Understanding Islam

At the turn of the 6th century, two superpowers had come to dominate the area surrounding the Middle East. The Christian Byzantine Empire ruled Western Europe, including Italy, Anatolia (modern Turkey), Armenia, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and a strip of the North African coast. The Persian Sassanian Empire controlled Iraq, Persia (Iran), and the area that today comprises the countries of Afghanistan, Pakistan, and Turkmenistan. These two empires collectively controlled the civilized world from central Europe to India. One area, however, avoided their domination. Just south of where they met lay the massive and inhospitable Arabian Peninsula. Christianity looked ready to overwhelm the barren peninsula just as it had Europe, but instead, the people of Arabia, under the banner of Islam, would soon bring both superpowers to their knees and remake the world.

Many nations over the ages had tried to make inroads into Arabia and failed; their ruins lay buried in the all-consuming sands. In the long run, the hostile environment of the peninsula and its lack of agricultural viability did not make it worth the effort of any sustained military occupation. The staggering size of it was another strike against attempted occupation. Arabia spans 1,300 miles north to south and 750 miles east to west. It is the largest peninsula on earth. Three times the size of Texas, it sits on its own tectonic plate and can be rightly considered a small continent. Alaska would fit comfortably inside of it, with room for a few smaller states stuffed into the borders.

Arid living desert, stony plateaus, and barren valleys constitute the bulk of the peninsula. It has no rivers that do not dry to dusty gullies for a portion of the year. Snakes and scorpions hide among the desert scrub and thorny cacti. Mountains rise in the north and in the southwest corner where Arabia nearly touches Ethiopia at the southern end of the Red Sea. Small fertile areas can be found in the north, south, and west, but for the most part the land cannot support agriculture.

This lack of fertility freed Arabia from the political and social systems that governed the lands to the north. The native Bedouin lived a nomadic, tribal lifestyle that defied the chains of a national government. And while they fought fiercely among themselves and along their foreign borders, this same lack of central authority could not produce a military sizable enough to allow the tribes to break free of the desert and expand beyond its borders. While the overwhelming majority of Arabians worshipped pagan idols, some Christian and Jewish settlements were scattered among the tribes. However these settlements followed the tribal structure of the Bedouin. Just as water surrounded Arabia on three sides, isolating it, in the same way were the Bedouin themselves isolated; they were a homogenous people who had developed for 16 centuries nearly untainted by foreign influence.

The tribes of Arabia lived fiercely and independently, answering to none but their own tribesman. Life in Arabia was harsh, and often short. Respect for community was near absent. Women were treated abysmally. Female infanticide was widely practiced. Spousal abuse occurred often within the tribes, and women were given no redress against it. They could not inherit or even own personal property, and in fact were considered the property of their husbands. If widowed, they could be “inherited” by one of their husband’s sons and become his wife. Slaves fared even worse than women, and had to endure any cruelty or torture imagined by their masters, including death.

Despite its fundamental lack of resources and general inhospitality, Arabia did posses one thing: location. Just to the north lay Palestine, the gateway to Europe and Egypt, and the great Tigris and Euphrates rivers. 25 miles across the mouth of the Red Sea were Ethiopia and central Africa. A short voyage by water to the east led to India and the riches of Asia. Inevitably, trade became the economic backbone of Arabia. Caravan routes developed, jumping across the desert from oasis to oasis. Villages appeared at these small green islands in the desert, especially in the Hijaz, the nominally fertile strip of land that runs along the western coast of Arabia.

Eventually, one tribe, the Quraysh, came to dominate trade in the Hijaz. The Quraysh were descended directly from Abraham’s first son, Ishmael. First taking control of trade with Syria and Lebanon, the Quraysh eventually befriended the rulers of Rome, Persia, and Ethiopia, and also the leaders of the Arabian tribes, ensuring safe passage of their caravans through most lands. They began the tradition of two great annual caravans, one in the winter and the other in the summer. The Quraysh became renowned as shrewd and capable merchants, and over the generations amassed considerable wealth and political clout. They chose Mecca, an already ancient settlement, as their mercantile capital.

