The word "islam" is an Arabic word which literally means "submission or total surrender (to God)". A Muslim therefore, is "one who submits to God" while following the teachings of the Qur'an and the Muslim hadith. In European languages, Islam often also denotes the whole body of Muslim peoples, countries and states, in their socio-cultural or political as well as their religious sphere. Finally, the word denotes the ideal Muslim community.
After the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632, Islam spread very quickly to Syria, Palestine, Egypt, North Africa, Spain, and, in the east, to Iraq, Armenia and Iran, as far as Transoxiana and Chinese Turkestan, all within the seventh century. Expansion continued to
Indonesia, sub-Saharan West
Africa, East Africa and the . The Ottomans brought Islam to Nile
Valley Eastern Europe.
Although most confined to Asia and Africa, Islam was introduced in North
and South America by African slaves and Arab immigrants, while immigrants and transient
workers spread it to Western Europe. Today, Islam is a global religion, embracing
over a billion adherents.
To understand all aspects of Islam, both historical and contemporary, requires a multi-cultural and interdisciplinary perspective. The various ethnic, linguistic, economic, and military factors combined with the social, literary, and religious factors have shaped Islamic culture from its beginnings and made Islamic culture a vibrant, dynamic force in the world.
In its religious structure, Islam is both ethnic and confessional. Because it had its beginnings on the
Arabian Peninsula and has
always retained a decisive Arab component, Islam is an ethnic religion,
comparable to Judaism and Hinduism, which also espouse a universal teaching but
channel it through one restricted group of people. The Islamic accent on Arab tribal origins is
comparable to the Jewish emphasis on the twelve tribes of or the Hindu elevation of
the four Aryan castes to a quasi-divine status.
Important in each case are ascriptive identity markings, characteristic
of numerous other primitive societies with a strongly territorial and tribal
For Islam, Arabic has become even more sacrosanct in its canonical form than Hebrew is for Jews or Sanskrit is for Hindus. The elevation of Arabic is due to the fact that Arabic is the language of the Qur'an -- the revealed Word of God. The Qur'an is a scriptural text which sets forth a series of divine revelations given to the Prophet Muhammad through an angel during the latter part of Muhammad's life commencing about 610 C.C. until the Prophet's death in 632 C.C.
Although it might seem obvious that God would choose Arabic to communicate with an Arab prophet, the choice of Arabic has meaning for all Muslims, even non-Arabs. The choice of Arabic has meaning not merely because Arabic words are used in the Qur'an but also because the oral expression of the Qur'an in Arabic conveys a uniquely divine revelation which is, quite simply, not amenable to translation. Because the divinity of the Quranic revelation is diminished when not read or spoken in Arabic, Muslims have never sanctioned the translation of the Qur'an into another language. The Qur'an may be "interpreted" or "paraphrased" but the Qur'an can never be authentically translated.
The "Arabicity of the Qur'an" remains a core doctrine in Islam. This doctrine reinforces the ethnic Arab character as being part of the foundation of Muslim belief and ritual.
Islam is a confessional religion. It is less similar to Judaism or Hinduism than to Buddhism and Christianity, both of which are universal not only in doctrine (as are Judaism and Hinduism) but also in missionary outreach. As a missionary faith, Islam encourages converts because the truth it espouses can theoretically be recognized and embraced by any perceptive human being. The creed of Islam -- the shahada -- is as simple as the Christian affirmation of the Trinity or the Buddhist testimony of the Triratna. To become a Muslim one has only to declare in sincerity, "I testify that there is no god but God, and that Muhammad is the Prophet of God."
The Islamic creed presupposes a cosmology that includes an invisible as well as a visible world. The invisible world may be called heaven or hell, just as this world is called earth, and creatures, whether angels or demons inhabit that world, in the same way that humans and other animal life populate this world. The cosmology of Islam also postulates that a purposeful force has created both worlds, that it governs, guides and ultimately judges them as well. Because that force (God) is all-powerful rather than competitive with others or compromised by the existence of others, it (God) is singular not plural. In effect, the first part of the Muslim creed -- the "I testify that there is no god but God..." -- is a rigorous rejection of polytheism in favor of monotheism. The first part of the Muslim creed underlies the pivotal Muslim doctrine of divine unity -- the tawhid -- and has historical antecedents in both Judaism and Christianity.
The transcendent oneness which Islam isolates as the root motivating force of the universe is only knowable through human mediaries -- through men who have been set apart to fill a special function within their community in a given generation. These human mediaries are the prophets, and the second part of the Muslim creed specifies Muhammad as one of the prophets.
Muhammad is God's messenger -- the rasul -- to the Arabs, as Moses was to the Jews, Jesus to the Christians, and Zoroaster to the Zoroastrians. Underlying the cosmology of the Muslim creed, which, in its first part, is universalist and acknowledged by all monotheistic faiths, is a concept of prophecy which is particularist. By demanding recognition of Muhammad as God's prophet, the second part of the Muslim creed becomes unacceptable to non-Muslims.
Although Muhammad denied any divine status for himself, asserting himself to be more akin to Moses than to Jesus, Muhammad did function as an anchor tying the monotheism of the Qur'an to Arab tribes and the Arabic language through his own personal authority as the latest and, in Muslim doctrine, the last of the prophets.
The limits of Muhammad's personal authority ultimately became a divisive issue. The majority Sunnis subordinate Muhammad's prophetic role to the content of the revelation, while the Shi'ites extol his role as progenitor of a new spiritual autocracy.
The basic Muslim creed is the key to seeing how Islam functions in both a complementary and adversary relationship to antecedent monotheistic faiths. Like Christianity, Islam has a confessional tone. The message of Islam -- "there is no god but God" -- is perceived by Muslims as demanding a response from all peoples in all generations.
Like Judaism, Islam has an indissoluble ethnic focus. It is a religion centered on the Arab people, the Arabic language, and, above all, the Arab prophet. None of the teachings of the prophets who preceded Muhammad are denied. From Adam and Abraham to Solomon and Jesus, the biblical (and even extra-biblical) prophets are affirmed, many of their actions and utterances being lauded in the suras of the Qur'an.
However, since Muhammad is considered to be the last prophet -- the revelations communicated through Muhammad supersede previous revelations, even as they mark the culmination of all earlier scriptures. Thus, in Islam, the authority of both Jewish and Christian scripture is subordinated to the content of Muslim revelation. Accordingly, Jewish and Christian scripture essentially serve as a theological, not merely a chronological, preamble to Islam.
The social position of Jews and Christians under Muslim rule directly mirrored the theological valuation of their scriptural sources. Historically, in Muslim countries, Jews and Christians were protected (albeit second class) citizens. Contrary to popular belief, Jews and Christians were not faced with the choice of conversion to Islam or the sword. This particular practice -- the choice of conversion or death -- was more confined to Christian countries such as Catholic
where Christians would require Jews and Muslims to convert or suffer death at
the hands of the Inquisition. Spain
In the abode of Islam -- the dar al-Islam --, Jews and Christians were accepted as People of the Book. Although Jews and Christians were often required to pay a steep tax for their rights as citizens, they were permitted to occupy public buildings, perform age-old liturgies, and continue the religious education of their young. Jews, Christians, and Zoroastrians, while considered inferior to Muslims, were nonetheless deemed superior to polytheists and unbelievers.
