Religion’s Future in View of Its Past
Part 14—622 C.E. onward—Submitting to God’s Will
“Of these messengers We have exalted some above others.”—Al-Baqarah (sūrah 2), verse 253, from the Qurʼān*
PEOPLE believing in an omnipotent, loving God recognize the wisdom of submitting to his will. They appreciate the guidance he has provided them through messengers entrusted with divine knowledge. Some of these messengers are recognized by more than one of the major world religions. For example, upwards of 800 million followers of Islam view the Judeo-Christian personalities Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, David, and Jesus as major prophets of God. But a seventh, they believe, has been exalted above all other messengers—the prophet Muḥammad.
The name Islam is meaningful, since it denotes submission or surrender—in this context, to the law and will of Allah. A person going this way of submission or surrender is termed a “Muslim,” the active participle of the word islam. The one to whom Muslims are to be in submission is Allah. Viewed as a personal name, Allah is a contraction of Al-Ilah, Arabic words meaning “The God.” The name appears in the Qurʼān some 2,700 times.
The Foremost Prophet of Islam
Muḥammad bin Abdullah (the son of Abdullah), the founder of Islam, was born in Mecca, Saudi Arabia, about the year 570 C.E. He was dissatisfied with local polytheistic beliefs and rituals. He apparently felt no affinity for Judaism or for Christianity either. H. M. Baagil, a Muslim author, elaborates: “Because Christianity had deviated a long way from the original teachings of Jesus, Allah then sent as part of His original plan His last Prophet, Muhammad, as revivalist to restore all these changes.”
Muḥammad gave rituals and rites an Arabic flavor. Jerusalem and its temple were replaced by Mecca and its sacred shrine, the Kaaba. Saturday for Jews and Sunday for Christians were replaced by Friday as a day of communal prayer. And instead of either Moses or Jesus, Muḥammad now came to be viewed by Muslims as God’s foremost prophet.
When about 40, Muḥammad declared that he had been called to be God’s messenger. At first he shared his beliefs with relatives and friends, gradually building up a group of followers. The actual beginning of the Islamic era was in 622 C.E., when he emigrated from Mecca to Medina, an event called the hijrah, Arabic for “emigration.” Thus, Muslim dates are given as A.H. (Anno Hegirae, year of the flight).
Muḥammad tried to reconcile the Jews in Medina to his new religion and to his role as a prophet. But persuasion failed. They opposed him and plotted with his enemies both in Mecca and in Medina. In time the main groups of the Jews were driven out, and one clan, the Qurayẓah, was destroyed by putting its men to death and enslaving the women and children.
Finally, Mecca was taken peacefully in 8 A.H. (630 C.E.), as was most of the Arabian Peninsula. A few decades after Muḥammad’s death, a controversy over succession led to such civil strife that, in reaction, the community adopted an almost accommodating stance toward non-Islamic groups and ideas.
More Than Just a Religion
Islam is a total way of life, encompassing the State, its laws, its social institutions, and its culture, and therefore it is not just a religion. This explains why the book Early Islam says that for over 600 years, “Islam was the world’s most challenging religion, its strongest political force and its most vital culture.”
Indeed, within a century after Muḥammad’s death, an Arabic empire, larger than the Roman Empire at its peak, stretched from India across North Africa to Spain, helping transmit inventions that enriched Western civilization. It made outstanding contributions in the fields of law, mathematics, astronomy, history, literature, geography, philosophy, architecture, medicine, music, and the social sciences.
Like a Meteor Soon Spent
“The Arab conquests were the direct product of the preaching of Muhammad,” says The Collins Atlas of World History. Of course, other factors also contributed to Islamic expansion. For example, religious conflicts between the Christians of Byzantium and the Zoroastrians of Persia blinded them both to the Arab advance.
Striving to hold a far-flung empire together by means of religion was nothing new. But “Moslems were convinced that they possessed in the Koran the final and incontrovertible statement of truth,” explains author Desmond Stewart. They became complacent, “believing that all that was worth knowing was already known, and that the ideas of non-Moslems were of no account.” Changes were “stubbornly resisted.”
Consequently, by the 11th century, the empire was already in decline. Stewart likens it to “a meteor streaking across the night sky [whose] . . . vitality soon spent itself.” Thus, this religion, which created a sense of brotherhood and offered a comparatively easy way of personal approach to God, actually contributed to bringing down the very empire it had once helped create. As rapid as was its rise, so sudden was its demise. The empire was dead, but its religion lived on.*
True submission includes obeying God, his laws, and his representatives. Muḥammad succeeded in uniting the Arab tribes in Arabia, founding an Islamic community (Ummah) centered on him and the Qurʹān. It was a religious state wherein submission helped in making them brothers under one leader. Islam allowed the use of the sword in fighting the enemies of the Arab tribes. This sword helped to expand their empire and their religion. When Muḥammad died, violent differences arose. These were in the first instance political, arising out of the question of choosing a Khalifah, a leader. It moved many to draw their swords to fight their brothers. The merging of religion with government served to divide the community. “Submission” could not unite the people under one leader.
Tradition says that Muḥammad himself foresaw 72 heretical sects of Islam developing. But today some authorities speak of several hundred.