For centuries Mecca, home to the Ka’ba, had been a popular pilgrimage destination. By the time the Quraysh tribe settled there the Ka’ba housed hundreds of pagan idols. One month a year the constantly bickering tribes around Mecca ceased their hostilities for the benefit of the pilgrims, and violence and the carrying of arms were forbidden at all times in the area surrounding the Ka’ba. This mixture of people coming from every corner of Arabia all at the same time and under an unspoken understanding of peace surely benefited the trade aspirations of the wily Quraysh merchants.

In Mecca around 570 A.D. a son was born into the Quraysh tribe who would exert a lasting influence upon the world. Born into the harsh realities of 6th century Arabia, his parents named him Muhammad; he was to be the prophet of Islam.

Muhammad’s father died around the time of his birth and his mother died when he was 6. He was raised first by his grandfather, and then by his uncle Abu Talib. From Abu Talib Muhammad learned the merchant trade and he traveled with him to far lands. As a young man he was hired by a rich widow named Kadhija to serve as her trade agent. Muhammad proved a very reliable and successful agent, and Kadhija eventually saw fit to marry him. Muhammad led an uneventful life increasing his wife’s fortune until the age of forty. That is when God intervened in his life.

Muhammad had taken the tradition of retiring to a remote mountain for one month of the year, a period of introspection during which he contemplated life and the mysteries of the universe. Muhammad deplored the social inequities replete within Arabian tribal society, so he also used his time on the mountain to feed the poor who would come to receive his charity. During his retreat in the year 610, Muhammad was awakened from a deep sleep by a frightening apparition who declared itself the angel Gabriel. Gabriel claimed to have been sent by no less than God Himself. Gabriel issued the order “Recite!” to Muhammad, and then delivered to him the first revelation of the verses that would later be compiled into the Koran, the holy book of Islam. Gabriel’s revelations would continue for 22 years.

At first Muhammad thought himself mad, or having been visited by a demon. During these revelations, Muhammad’s body would shake in convulsions, and he seemed a man possessed. But eventually, with Kadhija’s urging and support, he accepted his role as God’s prophet.

One night Gabriel flew Muhammad across the desert and took him to the city of Jerusalem, From the rock of Moriah, the site of the ruined Jewish Temple, Muhammad ascended to heaven. There he met with the prophets of the Old Testament. He met with their ranks and all vestiges of doubt dissipated from his no longer troubled mind. He decended to Jerusalem and Gabriel spirited him back to Mecca before the sun broke the horizon.

Gabriel showed to Muhammad rites of washing and prayer, and instructed him to perform them every day. As the verses accumulated, Muhammad added more content to his preaching in Mecca. His wife Kadhija became his first convert, and later other immediate members of his family, with the exception of his uncle Abu Talib, who refused even up to his death to accept Muhammad’s message. Eventually other Meccans began to heed his call, and converts began to appear in other tribes outside of the Quraysh.

For a while the Meccans tolerated their upstart son, but after a time Muhammad began to denounce their many gods. He spoke instead of one God, Allah (literally the God). The Meccans began to view Muhammad as a heretic and possibly dangerous. What he preached described the antithesis of their way of life, for the Meccans, especially the Quraysh, had become aggressive economists who valued wealth over social responsibility and charity. Conversely, Muhammad rallied for better treatment of the poor and unfortunate.

Mecca suffered from a lack of central authority and instead suffered the chaotic competition between the numerous tribes. As the new religion spread throughout Mecca, it added to this divisiveness. The Meccans eventually became openly hostile to the followers of Muhammad, and new converts would quickly become outcasts in their respective tribes. At one point Muhammad, who himself lived under the protection of his powerful uncle Abu Talib, sent many of his followers to Ethiopia where they received the protection of its king. Subsequently, when Abu Talib died suddenly, Muhammad’s security evaporated, and he quickly looked to relocating himself and his now somewhat considerable body of followers to a friendlier location.

Muhammad would travel to fairs in the region and preach, always keeping an eye open towards a community that might prove friendly to his message and take his followers in. One day six men from the city of Yathrib, which lay nearly 200 miles north of Mecca, approached Muhammad. They described the unique situation present in their city, and why they thought that Muhammad could help them.