The requirements of Muslim belief and ritual underscore the ambivalent relationship of Islam to its monotheistic forebears. The shahada is the first of five Pillars of Islam. The shahada leads naturally into the daily cycle of prayer, since it is assumed that whoever acknowledges the one God will pray to him, following the example of Muhammad.
The orientation for prayer -- the qiblah -- was first directed towards
a city sacred to Jews and Christians as well as Muslims. However, following the rejection of Muhammad's prophetic status by the Jews of Jerusalem Medina around 622 C.C., the qiblah was permanently
shifted towards . Mecca
Mecca, and by extension Arabia, has therefore been the geographic focus for the daily devotional life of Muslims since the inception of Islam. Its centrality is supported by a third pillar of Islam -- the canonical pilgrimage -- the hajj.
Unlike ritual prayer -- the salat -- the hajj is an occasional rather than a daily requirement. Nevertheless, it is incumbent upon each able-bodied Muslim male to undertake the arduous and often expensive journey to
least once during his lifetime. Medina
Further differentiating Muslims are the other two pillars, fasting -- sawm --, and alms-giving -- zakat. Each of these disciplines was observed, and its value acknowledged, by both Jews and Christians before the rise of Islam. One can even trace early Islamic tithing practices to Jewish and Christian antecedents. However, the Muslim observance of almsgiving was linked to the particular needs of Muhammad's community, even as the period prescribed for fasting during the month of Ramadan was legitimated with reference to the calling of Muhammad as the last prophet.
Islam has more in common with Judaism and Christianity than with any other major religious tradition. Yet Islam has charted an independent course, one that emphasizes negligence more than sin as the fundamental human condition and corporate guidance rather than individual salvation as the prescriptive divine intent. The most accurate history of Islam, therefore, concerns the shaping and reshaping of the Muslim community.
Historically, Muslim scholars have a tendency, too readily emulated by Western scholars, to focus on biography as the essential element for assessing major trends and locating pivotal moments in Muslim history. The decisions of major rulers, the battles of major warriors, or the writings of major thinkers are valuable points of documentation in describing the historic past of a civilization which places great stress on temporal achievements and their literary record. However, it is all too easy to assume that biographical sketches, or dates linked to great men, can fully explain the history of an entity remote in time and purpose from the Christian or Western experience.
Contrary to widespread belief, the
peninsula in the late sixth and early seventh centuries of the
Christian Era was not an unsophisticated cultural backwater. The area, at the time, was in contact with
the surrounding Byzantine, Sasanian, and Abyssinian empires. Commerce within and beyond the peninsula
played a decisive role in the structure of urban society and the practice of
religion. Muhammad himself was married
to a rich widow whose business Muhammad successfully managed before his call to
during this time sought the blessings of the idols in the Ka'ba shrine. The Ka'ba
shrine itself was the source of great revenue for a number of prosperous Meccan
The conflicts of the nomadic tribes of interior
Arabia were not simply internecine and localized
feuds. Several decades before Muhammad,
two frontier confederations of South Arabian origin, the Ghasanids and the
Lakhmids, had become vassals or client states in North
Arabia of the Byzantines and Sasanians, respectively. Throughout the sixth century, the
Ghasanids and Lakhmids contended with each other, and this protracted rivalry
formed a bridge between interior Arabia and
the adjacent powers.
The religion of pre-Islamic
was varied and reflected external influence.
This period, referred to as jahiliyya -- the "Time of Ignorance", stood in stark contrast to the light
that was to be provided by the Quranic revelation that was to follow. Idol worship and animalism marked the
religious disposition of the region, even though sizable Jewish and Christian
communities had been established. Jews,
for instance, had migrated to Arabia at the
beginning of their diaspora. The Jewish
presence in the urban and oasis settlements of Yemen
and the Hejaz is well attested to in the
passages of the Qur'an.
Christians, coming as Nestorian and Monophysite missionaries, sought a haven in
the long arm of Roman Catholic orthodoxy.
In the desolate expanses of the Arabian desert,
these Christians found a place for themselves and succeeded in converting a
number of tribal confederations such as the Ghasanids and Lakhmids along with
numerous smaller tribes. Symbols of an
active, proselytizing Christian presence such as the solitary Christian hermit
are evident in Arab poetry of the jahiliyya period.
Arabia, then, was clearly a region which was exposed to monotheism although tribal polytheism tended to predominate. But then came Muhammad.
It was the singular genius of Muhammad to understand the currents of thought and the social realities of his time. It was the divine inspiration which enabled Muhammad to create a new religious vehicle which made it possible to mobilize the disparate Arab factions and interests under the banner of a consistent yet flexible monotheism. The Great Prophet was a statesman and administrator with the same zeal, skill, and ultimate success that he demonstrated as a prophet and charismatic preacher.
The rise of Muhammad ibn 'Abdallah was marked with peril and near failure at every turn. He was orphaned soon after his birth and adopted into a minor branch of the Quraysh tribe of
His uncle, Abu Talib, reared Muhammad in dire poverty. How Muhammad first joined the commercial
ventures emanating from his native city is not clear, but he profited from association
with, and later marriage to, a rich widow named Khadija. Mecca
At the age of forty, after many intervals of protracted meditation in caves near
Mecca, Muhammad felt
compelled to proclaim the absolute unity of God and to denounce idolatry,
including the profitable rituals at the Ka'ba
shrine of . Initially, Muhammad's appeal met with only a luke warm
response. As local opposition to his
preaching increased, Muhammad sought an opportunity to move elsewhere. Mecca
Five years after his first revelation, Muhammad sent some of his followers to Abyssinia (
allegedly for their own safety but perhaps also to prepare for his own
migration there. However, in 622 C.C.,
some disputing groups in Yathrib ( Ethiopia )
requested Muhammad to adjudicate their rival property claims. Almost killed by the Meccans before he
escaped and made his way to Medina Medina, Muhammad
gradually gathered a loyal constituency at .
Muhammad averted near catastrophes on the battlefield, where his former
townsmen, in alliance with client tribes, sought to destroy him. Medina
By 630, Muhammad was able to return to
as the victorious leader of a new
religious and political movement. At the
time of his death two years later, Islam had extended its authority over much
of the Mecca Arabian peninsula, largely through
pacts of personal loyalty sworn by tribal leaders to Muhammad.
At the heart of this extraordinary transition from a tribal to a confessional polity was the dictation, in an intermittent sequence, of divine revelations to Muhammad which in a compiled form came to be known as the Qur'an. The Qur'an established day-to-day policies as well as provided long term ethical, legal, and doctrinal patterns for the community of Muhammad's followers.
When Muhammad died in 632, he had appointed no one to succeed him as leader of the Muslim community. Despite numerous marriages, Muhammad had fathered no son who reached maturity. Islam might have dissolved except for the line of able successors -- the caliphs -- who were elected by Muhammad's companions -- the Sahaba -- to fill Muhammad's role as the religious and political leader of the nascent Muslim community (the umma).
