership is through a series of imams who came after Ali.
- An orthodox Muslim who acknowledges the first four caliphs.
- The mathematical study of triangles, angles, arcs, and their properties and applications.
- A religion, founded in Persia, that taught of an ongoing struggle between good and evil.
Persia had long been a great cultural center, and it produced a religion that influenced the development of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam: Zoroastrianism (zohr-oh-AS-tree-un-izm). Founded by the prophet Zoroaster (c. 628–c. 551 b.c.), Zoroastrianism taught of a supreme deity representing ultimate good, who continually did battle with his satanic opposite. Not long after Zoroaster's time, Persian forces took Babylonia, which had a large population of Jews taken as captives from Israel. The Jews were thus exposed to Zoroastrianism, by then the dominant religion of Persia, and the Zoroastrian idea of a devil entered the Jewish scriptures. (Parts of the Old Testament written prior to this time certainly contained references to evil itself, but there was little concept of a single entity as the source of that evil.) Thanks to the influence of Judaism on Christianity and Islam, the idea of a devil entered those faiths as well. In addition, Zoroastrianism also had an impact on an odd splinter religion known as
Manichaeism (man-uh-KEE-izm; see box, "Manichaeism").
Arabia before Muhammad
In the early 600s, no one would have suspected that the Arabs would soon destroy the mighty Sassanid Empire and nearly destroy the Byzantines on their way to becoming the dominant power in the region—all within the space of one lifetime. Though coastal regions such as Oman (oh-MAHN) in the east and Yemen (yeh-MAHN) in the west enjoyed considerable trade, and trade routes crossed the interior, Arabia was simply a place for goods to pass through on their way between Africa, Europe, and Asia. The hot, dry, center of the peninsula, an area about half the size of the United States, offered little to attract outsiders.
Arabia was a tribal society, divided between the nomadic (wandering) Bedouins (BED-oo-unz) of the desert and the settled peoples of the coastal areas. A dominant cultural center was Mecca, located halfway down the coast of the Red Sea that separated Arabia from Africa. Among Mecca's attractions was a shrine called the Kaaba (kuh-BAH), a cubeshaped building that housed a meteorite. According to the traditions of the Arabs, the meteorite had been hurled to Earth by a deity known as Allah (uh-LAH). In addition to Allah were some 300 other gods and goddesses, whose statues filled the Kaaba; yet Allah was supreme, like the God worshiped by Jews and Christians.
In the tribal environment of Arabia, loyalties were fiercely defended and family was essential. The leading tribe of Mecca was called the Quraish (koo-RESH), and it was into this tribe that one of the most influential figures of all time, Muhammad (moo-HAH-med; c. 570–632), was born. Orphaned at the age of six, he grew up poor and worked hard through his teen years, establishing himself as a thoughtful, trustworthy young man.
A wealthy widow named Khadijah hired him to act as her representative in a merchant business that took him to Syria, where Muhammad undoubtedly gained access to various ideas and traditions, including Judaism and Christianity. Khadijah was some fifteen years his senior, but Muhammad so impressed her that when he was twenty-five she made him an offer of marriage that he accepted. Of their many children, the only one who lived to bear him grand-children was their daughter Fatima (FAT-uh-muh; c. 616–633), whose name means "Shining One."
One of the most interesting religious beliefs to emerge during the Middle Ages was Manichaeism, based on the teachings of the Persian prophet Mani (MAH-nee; c. 216–c. 276). Reflecting both Zoroastrian and Christian influences, Manichaeism taught that the universe was sharply divided between good and evil, and between the spiritual and physical worlds. Adherents to the Manichaean system believed that by practicing an ascetic lifestyle, they could help to defeat evil and open themselves up to great knowledge.
Fearing the new belief system, Zoroastrian priests had Mani skinned alive; however, the influence of Manichaeism grew after its founder's death. In his youth, Augustine was a Manichaean, and the religion continued to exert an influence in the East until the 1200s. The beliefs of the Albigenses, a sect that appeared in France about a millennium after Mani's death, mirrored those of the Manichaeans.
For many years, Muhammad lived the ordinary life of a prosperous merchant; then in 610, when he was about forty years old, he had a vision in which an angel told him that Allah had called him to be his prophet. The vision frightened Muhammad, but gradually he accepted his destiny. During the twenty-two years of his life that remained, he would have some 650 of these revelations, which would become the basis for the Koran (kohr-AHN), Islam's holy book.
