The history of Islam: part two

Muhammad’s insistence that he was receiving messages from God met skeptical ears and minds in Mecca, just as any claim to have messages from God meets skeptical ears and minds today. A few did believe Muhammad, though, and then a few more believed. This growing group of believers prompted resistance from the authorities in Mecca. For years the determination of both sides increased. A turning point came when the leaders of a nearby town (then named Yathrib; today called Medina) invited Muhammad to come to their town and settle disputes among their leaders. Muhammad’s clandestine journey to Medina became the first year for the Muslim count of years, as the assumed date of the birth of Jesus is the first year in the Christian count of years. (Because Muslims begin a new month every new moon and have no leap days or leap months, the Muslim year is ten or eleven years shorter than the Christian years. As a result, Muslim observances drift through the seasons, falling sometimes in summer and other times in winter.) Relations between Muhammad’s followers in Medina and his opponents in Mecca led sometimes to armed battles and sometimes to negotiations and compromises. In the end, Muhammad claimed authority in Mecca; he had the altars of false gods removed from the city center, but he kept one meteorite in Mecca, designating it as sacred to God. Observant Muslims treat that stone with reverence; it stands at the center of their pilgrimage ceremonies in Mecca.

When Muhammad died, he left no instructions about who was to continue leading the Muslims in Mecca, Medina, and the surrounding area. His followers understood that Muhammad was the last of the prophets; there would not be a next prophet. But they needed someone to guide their movement. Therefore, they designated a Caliph, a man who could speak in place of the prophet. Four Caliphs were selected in the thirty years after Muhammad died—a new one was chosen when the last one had died. Some Muslims believe that the fourth Caliph—Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad—should have been the first Caliph. This controversy began the split among Muslims that continues as a division between Sunni and Shia Muslims. Other groups also had variant understandings about how Islam should be governed. After the death of the fourth Caliph, the Umayyad family gathered control of Muslim government, ruling from the city Damascus for almost a century. They eventually gave way to the Abbasid family, who built a new capitol city in Mesopotamia, the city of Baghdad, from which they continued to rule Muslim lands.

For, within a century of Muhammad’s death, Muslim Arabs had spread as an army across north Africa and into Spain, and also into western Asia as far as the western part of India. They permitted religious freedom to “People of the Book,” but they demanded that polytheists acknowledge the one God or die. The Caliphs, the Umayyads, and the Abbasids determined Sharia for the many people living in these lands. Already, though, Islam was splintering, as Shia and other groups resisted some of the interpretations of the central Islamic government. Muslims in Spain and Morocco never acknowledged the Abbasid government in Baghdad, recognizing their own local leaders as successors to the Umayyads. Other north African groups developed their own Muslim governments, including the Fatimid government in Egypt, who claimed that their leaders were descended from Ali and from his wife Fatima, the daughter of Muhammad.

Meanwhile, invaders were entering west Asia from the central part of the continent. The Saljuq Turks invaded the Abbasid Empire, leaving the Abbasid Caliph as a figurehead but dominating the government of Baghdad. The strength of the Saljuq Turks caused the Byzantine Emperor to call for reinforcements from western Europe, conjuring the Crusades. Turks were no more impressed by Byzantines by the European fighters, but they offered an alliance if the Christian Crusaders would help them battle the Fatimids in Egypt. The Fatimids offered a similar alliance. Reluctant to sign a treaty with either group, the Crusaders held their kingdoms for a bit more than a hundred years before they were overwhelmed by the Turks, led by the Kurdish general Saladin. Later the Mongol Empire, including additional Turks among their soldiers, seized Persia and Mesopotamia, including Baghdad. Mongols and Turks who remained in west Asia converted to Islam and continued to rule as their predecessors the Umayyads and Abbasids had ruled.

By 1500, Muslim rule was divided among three Empires, along with smaller kingdoms. In India the Moguls ruled, a Turkish group drew their name from the Mongol Empire. In Persia the Safavids held power. Further west the Ottoman Empire appeared. This Empire grew to claim much of the land that had belonged to the Byzantine Empire, overthrowing the final Byzantine government in Constantinople in 1453. At their peak, all three of these empires were mightier than any comparable power in Europe.

The balance slowly changed. European explorers and colonists brought wealth from other nations into Europe, while the Muslim empires remained stagnant. Technology and invention flourished in Europe, but not among the Moguls, the Safavids, or the Ottomans. Vibrant new ideas about democracy and human rights arose in Europe, but the Muslim empires held to their older ways. Eventually, the empires withered. British power displaced the Moguls in India. Austria and Russia pushed back the borders of the Ottoman Empire (which still survived until after World War I ended.) Many reasons have been proposed for this shift of power, and most of them probably contain some truth.

Some Muslim leaders tried to learn from European powers and imitate their successes. Muhammad Ali, a viceroy serving the Ottoman Empire in Egypt, practically created an independent country using European methods and technology. A group called Young Turks tried to do the same in the heart of the Ottoman Empire. Many Muslims imitated European culture, European music and clothing, and European philosophy regarding human rights. Others resisted. Movements calling for rejection of European ways, for a return to the vital principles of Islam, arose in all the Muslim Empires.

Meanwhile, Islam was spreading during these centuries in non-military ways. Merchants worked trade routes into Africa and across India to southeastern Asia, as well as into central Asia. When merchants built houses and mosques and brought their wives and children, their example often won converts to their religion. The peaceful Muslim incursion into the islands of Indonesia outlasted Dutch Christian influence in most of those islands, which is why the country today with the largest number of Muslims is Indonesia (not Pakistan or Saudi Arabia or Iran).

In my next post I will look at Islam in the world today and how it relates to other ideas, both religious and secular. J.