Four Meccans, (Abu Bakr, 'Umar, 'Uthman, and 'Ali), ruled the umma for the next thirty years. These four patriarchs have become known as the righteous caliphs -- the rashidun. During their rule, fraught though it was with tensions, conflicts, and recurrent acts of violence, even against the caliphs themselves (three of the four patriarchs were assassinated), Arab armies, fighting under the banner of Islam, conquered a vast, diverse geographic area extending from North Africa to the frontier of
. Whether the first wave of Islamic expansion
is seen as the result of a fervent, universalist, proselytizing religious
movement, or as a military conquest fueled by economic needs and political
ambitions, the scope of the conquest itself must be kept in mind. The area conquered during the first decades
of Islam was equal in size to the Arabian peninsula, itself larger than the
portion of the India United States
east of the Mississippi River. Within forty years after the Prophet's death, Muslim armies had come to
control an area at least as large as the continental United
States minus . This expanse included the former territories
of two major civilizations, the Byzantine and the Sasanian. No amount of human analysis can explain this
initial phenomenal achievement of Islam.
The rapid success of of Islam was like a firestorm sweeping through a
dry forest. Its awesomeness stuns the
mind and, even in this day stands, as one of the most enduring accomplishments
of Islam. California
A crucial aspect of the initial Islamic expansion was achieved not only through a series of land assaults by Bedouin tribesmen, but also through the governmental apparatus of the fallen Sasanian Empire. With the collapse of Sasanian power after the battle of Nihawand in 642, Muslim Arabs obtained a base of operations in portions of present day
and Iraq from which they
were able to extend their rule over much of the Middle
East. The emerging profile
of the new Islamic polity was Persian as well as Arab, and the continuous
cross-fertilization of the two traditions -- in society and culture as well as
religion -- was such that many commentators have opted to describe the entire
region from the Nile to the Oxus rivers as Irano-Semitic.
The interaction of the Persian and Arab cultures began with the initial Muslim conquests when the traditions as well as the territories of the Sasanian Empire were grafted into dar al-Islam. For instance, tribesmen from several parts of
Arabia migrated northward from the mid-seventh
century of the Christian Era. These
immigrants joined the victorious Arab armies and settled in the former Sasanian
lands. However, the pre-Islamic
inhabitants of these lands, usually known as mawali or clients if they
converted to Islam, often became Arabicized by linking themselves to one of the
Arab tribes. They also learned Arabic
and adopted Arab customs, while suppressing other, non-Arab, values.
Nevertheless, the Arabs did not regard the mawali as full partners in the Islamic enterprise. The cleavage between the two mirrored the division in Islam between the universalist tradition and Arab tribalism and this ethnically based system persisted throughout the early years (up to about 750 C.C.) of the Muslim diaspora and, indeed, continues to this day.
It would be natural to assume that in the early period the Arabs as Muslims would have welcomed the mawali as equal partners in dar al-Islam. But the Muslims did not. The Arabs, though Muslims, were still Arabs, and their re-ranking as Arabs was effected in detail by the second caliph, 'Umar, in a divan, or register, which was compiled for determining the distribution of spoils after each conquest.
By its comprehensive and precise character, 'Umar's register assured the ascendancy of Arabism in the new Islamic polity. The social, and also the ritual, scale was hierarchically, centrally Arab. Moreover, the corporate structure of the Islamic umma remained dependent on allegiance to the person at its head. 'Umar made many remarkable decisions that determined the subsequent course of Islamic history. 'Umar affirmed the corporate nature of the nascent Muslim community by adding the title "commander of the faithful" to the title "successor" adopted by Abu Bakr. 'Umar also changed the dating system so that years were counted from the date of Muhammad's emigration -- the hijra -- from
Mecca to in 622. This calendar was computed on a lunar rather
than solar cycle, in effect countervening agricultural seasons while stressing
the timeless quality of Islamic ritual observances. Medina
'Umar's personal zeal for modest dress and strict piety qualified him as an exemplar of the Muslim ideals he wished to propagate as head of state. He may have transcended Arab tribalism but he did not disavow it. Instead, 'Umar tended to recast the nature of Arab loyalties without eliminating them.
At 'Umar's death in 644, a group of senior Companions to the Prophet elected a third Meccan, 'Uthman ibn 'Affan, to be his successor and the leader of the Muslim community. He proved a skilled military tactician and a forthright administrator, but he had two shortcomings, one distinctly Muslim, the other distinctly Arab: (1) Although a father-in-law to Muhammad, 'Uthman was from a group of Meccans who were late in accepting Muhammad's prophetic mission; and (2) 'Uthman did not act to avenge the death of the man accused of the assassination of 'Umar.
After 'Umar had been assassinated, 'Umar's son took the law into his own hands by killing the accused, a Persian general. A group of the Prophet's companions, including his cousin and son-in-law 'Ali, had demanded revenge against 'Umar's son, but 'Uthman did not accede to their request and, thereby, alienated them.
Throughout the twelve years of 'Uthman's reign, the party of 'Ali grew as a focal point of discontent. Groups within the Arab armies of
Iraq and saw 'Ali as a symbol for the
redress of grievances they harbored against 'Uthman
and his principal advisers. These
dissidents viewed 'Uthman
and his principal advisers with disdain because most of them, including the
caliph himself, came from the wealthy patrician families of Mecca which, in
contrast to the loyal "helper" families of Medina, had not supported
Muhammad until 630, when Muhammad returned victorious to Mecca. Egypt
In 656, 'Uthman was murdered by Egyptian dissidents. 'Ali was acknowledged by most Medinans and many Meccans as the next caliph. But 'Ali also had his detractors among whom was Muhammad's favorite wife, 'A'isha. 'Ali made Kufa, the provincial capital of lower
the capital of the Islamic
empire and successfully established caliphal rule from there. However, the governor of Iraq , Mu'awiya, never acknowledged 'Ali's claim to the caliphate. Mu'awiya
called for revenge on behalf of the murdered 'Uthman
who happened to be his cousin. Syria
By 657, a large scale encounter between Mu'awiya and the followers of 'Ali took place at Siffin. 'Ali was on the verge of defeating Mu'awiya's forces when he was lured into accepting arbitration. Some of Ali's soldiers, becoming angered at this, deserted his cause and formed a separatist movement known as the Kharijites. The results of the arbitration went against 'Ali, who rejected them and took to the battlefield again, seeking to pummel Mu'awiya into acceptance of his caliphate. But Mu'awiya had gained ground among those Arabs who took sides (many Muslims remained neutral). In 661, before a decisive battle could be fought, 'Ali was murdered by a Kharijite zealot.
In 661, Mu'awiya reigned as caliph in all the provinces of dar al-Islam. The ascent of Mu'awiya marked the beginning of the Umayyad dynasty. 'Ali's influence nonetheless persisted and even increased after his death. The group which had supported 'Ali and his family in Kufa continued to resent and to resist Umayyad power, which was based in a rival province,
, and in a lesser branch of
could only claim to be a brother-in-law of the Prophet, and had no significant
role in the formative period of Islam).
This group, known as the shi'at
al 'Ali, -- "the party
of 'Ali" --
became the precursors of that dissenting body of Muslims known as the Shi'a or Shi'ites. Syria
While the shi'at al 'Ali represented the tensions of an intra-Arabic dynastic struggle, it also extended to the mawali, non-Arab Muslims many of whom resented their continued exclusion from the top administrative posts of the empire under the Umayyads. The anti-Umayyad uprising of al-Mukhtar in Kufa from 685 to 687, for instance, was aided by the participation of disgruntled mawali, and it was from this time on, according to Watt, that Shi'ism was linked with the political grievances and aspirations of non-Arab Muslims. At the same time, the defeat of 'Ali and his murder by another Muslim became a symbolic event underscoring the power of Arab factionalism within Islam. The tension between the role of the caliph as leader of the whole Muslim community and as a member of a particular tribal or regional group conflicting with other tribal or regional groups within Islam was never resolved.
