So, you might be asking, why does Islam get its own section when we didn’t really talk about the other religions at all? First, how dare you question me?! This is my podcast how dare you question me? But also, there are two big reasons:
First, Islam rose in a power vacuum and came to be a political and military force as well as a religion. So to understand all of Middle Eastern civilization and government since 600, we really need to understand the origins of Islam.
But second, I just honestly believe that of all the religions out there, Islam is the most important for us to know about in the 21st century – sorry Scientology, maybe next century. It is the most misunderstood religion and also soon to be the largest religion in the world. So let’s figure out where it came from.
the life of muhammad
Muhammad was born in Mecca in modern-day Saudi Arabia. At this time, Mecca was animportant religious and trading center, with many temple and worship sites for the various polytheistic religions in the region. The most famous site was the Kaaba (or cube) which was supposedly built by Abraham (or Ibrahim, to Muslims).
Muhammad worked as a trader in a camel caravan from a young age and he eventually worked for a woman named Khadijah. They married and had many children, one of whom, Fatima would marry Muhammad’s cousin Ali. More on that in a second.
Muhammad was a devout man and one day he was meditating in a cave when, according to Muslims, the angel Gabriel spoke to him. Side note: Gabriel is considered the messenger of God for the Abrahamic religions. He also spoke to the prophet Daniel in the Hebrew Scriptures and he visited Zechariah and Mary to tell them of the births of John the Baptist and Jesus, respectively.
There is debate over whether Muhammad immediately shared his revelations (as Shi’ites believe) or if he was disturbed by them and kept them secret for years (like the Sunnis claim), but either way, he eventually shared these messages first just to his wife and his close friend Abu Bakr. He gathered a small following but was seen as a threat to the clans who ruled Mecca and benefited from the religious pilgrimages to the many temples. In 622, he and his followers were forced to leave Mecca for the city of Medina, an event known as the Hijrah and also the date that marks the year 0 in the Islamic calendar.
comparing islam with christianity
Up until this point, Muhammad’s experience sounds relatively similar to that of Jesus Christ. Coming from humble beginnings, leading a small group of devout followers, and seen as a threat by the political power at the time. But the big difference is that Muhammad and his followers also became a small militia who fought for survival.
Eventually, he amassed an army of Muslim followers and conquered Mecca, destroying the pagan statues on the Kaaba and leaving only the black stone as a representation of the one true God, Allah. (Note: Allah is the same God that Jews and Christians also worship, it’s just the ancient Aramaic translation of God. Kind of like Yahweh which is a form of the Hebrew name for God. Anyway.)
OK, but does this matter for us today? It really really does. Islam, from the beginning, has been a different type of religion than all the others we have seen because it formed as both a religion and a political force. From the start, Muhammad was the leader of the faith, the military, and ultimately the government. So the separation of religion and state is nonexistent in Islamic history. And this is important to understand.
In the Judeo-Christian West, we take for granted that religion and politics are usually separate – in the Bible it says “give unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s and give unto God the things that are God’s.” So basically, political leaders should come first in matters of governance and religious leaders first in matters of faith.
I’m not saying one is better than the other – but the history of each religion really informs a lot of the conflict that’s going on right now. If you look at the Middle East, you can understand it as a tension between western-style secular democracy (like we sort of see in Turkey) and Islamic theocracy (like in Iran or Saudi Arabia). They’re being pulled between the dominant ideology in the world today against thousands of years of history.
disagreement over succession
Anyway, back to the postclassical era. Fairly soon after he conquered Mecca and most of Arabia, Muhammad falls ill and dies in Medina at the age of 62. And now, Muslims have an issue. There is debate over who should succeed Muhammad. The majority believe it should be Abu Bakr, his closest friend and one of his first followers (he’s sort of like his Peter, if you are more familiar with Christianity).
But there is a small but vocal minority who believes that the only person who can succeed Muhammad is one of his blood relatives – and the perfect candidate is Ali. Remember Muhammad’s daughter Fatima? She married Ali, who is also Muhammad’s cousin, making him double qualified as far as lineage goes, according to the minority.
Abu Bakr ends up taking over and expanding the Islamic empire significantly – covering most of the Middle East, and two more caliphs come after him. Eventually Ali does rule but he is assassinated, and it’s this event that formally leads to the split between the two groups in Islam.
The majority – who supported Abu Bakr earlier – become the Sunni Muslims. They are OK with anyone taking over the caliphate as long as they are good and righteous Muslims. But the minority – or Shi’ite Muslims – believe it has to be a descendant of Ali because he was the only true successor to Muhammad. Today, Sunni Muslims make up about 90% of the Islamic population but Shi’ites are the majority in a few key countries, like Iran and Iraq.
The Umayyad Caliphate
So, the era of Muhammad’s immediate successors ends with Ali and we have the establishment of dynastic empires that rule as a caliphate – or an Islamic empire. The first is called the Umayyad Dynasty and they expand the empire further – they are the ones who go up into Spain (the “Moors” from the European perspective) only to be stopped by Charles Martel (remember Charlemagne’s grandpa?) in 732. They moved their capital to Damascus in Syria to be more central to their newly conquered lands.
But the Umayyads had trouble maintaining their empire because even though they conquered a ton of people, they refused to let them join the religion of Islam. They believed that Islam was an ethnic religion – reserved only for Arabs. This angered a lot of people in the empire who wanted to join the faith for a variety of reasons.
For one, many believed in Muhammad and wanted to practice their new beliefs openly. But also, you got tax benefits if you were a Muslim. (Note: you also got tax benefits if you were a “person of the book”, meaning a Christian or a Jew, in these early caliphates. Muslims don’t discount all of the teachings of the early Abrahamic religions – like, they believe that Jesus was a prophet, just not the son of God. Muslims just believe that they have the final draft so to speak.)
The golden age of islam
There were rebellions from non-Arabs who wanted to be treated equally, they overthrew the Umayyads and set up the Abbasid Caliphate, which is considered the Golden Age of Islam. The Abbasids ruled from 750 to 1258 and they opened Islam to everyone – making it a universalizing religion like Christianity or Buddhism.
The Abbasids emphasized art, culture, literature, and scholarly works. They built their capital and named it Baghdad and it became incredibly cosmopolitan – Baghdad was like the NYC of the postclassical era. They built the House of Wisdom, where they invited scholars of all faiths from all over the known world to study and preserve ancient texts. (Thanks Muslims, for saving all of that Greek and Roman knowledge!)
The Abbasids invented the first camera, wrote a Canon of Medicine that helped doctors diagnose disease like cancer, and invented algebra – the word comes from the Arabic al-jabr which means “reunion of broken parts.”
This is when we also find the most famous Muslim poet, Ibn al-Rumi. In Arabic, “Ibn” just means “son of” so that’s why it’s so common in Muslim names. Rumi is still the best-selling poet in the United States today. He wrote a lot about love and seeking change from within, for example “Your task is not to seek for love, but merely to seek and find all the barriers within yourself that you have built against it.” Whoa.
abbasid expansion and decline
The Abbasids also send out trade emissaries around Africa and Asia which helps spread Islam. In Africa, this conversion process happens peacefully through trade but in India, a group of Afghan Muslims conquer the subcontinent and proclaim the Delhi Sultanate. This is the first introduction of Muslims into India and there are going to be conflicts ever since.
But over time the Abbasids grow weak as they struggle to maintain power over their massive empire. And nomadic Turkish groups enter the empire and get hired as mercenary soldiers (Didn’t you learn anything from the Romans?!) By the mid-1200s they will meet the same fate as almost every Asian civilization, but we’ll come back to them in a minute.