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.

When people move

In the course of human events, migration has resembled an unstoppable force, and bigotry has seemed like an unmovable object. Left alone, either could prevail as the primary cause of events. Combined, the two have challenged each other repeatedly, contributing to the ebb and flow of history.

People move. Even after the Neolithic Revolution established settlements where people built homes and cities, tended flocks and herds, raised crops, and set down roots, groups of people have still sought better homes for themselves and their families. People are constantly looking for better farmland and superior water resources, safer and more defendable homes, nicer weather, kinder neighbors, and opportunities to start over after escaping previous problems. When discussing this fact in the classroom, I often asked the students how many of them had parents still living in the same house where they lived when those students were born. The number who said yes was generally small—at times, I was the only one in the room whose parents had not moved.

So, the Harappan civilization of the Indus Valley in southern Asia gradually became home to increasing numbers of Indo-Europeans migrating from the north. The blending of Harappan with Indo-European cultures created the Vedic culture of India. Contemporary scholars are unsure which elements of Vedic civilization came from the Harappan strain and which came from the Indo-European strain. Since no one today can read Harappan writing, this question remains unanswered. But the blend of the two cultures definitely produced something new.

The Chinese culture built a wall to keep northern Asians out of their land. The Great Wall of China also prohibited Chinese people from leaving the country without permission, and it provided a great stimulus project that employed many Chinese workers who would otherwise have been unemployed. The Wall was not built at one time, or even in one century. Different segments were built at different times and were connected later; segments were repaired and improved over the centuries, so that the wall that tourists visit today is not the same wall that the Chinese people built long ago. But the Wall remains as a reminder of the extent to which governments will go to prevent unwanted immigration.

Many centuries later, the Romans also struggled to limit migration into their empire from the north. They also built walls. They positioned legions of soldiers on the borders. They even made agreements with some immigrant groups that they would be granted Roman citizenship if they would remain on the border and prevent other groups from entering the empire. Still, so many northern Europeans wanted the advantages of Roman citizenship and of life in the Mediterranean climate that the Romans were unable to prevent their entry. Goths and Vandals and Franks and Burgundians and Saxons and many other groups migrated into the Empire. They adopted some of its institutions (including Christianity) and adapted others, blending them with their own cultures. The results of this migration are called medieval and modern Europe.

Then came the Vikings. They came from Norway and Sweden, settling in Denmark and northern Germany and France. They entered the Mediterranean Sea and became involved with the Christian and Muslim civilizations living there. They sailed up the Dnieper River and established Kiev, the first capital of Russia. (Although Russia is a Slavic nation, its name comes from the label given to the Vikings of Kiev, whose hair and complexion were red.) The Vikings colonized Iceland and Greenland and even found their way to Canada. Hagar the Horrible and the Minnesota football team are far too weak to justly credit the major influence the Vikings had on western civilization.

After 1500, Europeans and Africans poured across the Atlantic Ocean into the Americas. Most Europeans made the trip voluntarily; most Africans were brought as slaves.  Between 1500 and 1800, more Africans than Europeans were brought to the western hemisphere. After the slave trade was abolished, Europeans continued migrating to the New World, and many east Asians also crossed the Pacific Ocean for life in the Americas.

Yet the story of migration would not be complete without the opposing force of bigotry. Most cultures view the world as divided into “us” and “them.” The books of Genesis and Exodus correctly report the hostility the Egyptians felt toward outsiders, particularly the Semitic people of western Asia. Greeks distinguished between people who spoke Greek and those who spoke other languages—all those other languages sounded like “bar, bar, bar,” to the Greeks, so they called those outsiders “barbarians.” Jews distinguish themselves from Gentiles. The Chinese culture has traditionally seen itself as the only civilization, the center of the world, surrounded by barbarians. Migration is hindered by laws, walls, armed forces, and other deterrents because most groups of people consider themselves better than others. After all, if they didn’t consider themselves better, wouldn’t they seek to improve? Differences of appearance, language, food traditions, religious beliefs, social and political organization, and other cultural differences distinguish one group of people from another. Sometimes a group of people migrates successfully and makes its home in a new place, blending its culture with what they find in that new place. Sometimes (as with the Europeans coming to the Americas) the migrants are so dominant that they gain little from those groups they replace. Rarely does a government succeed in preventing migration into the land it controls. The higher the standard of living in a country, the more likely outsiders will want to move into that country and live there.