In 613, Muhammad began preaching his new faith, focusing on three principal themes: that Allah was the only god and all the other deities in the Kaaba were false idols; that the rich should share their wealth with the poor; and that all men would face a final judgment before Allah. The wealthy Quraish were not enthusiastic to hear this, and eventually their hostility forced Muhammad to leave Mecca along with his family (Khadijah died during this period) and his small band of followers. In 622, they settled in a town thenceforth known as Medina (muh-DEEN-uh; "The City"). Muslims (those who practice the Islamic religion) call Muhammad's flight from Mecca the hegira (heh-JY-ruh), and date their calendar from this event just as Christians date theirs from the birth of Jesus Christ.
Over the next few years, Muhammad led his followers on several raids against trading caravans from Mecca, and this eventually became outright warfare between Mecca and Medina. In one battle, a tiny Muslim force defeated a much larger Quraish army, which won the new religion many followers. In 630, Muhammad's army—by now more than 10,000 strong—took the city of Mecca, whereupon they destroyed the idols in the Kaaba. The latter, and Mecca as a whole, would thenceforth be the spiritual center of Islam, and non-Muslims were forbidden to enter the city.
The Islamic faith
Islam shares many features with Judaism and Christianity, including worship of a single god whose will is revealed in a holy book. East Asian religions such as Hinduism and Buddhism, by contrast, may have holy texts, but usually there is no one book supreme above all others. Islam also holds biblical figures, from Abraham to Jesus, in great esteem. In all, the Koran names twenty-eight true prophets who came before Muhammad; however, Muhammad is clearly understood as the greatest of the prophets. Whereas the Old and New testaments represent the work of many writers over a period of more than a thousand years, Muhammad alone wrote the Koran—or rather, in the belief of Muslims, he received the words of the Koran from Allah.
The Pillars of Islam
The Muslim faith has five central concepts, called "Pillars of Islam." First is the profession of faith, a recognition that "there is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet." Second is the institution of formal prayer at five set times during the day. Each city or town in the Muslim world has a large central mosque (MAHSK), or temple, crowned by a tall minaret—often the highest point in the town—from which a muezzin (moo-ZEEN) calls the faithful to prayer. Worshipers typically roll out prayer mats and bow in the direction of Mecca.
In line with Muhammad's message of charity, the third pillar of Islam is the giving of alms (money or food) to the poor. Fourth is the practice of fasting, or voluntarily going without food for religious purposes, during Ramadan (RAH-muh-dahn), the ninth month of the Islamic calendar. Finally, Muslims are encouraged to undertake a pilgrimage to Mecca, called a hajj, once in their lifetimes if they can afford to do so.
Islam as a political system
Though not one of the five pillars, there is one other concept central to the Islamic belief system: jihad (jee-HAHD), or "holy war." Muslims were expected to defend the faith against persecution or blasphemy, and if necessary to go to war for Islam. Obviously this aided in the spread of Muslim influence following Muhammad's death.
Islam was from the beginning intended both as a religious and a secular system, and eventually a whole system of law developed around it. Muslims were forbidden to loan money for interest, to eat pork, or to drink alcohol. Islamic law also gave women more rights than they had enjoyed under pre-Islamic society. The status of women in Islam has been a subject of particular significance, as some Muslim scholars interpreted Muhammad's teachings to mean that women should have few rights. Yet women played an important role in the foundation of Islam, and though men remained dominant under Muslim law, the Koran offered women a number of new legal protections.
No longer could men take as many wives as they wanted, for instance: now they could have only four, and they had to be able to provide financially for those four. Also significant was the fact that the bridal gift or dowry—that is, the money or holdings the groom received at marriage from the bride's family—now became the bride's property. If the husband divorced her, she got to keep the goods. Divorce remained much easier for a man than for a woman, but a man could no longer divorce his wife in anger and take her back the next day; once divorced, he had to wait three months before remarrying her. And whereas pre-Muslim Arabian society punished women more harshly than men for adultery, the Koranic penalty was the same for both participants: "flog each of them with a hundred stripes."
The Muslim emphasis on giving alms made Islam popular among the poor; so too did its teaching that all men were equal under Allah. Islam viewed other religions with toleration and gave Jews and Christians in captured territories special status. However, those who adhered to a faith other than Islam were not allowed to engage in religious activity outside their churches or synagogues, or to build new houses of worship. Furthermore, non-Muslims had to pay a special tax; to people who did not already feel strongly about their faith, this offered another incentive to convert.