Jews had been the original settlers of Yathrib, which lay in a pleasant oasis in the Hijaz, the fertile strip of land that bordered Arabia’s Red Sea coast. Over the centuries, Arab tribes had also settled in Yathrib, mainly because it lay along the main caravan trail that led from Mecca to Syria. Yet three Jewish tribes still remained, and fighting between the Jews and the Arabs over the area’s considerable wealth and resources threatened to destroy the very fabric of the city.

Upon hearing Muhammad’s message, the men of Yathrib recognized the similarities between the prophet’s brand of monotheism and that of the Jews. But since Muhammad’s message was also specifically tailored to the needs of Arabic society, they felt that it might be the way to unite the two factions and bring peace to the city. They promised Muhammad protection from the Meccans if he would come to Yathrib and attempt this seemingly impossible reconciliation. In 622 A.D. Muhammad began to move his followers north to their new home.

This great emigration of Muhammad and his congregation, called the Hijra, marks the defining moment for Islam, much as the Exodus did for the Jews and the Resurrection did for Christians. The first year of the Hijra therefore is year 1 of the Islamic calendar. Upon reaching Yathrib, Muhammad chose a name for his new religion: Islam. Islam by definition means “submission,” so the followers of Islam became known as Muslims, or “those who submit.” Submission, of course, is to God’s will. In honor of Muhammad, Yathrib took a new name, Medina, “the City of the Prophet.

The Hijra established a sense of community among the faithful and defined the roles for the different members of the new Islamic society. The emigrants from Mecca became the muhajirun, and the newer local converts in Medina, the ansai (helpers). Together they collectively comprised the ummah, the community of the faithful. As pressure to convert increased, another faction emerged in Medina, the munafiqun, the “hypocrites,” pagans who professed to Islam in public but privately continued to worship their father’s gods.

Fighting between the Jewish and Arab tribes demanded Muhammad’s immediate attention. Tension also existed within the ummah. The ansai believed the newly arrived muhajirun intended to take over the city. To address these issues, Muhammad decreed the Constitution of Medina, which became a social and political model for the city.

This Constitution dealt with four main points. It defined a united community that included non-converted Jews. It established the complete authority of God and his prophet, Muhammad. It defined the boundaries between Islam and the existing tribal society. Finally, it established the necessity of war to expand Islam, and the provisions for covering the cost of waging it. Since Jews were included in the community defined in the city’s Constitution, they were also required to contribute to the war fund. This led to resistance from the Jewish tribes, and Muhammad quickly banished two of three tribes from Medina.

In the second year of the Hijra Muhammad initiated a raid on the Quraysh summer caravan. This inflamed his old enemies and they sent an army of 1,000 from Mecca to intercept and annihilate Muhammad’s party of 300. Vastly outnumbered, the Muslims nonetheless defeated the Meccan army (known as the Battle of Badr). This victory increased Muhammad’s standing with the Bedouins in the Hijaz and greatly bolstered the confidence of the Muslims in the righteousness of Islam.

The next year, however, the Meccans defeated Muhammad’s forces near Medina. Within two years the Meccan army had fought their way directly to the gates of the city. To reinforce his defenses, Muhammad dug a massive ditch around it, giving the name the Battle of the Trench to the engagement. Muhammad and his Muslim army delivered a resounding defeat to the Meccans, and they fled home.

Muhammad discovered a plot by the remaining Jewish tribe to aid the Meccans against his Muslims. He enacted swift and brutal vengeance against its members. All of the men of the tribe were executed, and the women and children pressed into slavery. Thus ended any attempt at peaceful relations between the Jews of the Hijaz and the Islamic community.

One year after defeating the Meccans at Medina, Muhammad offered them a truce, which they gladly accepted. His attention then shifted temporarily to other settlements in the Hijaz, and in the 7th year of the Hijra, his armies took the Jewish oases of Khaybar and Fadak and the Arabian settlements of Hunayn and Ta’if. After this, most of the Bedouin tribes of the Hijaz decided it was better to live as Muslims than die as idol worshippers and they quickly became converts.

