Notes on Islam from a Bahá'í Perspective
1. THE RISE OF ISLAM
Islam is the religion founded on the revelation brought to humanity by Muhammad (c. 570 C.E.-632 C.E.). Muslims see it as the latest chapter in the ongoing religion of God, a religion that can be traced back through Jesus to Moses and Abraham. Muslims consider all three to have been prophets of God and refer to them as Muslims. Thus Islam accepts Christianity and Judaism as true religions, but claims to supersede their truths with a new divine revelation.
This religion has been called "Muhammadanism" in the past, and its adherents have been termed "Muhammadans." Neither term is acceptable to Muslims, however, because they do not view themselves as followers of Muhammad, or Muhammad as the founder of their religion; the founder is God, and the Qur'an, their scripture, is seen as the words of God, not the words of Muhammad. The word islám comes from the Semitic root slm, which means submission to a higher power or the peace that comes from that submission. Islám means "submission" in Arabic and refers specifically to submission of one's will to the will of God. "Muslim" means "one who submits" in Arabic. Thus, indeed, Jesus and Abraham were Muslims, for they submitted their wills to the will of God. Springing from the same slm root is the Arabic word salám, which means "peace." (Salám is a cognate to the Hebrew word shalom, which also means peace; Hebrew and Arabic are both Semitic languages, and are closely related to each other.) Thus Islam is often referred to as the "religion of peace" as well.
From the noun "Islam," in English, is coined the English adjective "Islamic." It is important to learn how to use the words Islam, Islamic, and Muslim correctly; one cannot refer to the followers as "islams" or the religion as "Muslim."
Islam is the most recent of the world's large religions, and consequently far more is known about the circumstances of its birth and the life of its Founder. With Abraham, Moses, Buddha, and Jesus, scholars are not sure of their years of birth or death, and in the case of Abraham and Buddha are not even certain about the century. The lives of these four figures are probably destined forever to remain mysterious because historical records about them are so unreliable. With Muhammad, however, we know his date of birth within a year or two, and we know the very day of his death. Numerous descriptions of his life and of his own words have come down to us, and most accounts seem fairly accurate. Thus biographies of Muhammad can and have been written.
While historical knowledge of seventh-century Arabia is not as good as that of first century Palestine, historians know the basic outline of events in Arabia immediately before the coming of Muhammad. To the north and west were Iran, Iraq, Syria, and Palestine, all urbanized, advanced societies. Iran and the Byzantine Empire were constantly fighting for control over Iraq and Syria, and the border between these two huge empires fluctuated back and forth, with terrible economic consequences for both. Arabia was invaded by a Roman army once, in 24 B.C.E., but the desert proved impenetrable and the expedition was a disaster.
In the far south of the Arabian peninsula was Yemen, a hilly area with more rainfall where frankincense and myrrh--important spices, especially for embalming--were raised. Coffee later became a major source of income for Yemen as well. The spice trade brought wealth to Yemen and it gradually became organized as a country. Yemen established close ties with Abyssinia, the kingdom occupying modern Ethiopia. Abyssinia even conquered Yemen from about 521 to 575, when it briefly fell under Persian influence. From Abyssinia, Yemen learned of Christianity; from Iran, Zoroastrianism; and at least one king became a convert to Judaism, so that religion obviously had some impact as well.
Central Arabia consisted of semiarid hills and arid plains occupied by migrating Arab tribes, who tended camels and sometimes goats and sheep. The population was divided into clans and tribes that fought each other fiercely at times and protected their own according to an ancient, and often cruel, tribal law. Many tribes believed in killing girl babies, so that the first-born would be a son. The desert had occasional oases and at them villages, and eventually towns, sprang up. Because of its isolation, civilization spread to the area only slowly, primarily via the caravan trade; because of the war between Byzantium and Persia, much of Yemen's spices and many goods from India moved to the Mediterranean overland. Jews moved into the area and settled at the oases, where they became numerous. Christian missionaries visited and some Arabs converted. A primitive monotheism also sprang up. The Arabs who had rejected polytheism in favor of one God but did not convert to Christianity or Judaism were (at a later date, at least) called anfs. While the Arabs knew about Christianity and Judaism, detailed knowledge of the religions' teachings seems to have been slight, and may have been influenced by heretical Christian sects.
Gradually one town in central Arabia emerged as the principal center of Arab culture: Mecca. Mecca's merchants came to control much of the caravan trade. Mecca had a stone cube-shaped building about thirty feet square called the ka'bah (which is Arabic for cube) which was filled with 365 idols, representing the same number of gods and goddesses. The ka'bah came to be seen as the center of Arab religion; every year one month, the month of ajj, became a month when Arabs went on pilgrimage to Mecca. There they traded, arranged marriages, had a good time, and worshipped at the ka'bah. During the month of ajj, warfare was forbidden. Arab poets composed poetry to be read at the ajj celebration; pre-Islamic poetry has been preserved and gives us a sample of the language the people spoke. An alphabet for the Arabic language was developed from the Aramaic alphabet, and received limited use by merchants and poets. Children born on the holy land around the ka'bah were automatically considered members of the Quraysh tribe, the tribe that controlled the ka'bah. Mecca gradually emerged as central Arabia's primary trading center. In the ajj, the ka'bah, and the Quraysh tribe we see the establishment of social institutions that one day could have led to a united Arab nation, probably under a Quraysh king.
The Life of Muhammad
In the year 570 Yemen attempted to invade and conquer Mecca and the area, but the invasion failed. Because the Yemenese army was equipped with elephants--the tanks of their day--the year of the invasion was remembered as "the year of the elephant." This was the year in which Muhammad was born.
Muhammad was born into a small, weak clan of the Quraysh tribe. His father was named Abdu'lláh, which means "servant of God." The "ulláh" part of the name comes from "Alláh," the modern Arabic word for "god." It is not known where the word "Alláh" came from; possibly it is a contraction of al-iláh, "the god" (al means "the" in Arabic). At any rate, the name of Muhammad's father may be a clue for us, because it sounds like the name a anf--a monotheist--would have. It suggests that polytheism had been rejected by Muhammad's father or grandfather. Whether this had any influence on Muhammad is not known, because Abdu'lláh died before his son was born.
Unfortunately for Muhammad, his mother died when he was about six, leaving him an orphan. The boy was raised by his uncle (the father of 'Al), a caravan operator and merchant. Muhammad was raised a merchant himself, and as a young man was hired by a wealthy widow named Khadjah to run her caravans. At age 25 he married her; they had about six children. Their life together was happy; Muhammad married no other women until after Khadjah died.
All accounts indicate that Muhammad did not want to become a prophet. He did not seek out mystical experiences, nor did he meditate or withdraw from life. He was, to put it in modern terms, a successful businessman and family man. However, he did seek solitude from the troubles he found in Mecca, often in a cave on a nearby hillside. In 610 he began to have visions. In one of them the angel Gabriel came to him and said "You that are wrapped up in your vestment, arise, and give warning. Magnify your Lord, cleanse your garments, and keep away from all pollution."
Muhammad fled from these experiences and hid himself in his cloak. Once he ran to Khadjah and hid himself in her robes. But Khadjah encouraged him to listen to his revelations, which often came to him again and again. Khadjah's cousin, Waraqah, who was a Christian, also encouraged him. Finally Muhammad realized that he was receiving messages from God. He began to take them to the people of Mecca, first privately, then more publicly. His message emphasized acceptance of the one, transcendent God; that Muhammad is His messenger; that idol worship and killing of girl babies was forbidden; and that one must prepare oneself for the Day of Judgment.
A few, listening to Muhammad, accepted him as a prophet and became Muslims. Most Meccans, however, looked at him as a crazy poet and made fun of Muhammad. Their taunts are preserved in the Qur'an itself. And when Muhammad began to preach against worship of the idols in the ka'bah many Meccans became outwardly hostile, since such preaching undermined the ajj, and therefore their livelihood. Muhammad also condemned the town's economic inequalities. After ten years the Muslim community grew slowly but tension increased to the point where the Muslims no longer could be protected by their clans against violence. Without clan protection one was in grave danger, because in the absence of police and courts it was the fear of starting a blood feud that prevented people from killing each other. In one famous case a non-Muslim tried to force his Muslim slave, Bilál, a black man, to recant. Bilál was tied to the ground and heavy stones were piled on his chest in order to torture him. The torture ended when a Muslim purchased Bilál, then emancipated him. In 615 Muhammad had to send some of his followers to Abyssinia, where the Christian king offered them refuge, an act of generosity that Muslims remember to this day.
In 619 Khadjah died, as did Muhammad's uncle, who also protected him from murder. This put Muhammad in grave danger. In 620 he was invited to move to the city of Yathrib, two hundred miles to the north, and become the chief arbitrator of the city's feuding tribes. The situation in Mecca finally became impossible and Muhammad and two hundred of his followers had to flee the city in the year 622. This event is called the hijra or hegira (the Latin pronunciation of the Arabic word) and marks the beginning of Islam as a religion. Dates in the Islamic calendar are reckoned from the hijra.
In Medina Muhammad began as leader of one of the town's eight groups, but He gradually emerged as the town's leader, and therefore he was able to implement the social changes that the revelations had demanded that Mecca make. This sets Muhammad off from Jesus in a sharp way: while Jesus was a prophetic figure, he never ruled a state; Muhammad was both prophet and statesman. This makes his career radically different from that of Jesus.
Medina was a large agricultural town containing pagan and Jewish tribes. The pagans embraced Islam but the Jews did not, which prompted Qur'anic revelations criticizing Jews and Christians for their obstinacy. Considerable friction arose between the Jews and Muslims and eventually led to the expulsion of the Jews from the town. Medina was a trading rival with Mecca, and the Meccans decided to go to war against Medina and their cousin. Muhammad then became a general as well.
Warfare continued sporadically for seven years, with Muslim victories and defeats. In 627 Meccans besieged Medina for two weeks and almost took the city. Muhammad acquired more allies, however, as tribes became Muslim. In 630 Mecca surrendered to a Muslim army, converted to Islam, and became the center of an Islamic Arabia. Muhammad and 'Al cleansed the ka'bah of its idols, restoring it to the worship of the one true God. Pilgrimage to Mecca became Muslim pilgrimage. In the next two years, most of Arabia accepted Muhammad as their leader and nominally became Muslim. On 8 June 632, at age 65, Muhammad died.
How is Muhammad perceived by Muslims? There is a strong tension in Islam between efforts to view him as an ordinary man and efforts to exalt him as a miracle-working prophet. But for all Muslims, Muhammad is seen as the epitome of Muslim life, and Muslims have long sought to emulate him. His actions are seen as a model; for example, Muslim pilgrimage is patterned after Muhammad's pilgrimage in 629. Stories about his actions and words, called hadth, long have circulated in the Muslim community; within a century or two of Muhammad's death they were written down and closely scrutinized by Muslim scholars for their historical accuracy. The hadth became a major pillar of the Muslim tradition, supplementing the Qur'an itself when the Qur'an was silent about a crucial matter.