The first wave of conquest (632–661)
Muhammad never clearly named a caliph (KAL-uhf), or successor; thus the first four caliphs—the term became a title for the spiritual and political leader of Islam—were men connected to the prophet through wives he married after Khadijah's death. His favorite wife was Aisha (ah-EE-shah; 614–678), and therefore after Muhammad's death, the first caliph was her father, Abu Bakr (BAHK-ur; ruled 632–34). Next came Umar (ruled 634–44), the father of another wife, and then Uthman (ruled 644–56), who married one of Muhammad's childless daughters. Fourth was Ali (ruled 656–61), the prophet's cousin and husband of Fatima.
When Muhammad died, the Muslims held only the western portion of Arabia; less than thirty years later, the caliphate (KAL-uh-fet) stretched from Libya to Bactria (modern-day Afghanistan), and from the Caspian Sea to the Nile River. Problems over succession, however, threatened to undo these gains and created divisions in the Islamic world that exist even today. Umar was assassinated, and Uthman was killed during a rebellion; Ali, who had opposed the choice of Abu Bakr as first caliph, faced several rebellions himself, including one led by Aisha. He would ultimately be assassinated by members of a breakaway sect, and his assassination would in turn pave the way for a significant division among Muslims.
In the late 900s and early 1000s, a movement known as Sufism (SOOF-izm) appeared in Persia, where it grew out of Shi'ite Islam. Incorporating ideas from Greek philosophy, Christianity, and even Buddhism, it stressed the mystical union of the soul with God. At its foundation were the ideas of Rabia al-Adawiyya (rah-BEE-ah al-ah-dah-WEE-ah; c. 713–801), a freed slave woman. In her poetry, Rabia presented an ideal love for Allah, which was tied neither to fear of Hell nor hope of Heaven.
The most influential Sufi thinker was al-Ghazali (1058–1111), who worked to reconcile traditional Islam with Sufi mysticism. The Sufis also had a strong influence on the poet Omar Khayyám, and in the present day they remain a small but significant group within the Islamic religion.
The Umayyads (661–750)
After Ali's death, Mu'awiya (moo-AH-wee-ah; ruled 661–80), a member of the powerful Umayyad (oo-MY-ahd) family, became caliph. Mu'awiya had opposed Ali vigorously during the latter's lifetime, and though he was not accused of the assassination, it was obvious that he had profited from the death of his old foe. By taking power, he founded a new dynasty that would rule Islam during its period of greatest expansion.
In 680, Ali's son Husayn led a revolt against the Umayyads and was assassinated. His murder became a rallying cause for Shi'ite (SHEE-ight) Muslims, who broke away from the majority group, known as Sunni (SOO-nee) Muslims. The Shi'ites rejected the first three caliphs, and maintained that Ali and the descendants of Fatima, starting with Husayn, constituted a line of infallible leaders or imams (i-MAHMZ). The Shi'ite interpretation of Islam spread among the poorer classes and among non-Arabs—particularly in Iran, where it remains the dominant faith today.
Among the most notable of Islamic territories was Spain, which came under the control of the Moors in 711. The Moors were a nomadic people from North Africa, where the name of the nation of Morocco reflects the region's Moorish heritage. They were a group distinct from Arabs, but the name "Moor" eventually came to mean all Muslim peoples in Spain, both North Africans and Arabs. The latter arrived in 756, when Abd-ar-Rahman escaped Abbasid assassins to establish an Umayyad stronghold in Spain. There he founded what he called the emirate (IM-uh-ret) of Cordoba. An emir (i-MEER) is a type of commander in Islamic countries. Eventually the Umayyad leaders declared themselves caliphs, suggesting that they saw themselves as the legitimate leaders of the Islamic world.
Christian forces held the north of Spain, and scored a major victory when they retook the northern city of Toledo (toh-LAY-doh) in 1085. By then the Umayyad caliphate had fallen, replaced by more conquerors from Morocco: first the Almoravids (al-muh-RAH-vedz) in 1086, and later the Almohads (AL-moh-hahdz) in 1120. During the 1100s, the Christian reconquest of Spain was in full force, and after they conquered Cordoba in 1236, the Christians had the Almohads on the run. The Nasrid (NAHS-reed) dynasty, also from Morocco, ruled during a final period, beginning in 1238; then in 1492, the Spaniards expelled the last Moors from their country.
The Moors left a strong legacy in the form of architecture, the most notable example of which is a magnificent palace called the Alhambra. Thanks to the Arab influence, Spaniards enjoyed a highly civilized lifestyle while the rest of Western Europe remained mired in the ignorance and confusion that characterized the "Dark Ages."