Mu'awiya was probably a much more fair-minded advocate of Islamic unity than subsequent histories (much of them anti-Umayyad) have suggested. However, Mu'awiya's successor, Yazid was unable to control the numerous forces which had to be shrewdly balanced to govern the still expanding dar al-Islam. In establishing his rule, Yazid had to put down a rebellion by Medinan Muslim families who had encouraged Husayn, 'Ali's younger son and Muhammad's grandson (through 'Ali's wife, Fatima), to lay claim to the caliphate. Husayn, with a small band of followers, was killed at
in 680. This event, like the earlier death of 'Ali,
became memorialized in Shi'ite
circles by its annual recitation and re-enactment. Karbala
Upon the death of Yazid, there was no worthy successor in Yazid's immediate family. It was not until after a further period of unrest, which included the occupancy of the caliphate by a non-Umayyad, that a second cousin of Mu'awiya, 'Abd al-Malik took office.
'Abd al-Malik is considered by many commentators to be the third most notable and influential sovereign of the early Muslim umma, ranking behind only 'Umar and Mu'awiya, 'Abd al-Malik established his rule and that of his successors on the principle of jama'a, or Muslim group solidarity. The principle of jama'a was intended to supplant the Arab tribal factionalism which had continued to plague Arab Muslim society. However, in attempting to promote jama'a, 'Abd al-Malik encountered a dilemma which would not be resolved until after the fall of his own dynasty. The dilemma was that beyond the ideals expounded in the Qur'an, the text of which had been fixed from the reign of 'Uthman, there was no adequate basis for defining and applying Islamic solidarity apart from Arab customs, some of which presupposed and were even consciously modeled on the age-old Arab tribal conflicts which jama'a was meant to replace.
After the reign of 'Abd al-Malik, there were legal, ascetic, and philosophical movements that exerted some influence on Muslim thought. None of them, however, adequately interpreted the nature of Islamic corporate identity. The creed of Abu Hanifa did emphasize the importance of knowing God and publicly professing faith in him, but it was probably not widely accepted before 750 C.C. What had to emerge to provide a genuine basis for solidarity was a scriptural authority complementary to the Qur'an but more specific in detail, avowedly Arab in content yet also Islamic in tone.
Toward the end of the Umayyad dynasty in 750 C.C., a group of pious Muslims emerged who began to develop a core of Muslim thought which advanced the principle of jama'a. These pious Muslims were known as Qur'an reciters. They were trained to intone the scriptural core of Islamic faith on ritual, public occasions. They also circulated among themselves reports about what the Prophet and his companions had said or done that would be relevant for those attempting to lead a fully pious Islamic life.
The reports that were circulated by the Qur'an reciters soon became a body of literature that is today known as the hadith. These reports, with their text and verifiable line of transmitters, became the basis for constructing the biography of Muhammad. Some of the reports provided background information for the occasions on which passages in the Qur'an had been revealed to Muhammad. Others described the Prophet's reaction to skirmishes and battles in which Muhammad had participated. These reports -- these hadith -- thus became supplementary to the Qur'an in detail and complementary to the Qur'an in authority.
However, the original hadith were not immediately evaluated, arranged, and compiled as independent books of particular importance for Islamic jurisprudence -- for fiqh. The potential of the hadith for defining Muslim corporate and private modes of conduct was still unrealized. Extraordinary fluidity in range of material and scope of interpretation continued to characterize legal, doctrinal, ascetic, and philosophical issues to the end of the Umayyad period.
The second major phase of Islamic history began with the fall of the Umayyad caliphate in 750 C.C. and the ascendancy of the Abbasids. This second major phase augured in a change in the nature of the Islamic community that went far beyond the mere changing of dynasties.
In 750 C.C., the locus of Islamic power remained in the cities of the
Fertile Crescent. However, while the Umayyad capital had been Damascus in Syria,
chose a new site near the former Sasanian capital of Ctesiphon
in lower Iraq, and
constructed on the banks of the Tigris a magnificent urban complex which they
named . Baghdad
With the shift from
of gravity moved perceptibly eastward, to the edges of the former Sasanian
Empire. Persians came to have an
increasingly important role in administrative and military functions, and
influence on the social and literary styles of the 'Abbasid capital. Beginning in the early ninth century of the
Christian Era, Turks were also brought to Baghdad
as trained bodyguards. These Turks were
the forerunners of the mamluk or slave soldiery who would later become
powerful regional rulers in the dynasties of Baghdad Egypt
Along with changes to the Islamic community, the 'Abbasid dynasty also wrought changes to the basic nature of the caliphate. As the capital and other urban courts became ethnically pluralistic, the authority of the caliphate tended to be more absolutist, more authoritarian. An ascending hierarchy of functionaries served at the will of the caliph. In essence, the caliph ceased to be first among equals, as had previously been the case, and instead became one above all others.
Under the 'Abbasids, caliphal succession became an increasingly bitter struggle with the spoils of a wealthy imperial court going to the winners. Extravagant patronage became the most obvious demonstration of the caliph's authority. Each 'Abbasid tried to exceed his predecessor in the dazzling splendors -- both architectural and literary -- which he produced in
. Harun ar-Rashid, who reigned from 786 to 809,
stands out for the profusion of litteraturs, grammarians, poets, and
translators whom he sponsored. Ar-Rashid's son and eventual successor, Ma'mun, who reigned 813 to 833, showed
keen interest in having scientific and philosophical texts rendered from Greek
and Syraic into Arabic. Baghdad
Among those who had been excluded from power under the Umayyads and who worked diligently for the transition from Umayyad to 'Abbasid rule were the mawali, the dhimmis and the Shi'ites. The first group -- the mawali -- consisting of non-Arab Muslims, became less intent on connecting themselves with Arab tribal names and were publicly accorded fairer treatment under the 'Abbasids. The danger in their new freedom, however, was illustrated by the Barmakids, a Persian family of Central Asian Buddhist stock, who rose to the top of the 'Abbasid bureaucracy under Harun ar-Rashid, only to arouse the jealousy and suspicion of the caliph. All of the prominent males of the Barmakids were executed or imprisoned.
The dhimmis were the protected people in the kingdom. Christians, Jews, Copts, and Zoroastrians were the principle members of this class. The dhimmis continued to enjoy general favor under the 'Abbasid caliphs, in part because their major festivals still reflected the seasonal fluctuation abandoned in Islam since the lunar calendar was introduced by 'Umar. In the major cities, dhimmis retained or could acquire positions of leadership; in the villages they tended to be deprived of leadership roles. Actual circumstances varied enormously from region to region. The Christian Coptic Church in
Egypt, Zoroastrians in Iran, Jews in the commercial centers of the
Maghrib and Andalusia -- all existed
throughout the middle period. Their
existence in disparate places makes it difficult to generalize about the "protected people" of medieval Islam. The status of the dhimmis in Islamic
lands was one of second class citizenship.