Above all else, the reign of Muhammad over the Muslim community is viewed as the golden age of Islam. The philosophy of Plato, of all people, gives us a model for how Muhammad is viewed: as a just king. In The Republic, Plato discusses the ideal form of government, which he says is rule by a perfect king, one who insures that justice is established, that economic disparities are reduced, and who makes just laws. Muslim scholars, when they translated The Republic into Arabic, understood this idea as fitting Muhammad perfectly. Muslims look back with nostalgia to the early days of their community, and seek to reform modern Islamic society to fit the seventh century pattern. This is an extremely important difference between Islam and Christianity. Christians view the perfect kingdom as something Christ will establish in the latter days; therefore their golden age is still ahead of them. Some see this golden age in very secular terms, as the product of steady social progress. Muslims, however, have their ideal society in the past, and they constantly seek to emulate that example. Whether the world, or even any segment of it, can reproduce that golden age, before God's Judgment Day comes, is an open question.
Muhammad revealed the verses of the Qur'an over a thirty-two year period. Some verses were revealed more than once; the context of the revelation of each verse has been recorded and scrutinized carefully, to understand its impact on the verse's meaning. Sometimes later verses were revealed to supersede earlier ones. All of them were memorized by Muhammad's followers; some were written down in the lifetime of the Prophet, on leather, palm bark, the shoulderblades of sheep, papyrus, parchment, and whatever material was available. When Muhammad settled in Medina He employed secretaries to write down revelation as it occurred; this was important because some of the revelations concerned matters of legislation. It is also possible that Muhammad organized some of the revelation into surihs (chapters) and determined the order of some of the surihs. Probably between the years 650 and 656 the Caliph 'Uthman commissioned Zayd ibn-Thabit to gather the various texts together and assemble an official Qur'an. One reason for this was the death of many of the companions of the Prophet, some in battle. Short passages probably were sometimes added to existing surihs, so that the entire revelation could be included. Points that distinguish the different consonants from each other in the Arabic alphabet were added and standardized, to create an official text. The 114 surihs were arranged usually by length, longest to shortest, with no effort to rearrange material topically. As a result, chapters often suddenly jump from one subject to another. Finally, previous collections were destroyed, so that they would not weaken the authority of the official text and cause disunity in the community. In spite of the effort considerable information on variant readings, and even variant arrangements of the surihs, have survived; but the information reveals that no great variation in the content of the Qur'an existed. Another fifty years passed before vowel points were added to the Qur'anic text, and its content attained final, modern form.
It is the consensus of the vast majority of modern western Islamic scholars that the text of the Qur'an is an accurate compilation of the revelation that Muhammad claimed to receive. Thus the Qur'an does not suffer from the problems that textual criticism has detected in the Bible. While we cannot be certain of words uttered by Jesus and recorded in the New Testament, we can be certain of words uttered by Muhammad and recorded in the Qur'an.
Muslims understand the Qur'an to be the literal word of God, revealed to humanity through Muhammad, but not composed by Muhammad; rather, most Muslims believe the Qur'an was eternal and uncreated, existing in the mind of God since before the world began. One consequence is that Muslims reject translation of the Qur'an, arguing that the word of God cannot be translated without interpretation, and no human can do the translation justice; thus the Qur'an should only be read in the original. For a thousand years Muslims have produced interlinear translations of the Qur'an into Persian, Turkish, and other languages, "translations" where the Arabic verse is given first, then a word-by-word translation into the vernacular, sometimes accompanied by a second, smooth translation into the vernacular as well. The purpose of such translations, however, was to assist the student to learn the Arabic. Today a few Muslims have translated the Qur'an into English, but Muslims do not consider the result to be the Qur'an, merely an interpretation of it. Titles of such works make this clear, such as Muhammad M. Pickthall's The Meaning of the Glorious Qur'an and A. J. Arberry's The Koran Interpreted.
Because of the desire to avoid interpretation, Qur'an translations tend to be wooden and literal, making the Qur'an a difficult work to read in English. To give a few examples: in a common translation one Qur'anic passage has the refrain "which of your Lord's bounties will you and you deny?" The "you and you" seems strange and off-putting in English; but the "you" is in the dual form in Arabic, and refers to two distinct groups: humans, and jinn (spirits). A more literary, stylistic translation might read "which of your Lord's bounties will ye deny?", and this is how Shoghi Effendi translated the verse (see Bahá'í Prayers, 106). This reads better and sounds more biblical, and therefore more familiar to a western audience; but it reduces the meaning of the Qur'an slightly, something Muslims reject. Some Muslim translators go so far as to leave many untranslated words like Allah (God), injl (gospel), Musa (Moses), Ibrahm (Abraham), 'Isa (Jesus), and Dawad (David); such an approach makes the Qur'an very hard to read for the layperson!
Study of the Qur'an is supposed to be a central activity in the life of each Muslim. Muslims gather to chant the Qur'an or hear it chanted; chanters have a status and prestige in the Muslim world that is similar to the status of opera singers in the west. To some extent, Christian devotion to and use of the Bible is similar; but the Bible is not held in equal veneration by all Christians, some of whom see it as a partially or largely human product. Furthermore, the Bible is not from one author, and contains a variety of theological viewpoints. In a sense, dialogue and pluralism are built into the Bible. They are not built into the Qur'an, which had a single, historical source.
In addition, Christians turn much of their devotion to Jesus, while Muslims generally do not venerate Muhammad, not in the official religion, at least (Muhammad veneration is popular in folk Islam, however). For Christians, Jesus is the logos, the Word of God; for Muslims the logos is the Qur'an. Thus, in a sense, the closest analogy in Christianity to Muslim devotion to the Qur'an is Jesus, not the Bible!
Muslims not only are devoted to the Qur'an, they seek almost literal adherence to it. Muslims turn to the Qur'an and the life of the Prophet as guidance about how to live every detail of their life. Muslim society, over fifteen hundred years, has created an elaborate law code based on these two sources, which is enforced in the civil court system. A traditional life style also has evolved, based on the Qur'an and the Prophet. Particularly troubling to westerners is the fact that this way of life evolved in a pre-scientific world, and does not seem amenable to change in response to modern conditions or ways of thinking. Thus, for example, the veiling of women is not specified in the Qur'an, but is seen by some Muslims as a Muslim essential, which they feel should not be compromised.
2. ISLAMIC CIVILIZATION
The Rise of the Caliphate and Imamate.
The death of Muhammad was a major crisis for the fledgling Muslim community. Many Arabs, who had become only nominal Muslims, renounced their belief and broke away from the Muslim league. The Arab unity that Muhammad had forged was threatened with complete collapse. The believers were leaderless and did not know who to turn to.
The crisis was resolved in traditional Arab fashion. Clan elders came together and discussed who should succeed Muhammad as the leader of the community. Two positions emerged: those who sought a leader from among the Medinans, and those who preferred a Meccan successor, usually 'Umar. To avoid intense clan rivalries, a compromise candidate was put forward: Abá Bakr, an old man who was highly respected, a devoted Muslim, a close companion of the Prophet, the father of the Prophet's wife 'Aishah, and a member of a small, weak Meccan clan. Abá Bakr was declared the first caliph (Arabic khalíf), which means "deputy" or "successor."
'Alí was not present at the discussion, but after it was hastily concluded the leaders marched on his house, demanding that he accept their choice. 'Alí chose not to oppose the choice or to advance his own claim, thereby maintaining the unity of Islam in the face of the crisis of the Prophet's death. But 'Alí, nevertheless, maintained that the Prophet had meant that he be His successor. Muhammad had made many statements suggesting 'Alí should be his successor. Furthermore, 'Alí was His cousin, was the Prophet's blood brother, and had married his daughter, Fátimah. Their two sons, Husayn and Hasan, were the Prophet's grandsons. 'Alí's character, his bravery, his principled behavior, were unquestioned. But many Muslims were suspicious of the dynastic principle, and did not want Muhammad's successor to be someone who was a close relative or even of the same clan as the Prophet. They were even more concerned that 'Alí's claim wa not merely to be the temporal ruler of Islam--the caliph--but also to be its spiritual leader, or imám, one who could interpret the meaning of the Qur'án and hadíth.
Abá Bakr's rule lasted only two years; in 634 he died of old age. But in those two years Abá Bakr was able to rally Islam, bring the rebellious tribes back into the fold and into the League, and unify Arabia. When Abá Bakr died the succession question arose again. Abá-Bakr nominated 'Umar, so he was declared caliph and 'Alí was again passed by. 'Alí remained in seclusion, did not oppose 'Umar, but did not support him either. However, he gradually accumulated a following of Muslims who accepted his claim to be Muhammad's rightful successor.
The ten years of 'Umar's rule saw the rapid, unexpected, almost explosive expansion of Islam out of Arabia. Muslim armies headed north and west every year, with astonishing results. They faced two large, well-established, wealthy, powerful empires; and they defeated both of them. The entire Persian Empire was overrun, and the Byzantine Empire was overrun as far north as Turkey. Damascus, capital of the Byzantine province of Syria, fell in 635, just three years after the death of the Prophet. Jerusalem, already a holy city to the Muslims, fell in 638; it is interesting to note that the Patriarch of Jerusalem surrendered the city to 'Umar, who gave the city very generous terms. Umar asked to be given a tour of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher, which the Patriarch personally gave him. In 641 Alexandria, the largest city in Egypt and one of the largest in the world, surrendered to the Muslim armies, and in the next few years northern Africa was overrun to the Atlantic, three thousand miles from Egypt. In 641, also, the capital of the Persian Empire, which was located a few dozen miles north of modern Baghdad, fell to Muslim armies; Iran was overrun in the next decade. The expansion of the lands under Islamic rule continued for two more generations, until the French turned back the Muslim armies at Tours in 733, and the Chinese battled them in western China in 751. Even after that date, northern India fell to Islamic rule between 1000 and 1200, and Europe as far north as Vienna, Austria, was conquered as late as the 1500s. The Muslims in Bosnia are only three hundred miles from Rome.
'Umar led this expansion, which continued long after his death. 'Umar was assassinated by a slave in 644, and according to his own commands a conclave of six Muslim leaders was called to choose his successor. 'Alí was one of the six, but the conclave did not choose him; rather, they selected 'Uthmán, who was on the council, as was two of his cousins. 'Uthmán's reputation was not spotless, like the previous two leaders: he was accused of putting too many of his relatives into governorships; and he was a member of the clan of the Quraysh that had opposed Muhammad to the last, and thus his faith was suspect. 'Uthmán also had to administer the vast territories conquered by Islam, a much more difficult task than conquering them in the first place. While one can pay one's army with booty of the conquest for the first few years, afterwards one much pay it with tax revenues, and that meant establishment of a tax system, something Arabs had never had before. They had to rehire the old Byzantine and Persian tax collectors. But the Muslim governors had never had experience ruling over provinces and often were incompetent or corrupt. 'Uthmán was blamed for these troubles, and as caliph he was responsible.
