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Islam is both a worldwide community of believers and a major world belief system based on submission to one God, Allah. In the twenty-first century there are almost a billion and a half Muslims (people who accept Islam as their faith) in more than two hundred countries.
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Although Islam was initially historically identified with Arabs, today only around 15 percent of the world’s Muslims (the people who accept Islam as their faith) are Arabs, with the largest national communities of Muslims being in southern and southeastern Asia. The historic Islamic community began in the seventh century CE in the western part of the Arabian Peninsula; within two centuries the Muslim world stretched from Central Asia to northern Africa and Spain. The term Islam refers to a worldwide community of believers and to one of the major belief systems in the world.
The core of the belief system of Islam is the affirmation that one God (Allah) exists. The word Allah means in Arabic “the divinity.” The word Islam means “submission,” and the belief system is based on submission to the one God, with the person engaging in submission being called a “Muslim.” Muslims understand their faith to be a continuation of the message of God presented to humanity through a series of messengers and prophets, including Abraham and Jesus. In the Islamic belief system the final presentation of the message of God was made through the Prophet Muhammad, who lived in Mecca and then Medina in modern Saudi Arabia at the beginning of the seventh century CE. The revelation was recorded and preserved in the Qur’an, the holy book of Islamic faith.
The basic requirements of the Islamic belief system are frequently called the Five Pillars of Islam. The first pillar (shihadah) is bearing witness publicly to the belief that “There is no divinity but Allah and Muhammad is the messenger of Allah.” Praying (salat) is the second pillar. Praying involves performing five prescribed prayers daily. The third pillar (zakat) is taking the responsibility to contribute alms to provide assistance to the poor in the community. Undertaking the fast during the month of Ramadan is the fourth pillar. The fifth pillar is performing the pilgrimage (hajj) to Mecca at least one time during the believer’s lifetime, if possible. Each of the pillars is a responsibility for the individual believer, and no priesthood or clergy is required to fulfill any obligation. Although “striving in the path of God” (jihad) is an expected part of the life of faith for Muslims, jihad defined as “holy war” is not one of the Five Pillars of Islam.
The Formation of Community and Faith
Muhammad was born in Mecca around 570 CE. He was part of an active merchant community that was involved in trade between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea. In addition to being a commercial center, Mecca was a religious center with a shrine that housed important religious relics from many of the tribes in the region. Muhammad’s own family was influential in both religious and commercial activities, but his father died before he was born, and his mother died when he was still young. As a young man he gained a reputation for reliability and married a prosperous widow, Khadijah, whose affairs he managed. His life was transformed when he experienced his first revelations around 610 CE.
The Meccan belief system at that time was basically polytheistic, but Meccans were familiar with Christianity and Judaism. Muhammad preached a message of strict monotheism and soon aroused the opposition of the Meccan merchant elite. After many struggles he and his small community of followers moved to Yathrib, a neighboring oasis community whose leaders invited Muhammad to come and be the arbitrator and judge in its disputes. The oasis became known as Medina, or “the city [Medina] of the Prophet.” This migration in 622 CE is called the Hijra and marks the beginning of the Islamic community as a distinct entity. Muslims date the years of the Islamic era from the Hijra, with 622 CE being year 1 in the Islamic calendar. This calendar is based on a lunar year of approximately 354 days or twelve lunar months.
During the next ten years most of the people in the Arabian Peninsula became Muslims or were allied in some way with the new Islamic community. The defeat and conversion of Mecca was an important step in this process. The shrine of the Kaaba, a cube-shaped structure at the center of Mecca, was purified of polytheistic relics and recognized as the altar of Abraham. In the prescribed prayers Muslims were to face the Kaaba (for a short time they faced Jerusalem), and the building became the center of pilgrimage rites. The basic foundations of the Islamic belief system and the Islamic community were laid.
The Era of the Caliphs
The Islamic community was dynamic by the time of Muhammad’s death in 632 CE. Some confusion existed about the transition to a community without Muhammad. The majority of the community accepted the idea that the successor (khalifah or caliph) to Muhammad as leader would be one of his close companions, Abu Bakr. A minority within the community came to believe that the idea was an error and argued that the first successor should have been the son-in-law and cousin of Muhammad, Ali. In later tradition this minority group came to be identified as the faction (Shiah) of Ali (Shi’as), whereas the majority were called “Sunni” (those who follow the Sunnah or precedents of the community).