The next year, ignoring the truce, Muhammad marched his army unopposed into Mecca and took the city. Muhammad went directly to the Ka’ba and destroyed the pagan idols housed within it. He then dedicated the shrine to Allah.

Knowing that he needed to keep the economy of the city alive, Muhammad spared the lives of the Meccans and let them retain their property, but only if they converted. Anyone not of the Ummah was banished from Mecca, and entrance to the city from that point on was granted only to Muslims.

Over the next two years Islam conquered all of Arabia, and Muhammad next looked to expand into Roman Palestine. But in the 10th year of the Hijra, or 632 A.D., Muhammad died before the invasion could be mounted. He had already served the will of God; Islam had established itself as powerful institution, both culturally and militarily.

When Muhammad died, he left behind a complete model of Islam, of which the basic underlying philosophy was strict monotheism. Unlike Jesus, Muhammad had claimed no divinity; he served simply as God’s conduit. The Koran, being God’s direct word, took precedence as the ultimate authority of Islamic Law, (like Judaism, Islam is a religion based upon a strict code of law). As a doctrine, the Koran covers a wide range of religious, social, and political issues. It mandates the procedures for marriage, divorce, and inheritance. It prohibits drinking and usury, and provides severe penalties for murder and theft. It provides detailed instructions for religious rites: prayer, almsgiving, fasting, pilgrimage, and diet. Despite the wide scope of the scripture, howeve,r as Islamic society evolved, gaps appeared in its treatment of the law.

While alive, Muhammad himself would resolve any disputes whose answers were not found in the Koran. To cover these issues after his death, Islamic scholars developed hadiths, traditions based upon Muhammad’s words and actions. As more and more generations passed, hadiths held greater validity if they could be verified through an unbroken chain of witnesses leading back to an eyewitness account of the event by a close companion of the prophet. Scholars, the Ulema, interpreted the laws of Islam, sometimes in contradictory ways, and they issued fatwahs, legal opinions and edicts. This collective work of the Ulema is known as Sharia law, and designed to guide a person successfully from birth to death. The main intent of the Sharia is to create the perfect Muslim state, the model of which is Muhammad’s Islamic community at Medina. Keeping with the inseparable nature of Islamic religion and politics, Sharia Law draws no dividing line between them. Indeed the inseparability of these two elements in Islam continues to baffle Western culture.

Islamic ritual consists of five obligations, referred to as the Five Pillars. They define the duties of the ummah. The first is shahad, which is testifying to the monotheistic basis of Islam. i.e.there is no God but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet. Shahad also requires an individual to completely submit to the will of God as laid out in the Koran and the traditions of Muhammad.

Salat follows next, consisting of five daily prayers preceded by a ritual washing. This prayer is a direct link between the worshipper and God, and in it the supplicant recites verses of the Koran. Islam possesses no priests or clergy; the prayer is led by a learned member of the congregation. Muslims are not required to pray in a Mosque, and may do so any where. Prayers are performed at sunrise, mid-day, late afternoon, sunset, and nightfall. They set the tone of the day, and other activities are scheduled around them.

Sawm is the third pillar, the ritual fast during the 9th month of the Islamic calendar, Ramadan (since the Islamic calendar follows the lunar year, which is 11 days shorter than the solar year, the date of the start of Ramadan and other Muslim holy days cycle throughout the seasons). During Ramadan, fasting is performed from sunrise to sunset, and couples abstain from sex. The sick and elderly as well as women who are menstruating, pregnant, or nursing may break the fast, but are encouraged to make up lost days at a later time. Fasting serves to purify the body and focus the mind upon the participants role and purpose in serving God’s will.

Number four is zakat, donating a portion of one’s income to charity. Since God and not man possesses all the wealth on earth, God requires all Muslim’s to return an alms tax back to the community. By doing this, the individual’s other possessions are purified, and a balance is achieved. They may donate more of their own accord, but it must be done in secret. The charity of also Islam carries a wider meaning than just monetary donation. If an individual is unable to pay the tax, he or she must help the disadvantaged. If they cannot do that, they should promote good and refrain from evil acts. All are forms of charity. Similar to Christianity, true charity is living the spirit of the law and not just adhering to the letter of it.