The Islamic world faced its first leadership crisis: what do you do when the Caliph is bad? It was a theological crisis as well as a political one, for how could God allow His community to be badly led? Revolt threatened. 'When Uthmán was assassinated by three Egyptians in 656 C.E., many were relieved. The citizenry of Medina acclaimed 'Alí the next caliph and he accepted the position. Most Muslims were pleased by the choice, especially in Arabia. But 'Uthmán's cousins, who were governors of many provinces, plotted revenge for his murder. Muawíyyah, governor of Syria, was particularly powerful, and was head of the clan. When 'Alí pardoned the assassins of 'Uthmán many were furious. A bloody civil war between 'Alí and Muawíyyah began, which was never resolved. Even 'Aishah, the young wife of Muhammad, resisted 'Alí and was defeated. It was the first time Muslim killed Muslim, a behavior regarded as scandalous to most. Thousands of the companions of the prophet died in the fighting, which rent the unity of Islam.
The first a Muslim sect, the Kharíjites, separated themselves from the other Muslims, who they viewed as too worldly and willing to compromise the revelation, as a result of the conflict against Muawíyyah. The last straw, for them, was 'Alí's compromise with Muawíyyah after the Battle of Siffin; they argued that 'Alí should have defeated Muawíyyah and not stopped the battle to talk to him, as Muawíyyah demanded once it became clear he was losing the fight. The Kharijites separated from the rest of Islam over issues of orthodoxy and faithfulness to the revelation. They viewed other Muslims as having grown lax in observance of the Prophet's teachings; as too willing to compromise with Islam and its principles. They believed a Muslim must either conform fully to the teachings of Islam or is an apostate (not simply a sinner); thus they were extremist. In many ways they resemble modern "fundamentalists." They withdrew from the Muslim community and waged war against it; as a result they were largely wiped out. A more moderate form of Kharijite belief has survived to this day in North Africa and Oman.
Thus the six-year period of 'Alí's rule over Islam was quite troubled. It ended in 661 when Kharijites assassinated him. Muawíyyah emerged as fifth caliph.
But not all partisans of 'Alí were willing to end their struggle against Muawíyyah. Many had felt that 'Alí had been appointed by Muhammad to be the Imám, or spiritual as well as civil leader of the Muslim community. They believed that 'Alí's oldest son, Hasan, had inherited 'Alí's prerogatives and agitated for him to resist Muawíyyah. Muawíyyah was not willing to take a chance that a revolt would be raised up against him, so he had Hasan exiled, where he died mysteriously. As a result the mantle of leadership of the party of 'Alí fell on his younger son, Husayn.
Muawíyyah was too strong to oppose, but when he died of old age in 680 the party of 'Alí urged Husayn to lead a revolt. Husayn had been living quietly in Mecca and refused; Muawíyyah's son, Yazíd, soon succeeded his father as caliph.
Umayyids and Abbasids
Muawíyyah became the founder of the Umayyid dynasty (661-750). On his death he was succeeded by his son Yazíd, and Yazíd in turn by his son. Thus the dynastic principle that many Muslims feared in 'Alí's leadership and Shi'ism became standarized for the Sunnis as well.
Muawíyyah moved the capital of the empire from Mecca--small and out of the way--to Damascus, a Byzantine city, and adopted many Byzantine bureaucratic practices. He also administered Islam in such a way as to favor Arab Muslims over all others, and this engendered increased hostility and resentment over time, for it became an Umayyad practice. Muawíyyah was succeeded by a dozen Ummayad caliphs over the next century, and hostility to them never died out. Finally in 747 C.E. a general named Abú Muslim led a revolt in the name of a descendant of the Prophet, thereby acquiring Shi'ite support. It grew in size and eventually resulted in the overthrow of the Umayyads and the founding of the 'Abbasid dynasty (750-1258). It is so named because its first ruler was Abú'l-Abbás, a descendant of Muhammad uncle, 'Abbás. Abú'l-Abbás crushed all opposition to him, including his Shi'ite former allies, and assumed absolute rule. But to rally support he granted non-Arab Muslims equal status with Muslim Arabs, a popular move.
The first two centuries of the Abbasids (750-945) represented the peak of Islamic culture and civilization. Iraq, northeastern Iran, Tunisia, Afghanistan, and Morocco see mass conversion to Islam and become Islamic societies. The Abbasids moved their capital to a new city called Baghdad, from which they ruled an empire that stretched from the Pyrenees to western China; the largest the world had yet seen. Peace allowed free trade and movement of peoples, resulting in a prosperous and vibrant civilization. Trade was extended to areas not previously benefiting from it; caravan routes were established across the Sahara, allowing the Sahel to be drawn into world trade; Indian Ocean shipping extended from Zanzabar to Indonesia; Central Asia traded with Scandinavia. Greek philosophy, science, and medicine were translated into Arabic, founding higher learning in that tongue. Since ninety percent of the Jews lived in the Islamic world, their civilization and learning also advanced.
Moving the capital to Baghdad--just a few miles from the old Sassanian capital--meant that Persian civilization now became a major influence on Islamic society as well. The Abbasids adopted all the trappings of Persian emperors. 'Umar had lived simply; 'Uthmán was so easily assasinated because he never had a body guard. The early caliphs were first among equals. But the Abbasid rulers set themselves up as a class apart from even the Islamic aristocracy, calling themselves "the shadow of God on earth."
At first the Abbasid rulers appointed governors for each province in the empire from among the trusted in Baghdad, and could recall governors at will. But over time the governors grew independent of central authority--it was so far away--and governors asked to have their sons succeed them as governors. Thus by the end of the second Abbasid century political centralization began to break down and provinces became increasingly independent of Baghdad. By the 1200s the Abbasid caliph had become a mere figurehead even in the ruling of Iraq.
Reinforcing political decentralization was cultural decentralization; many provinces developed schools, literature, and culture of their own. The Persian language was revived, breaking the monopoly enjoyed by Arabic. In northwestern Africa the Berbers became the dominant group; their language resisted Arabization. The Turks migrated into the Islamic heartland from Central Asia, bringing their culture and language. In 1071 a Turkish tribe, the Seljuqs, defeated the Byzantines and entered Anatolia. This began the Turkification of Anatolia and laid the foundation for modern Turkey. The Greek language spoken there for a thousand years gradually went extinct as the population converted to Islam.
The Seljuk empire waned and separate small empires and city-states arose, all pledging loyalty to the powerless Caliph in Baghdad. In Egypt a dynasty called the Fatimids established a powerful Shi'ite state. The majority of Egyptian Muslims remained Sunnis, however, and when the Fatimids collapsed they were replaced by a Sunni dynasty. Islamic weakness allowed the Crusades, launched in 1095, to recapture Jerusalem for Christianity in 1099. The great general Saladin (Saláhu'd-dín) ultimately drove the Crusaders out of Jerusalem in 1187.
The Mongol invasion under Hulagu Khan in 1258 not only devastated much of the Middle East, but destroyed Baghdad (killing 800,000 of it citizens!) and extinguished the Abbasids. Islamic culture was dealt a severe blow by the tremendous destruction. The Mongol invasion also demonstrated that the caliph was an empty figurehead with no real authority. The caliph fled to Egypt, where he and his descendants lived under house arrest as empty symbols of Islamic unity, until 1517 when the cliphate was abolished. One significance of the gradual abolition of the caliphate was destruction of the idea that the monarch was God's infallible ruler. In pre-Islamic times the monarch was actually seen as a god; Christianity and Islam abolished that notion, but left intact the idea that the king was God's vicegerent. The gradual collapse of the caliphate weakened the idea of the divine rule of kings in Islamic theology and political philosophy.
In 1260 C.E. the Mamluks, the Turkish dynasty ruling Egypt, defeat the Mongols and establish an empire over Egypt, Syria, Palestine that lasted until the 1500s. The history of the Middle East right up to the advent of the modern era is a history of tribes, often Turkish, entering the area and conquering. The last great conquer was Timur Lang (Tamurlane), who conquered the Middle East as far as Egypt from 1381 to 1404.
The Rise of the Ottomans
The growing Turkish population in Anatolia soon formed the powerbase for the last great Turkish empire, that of the Ottomans. The Ottomans started as a small principality in central Anatolia, formed after the Mongol invasion devasted much of the Middle East (but not Anatolia itself). The first powerful leader was Osman (Turkish for 'Uthmán) and he established a dynasty. In 1326 his son captured Bursa from the Byzantines and made it the capital of their state. The family name was Osmanlis or Ottoman. By the mid 1300s the Ottomans controled all the way to the sea of Marmara; the outskirts of Constantinople. In two centuries they overran Greece and the Balkans all the way up to Vienna; it was the last great Muslim expansion through war. The Ottomans also gradually conquered the Arab-speaking Muslim lands, ands thus came to control Syria, Iraq, Palestine, Arabia, and eventually Egypt and Libya as well. Algeria and Morocco offered token submission to Ottoman authority as well.
In 1453 Ottoman Sultan Mehmet (Mahmud) II conquered Constantinople after a very long sige, thereby ending that city's millennium of Christian importance. Within a century the city had expanded from 100,000 to 700,000, Europe's largest. The Ottomans lavished money on the city and rebuilt it magnificently. The Ottomans also built up a very powerful navy and managed to control all the eastern Mediterranean, thereby ending Venice's economic dominance of the area.
The Ottomans were very flexible rulers, who did not attempt to impose cultural or even administrative uniformity on their huge empire. They allowed local customs to flourish as long as tax revenues continued to be remitted to the Sultan.
But they experienced relative economic and military decline vis-a-vis Europe, because of Europe's growing technological advances and European development of oceanic shipping (which allowed conquest of the New World, and oceanic shipping from India and China, thereby avoiding Central Eurasia). In 1699 and 1700 the Turks were defeated by both the Austrians and the Russians; they lost Hungary to the former and Crimea and northern shores of the Black Sea to the latter. Economic capitulations also sapped the Empire's economy. By the late 1700s, the Ottomans increasing turn to Europe for technological, cultural, administrative, and military innovations.
Creation of an Islamic Civilization
When Islam suddenly expanded beyond the Arab peninsula, it was the religion of simple desert people; Mecca, the largest town in the Islamic world, probably had less than ten thousand people. Within a decade of the Prophet's death, however, Muslims were masters of a million square miles or more of territory, and controled cities of a half million people. They thus faced many challenges they could not even have imagined decades earlier.
Arabs were tribesmen, herders, and soldiers; now they slowly learned how to be governors and administrators. It was impossible to find Arabs to serve as bureaucrats because almost no Arabs could read and write, hence Armenian, Greek, and Persian administrators were retained from the previous regimes. Government records were not kept in Arabic for almost a century. In that time Arabic itself underwent revolutionary changes. The need to write down the Qur'án exactly and clearly pushed the development of Arabic orthography and grammar forward; grammar books and spelling were standardized based on the Qur'án itself. Under Uthmán the text of the Qur'án was standardized.
