Wednesday, May 11, 2011

One More

Here's the last assignment for my Islamic History class.  It was good but I'm glad it's over.  ; )

            How The Middle East Became Islamic

This paper will answer the question, how did the Middle East become Islamic?  It will argue that “becoming Islamic” was about more than adopting a set of religious beliefs.  “Islamic culture” was also part of the Islamization process.  This paper will further argue that part of the process included Muslims, the people spreading Islam, absorbing the culture of the regions into which they expanded.  Finally, this paper will argue that the religion itself incorporated ideas that were extant in the Arab Middle East during Muhammad’s life, facilitating its eventual spread.
            Muhammad began speaking to his fellow Meccans about the “one true God” between 610 and 620 C.E.  Monotheism was not familiar to most Arabs of Muhammad’s time; it certainly was not commonly practiced, thought there were both Jews and Christians on the peninsula.  Otherwise, Arabia was polytheistic.  The pattern of Arabian religion was simple.  There were no temples on the order of the societies of the Fertile Crescent and little or no mythology was produced.  Still, in the century or two preceding the birth of Muhammad monotheism was taking root in the settled societies bordering “Arabia.”  Mecca being on the trade route between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea, Christians and Jews passed through with some regularity.  It is likely, though ultimately unknowable, that Muhammad, himself a merchant, came into contact with Jews and Christians during the course of conducting business and listened to their ideas regarding the creation of the world and the nature of the one true God responsible for its creation.  We do know that there were Jews in Medina when Muhammad arrived there from Mecca, where his message was not being warmly received, and that Muhammad initially tried to incorporate them into the Umma (Islamic community).  In any case, Muhammad, whether divinely inspired or not, created a religion that drew a line from God, through Adam, Abraham, Moses and Jesus, through himself and into the creation of the Qur’an, which he presented as revelation from the one God. 
            After Muhammad’s death, in 632, his followers began to spread his message.  Initially they were simply securing the borders, converting or conquering the nomadic tribes on the frontier.  Part of Muhammad’s message, though, had been to unite the Arabs in one polity, the Umma.  This produced tangible benefits for the members of the Umma, as spoils were collected from the newly conquered territories and distributed among the community, creating a political elite.  The newly conquered/converted regions saw benefits too, as commerce thrived under a central authority, along with a justice system to replace the tribal feuding that had previously existed.  As the Umma expanded toward Empire, people accepted Muslim rule largely because they were not expected to abandon their own religious beliefs.  They were asked only to accept the Qur’an’s societal rules and not to offend Muslim sensibilities by practicing their own religions ostentatiously.  The Muslim political community is what spread initially; people eventually converted to the religion, or not, as they saw fit.
            The spread of Islamic culture has a different dynamic.  First, culture is more than just one thing, including literature, poetry, music, visual art, architecture and, perhaps most importantly, social norms.  Pre-Islamic Arabian society left almost no evidence of any developed arts, other than some poetry.  So any Islamic art culture evolved as Islam spread throughout the region.  It evolved by combining elements of the various societies that were absorbed into the Islamic state.  When the Abbasids moved the capital from Damascus to Baghdad eastern influences (Persian, Chinese, Indian) began to dominate the previous Byzantine and Greco-Roman influence.  Persian influence is especially seen in paintings and rug weaving.  Also, the most famous work of Islamic literature is the Persian Book of One Thousand and One Nights (usually called The Arabian Nights, in the West).  Chinese influence is seen mainly in pottery and textiles; Indian mainly in architecture (which also had great Persian influence.)  These different influences all merged in Baghdad and later, when the capital moved there, Samara.
            Islamic social norms first arise from the Qur’an and the Sunnah (example of the Prophet).  The role of men and of women is spelled out in the Qur’an.  Muhammad had several wives so polygamy was permitted so long as a man could support them.  Over time, as Roy Mottahedeh points out, a social structure emerged based on bonds of loyalty.  Some of these bonds were based on oaths involving responsibilities and benefits for both parties.  Others were based on commonalities such as occupation.  First though, Mottahedeh points out, there was a consensus that one man should lead the whole Muslim community.  When the Caliphate was no longer an effective political office, Kings were “hired” from outside the community.  Only an outsider could rule in the best interest of the whole group, it was felt, since someone from within the group would tend to favor his “faction.”
            As to how the King and his court should behave, Nizamu’l-Mulk shows how customs of various other realms were incorporated into Islamic regal culture.  “Every courtier should have a rank and position allotted to him. Some should be permitted to be seated while others should be required to remain standing, as has been the custom from ancient times in the presence of kings and caliphs; the caliph always having as his courtiers the men who served his father. The Sultan of Ghazna always had twenty courtiers, of whom ten might be seated while the other ten stood. They derived this custom and practice from the Sámánid dynasty.” 
            Everything that can be called Islamic evolved as Islam spread through the Middle East or, as the actual religion, arose out of the context within which Muhammad lived.  Muhammad’s religious ideas can be traced to Judaism and Christianity (monotheism, salvation in the next life), with the specific “facts on the ground” (first accepting Medinan Jews, then not, in the name of political expedience) as he attempted to win converts playing a role, too.  The various arts were absorbed from the other cultures of the Middle East and rebranded (those that survived) as Islamic.            


  1. I always get an education from your postings, Thanks for sharing!

  2. Well thanks, Mr. Postman. I have one more to write and then, no more school. We'll see what happens after that. ; )

  3. notacynic:

    As you have pointed out, in the beginning Islam was a positive force in the Middle East, granting the right for conquered people to practice their own religion while it gave them a central authority that had not existed before. Too bad that trend didn't continue.

  4. Thanks, YF. I'm glad you liked it.

  5. It IS too bad, Whit. To me the central lesson of Middle Eastern history is ... power corrupts. (And absolute power corrupts absolutely.)

    Thanks for commenting.

  6. Bless you. I want Ron Friesen - Wandering Desert Preacher - aka AZRON, to read this...


  7. Thanks Sarge. I bet AZ can find and point out at least one weakness in this piece. (Be nice AZ.) ; )

    I wrote three of these in three days, basically. I'm pretty happy with them but each has one primary flaw, in my opinion. And it's a different flaw for each one.

    Damn! ; )