Nevertheless, their lives were not devoid of religious freedom or
occupational opportunity. Indeed, it
could be argued that for the Jews, the era of the 'Abbasid caliphs was an era which saw
the flowering of Jewish culture and great advances in Jewish theological
The Shi'ites were not content with secondary status. Because they were Muslims and linked to the Prophet's family, the Shi'ites considered themselves the natural elite of Islamic society. Unable to realize their objective of political leadership under the early 'Abbasids they became a dissident community, undeniably legitimate but creedally fragmented. Their common strength was loyalty to the memory of two dead heroes: the fourth caliph, Ali, and his son Husayn.
In the register of 'Umar, it was clear that the wives and family of Muhammad were to be accorded special respect by other Muslims. Even those Muslims who had opposed 'Ali or were neutral during his struggle with Mu'awiya were inclined to esteem him. 'Ali was related to the Prophet both by blood and by marriage. Many hadith stressed the close personal relationship between Ali and Muhammad. Additionally, 'Ali was the father of Husayn, Muhammad's ill-fated grandson. (The Prophet's only other grandson, Husayn's older brother, Hasan, was also murdered, but because he had already compromised himself with the hated Mu'awiya, Hasan's significance for Shi'ites has always been minor in comparison to that of Husayn.)
From an early date, those who favored 'Ali equated his death and Husayn's with the death of early martyrs who had been killed on the battlefield fighting to defend or to extend the borders of the Islamic empire. These martyrs were entitled to immediate access to the divine presence, without the waiting interval before Judgment Day that faced ordinary believers at death. Special ritual significance was attached to the occasion of 'Ali's death, and even more to the tenth of Muharram, the anniversary of Husayn's death, which has become the peak day on the Shi'ite liturgical calendar, marked especially at the Iraqi pilgrimage sites of Najaf ('Ali's tomb) and Karbala (Husayn's shrine) but also at other devotional centers throughout the Islamic world where there are Shi'ites.
Theologically, 'Ali, together with all his descendants through Husayn, was reputed to have a special proximity to God, and to be blessed with a knowledge of God unavailable to others. The consequences of such ascriptive loyalty, cumulatively nurtured by those lacking in political power but certain of their right to its exercise, are evident. The first three successors to Muhammad were impugned or reviled. The worst of the three, of course, was 'Uthman, the Umayyad ruler. He, along with all the Umayyad caliphs, was roundly condemned. This criticism applied to the first two patriarchal caliphs, Abu Bakr and 'Umar, because, according to the Shi'ites, they, like 'Uthman, had usurped their role reserved for 'Ali alone. One might say in retrospect that the entire line of reasoning applied by 'Ali's followers to the early period of Islamic history (with consequences for both the middle and the modern periods) had its genesis in Muhammad's fateful failure to appoint a successor openly acknowledged by the senior members of his community, including his relatives.
Politically, the consequences of Shi'ite belief were twofold: (1) perpetual hostility to all existing forms of government and (2) constant vigilance for a descendant of 'Ali, who might be advocated as caliph. During the eighth and ninth centuries of the Christian Era, the Shi'ite community split into two branches. Both branches professed absolute loyalty to a succession of imams, inspired descendants of 'Ali through Husayn. However, the two groups differed over the number of imams succeeding 'Ali.
The smaller group, the Seveners, stopped the line of succession at the seventh imam, Isma'il. This smaller group became known as the Isma'iliyya. The dominant group, the Twelvers, continued the line of imams as far as the twelfth imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi. This group became known as the Imamiyya.
Both the Isma'iliyya and the Imamiyya, as well as other Shi'ite sects, held that the last in the line of imams did not die but went into hiding. All governments, including the Sunni caliphate, will topple at the apocalyptic moment when, by divine design, the hidden imam will come out of hiding, reveal his true identity as the Mahdi or "guided one", and restore Islam to its pristine purity.
The political explosiveness of Shi'ite messianism was revealed during the early 'Abbasid period. At the accession of the caliph, Mansur in 754, a group of Shi'ites backed a relative of Ali's older son, Hasan, as caliph. The Shi'ites rallied dissident forces on their candidates behalf in the religious heartland of Arabia, the
Hejaz. The Umayyads defeated this coalition, but Shi'ism continued to evolve more and more
fantastic end-of-the-world schemes that reached a kind of mythical completeness
by the end of the ninth century. In the
tenth century, a Sevener Shi'ite
group the Fatimids, succeeded in gaining power in , and ruled there from 969 to
1171. In the same period, though for a
shorter period of time (from 945 to 1031), a group of Twelver Shi'ites known as the Buyids exercised
effective political control in Baghdad while retaining the nominal Sunni
The Buyids and Fatimids were only two of numerous regional dynastic elites that appeared from the mid-tenth century on. Among others were the Arab Hamdanis of
Syria, the Umayyad Caliphate of Andalusia
and the Persian Samanids of Transoxiana.
Three Turkish absolutist dynasties, the Ghaznavids, the Karakhanids, and
the Seljuks, vied with one another and with the Samanids for control of Tansoxiana,
Khurasan, and Spain Western Iran. Ultimately, the Seljuks were victorious in
The regional dynasties reduced the authority of the 'Abbasid caliph in
influence, represented by the Buyids and Fatimids, had reached its zenith by
the end of the eleventh century , and with the ascnedancy of the Seljuk Turks
in the early twelfth century the central Islamic lands returned to the fold of
Sunni loyalism. The Seljuks themselves,
however, soon divided into independent principalities, further diffusing
political powerin the Baghdad Fertile Crescent. Thus the Crusaders were confronted not by the
Seljuks bu the Ayyubid Egyptians under Saladin and his successors.
The major question of the period between 750 and 1500 concerns the influence upon Islam of the vast destruction wrought by the Mongol hordes beginning in the early thirteenth century and continuing for the next century and a half. In rapidity and scope of territorial conquest, the Mongol eruptions resembled the early expansion of Islam. However, there were two initial, and finally determinative, differences between the two groups. The Arabs had a universalist ethos which they sought, however imperfectly, to transplant in conquered lands; the Mongols reigned through the terror of nomadic tribal power. The Arabs were attracted to city life and trade; the Mongols, at least at first, hated both. In time, the Mongols did learn to patronize the arts and sciences in mercantile urban centers. They rebuilt destroyed cities or, as in the case of
founded new ones. They encouraged
agriculture, commerce, and scholarship on an unprecedented scale. Indeed, the Mongols, though military
absolutists, marshaled agrarian resources to sustain a court life of such
brilliance that all Islam benefited from the nomad urban symbiosis which they
The genesis of the Islam inherited, transmitted and elaborated by the Mongols lay in juridical developments of the early 'Abbasid period. The critical, recurrent issue, still unresolved at the end of the Umayyad dynasty, had been to define the Islamic community -- the umma -- and its solidarity. Scholars of the eighth and ninth centuries had realized that the community could only be based on the directives of the Qur'an supplemented by sayings of the Prophet and then applied to the lives of believers. The system they evolved set forth a tacit as well as an explicit code of behavior, and it was this code of behavior which became the law -- the sharia.
Within the framework of the sharia, advocates of Islamic mysticism and theology later expounded their interpretations of normative thought, belief, and action. "Without the sharia there is no Islam," became a popular dictum.