The first four caliphs were all close associates of Muhammad (two were the fathers of wives he married after Khadijah died), and their rule is identified by Sunni Muslims as the era of “the Rightly-Guided Caliphs” (632–661 CE). Under their leadership Islamic armies conquered all of the Sasanid Empire and most of the Middle Eastern territories of the Byzantine Empire. Through these conquests the Islamic community became the heir of the great imperial traditions of Persia and Rome as well as the Middle Eastern monotheistic traditions. In structure and administrative practices the emerging caliphate resembled the older empires that had been conquered.
The political history of the Islamic community during the early centuries involves the rise and fall of dynasties controlling the caliphal state, and the political experiences of the community shaped the belief systems that developed. Civil war brought an end to the era of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, and the new political community was ruled by the Umayyad dynasty (661–750 CE) and then by the Abbasid dynasty (749/750–1258).
Early Abbasid caliphs built a new capital at Baghdad, not far from the location of ancient imperial capitals. Although the Abbasid state was strong, it never established control over all of the territories of the Islamic world. Umayyad princes continued to rule in the Iberian Peninsula, and gradually independent Islamic states were established across North Africa. By the end of the tenth century CE three caliphs claimed authority in parts of the Islamic world—an Umayyad ruler in Spain, a Shi’i ruler in Egypt, and the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad. Local military rulers, who came to take the title of “sultan,” increasingly dominated political affairs. The Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258 CE brought an end to the Abbasid caliphate. Although the concept of the caliphate as a symbol of Islamic unity continued, basic Islamic political organization took the form of sultanates, representing rule by military commanders. This transformation was possible because of the evolution of the nature of the Islamic community itself.
The Faith-Based Community
During the early centuries of Islamic history the caliphate was the most visible aspect of the new Islamic community. However, the development of the Islamic belief system provided the basis for a faith-based community that involved more than an allegiance to a particular ruler or political system. The definition of a legal and normative framework that shaped politics but that was independent of the state helped to create a sense of community identity. The development of popular devotional organizations associated with the growing importance of Sufi (Islamic mystic) brotherhoods strengthened this identity.
The Islamic belief system initially developed within the framework of the caliphate but was not tied to the specifics of the political system. Scholars, not political leaders, undertook the important functions of interpreting the Qur’an and organizing the traditions (hadith) of Muhammad as basic sources for law and guidance. These scholars, literally the “learned people” (ulama), never became an ordained clergy and maintained independence from rulers. However, the political and legal dimensions of the Islamic faith were an important part of the belief system. These dimensions were the primary area of disagreement among Sunnis and Shi’as. The Sunnis believed that the historic caliphate was Islamically legitimate, whereas the Shi’as insisted that the only legitimate ruler would be the divinely designated imam (an Islamic leader) who would be a descendant of Muhammad. Most Shi’as are called “Ithna Ashari” or “Twelvers” because they believe that the twelfth imam in the series was taken into divine seclusion and will return at some future time to establish God’s rule.
The ulama during Abbasid times developed a framework of legal concepts and precedents that provides the foundation for the legal and normative structures of the sharia (Islamic law). No single system of canon law developed. Instead, among the Sunni majority, four schools of legal thought, each identified with a major early scholar—Hanafi(Abu Hanifa, d. 767), Maliki (Malik ibn Anas, d. 796), Shafi’i (Muhammad Shafi’i, d. 819), and Hanbali (Ahmad ibn Hanbal, d. 855)—were accepted as authoritative. Among the Shi’as most recognized the legal thought of Jafar al-Sadiq (d. 765), the sixth imam. In these schools the fundamental sources of the sharia were agreed to be the Qur’an and the traditions or Sunnah of Muhammad. Although theology was important, the core intellectual disciplines for Muslims became legal analysis (fiqh) and collection and analysis of the hadith (reports of the words and actions of Muhammad). Differences arose regarding analogical reasoning and consensus of the community. Use of independent informed judgment in analysis was called ijtihad. In later centuries Sunnis limited its scope more than did Shi’as.
The content of this legal structure emphasized the universality of law based on God’s revelation and the equality of all believers. It was not strictly speaking a code of law; it was rather a framework for a just and virtuous society. The sharia defined both the duties to God and social responsibilities. It covered commercial practices, family life, and criminal behavior. This vision of society did not depend upon a particular state structure and could be presented by scholars rather than rulers and soldiers.
The faith of the majority of the population was also shaped by popular preachers and teachers whose devotional life was an inspiration. The development of special devotional paths or tariqahs is associated with what came to be called “Sufism,” the mystical piety of early inspirational teachers. By the eleventh and twelfth centuries CE social organizations associated with these devotional paths became an increasingly important part of Islamic societies. The devotional paths emerged as brotherhood organizations that were instrumental in the Islamization of societies in central and southeastern Asia and sub-Saharan Africa.