Meanwhile the center of power in the Islamic world shifted
northward to the ancient Syrian city of Damascus, which became the capital of the Umayyad caliphate. The Umayyads soon expanded their boundaries to Spain and North Africa in the west, and India and the edge of China in the east. But this vast realm became difficult to govern; also, the Umayyads had a policy of only allowing Arabs to serve as leaders, and this made them many enemies. In 750 a descendant of Muhammad's uncle Abbas (uh-BAHS) led a revolt and began killing off all the Umayyad leaders. Only one escaped: Abd-ar-Rahman (AHB'd arruh-MAHN; 731–788), who established a dynasty of long standing in Spain (see box, "Moorish Spain").
The Abbasids (750–1258)
One of the first steps taken by the Abbasids (uh-BAHS-idz) was to move the capital from Damascus to Baghdad in Iraq, many miles to the east. The Abbasids would flourish for about 150 years, then rapidly lose power; yet they formally held control for half a millennium. During that time, Islamic civilization had its brightest flowering, producing achievements beyond the imagination of most Western Europeans.
The Thousand and One Nights, better known as The Arabian Nights, contains some of the world's favorite tales: Aladdin and his magic lamp, Ali Baba and the forty thieves, and Sinbad the Sailor. From these stories come such familiar concepts as "Open sesame" (the phrase used by Ali Baba to enter a cave filled with treasure), magic carpets, and the genie in the bottle. The collection's 264 tales, first assembled in the 900s, originated from a variety of Persian, Arabian, and Indian sources. From Persia came the "frame story" that ties all the tales together.
It seems that Sultan Shahriyar (SHAR-ee-yar) had decided all women were unfaithful, so he resolved to marry a new wife each evening, then put her to death the next morning. But his bride Shahrazad (SHAR-uh-zahd), or Sheherazade (shuh-HAIR-uh-zahd), managed to stay alive by beginning a new story each night and finishing it the next night—at which time she
would begin a new tale, and buy herself another night. After 1,001 nights, during which she produced three sons, the sultan gave up his plans to kill off his wives.
During this time, a number of great rulers, most notably Harun al-Rashid (hah-ROON al-rah-SHEED; ruled 786–809), led the caliphate. Harun was the subject of legend and is believed to be the model for the sultan in the Thousand and One Nights (see box); likewise the empire he ruled became legendary throughout the world. At a time when the primitive buildings of the Merovingians constituted Western Europe's greatest architectural achievements, the Abbasids built great mosques noted for the intricacy of their design. While superstition took the place of medicine in Europe, the Arabs founded a school for doctors in Baghdad; and just as European monks were starting to use parchment, the Arabs were learning paper-making from captured Chinese prisoners.
An explosion of knowledge
During the Middle Ages, the Muslim world underwent an explosion of knowledge like the one that occurred in ancient Greece during its golden age (490–404 b.c.) In fact, Arab Muslim scholars kept the Greek classics alive, particularly the works of the Greek philosopher Aristotle (AIR-uhstaht-uhl; 384–322 b.c.). Aristotle may rightly be called the father of the scientific method and the leading proponent of logic, a system of reasoning for testing the accuracy of conclusions. During the period from the 700s to the 900s, at a time when Western Europe was almost wholly ignorant of ancient Greece, writings by Aristotle and other Greeks on everything from medicine to magic were translated into Arabic.
Learning flourished in the great cultural centers of Persia, Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, and the Middle Ages saw the emergence of many great scholars. Most notable among these were Avicenna (980–1137) and Averroës (uh-VEER-uh-weez; 1126–1198). Avicenna, a leading Islamic interpreter of Aristotle, wrote some two hundred works on science, religion, philosophy, and other subjects. Averroës, with his attempts to reconcile religious faith and Greek philosophy, would influence a number of Jewish and Christian thinkers.
Mathematics and science
Along with philosophy, science and mathematical knowledge expanded greatly during a two-century period beginning in about 900. Arab Muslims borrowed a system of numerals developed in India, but the Arabs became so famous as mathematicians that these came to be known as "Arabic" numerals. Arab mathematicians laid much of the groundwork for analytical geometry, algebra (itself an Arabic word), and particularly for trigonometry.
The Arabs put their mathematical knowledge to use in astronomy, greatly improving on the stargazing equipment available at the time. Through observatories along the breadth of the Islamic world, from Spain to Iraq, they charted the movement of the stars. Thus they were able to correct many mistakes of the ancients, mistakes accepted as fact by European astronomers until Arab learning trickled into Europe following the Crusades.