The two major divisions are the Shia and the Sunni. Each has, however, numerous subdivisions. Of every 100 Muslims, about 83 are Sunni and about 15 Shiite. The others belong to various sectarian groups as diverse as the Druze, the Black Muslims, and the Abangans of Indonesia, who mix Islam with Buddhism, Hinduism, and local religions.
A feature of the Shiite minority is its belief that religion and the Qurʼān have esoteric, or hidden, meanings. But it was over the question of succession that the Shiite schism actually arose. The Shiites (a word meaning “partisans,” in reference to “the partisans of ‛Alī”) hold to a doctrine called legitimism, claiming that the right of rulership is restricted to ‛Alī, Muḥammad’s cousin and son-in-law, and to ‛Alī’s descendants.
‛Alī and his descendants were imams, leaders with absolute spiritual authority. There is disagreement on how many imams there have been, but the largest Shiite group, called the Twelver Shia, believe there have been 12. In 878 C.E. the 12th imam became “hidden,” that is to say, he disappeared after promising that he would return at the end of the world to establish an Islamic government of justice.
Shiite Muslims annually commemorate the martyrdom of Ḥusayn, Muḥammad’s grandson. Comments author Rahman: “Fed from childhood with such representational enactments of this event, a Shī‘ī Muslim is likely to develop a deep sense of tragedy and injustice resulting in an ideal of martyrdom.”
Evidences of Disunity?
“The introduction of Greek philosophy and logic in the ninth century,” comments The Columbia History of the World, “gave rise to a distinct Islamic philosophy (falsafa) which had a far-reaching impact on the rationalistic and theological outlook of Islam. . . . With the passage of time Islam itself, as a religion and way of life, underwent profound changes affecting its unity.”
For example, Sufism, the Western term for Islamic mysticism, surfaced in the eighth and ninth centuries and rapidly developed into a mass religious movement. By the 12th century, Sufi orders, or brotherhoods, were widespread. The Sufi monastery began almost to overshadow the mosque in importance. Practices found in Sufism include autohypnotism induced by concentration techniques or frenzied dancing, the chanting of formulas, belief in miracles, and the worship of saints.
Sufis compromised with local customs and beliefs. Turks retained their shamanistic practices, Africans their medicine men, Indians their Hindu and pre-Hindu saints and deities, and Indonesians—as The New Encyclopædia Britannica expresses it—their “pre-Islāmic world view beneath an overlay of Islāmic practices.”
A noted sectarian development of more recent times is the Baha’i religion developed from Shiite Islam in mid-19th century Iran. Another is a Sunni sect called the Aḥmadīyah, which developed in late 19th-century India, when Mirza Ghulam Ahmad, a self-proclaimed prophet, professed to be a manifestation of Muḥammad, the returned Jesus, and an incarnation of the Hindu Krishna. He taught that Jesus, after escaping death at Golgotha, fled to India, where he remained active until his death at 120.
In his commentaries on the Qurʼān, Muslim author S. Abul A‛la Maududi says: “At the time of the revelation of Al-Baqarah [the sūrah quoted at the head of this article], all sorts of hypocrites had begun to appear.” These included “‘Muslims,’ munāfiqīn (hypocrites) . . . who were intellectually convinced of the truth of Islam but did not have enough moral courage to give up their former traditions.”
So from the very start, many followers evidently failed to submit to Allah in the way Muḥammad intended. But others did. To ward off the challenge they presented, Christendom was not above “Resorting to the Sword,” as will be described in our issue of August 8.
“Qurʼān” (which means “recitation”) is the spelling favored by Muslim writers and which we will use here rather than the Western form “Koran.”
The common view that Islam is strictly an Arab religion is incorrect. Most of today’s Muslims are non-Arabs. Indonesia, the most populous Muslim country, has 150 million adherents.
[Box on page 22]
To Help You Better Understand Islam
The Five Pillars of Islam require that Muslims at least once publicly make the confession of faith known as the Shahādah—“There is no god but God; Muḥammad is the prophet of God”; say prayers five times a day; pay zakat, an obligatory tax, now usually collected on a voluntary basis; fast from sunup to sundown during the ninth month, Ramadan; and at least once, if financially able, take the hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca.
“Jihad” (“holy war” or “holy struggle”) is viewed as a sixth pillar by the Khariji sect but not by Muslims in general. Its purpose, says The New Encyclopædia Britannica, “is not the conversion of individuals to Islām but rather the gaining of political control over the collective affairs of societies to run them in accordance with the principles of Islām.” The Qurʼān allows for such a “holy war,” saying: “You shall not kill any man whom Allah has forbidden you to kill, except for a just cause.”—Sūrah 17:33.
The main sources of Islamic doctrine and law are the Qurʼān, written over a period of about a quarter century; sunnah (traditions); ijmāʽ (consensus of the community); and qiyās (individual thought). The Islamic law code, the Sharī‘ah, dealing with the total religious, political, social, domestic, and private life of Muslims, was systematized during the eighth and ninth centuries C.E.
Mecca, Medina, and Jerusalem, in that order, are Islam’s three most sacred places: Mecca because of its Kaaba sanctuary, which tradition says Abraham built; Medina, where Muḥammad’s mosque is located; and Jerusalem because from there, tradition says Muḥammad made his ascent into heaven.
[Map/Pictures on page 23]
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The Islamic Empire as it looked at its peak