Other than the Qur'án and a few poems, Arabic was a language with no written literature. But as Arabs settled in cities and as their affluent children learned to read, and as the conquered peoples became Muslims and Arabic speakers, new literature began to be created. The earliest works were religious. Lives of the Prophet were written based on oral accounts. The traditions (hadíth) about the Prophet's words were collected and analyzed. Commentaries on the Qur'án were written. Over several generations a rich religious literature developed. The codification of Muslim law also commenced, a task that took several hundred years to complete.
As the conquered peoples adopted Arabic as their mother tongue, pre-Islamic ideas began to enter the Muslim community. Many Syrians and Iraqis, as Christians or Jews, had read Greek philosophy, and their Arabic-speaking descendants also wanted access to philosophy. As a result books by Aristotle, Plato, and Plotinus were translated into Arabic, often by Jews or Christians. They were then read by Muslims. The result was the birth of Arabic philosophy. Hundreds of words were borrowed from Persian and Syriac or coined in Arabic from Persian and Syriac models to represent new ideas. Scientific, mathematical, and medical texts were translated from Greek, Middle Persian, and Sanskrit, thereby uniting much of the world's knowledge in Islamic science. From India came a numbering system using a zero, which Arabs spread around the world.
The development of Arabic culture extended in many directions. In the Prophet's day the mosque in Medina was simply a large square wall, open to the sky; the Medinans did not have the engineering knowledge to roof it over. But in Damascus, Cairo, Basra, and Baghdad new mosques soon went up and their architecture was radically improved. The rules of mosque architecture were not immediately fixed; as a result some of the early mosques had beautiful paintings of natural objects on their walls, something that later generations would considered idolatrous.
As Islamic thought developed, several major areas immediately arose. The first was political theory and law; who was to rule over Muslims, and what laws could he establish? This issue, as we have seen, was of immediate concern during the lives of the first four caliphs. It led to the collation of the Qur'án, the compilation and assessment of the hadíth, and eventually the creation of legal schools. Almost as early, in terms of formal organization, was philosopical and theological thought; though as formal categories these took a century or more to emerge. Mysticism as an organized movement also has very early roots, but took several centuries to coalesce.
In all of these movements several issues became central to thought. One was reliance on the Qur'án and hadíth, versus use of analogical reasoning, logic, and extra-Islamic ideas. Another was the relationship of free will to divine will; those stressing the latter tended to insist on predestination and downplayed or totally discounted free will. As one might imagine, those who stressed predestination were often those who stressed complete reliance on revelation through the Qur'án. As these issues interacted in various fields of thought a huge array of movements arose that overlapped, fused, split, went extinct, and influenced each other.
Islamic legal theory developed because judges--qadis--were rendering inconsistent and unjust decisions, often based more on their personal opinions than on the Qur'án. Thus under tha Abbasids attempts to codify Islamic law became more and more systematic and thorough. The result of the field of fiqh, legal theory, and the creation of ulamá, learned men in this field.
Eventually, after much disputation, a conensus emerged about the basis of legal decisions. There were four sources of law:
The application of these four resulted in four major Sunní legal schools (Hanafí, Hanbalí, Malikí, Shafí'í). While each school tends to be dominant in a patricular area, Muslims accept all four as legitimate variants. Sometimes Twelver Shi'ism or Ismailism are accepted as other variant but legitimate legal schools.
The result of this effort was codification of the Sharí'ah or code of laws in Islam. But in most places local laws continue to exist, either parallel to or in place of the Sharí'ah.
Acts are classified into five possible categories in Islamic law: (1) required; (2) recommended; (3) indifferent or permissible; (4) reprehensible, but not forbidden; (5) forbidden.
Islamic Theology and Philosophy
Theology (kalám, "words," in Arabic) developed sooner than philosophy, and from very different roots, for theology developed in Islam before the impact of Greek philosophy and Islamic philosophy developed directly from the Greek. As one might imagine, the two diferent foundations produced massively different results, and it took centuries for theology and philosophy to merge in any sense.
The earliest theological thought developed among the Qur'án memorizers and early Islamic intellectuals. Their concerns tended to be highly practical: the legitimacy of political succession in Islam, the nature of God and the Qur'án, the relationship between faith and works (for people who said they were Muslims--including Caliphs--were sinning), and the relationship of free will to predestination. The Kharijites, as already noted, maintained that a true Muslim could not sin; his deeds had to meet the high expectations of his faith. Thus sinners were unbelievers who had to be converted. The Kharijites also championed free will, for they could not accept the notion that human sinfulness was somehow caused by God. Others, reading their Qur'áns carefully, noted many verses in the Holy Book supporting the notion of predestination.
The arrival of Greek philosophy in the Arabic language gave both sides, but especially those advocating free will, many new ideas for making their case.
The Mutazilites. The Mutazilites were one of the earliest advocates of positions that show Greek influence. In particular, they championed intellectual and reasoning as a complement to revelation and the Qur'án. They also stresses the oneness of God--tawhíd--and viewed it as rejecting stress on the idea of God having attributes. Many Muslims had come to view the Qur'án as eternal and uncreated and they viewed that position with scepticism as well, as compromising the unity of God by creating a second eternal divine principle. The Mutazilites also viewed many Qur'án passages as metaphorical, especially those referring to God having a face, talking, walking, etc. The utterly transcendent God obviously (to them) could not be so represented. The Mutazilites also championed free will, for otherwise, they maintained, God's justice would collapse. One cannot punish someone for a sinful act if that person was not a free moral agent.
The Mutazilites eventually attempted to force all Muslims to accept their views; under the Caliph al-Ma'múm, a Mutazilite himself, an inquisition was initiated. But the Mutazites had powerful opposition, and eventually a synthesis emerged that replaced them. Only in Shi'ite Islam did Mutazilism continue to be important.
The synthesis accepted by most of Sunni Islam was Asharism, founded by al-Ashari (d. 935), a prominent Mutazilite. He reasserted the doctrines of predestination, the uncreatedness of the Qur'án, the omnipotence of God and the existence of divine attributes, but tempered them some and utilized the Mutazilite language drawn from Greek philosophy to explain them. His synthesis was successful and became the basis of most Sunni theology today.
In contrast Mutazilism and Asharism, philosophy based primarily on Greek texts and thought started with human reason rather than revelation. As one can imagine, it was highly suspect to most Muslims, even most intellectuals, and thus remained marginalized. The Arabic word for philosophy, falsafah, is borrowed directly from the Greek philosophy.
The earliest philosophers, such as al-Kindí (d. ca. 870 C.E.) and al-Razí (died ca. 925-34), were often on the fringe of Islamic adherence. They championed reason over revelation. Subsequent philosophers took reconcilition of philosophy and theology as a major task of their careers. Al-Fárábí (died 950) used Plato's concept of the philosopher-king in The Republic as a way of understanding the role of Muhammad, thereby united philosophy and religion. He was also very interested in "prophetic psychology," the nature of the soul of a prophet and how prophets knew what they knew. Ibn-Síná (980-1037) developed prophetic psychology even further. Ibn-Rushd stressed the importance of philosophers in understanding divine law, especially in enforcing it properly; his thinking influenced medieval Judaism in particular. Al-Ghazzálí (1058-1111) ultimately rejected most of philosophy as a waste of time in favor of direct, mystic knowledge of God. The works of these men, translated into Latin, had a major impact on Catholic theology during the late Middle Ages. Their names were often latinized (Ibn-Rushd as Averroes, Ibn-Síná as Avicenna) and they were accepted as philosophical fathers of the church.
But after about 1400 Islamic philosophy and science declined. The last great thinker was Ibn-Khaldún, who contributed to political theory, linguistics, and has been called the father of modern sociology. But even in Ibn-Khaldún's day few Islamic thinkers were doing original work, and after him copists and encylopedists dominated. No one has a good theory to explain the decline of Islamic science and philosophy.
Sufism (Islamic Mysticism)
Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, arose early in Islam; certainly it existed by the second Muslim century. Its roots are to be found in the piety of the Qur'án reciters who kept the text alive before it was committed to writing, and to the early Muslim story tellers who told stories of the Prophet and of His companions filled with morals and good deeds. The story tellers stressed the miraculous aspects of Muhammad's life and often imported Christian, Zoroastian, and Buddhist mystical stories into Islam. As a movement, Sufism partially arose as a reaction against the legalism that developed in Islam when Islamic law began to be codified. It also as Muslims can in contact with Christian ascetics and with the rich mystical and metaphysical literature of Hellenistic culture, especially Neo-Platonism.
No one is sure where the word súfí comes from. One theory--the most popular--traces it to súf or "wool," the scratchy material that ascetics loved to make their clothes out of. Other scholars have attempted to link the word with the Greek sophia, wisdom, or Arabic safá, "purity," or suffah, "bench" (referring to the companions of the Prophet who gathered often in the first mosque in Medina), or saff, "rank" (an allusion to the spiritual superiority of the Sufis). None of these etymologies is very likely, but they have provided the Sufis with many opportunities for puns and clever aphorisms about their group.
The first Sufis were ascetics. They were concentrated in three places: Basrah, Kufah, and Baghdad, all in Iraq. The first Sufi of importance was Hasan al-Basrí (c. 643-728 C.E.), who, as his name suggests, was from Basrah. Hasan preached eloquently about the Day of Judgment and the fear of hell-fire. He was devoted to the Prophet and the Qur'án and feared the growing materialism and laxity of Muslim life. He was not a speculative thinker, but an ascetic renouncer of the world; he even implied that God's creation of the world was a mistake. He did not hesitate to condemn injustice and thus functioned, like an Old Testament prophet, as a conscience of the nation.
Because of saying of the Prophet, "If ye knew what I know ye would laugh little and weep much," there was a group of ascetics in Basrah that spent much of their time weeping about their shortcomings and the lot of humanity. Many of these ascetics were Hasan's disciples. Among the Basrah group was the most prominent female Sufi, ar-Rábi'ah al-'Adawiyyah (died c. 801). She is credited with introducing an emphasis on selfless love of the divine into Sufism, thus making Sufism more than ascetic renunciation (though she was quite an ascetic too; she never married, and refused to look on spring-time verdure, preferring to contemplate the Maker of such verdure instead). Sold into slavery while still young, ar-Rábi'ah was set free by her master because of her exemplary piety. She was one of the earliest Sufis to write poetry, though her woks were only a few lines long.
Not all early Sufis were Arabs; Ibráhím ibn-Adham (died c. 770) was from Balkh, an ancient Buddhist city in Central Asia, north of Iran. Ibráhím was supposedly born a prince who renounced the life of ease in favor of asceticism, though it is possible the legends of his life have been tainted by the story of the Buddha. He is credited with the first classification of the stages of asceticism. His asceticism was of a particularly harsh type.