Islam has sometimes been viewed as a community of people bound together by their common acceptance of, and adherence to, minute legal prescriptions. The precepts of Islam had always been based on Qur'anic passages and the sunna, or conduct of Muhammad, that was to serve as an example. However, from the mid-eighth century on, the precepts of Islam, together with all aspects of the sharia, were particularized with further reference to the consensus -- the ijma -- of a particular group of Muslim scholars or the independent decision -- the ijtihad -- of a single jurist. Scholars, jurists, and other legal functionaries came to comprise a class known as the 'ulama'. The 'ulama' were the guardians of the sharia, but how they applied its provisions depended on the nature of decisions which had been rendered within the school of law of which they were the custodial agents.
When a question arose concerning the hadith, the mujtahid served as the investigating judge, and, on the basis of the inquiry made by the mujtahid, a subordinate judge -- a faqih -- would weigh the applicability of the ruling to the ordinary Muslim. The faqih could consult his colleagues in order to reach a consensus of opinion on the matter, and this opinion became part of the sharia.
A mufti, or advisory judge, could then deliver to a petitioner a legal decree on the matter, but it was the qadi, or court judge, who decided whether or not to assess a penalty for failure to conform to that part of the sharia. From early 'Abbasid times, the qadi was a useful officer of the state, though his politicization raised a new and persistent problem: What if the wishes of the caliph or local Muslim ruler clashed with the most honorable and accurate reading of the law?
The problem of conflict between the law and the wishes of the ruler was never solved, and the emergence of four overlapping but distinct schools of law further indicates how the sharia became an extension of geopolitical interests. The Hanafite school, originating from Abu Hanifa, became accepted in
Turkey, the Fertile Crescent, , and the Asian
subcontinent. The Malikites, named after
Malik ibn Anas, were dominant in Upper Egypt, the Maghrib, and much of western
Africa, while the Shafi'ites,
followers of the most systematic and influential theorist, al-Shafi'i, extended their sway over northern
Egypt, eastern Africa, southern Arabia, and the Asian archipelago. The Hanbalite school, by far the most extreme
in its precepts, was the most limited in its geographical scope. Deriving from the deeply pious, fervently
ascetical hadith collector, Ahmad ibn Hanbal, it achieved dominance only
in parts of the Arabian Peninsula and isolated pockets of the Afghanistan Fertile
After the endeavors of these pioneering jurists, the hadith were compiled into numerous books, of which six became especially authoritative. The efforts of men such as al-Bukhari and Muslim ibn al-Hajjaj reinforced the legacy of the jurists and made it appear that the sharia, through persistent study, could be fully learned and comprehensively applied. Hadith became the key to the sharia. According to al-Shafi'i, hadith were necessary to complement but also to interpret the Qur'an, with the result that Sunni Islam came to rest on a twofold scriptural authority. By the end of the tenth century, the desire for scriptural legitimization, abetted by the rapid growth of sectarian movements, regional dynasties, and philosophical speculations, produced a series of efforts to close the gate of interpretation -- ijtihad -- and to rely on compliance with time sanctioned models for conduct.
The 'ulama', who generally promoted such efforts, were themselves subjected to further institutionalization in the eleventh century when madrasas proliferated as the principal institutions for Islamic religious education. The 'ulama' staffed the madrasas. In the madrasas, the 'ulama' taught both new converts and successive generations of established Muslim families the full array of traditional Islamic sciences. But the 'ulama' were not disinterested teachers; they were increasingly manipulated by the military leaders and notables, whether at caliphal or provincial courts, who founded the madrasas and funded their staffs. It may be deduced that the concept of an independent Muslim judiciary, to the limited extent that it was ever feasible, died with the phenomenal, rapid growth of the madrasa network.
Little room was left for the incorporation of local custom, especially important to Persian and Turkish ethnic groups, who did not become widely Islamized beyond the major cities until the eleventh and twelfth centuries. The madrasa curriculum, with the 'ulama' as its instructors, underscored Arabization as the bedrock of Islamic identity. Not only was it necessary for a Muslim to learn the Arabic of the Qur'an and hadith (which varied considerably from the colloquial Arabic spoken even in the medieval period), but one had also to identify with the norms of seventh century Arabian society since, as the context of Muhammad's thought, belief, and conduct, they were the ideal for every generation and every segment of Muslim society.
The Shi'ites did not cooperate with, nor participate in, this system. They belonged to none of the four schools of law, nor did they accept the Sunni hadith as authoritative compilations of Muhammad's dicta. Yet they did develop a parallel structure of community life and religious education, with their own schools of law and hadith compendia, and with mullahs, rather than the 'ulama', as instructors.
It was, therefore, Islam as expressed in sharia, taught in the madrasa, defined by jurists, refined by traditionists, and promulgated by the 'ulama', which established a pattern of community consciousness for Sunni Islam that survived up to and beyond the Mongol incursions. Mongol rulers, in fact, helped to freeze the form of Sunni Islam which they adopted, for it was during the fifteenth century, toward the end of the Mongol period, that dynastic law (which had been applied de facto in some pre-Mongol Islamic states) became welded to the sharia. Not only was the law acknowledged to be a final, unchanging code, but it was to be administered by the exemplary ruler, himself the repository of truth and the authority of last resort. The 'ulama', despite their scholarly credentials, served at the ruler's will and as his functionaries.
Mysticism, theology, and law in Islam were not mutually exclusive. All three presupposed the sharia; they differed in how to interpret and apply its precepts to Muslim society. The task of the theologian was to justify Islam on two fronts: (1) as the fulfillment of monotheistic faith, which was initiated by pre-Islamic prophets from Adam through Jesus, and which culminated in Muhammad, and (2) as the perfect cosmology, ontology, epistemology, completing but also transcending Platonic and Aristotelian categories. The collective endeavors of quasi-rationalists -- the mu'tazila -- inspired, then provoked, the first Islamic theologians, Ash'ari and al-Maturidi, both of whom disowned the conclusions of philosophy while using its analytical methods to bolster their own faith claims. Popular philosophical movements, such as the Ikhwan al-Safa, enjoyed sporadic success, while theological discourse itself aroused suspicion among many of the 'ulama'. Even the acclaim of encyclopedic and incisive Muslim philosophers, such as Ibn Sina and Ibn Rushd was blunted by the anti-philosophical polemic which prevailed in madrasa and sharia.
The mystic was not removed from the intricacies of theology and law. Typically, theological speculations and juridical pronouncements came from the same person who was also a practitioner of mystical exercises, or at least sympathetic to an interiorized definition of Islamic piety. The usual example of such a multi-disciplinary intellectual and spiritual giant is al-Ghazzali. The contributions of al-Ghazzali to the Islamic society of his day may have been exaggerated for a variety of reasons, not the least of which was his stature as a bi-lingual (Persian and Arabic) advocate of Sunni Islam in a pluralistic society embracing non-Arabs as well as Arabs. Yet al-Ghazzali's fearless quest for the truth was extraordinary by any canon of human judgment.
Because he stands at a pivotal point in Muslim history, al-Ghazzali is often credited with initiating two major developments in Islamic mysticism -- in Sufism. These developments actually reflect changes in Muslim society rather than the direct impact of one man, and they have persisted through the Mongol period into the modern period. One is the elaboration of theoretical or theosophical Sufism in both prose and verse, dramatized by the literary legacy of the Andalusian (Spanish Muslim) Ibn 'Arabi and the Anatolian (Turkish Muslim) Jalal ad-Din Rumi. Another is the emergence of mystical brotherhoods, known as tariqas or silsilas, which became vehicles both for personalizing Islam and for incorporating local customs into Muslim ritual. The brotherhoods acted as institutional extensions of Sufi theory; their masters, often called shaikhs, may or may not have introduced Islam into those regions of the world (such as interior Africa and the Indonesian archipelago) where many Muslim communities ascribe their origins to itinerant saints, and yet the role that Sufi charismatic leaders performed in facilitating the acceptance of Sunni Islam (and the concomitant exclusion or minimalization of Shi'ite Islam) is undeniable.