Expanding Community and the Great Sultans
The Islamic world virtually doubled in size between the tenth and the eighteenth centuries. Great trade networks brought Islamic merchants to most regions of the Eastern Hemisphere. Islamic scholars and Sufiteachers followed, and dynamically growing communities of believers developed as interactions with local people set in motion activities that resulted in the gradual Islamization of societies.
By the sixteenth century the great central states of the Islamic world represented a commanding dynamism. In the eastern Mediterranean the Ottoman Empire began during the thirteenth century in the Aegean area, conquered Constantinople (modern Istanbul, Turkey) in 1453, and, by the eighteenth century, controlled much of the Balkan Peninsula, the Arab world, and North Africa. In southern Asia the smaller Islamic sultanates of medieval times were replaced by the Mughal Empire, which dominated virtually the entire Indian subcontinent by the seventeenth century. In western Africa a series of increasingly Islamized states beginning with medieval Ghana and Mali and ending during the sixteenth century with the Songhai Empire established Islam as a major historic force in the region. Similar developments took place in southeastern and Central Asia.
A dramatic change occurred in the Persian-Iranian heartland. Iran had long been an important part of the Sunni world, with some Shi’a minority groups. However, around 1500 a militant popular religious group called the “Safavids” conquered much of modern-day Iran and beyond. During the next century the Safavid rulers declared Ithna Ashari Shi’ism to be the religion of the state, and most Iranians converted. Shi’i scholars came to the Safavid Empire, especially from the Arab world, and received privileges that gave the ulama in Shi’i Iran a special influence that has continued to the present.
Challenges of the Modern Era
This powerful and expanding Islamic world had long interacted with western European and Christian-majority societies. These interactions entered a major new phase during the eighteenth century with the transformation of western European societies, especially through the Industrial Revolution, and the beginnings of European imperialist expansion. Throughout the Islamic world Europeans came to dominate Islamic lands, and Muslims responded in many ways. Muslims mounted major efforts to fight European expansion, as in the wars led by the emir (ruler) Abd al-Qadir in Algeria after the French invasion of 1830. Most military opposition failed.
Leaders in major Islamic countries introduced programs of reform to reshape their societies and states using Western models. Early reformers included Muhammad Ali in Egypt (reigned 1805–1849) and the Ottoman sultan Mahmud II (reigned 1808–1839), whose programs laid the foundations for the emergence of modern-style secular states. Later other reformers emphasized intellectual and religious dimensions. By the end of the nineteenth century efforts to create an effective synthesis of Islam and modernity resulted in the movement of Islamic modernism. Major figures are Muhammad Abduh (1849–1905) and Jamal al- Din al-Afghani (1839–1897), whose ideas influenced groups as diverse as the Muhammadiyya movement established in Java in 1912 and intellectuals in India and North Africa. A different emphasis in reform is provided by more puritanical movements that seek a “return” to a more strict adherence to Islamic norms interpreted in a relatively literalist manner. This mode of reform has deep roots in Islamic history and can be seen in the premodern movement of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703–1792), whose ideas have been an important part of modern Islamic revivalist movements.
The broad spectrum of responses to the challenges of modernity in the nineteenth century extended from the Westernizing programs of state reform to the explicitly Islamic modernists and fundamentalists. The work of all of these people set the framework for the developments of states and societies in the Muslim world during the twentieth century. By the end of the nineteenth century few groups could be considered purely non-modern (or, in the terminology of twentieth-century social scientists, “traditional”), since even the most conservative were interacting with the modernity of the time. That era was still largely defined by Western European experiences, so that modernization tended to be viewed as a process of Europeanization or Westernization. But by the end of the nineteenth century, distinctive non- European modes of modernity were beginning to be visible, and the emergence of these different styles of modernity would play an important role in shaping the history of Muslim societies and thought in the twentieth century.
Global Muslim communities experienced important transformations during the twentieth century. At the beginning of the century, most of the Muslim world was under direct or indirect European imperialist control, and the emerging political systems were primarily conceived as Western-style nation states. Explicitly Islamic movements and organizations were often viewed, even by “modern” Muslims, as anachronisms and obstacles to modernization. By the end of the twentieth century, however, virtually every Muslim majority society was politically independent, and classical European imperialism was an image from a seemingly distant past. An explicitly Islamic republic was created by a revolution that overthrew a Westernizing autocracy in Iran in 1979, and the new Islamic republic was sufficiently strong at the beginning of the twenty-first century to be viewed as a potential nuclear power and as an important major regional power. Muslims and Islamic movements became major influential agents in global affairs.