Egypt also contributed to early Sufism in the form of Thaubán ibn-Ibráhím, surnamed Dhú'n-Nún (d. 859). His parents were Nubians, probably of Christian background. He acquired considerable learning in alchemy and philosophy (probably Neo-Platonism) as well as the religious sciences, and thus was one of the first learned Sufis. He is credited with defining the distinction between 'ilm, discursive learning, and ma'rifa or mystical knowledge (also called irfán). He developed a concept of the different mystical states a Sufi passes through, ultimately reaching annihilation or extinction in God (faná) and subsistence in God (baqá). His poetry was the first Sufi poetry of quality.
The eigth and nineth centuries had relatively few Sufis, but in the tenth century their number increased considerably, as did their literary output (especially poetry). The greatest was Husayn ibn-Mansúr al-Halláj, born in southern Iran in 858. As a young man he went to Baghdad where he studied Sufism under several great Sufi masters. Then he traveled across much of Iran, Central Asia, western China (Singkiang province) and India, where he may have picked up some understanding of Hindu mysticism. He acquired quite a following; when he went on pilgrimage to Mecca for the second time, he is said to have been accompanied by 400 disciples. He wrote poetry, Qur'án commentary, prayers, and works of theology, some of which has been preserved.
Halláj finally settled in Baghdad, where he taught. His religious views were generally seen as extreme. He stressed 'ishq, "mystical love," but when Halláj used the word it still primarily meant erotic love, not a trait one normally associated with the divinity. He also utilized the Christian terms láhút, "divine nature," and násút, "human nature" in his writings, terms Christians had usually used to refer to Christ's two natures; this appeared heretical to many Muslims. He ws also an outspoken man. The result was imprisonment and finally execution on charges of blasphemy. Halláj's last words reportedly were aná'l-Haqq, "I am the Divine Truth" (or "I am God"), which have been misunderstood as claiming self-divinization through full union with the divine. Halláj and many other Sufis experienced a profound feeling of transformation as a result of their intense mystical experiences.
Over the next two centuries Sufism developed a considerable body of literature, which included many spiritual manuals. The apex of Sufi writing was the result of the great theologian al-Ghazzálí (1058-1111), who became a Sufi after years as a professor and attempted to unite philosophical, theological, and mystical thinking under the umbrella of the latter. His extensive writings integrated Sufism into Islamic beliefs and made mysticism much more acceptable to the moderate Islamic mainstream.
Sufism was also one of the chief vehicles for the development of modern Persian as a literary language. The list of great Persian Sufi poets is too long for this summary, but several poets deserve special mention. Farídu'd-dín 'Attár (died 1220, probably during the Mongol invasion) was from northeastern Iran and, as his surname suggests, he was a druggist. His greatest work was Mantiq ut-tayr, "Conversation of the Birds," which describes the mystical journey of a group of birds through a series of seven valleys, each symbolic of a stage in the mystical journey of the soul. Their goal was to seek out the Símurgh (Phoenix), the king of all birds. At each valley many birds perished or turned back until only thirty birds reached the Símurgh's palace. They entered the palace and approached the throne, which was empty. They climbed on the throne and gazed at the mirror behind it, thereby beholding the Símurgh; for símurgh not only means "phoenix" but "thirty birds." In this way 'Attár teaches the mystic truth that the individual soul is identical with God (in this case, the Phoenix, symbol of the divine).
No doubt the greatest Persian mystical poet--if not the greatest Sufi poet of all time--was Mauláná Jalálu'd-dín Rúmí (1207-73). From northeastern Iran, as a boy Rúmí was taken by his father to Rúm (Anatolia) to escape the Mongol destruction. There both men served as religious teachers. But Rúmí had the ability to pour out mystical poetry of incredible beauty with unbelievable speed, often while in a state of rapture. His primary work is often called the Qur'án of the Persians, a title that captures the work's impact on the language and its enduring popularity. By Rúmí's day the Sufi custom of dhikr--remembering God--had evolved from chanting the ninety-nine beautiful names of God to dancing to the rhyth of the chanting. His followers became the Meveli Order of Sufis, often called "whirling dervishes" because of their mystic dances.
At the same time the Persian poets are developing their ideas, Arab Sufis are going beyond the theological system of Ghazzálí and formulating new mystical conceptions. Shihábu'd-dín Suhrawardí (1153-91) was a Syrian mystic who wrote extensively about the mystical nature of light. He developed an extensive angelology to describe the bearers of light to the world, borrowing terms from Zoroastrian angelology for his works. Unfortunatele he was misunderstood by many divines, who had him imprisoned for his beliefs; and he died in prison at only 37 years of age.
Even greater a gnostic Sufi was Muhyíu'd-dín ibn-'Arabí (1165-1240), from Spain, was a prolific and comprehensive writer who developed the concept of wahdatu'l-wujúd or "unity of being." Some argue that by this term ibn-'Arabí meant to imply that nothing truly exists except the One. Others say that ibn-'Arabí recognized the existence of levels of existence, and that above the level of unity of all being was the level of the unknowable and transcendent divine essence. Ibn-'Arabí stressed the cosmos contained a marked spiritual hierarchy of emanation from the divine, with many spiritual levels. He believed there was always on the earth an insánu'l-kámil or "perfect human" who serves as the spiritual guide of humanity. Such an idea resembles the Shi'ite notion of the imam. The ideas of Ibn-'Arabí and Suhrawardí had widespread influence on Shi'ite thinkers. In seventeenth century Iran, Mullá Sadrá was an important transmitter of their ideas to mainstream Twelver Shi'ism.
The Mongol invasion disrupted Sufism seriously. Yet while it ended much of the development of Sufi thought, it also fostered the establishment of Sufi orders. By the end of the thirteenth century there were dozens of such Order, and each had lodges all over the Islamic world. Orders played a key role in taking Islam beyond the land conquered by Muslim armies, to Indonesia, central Africa, and central China. In the last two centuries, however, with Islam's growing interaction with the west has comeincreased criticism that Sufism is the cause of Islam's weakness. Consequently Sufism has been systematically dismantled by some twentieth-century governments.
Islam has always possessed reforming tendencies. Often at the beginning of each new Islamic century there has been an unsually strong tendency to seek reform. Traditional reform tends to follow a certain pattern: (1) it stresses return to the seventh-century pattern of Islam, while the Prophet was alive, for it represents the ideal for Islam; (2) it views foreign influence as largely bad and as something that has corrupted Islam, and thus must be done away with; (3) it critiques all existing Islamic institutions, including the ulamá.
One of the first examples of Islamic revivalism in the modern time was the Wahhabí movement, which started in Saudi Arabia in the late eighteenth century. The Wahhabís stressed that the seventh century community of the Prophet did not include any veneration of saints or praying at shrines, so they destroyed all lavish tombs--even the tomb of the Prophet. They outlawed Sufism. They viewed deviation from pure Islam as the cause of Islamic weakness and hence they stressed complete adherence to all the laws of Islam. Their approach proved quite successful in the Arabian peninsula; Wahhabi theology, combined with the military skill of Muhammad ibn-Saud, subdued much of the Arabian peninsula and laid the foundation for modern Saudi Arabia.
Though European influence on the Middle East had already been growing for at least two centuries, Napoleon's invasion of Egypt in 1798 dramatically symbolized the new situation. Nearly a millennium earlier Europe had invaded the Middle East in the Crusades and had ultimately been repulsed. Other peoples--nteably Turks and Mongols--had invaded the Middle East and conquered it, but ultimately they had converted to Islam. Napoleon's invasion dramatically reminded Muslims of twonew facts: Europe as now much stronger and more dangerous than it had been before; and it was not about to convert to Islam. Imperialism thus triggered a religious crisis: how could God allow Christians, whose religion had been superceded by the coming of Muhammad, to become superior over Muslims?
Islamic modernism arose as a response to European culture. It was one of three possible responses to the crisis brought on by European dominance:
1. Separate private Islam from public secular life and establish western-style nation states;
2. Retain Islam and purify it; emphasize noncooperation and withdrawal from west and jihad against it;
3. Open the gates of ijtihád; reject blind imitation of the past; create a modernized Islam.
The first of the three was Islamic secularism and is best demonstrated by the Turkish reforms promulgated by Atatürk. The second was the basic approach of the Iranian revolution of 1978. The third approach was that of Islamic modernism.
The principal spokesman for modernism was Jamálu'd-dín Afghání (1838-97). He was actually an Iranian, but called himself an Afghan because they were Sunní, not Shi'ite. He traveled the Islamic world, writing and lecturing. He was often kicked out of most countries. He rejected secularized modernism; stressed reason; and rejected passivity and fatalism. He argued that Islam was a religion of science and rejected the idea of science as "European science." He denouced stagnation in the Islamic world. He criticized Sufism as other-worldly.
Two of his principal students were Muhammad Abdúh (1849-1905) amd Rashíd Ridá (1865-1935): reformers and disciples of Afghání. Abdúh stressed tauhíd in his writings. He noted that reason and religion are complementary and that science and religion are not contradictory. He also criticized Sufism as un-Islamic; also taqlíd. He called for the reopenin of ijtihád., criticized lack of educational institutions in Islam, and the continued practice of polygamy. Ridá, a Syrian, was a disciple of Abdúh. He also stressed monogamy.
The modernists were a minority. Most Muslims felt they compromised too much of Islam. Most modernists sought to reform Sufism, reform law, and purge the law of old ideas. They did manage several important accomplishments:
1. Pride in Islam.
2. Inspiring others to unite Islam and aspects of the west.
3. Their call for reinterpretation (ijtihád) has partially been heard. Thus some speak of Islamic democracy and Islamic views of human rights.
4. They preserved Islam as the basis of a modern state.
Twentieth Century Islam
Islam has continued to grow as well in the twentieth century, especially in the Third World. Sub-Saharan Africa and India are seeing large increases in the numbers of Muslims, where Muslim missionaries are competing with Christian and Hindu teachers respectively. Christian missionary efforts to Islamic countries are generally barren--after a century of preaching and bible study classes, the number of ex-Muslim Christians in most countries can still be counted in the hundreds--but Muslim missionary efforts in the Christian west have been yielding good results. In the United States several million Muslims from the Middle East, Pakistan, and India have settled. Perhaps a half million African Americans have converted. The number of converts from European Christian background is not known, but is probably in the tens of thousands. It is estimated that in twenty years the number of American Muslims may exceed the number of American Jews.
3. THE TEACHINGS OF ISLAM
Like any religious tradition, Islam can be summarized simply or in complex detail, depending on the level one wishes to reach. Just as Christianity has creeds and Buddhism has the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path, Islam has a basic summary of major teachings. This summary is oriented around what the believer must do; it says little about what he or she should believe. Islam does have a complex metaphysics, and we will explore it as well. The basic summary of Islam is called the FIVE PILLARS. They are:
The word jihád, however, has come to acquire the connotation of holy war as well as its other meanings. Muslim fanatics often invoke it against outsiders and against each other: the Iran-Iraq war was declared a jihád by both sides.