Sufism also provided a spur to literary activities. Even in the case of a major Persian poet such as Hafiz, who was not affiliated with a hospice or attached to a shaikh, the imagery of mystical Islam added a heightened tone of ambiguity and allurement to his verse. Many poets, both Persian and Arab, from the middle period of Islamic history were directly linked to and inspired by organized Sufi brotherhoods. Nor did the Mongol devastations bring to an end the literary productivity of medieval Muslim poets. Hafiz, one of the greatest Persian poets, lived during the period of Mongol hegemony. Jami lived in its aftermath, as did the foremost Chagatay (Eastern Turkish) lyricist, 'Ali Sher Nawa'i. Achievements within other intellectual traditions, especially astronomy and historiography, and the flourishing visual arts all attest to the enduring vitality of Islamic civilization under the Mongols.
From the early sixteenth to the early eighteenth century, the Muslim world was dominated by three extensive and powerful military patronage states, all reflecting the peculiarly Mongol marriage of dynastic law to the sharia. The Ottomans controlled, in addition to their Anatolian homeland, the Balkans as far as
Vienna, most of the Middle East, and the northernmost
stretch of Africa from Egypt
to . The Safavids ruled an area that comprises
present day Algeria Iran and a
portion of neighboring Afghanistan
and . The Moguls expanded the Muslim presence in
South Asia to include, by the end of the seventeenth century, almost all the
Indian subcontinent and the portions of present day Pakistan Afghanistan
not claimed by the Safavids. Nor were
the Ottomans, Safavids, and Moguls the only Muslim dynasties of the later of
modern period. A group known as the
Ozbegs, succeeding the Mongols, exercised almost exclusive control over the
Syr-Oxus river basins in Central Asia, while Morocco in the far West and
Indonesia in the far East also witnessed the emergence of significant Muslim
ruling elites. Pakistan
Perhaps one of the most remarkable developments of Islam took place in sub-Saharan
Africa. Muslim loyalties became established there
through a gradual process of cultural penetration that proceeded at different
rates in the west, in central Africa, and along the Indian
Ocean coast. As early as
the eleventh century of the Christian Era, Islam had been represented in west
Africa by foreign Muslim residents.
Gradually it had gained local support, until it succeeded in reforming
indigenous customs at will. Later, in
the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, strong Muslim states were able to
resist the European colonial powers.
Along the east coast of Africa, Islam
had come to dominate the port cities by as early as the twelfth century. Zanzibar and Mogadishu were initial centers
of influence, and the distinctive Swahili culture developed out of the amalgam
of diverse populations and languages. In
the interior, Muslim societies had been threatened by the Ethiopian Christians,
by turbulent nomads, and, beginning in the fifteenth century, by the
Portuguese. Early Sufi influences were
pervasive. However, subsequently they were modified by the Wahhabiya and by the
development of indigenous cultures. In
modern times the sheer demographic growth of African Islam has been
astounding. Throughout the twentieth
century Islam continued to evolve as a major religious and cultural force in
the savannah belt that extends across the continent between desert and forest.
It is impossible to appreciate the character of twentieth century Islam, in
Africa, or elsewhere,
without an awareness of the nature of the three major sixteenth and seventeenth
century empires. Ottomans, Safavids, and
Moguls controlled different geographic areas, represented different
constituencies, and advanced different creedal emphases, but they were all
Muslim and they shared many important features.
Each established a court life of stupefying grandeur, impressive even to
European travelers. Each patronized art,
architecture, literature, miniature painting, and religious institutions on a
lavish scale that was never matched by subsequent Muslim rulers. Each state also weathered political and
religious dissidence within its borders during the period of ascendancy. In the eighteenth century all three began to
decline, though at varying points and with disparate outcomes.
The Ottoman was not only the earliest of the three empires to emerge (in 1299), it also survived the longest (until 1919). The Ottoman Empire expanded from an obscure thirteenth century kingdom in northwest Anatolia to embrace by 1500 the heartland of the former Byzantine Empire and its capital,
( Constantinople). The height of its glory was attained under
Selim the Grim, who ruled from 1512 to 1520, and Suleiman the Magnificent, who
ruled from 1520 to 1566. The armies of
these sultans conquered Egypt,
Syria, Iraq, the coastlands of North Africa and the Red
Sea, the and the Balkans
as far as the Hungarian plain. Twice the
Ottoman forces laid siege to island
(in 1529 and 1683), only to be repulsed. Vienna
The Ottomans were staunch proponents of Sunni Islam even though theirs was a modified form not fully welcomed by their Arab subjects. It is not surprising, therefore, that the stiffest internal resistance to Ottoman hegemony came from
Arabia. Southwest Yemen asserted its independence
in 1635. The Arab rulers of the holy
cities of Istanbul Mecca and Medina,
while acknowledging Ottoman suzerainty, were beholden to Cairo
rather than to . The bedouin of interior Istanbul Arabia
maintained their independence throughout the Ottoman period and in the middle
of the eighteenth century gave birth to a powerful spiritual movement, which
some have compared in force and influence to the rise of Islam itself. The movement became known as the Wahhabiya,
and the puritanical asceticism of the Wahhabiya became a threat to the Ottoman
sultans especially after the Wahhabis took control of Mecca
the early nineteenth century. A swift,
punitive action taken by Muhammad 'Ali,
the Ottoman viceroy in Medina ,
broke their power of the Wahhabis in 1818.
Their influence was confined to the interior of Egypt Arabia
for the next few decades, but they once again erupted in the mid-nineteenth
century and again during the first decades of the twentieth century. From their origins, the Wahhabis were allied
with the Saudi royal house and thus have controlled events in post-Ottoman Arabia.
Though their territories were less extensive than the Ottomans, the Safavids were a major force in determining the mood and course of Islam. Not only did the Safavids usher in one of the peak periods in Persian culture and spur the development of an almost obsessively bureaucratic state. They also nurtured the first full-scale Muslim polity that espoused Twelver Shi'ism -- Imamiyya. There was a curious irony in this development, which has contemporary parallels. Despite the fact that the imperial government identified with the Shi'ite cause (which necessarily meant stifling expressions of Sunni loyalism among religious functionaries, landed aristocracy, and mystics), its own legitimacy was thrown into question by the fact that institutional Shi'ism, so long an oppositional movement, had developed its own authorities apart from any government. The Shi'ite 'ulama' or mullahs claimed that only the most learned and pious among them were fully qualified to interpret the law as mujtahids, because they alone were in touch with the Hidden Imam. The Safavid monarch also claimed to be a spokesman for the Hidden Imam, and during the period of Safavid ascendancy his claim was upheld, at least publicly. With the decline of Safavid fortunes in the seventeenth century, however, the Shi'ite mullahs reasserted their position that the only qualified interpreter of the law, who was also a direct recipient of guidance from the Hidden Imam, was some learned and pious member of their own group, chosen by the entire group to serve as its spokesman. Safavid Shi'ism, therefore, made an inadvertent but essential contribution to the contemporary Iranian spirituality by exalting the Shi'ite concept of Imam and linking it exclusively to a member of the religious classes.
