Islam, Development of

Islam, Development of

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

After the death of Muhammad (see Muhammad), Islam quickly spread out from its Arabian base. The first four caliphs ("successors"—see Caliphate) are often called the

"rightly guided caliphs." Abu Bakr, 'Umar, 'Uthman, who was assassinated, and 'Ali, also a victim of assassination, were all early converts and followed the Prophet through the trials and tribulations of his seminal work.

If the movement's beginning seemed marred with violence, it continued with even more dissension and strife. From the very beginning there were those who thought 'Ali should have been the successor to the Prophet. They were known as Shia Ali, the party of Ali. This was later shortened to Shi'ite. By 1502 the Shi'ites became the official ruling body of Persia and today are the principal Islamic sect of Iran. They did not believe revelation ended with Muhammad but that it continued through a series (some say seven and others twelve) of Imams, or religious leaders.

Sunnis, on the other hand, are the traditionalists who believe Abu Bakr was the correct successor, and they attempt to follow the Qur'an and the rule of Islam as Muhammad established it.

A strict following of the Qur'an leads to difficulty in the modern world. Seventh-century Islamic practice, for instance, demands a literal "eye for an eye." It was the law to cut off the hand of a thief. If Islam is the rule of the land, this can be done. But a typical European or American court would not allow such a practice. So the law obviously had to be interpreted and modified. These interpretations are called hadiths, and they were based on the spirit of Qur'an law, rather than its letter. Gradually the Sunnis began to develop a tradition based on three great principles: the Qur'an, the Hadiths, and human reason brought to bear on specific circumstances. Facing the kind of cultural evolution later experienced by Christianity, Islam responded in the same way. It divided into factions. The Hanifites, Malikites, Shafi'ites, and Hanbalites each established geographical spheres of influence that continue to this day.

There are other similarities between the division of Islam and those of Christianity and Judaism. Each developed a mystical expression. Within Judaism it was the Kabbalah (see Kabbalah); within Christianity, the charismatic movement (see Charismatic Movement). Within Islam, it was the Sufi. This was the tradition so often depicted as that of the "Whirling Dervishes" and the Fakirs, those who could walk through live coals of fire.

The world has never experienced a growth in any world religion such as that demonstrated by early Islam. By 635 Damascus had fallen under Muslim control. A quick succession of countries followed: Persia by 636, Jerusalem in 638, and Egypt by 640. Spain, North Africa, the Middle East, India, Pakistan, and even parts of China quickly followed. Europe might have joined the procession had it not been for Charles Martel and the famous Battle of Tours in 732.

This was the "golden age" of Islam. The fabulous culture of Baghdad produced kings who ruled after the order of the Arabian Nights, tales such as that of 'Ali Baba and others. It bore little resemblance to the Islam of today but produced legends that would last for centuries. Lavish palaces, poets and slaves, harems: great wealth and luxury flowed into the hands of those at the top of the social ladder.

But even more important was the standard of scholarship practiced during this time. Libraries were built in which scholars translated Aristotle and Plato into Arabic.

The study of mathematics and philosophy grew by leaps and bounds. Much of what was later destroyed in the Alexandrian Library (see Alexandria) was saved only because Muslim scholars had translated the books there and had taken them to safety throughout the far-flung Islamic world.

The classic golden age of Islam came to an end in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Turkish tribes from central Asia began to make incursions into Iran and Iraq. Baghdad fell, and the caliph there became a mere figurehead. When the fall of Palestine threatened Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land, a series of Crusades (see Crusades) were launched that gradually drained the area of men and wealth. Jerusalem fell to the Crusaders in 1099. Although it was recaptured by Saladin in 1187, the Mongols were able to take advantage of the weakened state, advancing all the way to Baghdad by 1258. They proceeded to destroy the city and executed the last of the great caliphs. It was many years before new Islamic rulers could again carve out their spheres of influence in various parts of the world.

But by 1326, with the founding of the Ottoman Empire under the Turk Osman, Islam surged again. Mecca and Medina came under Muslim control and protection again. More important, Constantinople was captured in 1453 and renamed Istanbul. Music and art flourished, along with massive systems of law and architecture that still stand today. In the East, Persia came back under Shi'ite rule. Mongols converted to Islam in great numbers. India soon fell to the invaders, while leaders such as Babur, a descendant of Genghis Khan, and Akbar became known to the outside world. One of Akbar's successors built the famed Taj Mahal as a glowing example of Islamic art and architecture.

Such a history lesson points to the fact that religion influences politics to a very great degree. Sometimes it's hard to tell where one ends and the other begins. We have to wonder how much influence Islam would have on the modern world, for instance, if huge oil fields hadn't produced vast amounts of money. When Westerners poured into Iran to develop the oil fields, they brought Western culture, schools, towns, stores, and lifestyle. This led to a profound confrontation with Islamic customs and culture. Of course there was a reaction. Westerners thought they were liberating the common people, offering them opportunities they had never experienced before. But the Islamic leadership saw only decadence and loss of control.

When the Shi'ite leadership overthrew the Shah of Iran in 1979 and installed the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini (1900-1989), a fundamentalist reaction affected the whole world. Even women in Cairo, used to wearing Western clothes and walking the streets unattended, now felt the need to wear traditional garb and stay away from compromising situations. Americans were at a loss to understand why the Muslim world of the Middle East looked upon the West with such seething resentment and outright hatred. They simply cannot understand why anyone would want to live under what they considered to be such a strict world of religious intolerance as they are told the Qur'an preaches.

Individual Muslims, as well, are at a loss. All they are told is that America is the great Satan. They do not see help offered. They see only restrictions imposed upon them as if they are a conquered people existing on handouts from America.

The debate following the infamous September 11, 2001, attacks on the World Trade Center in New York and the Pentagon in Washington, D.C., fostered a series of conferences and debates by leading scholars. A conference held in November 2002 at Harvard University was probably typical. Specialists in foreign policy and Islamic tradition debated for three days about the nature of conflict between militant Muslims and the West. Experts such as Bernard Lewis, author of the book What Went Wrong? Western Impact and Middle Eastern Response, and Samuel Huntington, a Harvard professor who argues that there is a "clash of civilizations" occurring between Islam and the West, were vocal about the need for America to understand the nature of the great gulf existing in the world today and the perception most Americans have about the problem.

While Americans would likely argue that they support the right of people worldwide to decide for themselves how to live, others might counter that this means the Americans want other countries to operate just like America. Of course, such an analysis is simplistic, only scratching the surface of a very real and difficult situation. One-third of Muslims living today reside in America and in countries in the former Soviet Union and Western Europe. It is impossible to fully practice the rituals and commandments of the Qur'an under these governments. And none of these nations is about to become an Islamic state. Can Muslim soldiers in such nations go to war against other Muslims in Islamic nations? What about personal persecution from neighbors who see Islam as a single entity, recognizing no difference between a terrorist organization such as Al Qaeda and the neighborhood mosque?

The Religion Book: Places, Prophets, Saints, and Seers © 2004 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
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