In addition to the Five Pillars, Islam has a detailed metaphysics; in other words, an understanding about the nature of everything that exists. The major concerns of its metaphysics are: God; the Prophet, Revelation, and Religion; the spiritual worlds (heaven and hell, Satan, angels, and jinn); the nature of human beings, their purpose for existence, and the last judgment they will face; and the nature of the physical world.
GOD: Islam is a religion that strongly emphasizes the oneness of God, or tawhíd. The shaháda begins with "there is no god but God," making monotheism a basic part of a Muslim's faith. This emphasis is obvious and inevitable when one considers that Muhammad came to a polytheistic people. Not only did He have to smash their idols; He had to convince them the idols were powerless, even as representatives of Alláh (which seems to have been one interpretation of their role). Islam forbids making images of God; mosques are not allowed even to have images of people or nature in them (for this reason they are decorated with calligraphic passages from the Qur'án, or geometrical patterns). Individuals who "associate partners with God" are guilt of shirk, "association"; they are called a mushrik, "polytheist."
God is described in the Qur'án as all-powerful and all-knowing. This is generally understood by Muslims to mean that human beings are complete subordinate to the divine will, although the Qur'án also strongly asserts human responsibility and warns men of the consequences of violating God's will. At the beginning of every surih God is referred to as "the merciful, the compassionate," thereby balancing an emphasis on God as judge and punisher. Muslims generally believe that the Qur'án contains the ninety-nine "most beautiful names" of God; it is a common part of Muslim piety to repeat them, using rosary beads to keep count. Another Muslim tradition claims that there is a hundredth or "most great" name of God, which will be revealed in the Judgment Day.
Muslim theologians, over the last fifteen hundred years, have developed a theology about God based on the Qur'án, Jewish and Christian ideas, and concepts from Greek philosophy. The self or essence (dhát) of God was understood to be al-'Azím, "the Inaccessible." In other words, no matter how much we can know God, there is always something about God that is beyond our knowing, because God is of a fundamentally different nature and station than humanity. In addition to the essence, though, God also had sifit, "attributes." These attributes were divided into several categories:
REVELATION: Islam emphasizes that God communicates to humanity through chosen individuals, through whom He vouchsafes a revelation. God has done this in the past through a series of men: Noah, Sálih, Hád, Abraham, Moses, David, Solomon, and Jesus, to list a few. Through individuals such as these God has given humanity a revelation progressively. The revelation has been compiled into a book of some sort--though not all the "books" survived--and the resulting scripture has been the scripture of the Religion of God. The followers of this scripture are the "People of the Book," usually understood to refer to Christians and Jews.
The Qur'án uses two words to refer to these prophetic figures. One is rasál, "messenger" or "apostle" of God. This is the term used in the Shaháda regarding Muhammad (". . and Muhammad is the rasál of God"). The other term is nabi, "prophet." This word is much rarer than rasál and seems to have referred to figures with less authority than a rasál; they warn the people, but do not bring a new Book and shari'ah. The word nabi also appears to be absent from the earliest revelations; some scholars think it was not used Qur'ánically until the late Mecca or Medina period. Nabi is not applied in the Qur'án to Arabic figures, such as Hád or Sálih; only to Old and New Testament figures. Muhammad is referred to as a nabi in the Qur'án only in the phrase khátam an-nabiyyin, "seal of the prophets." Now understood by Muslims to mean that Muhammad was the last prophet and the last messenger, this phrase may have meant that the cycle of biblical lesser prophets has closed. One western scholar, Montgomery Watt, speculates that it "perhaps originally meant 'one confirming previous prophets'" (Watt, Bell's Introduction to the Qur'án, 28), because one function of a seal is to confirm the authenticity of the authorship of a document.
SPIRITUAL WORLDS: The Qur'án speaks of Paradise/heaven and hell. One Qur'ánic description of Paradise is as a place where men get all the food and women they want, and clearly is meant to be allegorical, not literal. Hell-fire is mentioned as the penalty for unbelief. The Qur'án mentions jinn or spirits and angels, and Muslims understand these verses literally, and therefore believe in such creatures. The Qur'án mentions several angels by name: Jibril (Gabriel), who brought revelation to Muhammad; 'Azráil; Isráfil; and Michael. Satan is mentioned about fourteen times in the Qur'án, and sometimes under the name of Iblis; he is understood in Muslim tradition to have been a spirit who refused God's command to bow before Adam, because he would not bow to any one but God. For his sin of excessive attachment to tawhid, God banished Iblis from heaven. Iblis is not so much an anti-god and an embodiment of evil as much as he is a tempter of humans.
HUMANITY: The Qur'án says God fashioned humanity from baked clay by breathing His spirit into him. The Qur'án does not speak of the individual being made up of two separate parts--a body and soul--this is a Christian idea that entered Islam later, and is now widely accepted. Humans were created good, Islam does not speak of a fall and original sin. But human beings are constantly challenged in their lives to make moral choices; humans have free will and are free moral agents. Humanity is the "cream of creation" and exceeds even the angels in knowledge and virtue (Rahman, Major Themes of the Qur'án, 18-19).
God asked the heavens and the earth whether they would take on the task of creating a moral order in creation, but they refused because the burden would be too heavy. The Qur'án says humanity accepted the challenge instead, and this is the mission of mankind: to build a moral and spiritual order on earth. Not only does Iblis seek to prevent this, but a laziness in humanity and a distortion of humanity's true nature because of unbelief complicates the task. Hence Muhammad was called on to arise and warn, because the responsibility to accept, submit to, and obey God's law lies with humanity alone. Creation has no choice to be muslim, to submit to God's will; only humanity has a choice, and must choose voluntarily to be muslim.
PHYSICAL CREATION: Islam has no Genesis story; the Qur'án says that God created simply by saying "Be!" God was the Creator of the universe and is also its sustainer; all of creation is dependent on God. There are several important themes in the Qur'án about nature. One is that God can be seen through His signs (ayát) in nature. The Qur'án constantly asserts that the rhythms of the seasons, the growth of plant life, and nature's greatness and bounty are reflections of qualities of its Maker. Thus creation reveals God to us. Another theme is that creation exists to be of use to humanity.
JUDGMENT AND RESURRECTION The Qur'án often speaks about a day of judgment, when all of humanity will be judged by its deeds and either rewarded with Paradise if belief was true, or punished with hellfire if it was not. The Judgment is also the time when the bodies of the dead will rise from their graves. On the Day of Judgment, the world as it is known will end, and with it Islam and Islamic law. Most Muslims understand these doctrines literally, though some view them metaphorically. A major part of popular Islam--though it is not overtly Qur'ánic--is belief in the coming of a Mahdi or "Guide." This belief grew steadily from the first Islamic century, and is particularly important in Shi'ism. Many Muslims believe in two returns: first the Mahdi, then the Return of Christ. Others see these as referring to the same figure, and use the terms interchangeably.
Those who accepted 'Ali's claim to be the rightful successor of Muhammad sought to place one of 'Ali's sons on the throne. This was the beginning of the splitting of Muslims into two groups: the Shi'ah (from the Arabic shi'), or "party of 'Ali," and the Sunnis, those who follow the sunna or practice of the Prophet. The earliest Shi'is, however, were primarily supporters of the political power of the descendants of the prophet, not believers in their religious authority. Hasan, the older grandson of the prophet, claimed the caliphate after his father's death. But Muawiyya's army was very powerful and Hasan was forced to abdicate. He retired to Medina, where he lived quietly. He died mysteriously in 669, at age 46; Shi'i historians maintain he was poisoned. The claim to the leadership of Muhammad's family then passed to his younger brother, Husayn.
When Muawiyya died in 680, the caliphate passed to his son, Yazid, a drunkard and a tyrant. This marked the beginning of a dynasty, the Umayyids, who ruled Islam for a century and a half; each caliph passed the leadership on to his son or another relative. There was a lot of dissatisfaction with Yazid and with the dynastic principle, so a major city in Iraq, Kufa, asked Husayn to lead them in revolt. Husayn accepted, but by the time he had arrived Yazid's army had already subdued his supporters, so Husayn found himself facing an army of thousands with a company of about sixty men, women, and children. After fruitless negotiations, a massacre resulted; on 10 October 680 Yazid's general decapitated the entire party, including Husayn. This cruel act, which occurred at the town of Karbila, is remembered to this day, reenacted through passion plays. It stirred belief in the spiritual sovereignty of the descendants of the Prophet, which took Shi'ism beyond a merely political movement.
Husayn's son, 'Ali (658-712 or 713) titled Zainu'l-ábadin, was spared because he had been too ill to fight and was taken to Damascus; eventually he was allowed to retire to Medina. But making a claim to the caliphate was pointless; Yazid and his successors were too powerful. The fourth imám continued the pattern of political quietism, since the converse had always proved disastrous. He spent much of his time in prayer and mourning over the martyrs of Karbila. He lent little support to the growing Shi'ah movements, which were now acquiring thousands of followers.
The death of the fourth imam saw a split in the ranks of the Shi'ites. One group, the Zaydís, came to accept Zayd ibn-'Alí, a grandson of Husayn, as the fifth Imam. They also recognized descendants of the Prophet other than those through 'Alí and Fatima as possible imams. They were politically active and religiously conservative, like the Kharijites. They are very numerous in modern Yemen and are otherwise found in many places in the Muslim world.
But for most Shi'ites, Zaynu'l-ábadin was succeeded by his son, Abá Ja'far Muhammad ibn 'Ali, known as Muhammad al-Báqir. He was the first to organize some Shi'i doctrines, such as the doctrine of designation of each imám by his predecessor. During his imamate, Shi'is began to organize their own understandings of Muslim law. His son, Ja'far as-Sádiq, became the sixth imám upon al-Báqir's death, which occurred between 732 and 743. Ja'far as-Sádiq is known as one of the greatest imáms in terms of learning and scholarship; even two of the greatest Sunni jurisprudents were among his students. It is likely that under Ja'far, the claim that the imáms were the religious center of Islam was put forward more strongly. Ja'far also lived to see the destruction of the Umayyad dynasty; in 750 it was overthrown and a new Sunni dynasty, the Abbasids, was established.
On his death there was a split among supporters about his successor. Ja'far's oldest son, Ismá'il, died before his father, so when Ja'far died the question arose whether Ja'far's younger son, Másá, or Ismá'il's oldest son, Muhammad, was the rightful imám. Those who followed the latter line are called Ismá'ilis; this Shi'i sect continues to exist to this day, and its head, the Aqa Khan, is its imám. But others followed Másá.