The Mogul empire, like the Safavid, was more restricted in territory and wielded less nearly absolute power than the Ottoman. It did, however, witness a unique blend of Islamic and indigenous values in the person of the greatest Mogul ruler, Akbar who reigned from 1556 to 1605. Too often the syncretistic nature of Akbar's religious beliefs have been stressed, with resulting lack of attention to his strength as an administrative genius and persuasive codifier of dynastic law. In that sense, Akbar is most aptly compared to the foremost Ottoman sultan, Suleiman, and the great Safavid monarch, Shah 'Abbas, who reigned from 1587 to 1629. It is perhaps because of their creating an enduring legal system that each of these rulers was revered as an exemplary emperor during his lifetime, and subsequently, when their empires began to decline, that their reigns were recalled with greatest nostalgia.
The decline of the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mogul empires and the Muslim world in general began in the eighteenth century. This decline cannot be easily or uniformly charted. It is easy to say, as many have, that internal factors, such as prolonged inflation, military conservatism, and political corruption, made the Ottoman downfall inevitable. The blunt fact is that the Ottomans survived a long time, despite their repeated confrontations with an assertive and militarily superior European enemy. The Ottoman navy was destroyed at Lepanto in 1571 and the Ottoman army was decimated at Zenta in 1698, resulting in the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699. Nevertheless, the
Empire was still fighting and winning wars well into the
eighteenth century. It was only the
Treaty of Kuchuk Kaynarja in 1774 which shattered the Ottoman image of
themselves as a vigorous, revitalized, invincible empire.
The downfall of the Moguls and Safavids, like that of the Ottomans, can be tied to particular historical events. In each case downfall was also the result of underlying shifts in the worldwide balance of economic and military power. During the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the industrial age in
caused spectacular change in commodity production, communication systems, and
military efficiency. Since European
production depended on a simultaneous and accelerated acquisition of new
customers and sources of raw material, market economies expanded and colonial
empires were launched. Commercial
necessity, more than political aggrandizement, military chauvinism, or
missionary zeal, led to the rapid formation of British, French, Portuguese,
Spanish, Italian, and Dutch empires in remote corners of the world. Many of these marketing regions were
Islamic. The Dutch, for instance, carved
out a sphere of influence in non-Muslim South
Africa, as well as in , which by this time was Muslim. For Islamic peoples, the gradual perception
of an aggressive, dominating colonial presence in their lands was a threat at
several levels. First, it meant a loss
of economic and military power by Muslim ruling elites whose longevity had
seemed to reinforce the view that dar al-Islam enjoyed worldwide
political hegemony. Indonesia
Second, the rise of
augured a weakening of faith in a bedrock tenet of the Muslim world view, that
history was the continuous, progressive affirmation of the truth of Islam. The Ottoman historian Naima relied on the
social analyses of a fourteenth century North African, Ibn Khaldun, to persuade
his countrymen that history has an ebb and flow, that the temporary reversals
suffered by Ottoman arms would be followed by eventual victory. The eighteenth century North Indian
theologian, Shah Wali Allah, interpreted the external decline of Mogul fortunes
as an incentive, indeed a catalyst, to the internal toughening of the Muslim
spirit both within and beyond .
Third, European colonialism brought a direct confrontation with another universalist missionary faith. The long history of Islamic interaction with Christianity dates back to the Prophet Muhammad, encompassing the early period of Muslim expansion and extending through the Crusades. But in each encounter Islam was victorious. Beginning in the eighteenth century, however, the Christian missionaries who circulated through various parts of the Muslim world in the wake of their commercially minded countrymen represented a superior civilization and polity. The enormity of that challenge was unprecedented.
The resurgence of
affected only some elements of traditional Muslim societies, namely, the
literate, economically prosperous, militarily dominant, politically powerful
elite. These elite, though at first
resisting colonialism, later accommodated themselves to it. The bulk of Muslims remained untouched by the
European presence in their homelands.
Until the end of the nineteenth century major changes in the public
sphere were evident only in communications, health care, and education. The twentieth century, however, brought two
further technological changes that have affected all Muslims: the discovery and
production of oil, a resource vital to European industrial growth, and the
development of the airplane and automobile.
Added to these has been the unexpected, rapid population growth, due to
reduced infant mortality rates and increased life expectancy. Perhaps most important of the all the
twentieth century European imports, especially for the fragmenting affect it
has wrought on the Muslim world view, has been nationalism.
Following World War I, there was strong sentiment in support of the pan-Islamic movement, which had particular appeal to Muslim constituencies in certain regions, such as
but which had also a universal urgency because it represented a distinctly
Muslim resistance to nationalism. By the
peace settlement of Versailles and other post-World War I conferences, some
Arab kingdoms, such as Saudi Arabia and Yemen, were granted outright
independence as national entities, while others, ironically comprising the most
sophisticated and culturally advanced Muslim populations of the Middle East
(i.e., Palestine, Lebanon, Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and Iran) were carved into
spheres of influence under the League of Nations mandates. Ostensibly, the British, French and Spanish
mandates were created to protect the rights of the disputing ethnic and
religious groups within their purview, but they also allowed the dominant
European nations to divide the spoils of the Allied victory.
Nationalist movements, some predating World War I, spread throughout the Muslim world as a protest against the colonial presence. Their leaders were the educated and politically powerful urban elite, but they also succeeded in mobilizing the masses to support their cause. Not all were caught up in the tide of nationalism, however, and a few spiritually perceptive, fervently anti-colonial Muslims rallied behind the pan-Islamic movement as the last opportunity to reclaim their own identity under a political structure that was Islamic rather than Western in both inspiration and form. Their efforts failed. The caliphate, which had been the symbolic focus of the movement was abolished by the new secular ruler of
Kemal Ataturk, in 1924. Turkey
The burr of Zionism, the conflict between rival Muslim factions, and the constant reminder of Western political, military, and economic superiority all detracted from the appeal of the pan-Islamic movement. During the hectic interwar years, a few Muslim countries gained independence as nation states, while others continued the bitter struggle, until by the mid-1950s only British colonies in the Arabian peninsula, together with French and Spanish mandates in
North Africa, remained under the direct
The long struggle for a pan-Islamic movement which has occupied much of the twentieth century history of Islamic peoples not only in the Middle East but also in Africa and
Asia. However, the pan-Islamic movement is based on
a self-contradictory premise. Islam,
from its origin, has been a religious polity.
A Muslim, unlike a Jew or a Christian, cannot readily separate his
spiritual from his national identity. As
the sharia makes clear, in tone as well as content, the basic vocabulary
of Islamic life is at once religious and political. The mosque and the state are not separable --
they are complementary expressions of the same, single reality. Islam applies to all spheres of life, both
secular and religious.
Thus, nationalism, even Muslim nationalism, will continue to elicit tensions and pose paradoxes that will continue to riddle Muslim public behavior and private faith.
It would be wrong to underestimate the resilience of Islam. Amid staggering perplexities, there persist genuine aspirations for a confident, progressive worldwide Muslim community, one which would uphold the traditions of the past while adapting to forces of change. The future of Islam may well lie not with national political leaders but with the local custodians of the sharia, the 'ulama'.