This transformation involved three broad historical phases, which can be defined in terms of the evolution of modernity itself during the twentieth century. In the era of domination by European imperial powers during the first half of the century, most new movements followed European-style patterns of political development. Resistance to European rule took the form of nationalist movements, and social and political reforms were generally secular in orientation. Modernity was defined in Western European terms. The most successful of these movements was led by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who built a secular nationalist state in Turkey after the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.
In the middle of the century, following World War II, the second phase was shaped by the experience of newly-achieved political independence. Most Muslim states became politically independent, and various forms of secular and radical nationalism dominated the intellectual and political scene. Leaders such as Gamal Abd al-Nasir in Egypt and Ben Bella in Algeria incorporated Islamic themes into their radical nationalist programs, but these programs were not primarily Islamic in orientation or identification. By the 1960s, it appeared that the most important political developments and reform movements in the Muslim world represented radical programs of modernity that competed with older visions of modernity. Competing definitions of modernity—or multiple modernities—shaped Muslim policies and visions. An important culmination of this development was the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, when radicalism was defined in explicitly Islamic terms, and the older more secular forms of radicalism became marginalized.
By the final quarter of the twentieth century, distinctively Islamic modernities were articulated as the bases for social visions and political programs. The new movements in the third era of twentieth-century Muslim history had some roots in earlier organizations that were modern in organization but more puritanical in terms of intellectual content. The most important of these groups are the Muslim Brotherhood, established in Egypt by Hasan al-Banna in 1928, and the Jamaat-i Islam, established in 1941 in India by Abu al-Ala Mawdudi.
In the final decades of the century, the major signal that the radical and the secularist nationalist movements had failed to bring the expected prosperity and freedom to Islamic peoples was the Iranian Revolution of 1979, which brought to power a regime dedicated to a full implementation of Islamic rules and norms. During the early 1980s many other movements with strongly defined Islamic goals and agendas came to prominence. These movements represent the emergence of what came to be called “political Islam” because the primary focus of the programs was the control of the state. Some movements, such as the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, contested elections, whereas others, such as the Mujahidin in Soviet-occupied Afghanistan, engaged in violent opposition defined in its terms as jihad. These movements of jihad became a significant part of the Islamic experience of the 1990s. In the context of globalization, militant global networks such as al-Qaeda represented an important part of Islamic interaction with the world. However, such movements remained only a small part of Islamic life and often were in conflict with the mainstream Islamic organizations and sentiments that reflected the views of the majority of Muslims.
Although the movements of political Islam attracted the most attention, other important trends also developed during the 1980s. Intellectuals gave increasing attention to the definition of the place of women in Islamic society, and by the beginning of the twenty-first century, an “Islamic feminism” had emerged. This feminism involved a reexamination of the Qur’an, noting the Qur’an’s emphasis on the equality of all believers and then noting the influence of more patriarchal perspectives in the way that the Islamic tradition was historically defined. Similarly, some intellectuals have emphasized pluralistic dimensions of the Islamic worldview and tradition and have also drawn back from the emphasis on political activism as a means for imposing Islamic norms.
Some of the impetus for these developments has come from the emergence of minority Islamic communities in Western Europe and North America as important parts of the broader Islamic world. In those regions issues of gender equality and religious pluralism have great importance for Islamic community life.
New Twenty-First Century Realities
The continuing significance of religion at the beginning of the twenty-first century confirms the development of forms of modernities that are different from the definitions of modernity popular during the nineteenth and much of the twentieth century. Contrary to the expectations of theories of modernization in those periods, modernization did not mean the inevitable nonreligious secularization of state and society. In the Muslim world, new movements develop that are not simply continuations of old-style movements from premodern times or even twentieth century modern movements in some slightly different form.
The new movements that get the most attention are the militant movements like al-Qaeda. These are clearly different from the early Sufi movements of resistance to European imperialist expansion in the nineteenth century, and from the activist radical nationalist movements of the twentieth century. Globalization and the new electronic media of communication transform the nature of organization and shape the way that the messages of the movements are framed.
The largest of the new movements are not, however, the terrorist organizations. Throughout the Muslim world, new popular preachers and teachers have millions of followers in many countries. Islamic television ministries like that built by the Egyptian Amr Khaled are reshaping the ways that many Muslims participate in the sense of belonging to a global community of believers. Analysts speak of “iMuslims” and “e-jihad” in ways that illustrate the new modernities of Muslims in the world of the twenty-first century. The long history of the flexible adaptations of the Islamic community and belief system to changing historic conditions suggests that new forms of Islamic institutions and perspectives will continue to be defined by believers.
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