Másá al-Kázim was poisoned in 799 and was succeeded by his son, 'Ali ar-Rida, the eighth imám. Ar-Ridá died suddenly in 818 and was succeeded by the ninth imám, Muhammad at-Taqi, and in 835 he died and was succeeded by 'Ali al-Hádi, who was only about six when he became the tenth imám. His son, Hasan al 'Askari, became the eleventh imám in 868; he died in December 873 or January 874--the Islamic year 260. Because of the hostility of the Abbasid caliphs, neither the tenth nor the eleventh imáms appeared in public, nor did they meet their followers. Instead they communicated to their followers through an intermediary named 'Uthmán al-Amri.
'Uthmán al-Amri claimed that the eleventh imám had had a son, and that he now represented that son, who was the twelfth imám. This claim was denied by the eleventh imám's brother, either because it was not true, or because he wanted to be the twelfth imám himself. Shi'i historians differ in their interpretations of the situation. Some say Hasan al-'Askari never had a son. Others say his son was of mature years; others say he was born eight months after his father's death. Modern Iranian Twelver Shi'is say the boy was four years old when his father died. The boy's name is reported by some to have been 'Ali, by others Muhammad. Twelvers accept the latter name and add the title al-Mahdi (the guided). Modern Twelvers believe that, for his own protection, Muhammad al-Mahdi went into "occultation" (hiding). He is reported to have communicated to the faithful via intermediaries called bábs (gates), the first of whom was 'Uthmán al-Amri. When the last of the four gates died in 941 (329 A.H.), the lesser occultation ended and the greater occultation began. The line of Twelver imáms came to an end.
About the time the lesser Occultation came to an end the Twelvers came to believe that the Twelfth Imám would return to earth in the last days as the Mahdi, and would establish a reign of justice and peace on earth. After his coming, they believe, Christ will return. Shi'is claim to see him in dreams and visions, and try to communicate to him by leaving messages at the tombs of the imáms.
The Twelvers are the largest Shiite group today, but they are not the only one, and historically they were often a very small, weak group. They emerged as a distinct Shi'i group mostly in the third Muslim century (the eighth century C.E.) after the death of the twelfth imám. Twelver Shi'ism appears to have grown in size partly because it did not have a living imám; many other descendants or alleged descendants of the Prophet called themselves the imám, formented militarty revolt, and were killed. By not having a living imám, Twelver Shiism was able to survive and grow, and other Shi'is often were absorbed into it when their revolts were crushed and their imáms executed. There have been dozens of Shiite groups, and some of their lines of imáms have continued to this day. Some of these lines spring off the line of twelve imáms, such as the Ismá'ilis; others spring from other descendants of 'Ali or other relatives of Muhammad. Today, Shi'is are about ten percent of all Muslims, the rest being Sunnis; perhaps eighty percent of the Shi'is are Twelvers. Twelvers constitute ninety percent of the modern population of Iran and fifty-five to sixty percent of the population of Iraq.
The imamate, which evolved into a clearly articulated doctrine in the second Muslim century, is perhaps the most distinct and universal Shi'i belief. Shi'is believe that there has always been an imám to provide guidance to the believers; even between the earthly ministries of Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad, there was always an imám on earth. Some Shi'i traditions even list all the imáms in human history. The imáms are understood to be sinless and infallible, to be guided by the Holy Spirit, and to be blessed with a special type of guidance that, while less powerful than the revelation afforded a Messenger of God, is a type of infallible and unfailing inspiration. Obedience of the imám is obligatory to all on earth.
An integral part of the Shi'i doctrine of the imám is that he is the legitimate political leader of Islam; just as the caliphs usurped 'Ali's authority, modern governments, in the absence of the authority of the imám, are not legitimate. In practice, however, this doctrine has been manifested many different ways. Many imáms outside the Twelver line claimed political authority and led revolts against the government; such revolts became a common expression of social discontent against Islamic rulers. As noted, most imáms of the Twelver line, after Husayn's martydom, did not make a claim to political leadership; rather, they acknowledged the authority of the caliphs, and urged their followers to do the same. Thus political quietism was a common option pursued by Twelver Shi'is. Not until the twentieth century did the Twelver Shi'i clergy claim the authority to rule collectively in the place of the imám Shi'i theologians often had freer speculative rein than Sunni writers. Iraq was the center of Shi'ism and was also the home of deep pre-Islamic religious ideas: various orthodox and heretical forms of Christianity, various Zoroastrian and Jewish sects, gnosticism, Manichaeism, and some Greek philosophy. These ideas entered Shi'ism to a greater extent than Sunnism because the claim that the imáms were divinely empowered to interpret the Qur'án allowed considerable innovation. Among the ideas that Shi'is were exposed to were transmigration of souls; occultation; divine leadership; delegation of God's powers to a human vicegerent; anthropomorphism with respect to God; and alteration in God's will. These ideas together came to be designated ghuluww, "extremist" by many Muslims; while some of them came to be accepted as Shi'i beliefs, others became popular heresy. Ghuluww ideas were especially popular among Shi'is in the first century or two, then declined in prominence, partly because the imáms discouraged them.
A major difference between the two traditions is in their view of the authority of the ulama (the "learned" in the religion). The imám had been seen as one with considerable authority in the community, and the lapse of the imamate caused many of its powers, gradually, to devolve onto the Shi'i ulamá. Thus the learned are much more important to Shi'ism than they are to Sunni Islam.
There are other differences of belief between Shi'is and Sunnis. Shi'ism recognizes the institution of temporary marriage, where a man and woman can agree to marry for a particular length of time that can be as short as a few hours. Sunnis view such an institution as legalized prostitution and do not accept it. Shi'i divorce law is a bit stricter than the Sunnis', and Shi'i inheritance law allows women to inherit more than Sunni law does.
Islam in Iran
Islam entered Iran during the caliphate of 'Umar and soon began to make considerable headway in converting the Zoroastrian population. Most of Iran's earliest Muslims were not followers of 'Ali, but there were some. In the 700s northern Iran and Iraq came to be centers of Shi'ism; several imáms died and were buried in Mashhad and Qum in northern Iran (the rest are buried in Iraq). Qum, Rayy, Mashhad, and Kashan emerged as important Shi'i theological centers. When in the ninth century a dynasty in Iran--the Buyids--accepted Shi'ism, and then Twelver Shiism, and came to dominate the Caliphate at Baghdad, Shi'ism acquired considerable political influence in Iran and Iraq. But the majority of the population, except in a few cities, remained Sunni.
Shi'ism remained a minority religion in Iran until the 1500s, but it underwent considerable internal consolidation. Shi'i scholars wrote many important religious and philosophical works that remain definitive of Shi'ism to this day. When Sufism--an Islamic mystical movement--arose, Shi'ism was initially hostile to it, but gradually found ways to incorporate its practices and some of its ideas.
It was the rise of the Safavid dynasty in Iran that took Shi'ism to the masses. The first Safavid shah, Shah Ismá'il, was the leader of the Safavid Sufi order, which was a Twelver Shi'ite order; when he assumed political power in Tabriz in 1501 he declared Twelver Shi'ism to be the state religion of his kingdom. Shah Ismá'il made a concerted effort to fund missionary projects to educate the population in his realm in Shi'ism. In particular, he encouraged the Safavid order to continue its propaganda in Iran and suppressed all rival Sufi groups, especially those that were Sunni. His successors imported prominent Arab Shi'i ulamá who appointed Shi'i prayer leaders in most Iranian towns and established Shi'i theological colleges. The ulama who were trained in these colleges became the Muslim religious leaders of most of Iran's villages and towns. The Safavids also restored or rebuilt the tombs of the imáms and their descendants. Because they controlled parts of Iraq briefly, they were able to rebuild the tombs located there and strengthen Iraqi Shi'ism. They introduced passion plays, which reenact the martyrdom of Husayn, into the popular culture. The result was a gradual conversion of the entire Persian-speaking population to Shi'ism over the next century. When, in the 1730s, a group of Sunni Afghans took over much of Iran and ended Safavid rule, they were not able to convert the population back to Sunni Islam. When the Qájár dynasty assumed control of the area in the 1790s, it was Shi'i.
The spread of Shi'ism in Iran was not unaccompanied by controversy. The authority of the ulamá soon became an important issue because they had to speak on behalf of the Hidden Imám. Many ulamá claimed that ijtihád, analytical reasoning, was a legitimate means for determining the will of the Hidden Imám and that it was necessitated because the ancient sources did not provide guidance on all matters; this group came to be called the Usulis. Others said the ulamá had to stick to the Qur'án and the traditions (akhbár) of the Prophet and the imáms and not add other principles to the derivation of Muslim law; they came to be called the Akhbáris. The battle between the groups was also a battle over the extent of clerical power, the former group wishing to extend it as far as possible, the latter seeking a lesser role of the ulamá in society. Supporting the Akhbáris position were Sufi orders and others who sought to retain more heterodox views of Islam. After two centuries of bitter dispute the Usulis finally defeated the Akhbári position in the late eighteenth century. This opened the way for establishment of the ulamá as the arbiter of doctrine, law, morals, and social customs, a task they took on increasingly throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. Part of the usuli position involved taqlid, "imitation," the importance of the ordinary Shi'i chosing a leading Shi'i cleric as his or her marj'ih or "center of imitation," and following that cleric's theological and legal rulings completely.
Iranian Shi'ism also developed an esoteric philosophical tradition based on various Sufi philosophers, especially Ibn-'Arabi and Suhravárdi. The most important exponent of this tradition was Sadru'd-din Muhammad ibn-Ibráhim-i-Shirázi, known as Mullá Sadrá (1572-1641). Sadrá advocated a doctrine about the nature of physical reality, involving the unity of all things and the denial that each thing had an essence beyond the fact of its existence. He argued that there was an evolutionary movement of all things upward toward God (Bayat, 30). He told his followers to renounce material wealth and worldly ambition and not to imitate anyone in their search for truth. For the latter, anti-Usuli position Sadrá was severely persecuted. His ideas became the foundation for many of the esoteric doctrines put forward by the Shaykhis.
Shaykhism arose in the context of eighteenth- and nineteenth- century Shi'ism. Its founder, Shaykh Ahmad-i-Ahsá'i (1753-1826), was an Arab from Ahsá, as his name indicates (this is an area in modern Saudi Arabia). Shaykh Ahmad developed a distinctive version of Shi'ism that differed from many Muslims on several theological points. Moojan Momen lists these differences as follows (Momen, An Introduction to Shi'i Islam, 226-28):
1. God: Shaykh Ahmad insisted on the ultimate unknowability of God's essence and its utter difference from creation. This contradicted the Sufi notion that one could attain existential unity with God.
2. Prophet: The Prophets (such as Muhammad and Jesus) occupied a radically different station from both humanity and God. This again differed from Sufism and many Muslims, who believed anyone could attain to the station of the Prophet through mystical striving.