A citizen of Cairo, Baghdad, or Damascus was likely to receive the best medical treatment in the world from physicians who carefully observed the patient's condition before making a diagnosis. Muslim doctors were some of the first to prescribe drugs effectively, and many public hospitals were built in Islamic cities during medieval times.
As in Byzantium, the Islamic world had its own reaction to images
in the 700s. Like the Bible, the Koran forbade the making of graven images or idols, but some took this to an extreme, demanding that no religious buildings include representations of human or animal forms. Outside the mosque, rules regarding representation of living creatures were more relaxed—with one exception. The face of Muhammad himself could not be shown; therefore it was usually represented either with a veil, or covered by a glowing fire.
During the Middle Ages, mosques took on the form that they would retain to the present day, including an open courtyard and "horseshoe" arches modeled on the rounded Roman arches of Byzantium. Minarets became a striking feature of mosque architecture, and the mosques themselves were beautifully decorated in a style of ornamentation known as arabesque (air-uh-BESK). Arabesque, which decorated virtually every available surface, was characterized by graceful flourishes and ornate, flowery lines. Much of it was non-representational, but on secular buildings such as palaces, it might include plants, animals, and even human figures.
Arabic and Farsi
Most peoples of the Middle East today call themselves Arabs. In part this reflects an ethnic heritage, since Arabian tribes in the 600s and 700s intermarried with local populations and extended their influence throughout the region. More significant, however, is the common linguistic heritage of people who speak Arabic, a Semitic language related to Hebrew.
The people of Iran, on the other hand, are distinct from Arabs. Their language, Farsi or Persian, is an Indo-European tongue, meaning that it shares a common heritage with most languages of India and Europe—including English. Ethnically, Iranians are also more closely related to Indians and Europeans than they are to Arabs. Their distinction is reflected in the fact that Iranians embrace the Shi'ite form of Islam rather than the majority Sunni interpretation.
During the Middle Ages, Arab culture and the Arabic language spread throughout the Middle East. Islamic law at that time prohibited translation of the Koran from the original Arabic, which furthered the spread of the language; but the cultural identity of Persia (as Iran was called at that time) was so strong that its people resisted the Arab influence. Persians adopted Arabic-style lettering, yet retained their own language and literature. Eventually Farsi and Arabic both became common languages in the Middle East, often used by people from different groups as a means of communicating.
Arabian music, based on a five-note scale that gave it a distinctive, haunting sound, developed during medieval times. Early Islamic music grew out of oral poetry, with flutes, stringed instruments, and percussion complementing the poet's song. Sometimes professional female dancers also accompanied the performance.
The splintering of the Islamic world (c. 875–1258)
Beginning in about 900, the Abbasid caliphate began to lose power, and the Islamic world gradually broke into a confusing array of competing dynasties. Of these, only a few—in particular, two Egyptian ruling houses—would go on to assume great significance. Gradually the cultural center of Islam moved away from Baghdad to Egypt, the oldest civilization of all. Even today, Egypt is among the leaders of the Islamic world.
Members of the Shi'ite Ismaili (iz-MY-ah-lee) sect founded a dynasty called the Fatimids, named after Muhammad's daughter, that ruled Egypt from 909 to 1171. They established the city of Cairo, maintained a prosperous economy, and flourished for many years before being overtaken by the Ayyubids (uh-YÜ-bidz).
The Ayyubid dynasty came to power under Saladin (SAL-uh-dun; c. 1137–1198). Europeans who fought against him in the Crusades came to admire Saladin as the greatest of Muslim heroes; yet he was not an Arab but a Kurd, a member of a nation closely related to Iranians. The Ayyubid dynasty ruled Egypt from 1169 to 1252, when they were replaced by Turkish slave soldiers called Mamluks.
The rise of the Mamluks (Turkish rulers) would nearly coincide with the destruction of Abbasid power in Baghdad in 1258. By then, Islamic civilization had spread far beyond the Middle East. Word of Muhammad and the Koran had reached India and Southeast Asia, the rocky coastline of Spain, and desert kingdoms in the heart of Africa. Meanwhile, leadership among Islamic peoples had passed to a nation virtually unknown during Muhammad's lifetime: the Turks.
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Hanawalt, Barbara A. The Middle Ages: An Illustrated History. New York: Oxford University Press, 1998.
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