The dangers of migration and bigotry, when they face one another, can be reduced with a few simple concepts. One is genuine curiosity and interest, from both groups, about the traditions and practices of the other group. Another is willingness of the older group to teach its ways to the newer group. Legal acceptance of some immigrants and rejection of others can be based upon willingness of the migrants to conform to the values of the native culture. A fundamental requirement for peaceful coexistence is that both groups view the members of the other group as people. People deserve respect. Migrants and other outsiders are included among the neighbors that God’s people are commanded to love. But those strangers also have an obligation to respect their new neighbors, to obey the existing laws of their new homes, and to contribute to the success of the place they now call home. When stubbornness turns to fear and hatred, then the history of migration and of bigotry becomes ugly, often tragic. J.

More history

As people long ago settled into patterns of raising their own food—tending herds and flocks, and planting and harvesting crops—they looked for places with fertile soil, reliable sources of water, and safety from dangerous animals, including other people. Many of these ideal settlements were in the river valleys of Asia and north Africa. In China, India, Mesopotamia, and Egypt, settlements grew until they had become small kingdoms, societies knit together by their common needs and desires.

Plentiful food made specialization possible. Some people focused on the crops and others on the flocks and herds. Still others helped to build houses and enclosures for the animals. Some made tools. Others made clothing from plant fibers and animal skins or fur. Some specialized in the arts, including story-telling; they maintained the histories of their people and also their religious beliefs. Some specialized in leadership; beginning as heads of families and of clans, they became the ruling class of their small nations. Some specialized in hunting and in military protection of their settlements. Some became priests and spiritual leaders, keeping the people in tune with God as they understood God.

Eventually, all these river valley settlements developed written language. Sumer, in Mesopotamia (modern Iraq) appears to be the earliest place where humans wrote, although the Harappan civilization in India may have begin writing around the same time. Although the earliest records were probably inventories of food and other items being preserved, soon the same symbols were adapted to record other information that people were determined to preserve. One of the oldest documents found in Sumer is a recipe for brewing beer.

Literacy did not remain an ability of the privileged elite. Egyptian Pharaohs erected public monuments in their cities and at the borders of their land, telling people what they had accomplished. Hammurabi, king of a Sumerian city called Babylon, had the laws of his government carved in stone and placed prominently in his city. These practices indicate that many people living in those places were able to read. Some ancient writings have been preserved, not because of planning, but by fortunate happenstance. Temporary records scratched into clay tablets in western Asia were cooked when the cities caught fire, being hardened for long-term preservation. During the Shang Dynasty in China, people with questions about the future wrote those questions on animal bones. Religious specialists then heated the bones in fire until they cracked; the cracks running through the questions provided answers by means of the specialists. Although we do not know how they determined their answers, we know what questions people were asking in ancient China, which is splendid information for historians.

Many records have been lost over time, because they were written on materials that disintegrated. Others cannot be read because no one today knows those ancient languages. Ancient Egyptian can be read only because of a stone found in Egypt that contains the same message in three languages, including Greek. The Harappan language of ancient India and some of the written languages of the western hemisphere remain mysteries because no similar key has been found to interpret them.

Other civilizations did not bother trying to preserve the written word. In many places, unfavorable climate guaranteed that no written materials would last for generations. Africa, the South Pacific, and parts of the western hemisphere relied largely on oral tradition rather than a written record. For a long time, historians were suspicious of oral tradition. They figured it changed from generation to generation, much as spoken messages are changed from person to person in contemporary cultures. People who never relied on writing improved their memory skills; story-tellers in those cultures were able to maintain reliable versions of ancient narratives because their communities expected that skill from them. Today, historians place far more trust on the oral traditions of such societies; they combine that information with archaeological discoveries and accounts written by visitors to those societies to develop a comprehensive historical record of those nations.

Record-keeping practices constantly change. Electronic storage of information is still new, but the switch from scrolls to codices (the modern form of the book, with a spine and a cover) happened roughly two thousand years ago without bringing history to an end. Record management specialists and archivists continue to refine their skills at preserving digital information. Much will still be lost, as many books and papers are lost, and many ancient documents have disappeared. What is most valuable, though, will be saved. Future generations will study us to learn about our successes, our failures, our hopes and dreams, our fears, and our perceptions of ourselves. We may seem as strange to them as the ancient Egyptians, Sumerians, Harappans, and Chinese seem to us today. In the most important ways, though, we will all be the same, because we all are human. J.