3. Imáms: Shaykh Ahmad had an exalted notion of the nature of the imáms; that the first emanation from God's will was the light of Muhammad, and from it came the light of the imáms, and from it came the light of the believers. Thus the imáms were exalted to a superhuman, even supernatural station.
4. The Worlds of God: In addition to the physical world and the spiritual world, there was an intermediate world, called 'álam al-mithál or hárqalyá. It is the "world of archetypal images," where every thing in the physical world has an idealized, perfect reflection. Ideas like hárqalyá are ancient; for example, Manichaean philosophy taught that every person had a twin in a spiritual world. The word itself seems to be Syriac, not Arabic, and thus is pre-Islamic. The Shaykhis believed every person had a body in this intermediate world as well as in the physical world. When one dreams, one's dreams may provide access to this world. The occulted Twelfth Imám is not waiting in this world to return, as the Twelvers taught, but in Hárqalyá. This world is identical to Islamic purgatory.
5. Eschatology: The resurrection expected by Muslims will involve one's spiritual body in Hárqalyá, not one's the physical body in this world. Heaven and hell are personal states in Hárqalyá as well. Muhammad's night journey occurred in Hárqalyá and did not involve his physical body. Shaykh Ahmad's idea of hárqalyá was an attempt to rationalize traditional miracles and extraordinary claims of Islam with reason and logic; it got him in considerable trouble with the Shi'i ulama.
6. The Perfect Shi'i: This idea was developed not by Shaykh Ahmad as much as by his successors. It is the idea that there must exist on earth, at all times, a perfect Shi'i, who serves as an intermediary between the imám and the believers. Shaykhis came to see Shaykh Ahmad and his successors as the perfect Shi'i.
7. Sources of jurisprudence: Most Shi'is maintained that Islamic law was built on several pillars: the Qur'án and hadith, of course; and for most Shi'is ijtihád or rational argumentation was important. Shaykh Ahmad deemphasized rational processes, emphasized hadith more, and especially emphasized intuitive knowledge of the law's meaning. For many critics, this appeared to be a claim of revelation in disguise.
On Shaykh Ahmad's death, his appointed successor, Siyyid Kázim-i-Rashti, assumed leadership of the movement. Opposition from the Shi'i ulama in Iran intensified. Siyyid Kázim did not appoint a successor when he died in 1843. As a result his movement broke up into three groups; many others became Bábís. All three have survived to this day, though they have drifted apart from each other and have usually drifted toward orthodox Shi'ism. Together, they have about a half million members.
A. Iranian Society and Culture; Imperialism.
The incipient modernization of Iran was another very important factor shaping the development of Babism. In the early nineteenth century Iran began to enter the commercial and political orbit of Europe. The British were converting India from a series of independent and semi-independent states, under partial control by a British trading company into a crown colony. As a result they were increasingly entering the Persian Gulf and trading at the ports there. The Russians were expanding into Central Asia, gradually conquering what today are the republics of Kazakhstan, Tajikestan, Kyrgyzestan, Uzbekestan, and Turkmenestan. The British feared that the Russians would try to expand until their frontiers reached India; if that happened, the Russians would be in the position to threaten India militarily, and India was Britain's prized colony. Hence Britain attempted to create buffer states between India and the Russian territories. The British actually invaded Afghanistan in the mid 19th century and overthrew a pro-Russian king, setting up a pro-British king instead.
Iran also bordered on the Russian Empire and India, but it was too large and powerful overtly to invade. Instead, the British and Russians competed for economic and diplomatic influence and control of Iran. Northern Iran, which was on the Caspian and in direct contact with the Russian Empire, became part of the Russian economic orbit. Southern Iran, and its Persian Gulf ports, came under British economic dominance. The British established powerful friendships with the governors of the Persian cities in the south, and competed as equals with the Russians in the Court of the Shah. The British and Russians both opposed economic integration of the country, because then one side or the other would lose its control of half the country. Thus whenever the Shah proposed a railroad from Tehran to the Caspian, the British prevented it; whenever he proposed a railroad from Tehran to the Gulf, the Russians prevented it; and whenever he proposed to turn to French, German, or American business interests for assistance in developing the country, both British and Russian diplomats prevented it. As a result, modernization of Iran was greatly slowed and the country's existing resources often were unfairly exploited by the two powers. In the late 19th century the Russians and British even signed a secret treaty, which split the country between them into economic and political spheres, and which prevented other European powers from gaining a toehold. No wonder, then, that Iranians have long distrusted foreigners, and have seen foreign conspiracies behind their own politics.
In 1805-13 and 1826-28 Iran fought two wars with Russia and lost both of them disastrously. As a result, Iran lost control of the Caucasus and some of Central Asia to Russia. The two military disasters made Iran realize that its military was hopelessly out of date and that it had to modernize; consequently it imported German and French military officers to reform its army, established a military training college, and began to establish modern armaments factories. It also sent young Iranians to Europe to study science, engineering, and tactics. Many of them returned to Iran with ideas about Constitutions, elections, human rights, and Parliaments as well.
Many have argued that Babism arose partly because of the severe ideological and cultural strain Iran experienced when it entered the modern, secular, scientific world. While Bahá'ís may disagree that this was the primary reason for the movement's origin, they can appreciate the sociological insights behind the theory, because God never works in a vacuum of temporal causality. Rather, God seems to use the forces at work in history, and the resulting events, to bring about His will. Thus one can study history to understand the material means that God used to shape a religion's origin and the development of its community and teachings.
B. Marxist interpretations. Under the Communists, Russian Oriental Studies focused their scholarship on a Marxist analysis of history. One extensive study of Babism was made by Mikhail Ivanov. It concluded that the Báb led a struggle against feudalism and Western imperialism. It claimed His popularity partly resulted from His advocacy of an egalitarian society and freedom from foreign economic influence; two ideas the Báb did not advocate. It also claimed many of His followers joined because they had been dislocated by social and economic changes (Bayat, 104, 125).
C. The role of the clergy in Iranian society was strong and in many ways it was growing. For example, the entire educational system was in clerical hands in 1800.
D. Secularization and the rise of secular thought.
E. The year 1260. A messianic movement was nearly inevitable in A.H. 1260, because of the many hadíth or traditions attributed to Muhammad or the imáms saying that Muhammad's religion would endure only a thousand years after the disappearance of the Twelfth Imám (in the year 260 A.H.), and that the Twelfth Imám would return a thousand years after his occultation. The year 1844 was thus a year of expectation for many Muslims. For Shaykhís the expectation of the coming of the imám was quite straightforward, and when Sayyid Kázim died a month before the beginning of the year 1260, several prominent Shaykhís, among them Mullá Husayn, set out to find the Qá'im or Promised One.
5. ISLAM AND THE BAHÁ'Í FAITH
The connections between the Bahá'í Faith and Islam are closer than between the Bahá'í Faith and any other religion because the Bahá'í Faith grew out of Islam. Consequently many basic Bahá'í beliefs closely resemble or are identical to Islam's. In many ways it can be said that Bahá'í metaphysics (nature of God, Prophet, humanity, the world) are basically the same as Islam's; the five pillars are also preserved in a very similar form. The social teachings show the most change. This is the classic demonstration of 'Abdu'l-Bahá's statement that the spiritual teachings of religion are eternal and unchanging, but the social dimension must be tailored to the needs of each age.
The Bahá'í and Islamic doctrines of God are very similar. The Bahá'í view is essentially the same as the Shaykhi view (described above), which was not unorthodox by Muslim standards. Bahá'í and Muslim doctrines of revelation are slightly different: the Bahá'í concept of the Manifestation is not quite the same as the traditional Sunni Muslim concept of the Messenger of God, for a Messenger is closer to an ordinary human being, with human foibles, than a Manifestation is. The Shi'i concept of the Messenger of God, however, is closer to the Bahá'í view. Bahá'ís reject the Muslim understanding of the phrase "seal of prophets" as implying that Muhammad was the last prophet. They also reject the common Muslim interpretation of a Qur'ánic passages as stating that Jesus was never crucified; Muslims often argue that a look-alike was crucified in His place.
From a historical point of view, the Bahá'í understanding of Bahá'u'lláh's life and significance can be built on more solid foundations than the Muslim view of the role of Muhammad or the Christian understanding of Jesus. In the case of Jesus, it is difficult to know whether any actual words of Jesus have survived, and which words attributed to Him in the New Testament actually were said by him. On the other hand, we know the times of Jesus extraordinarily well, and understand first century Palestine, its language, culture, and history extremely well. To some extent this makes up for our lack of knowledge about Jesus, and sheds a bright light on the few biographical facts we are certain of.
In the case of Muhammad, historians are in the opposite situation: there is a considerable amount of information on Muhammad's life preserved, and voluminous records of His words (the text of the Qur'á is accurate), but there is relatively little information about pre-Islamic Arabia. Hence scholars cannot put Muhammad's life in a detailed context, and can not understand His significance as well.
With Bahá'u'lláh, of course, both the life and the social context of the Manifestation of God are preserved in rich detail. This is the first time both have survived. Once Bahá'ís study the details of Bahá'u'lláh's life in His historical context--a task that has barely begun--it will make understanding of Bahá'u'lláh's significance much greater, much more precise, and much more detailed than the understanding of any previous Manifestation.
The Bahá'í Faith can even be seen as possessing five pillars. A Muslim must be able to say the shaháda or statement of faith to be considered a believer; when Bahá'ís declare their faith they sign a short, simple statement of faith on the declaration card. Muslims possess obligatory prayer; Sunnis say it on five separate times during the day, while Shi'ism enjoins the obligatory prayer must be repeated on at least three occasions daily. The Bahá'í Faith also has obligatory prayer, which is repeated either once a day or three times daily, depending on the prayer. However, Bahá'í obligatory prayer is not performed by all Bahá'ís en masse, as Muslim prayer is, nor is the text the same as the Muslim salát. The Bahá'í Faith has a fast, just like Islam; it is shorter, less rigorous, and occurs at a different time than Ramadán, but otherwise is fairly similar. The Bahá'í Faith requires the giving of huqúqu'lláh, like Islamic zakát; the amount is different, but the principle that giving it purifies one's remaining wealth is the same. Like Islam, the Bahá'í Faith has a pilgrimage, though to a different place. Bahá'ís even struggle in the path of God, though the struggle is not allowed to become violent, and never can become holy war; rather, teaching the Faith is emphasized.
The changed needs of the modern world are mainly reflected by the differences between Bahá'í and Muslim social laws. The role of women in the Faith have been radically expanded and equalized. Shi'i imitation of the clergy has been abolished, along with the clergy itself; it has been replaced by an emphasis on individual independent investigation of truth and universal compulsory education. Whereas Islam lacked instructions from Muhammad about organization of the community, the Bahá'í Faith has detailed instructions from Bahá'u'lláh Himself about organization and organizational principles. The principle of consultation, mentioned briefly in the Qur'án, is greatly elaborated in the Bahá'í scriptures.