The fifth and final pillar of Islam is the hajj, the once a lifetime pilgrimage to Mecca and the Ka’ba. It is an obligation only for those that are physically and financially able to perform it. It occurs in the 12th month of the Islamic calendar, and remains a time for the people of the diverse nations of Islam to come together.

Monotheism offers to its diverse followers two conflicting ideals. The first is that man shapes his own future and earns the wrath of God through his exercise of free will. The second is that every event happens only in accordance with the will of God. This creates the following paradox: If all events happen only according to God’s will, then God wills evil upon the world, and this goes against the very nature of God, who is the essence of righteousness. One would seem to necessarily exclude the other, and this dichotomy continues to plague Jewish and Christian Scholars. Islam, however, deals neatly with this apparent contradiction. Allah feels that hell as well as heaven needs an equal number of inhabitants, therefore “He guides who he will, and misleads who He will.” This maintains a balance in the layers of the world.

The Islamic universe is structured differently from the Jewish and Christian versions. It includes an earth, a heaven, and a hell, but instead of merely existing as three separate domains, they are broken up into 14 layers, stacked like plates. Of the seven layers of earth, man inhabits the topmost and hell lies at the bottom. The intermediate layers transition between the ones at the top and bottom. Over the top of the earth are the 7 layers of heaven with our physical sky representing the lowest layer and paradise at the top. 500 years of travel separate the different layers. God Himself holds the sky in place, and from that vantage point He can attend to the infinite minute details of running the earth, providing rain and making sure plants grow as well as managing the affairs of man.

Drawing directly from Muhammad’s revolutionary lifestyle the theme of revolution runs deep in Islam. Aside from adhering to the Five Pillars, Muslims, like Christians and Jews, are expected to spread God’s word to all the people of earth. For Muslims that means a complete conversion of not only the religious mores of a people, but also their social and political systems (remember here that to Islam all three are but one system).

One means of expanding the influence of Islam across the globe follows the example of the Hijra, the great emigration of Muslims from Mecca to Medina. Followers are encouraged to move to foreign lands and establish communities there. Over the generations, Islam will inevitably grow in strength, allowing the Ummah to defeat any resistance from within. If they are unable to accomplish this, more reactionary processes may be used. Also understood is that once a region has come under the dominion of Islam it shall always remain the property of Islam. Allah takes great affront when a foreign people occupy a formerly Islamic land, as is the case with modern Israel, and it is a dishonor to the Islamic community if they do not do everything in their power to reclaim it.

The Koran defines the earth as two separate components: Dar al-Islam, the House of Peace, and Dar al-Harb, the House of War. Only the ummah may reside in the House of Peace. All others reside in the House of War. The Koran calls on Muslims to peacefully convert unbelievers first, if possible, before resorting to more violent methods of persuasion. Apostates, those who once embraced Islam but then renounced it, are seen as forever lost. The Koran sentences them to death.

The term Jihad, defined as a “struggle” or “great effort,” has a dual meaning to Muslims. Greater Jihad is the personal struggle to retain one’s faith in times of adversity. Lesser Jihad conforms to our Western understanding of it, a holy war waged against unbelievers, infidels, and apostates. The more a member of the ummah can do to help spread Islam, be it through emigration or the exercise of Jihad, the greater his or her reward in heaven. Sacrificing one’s life for the cause gives the martyr the quickest and most direct route to the highest level of paradise.

The Koran grants Christians and Jews a certain modicum of respect, labeling them as “People of the Book,” a reference to Biblical scripture. The intent of Islam is not to replace Judaism and Christianity, but to further expand upon their principles as necessary for the Muslim people. So just as God’s word as given in the Koran guided the people of Arabia back to the true path from which man had wandered, so was His message to the Jews and Christians tailored specifically to their needs. So while the scripture of Jews and Christians remains sacrosanct, it does not necessarily apply to Muslims or regulate their behavior. The Koran overrides any previous interaction or agreement between man and God. In this way Islam can be viewed as a liberalization of Biblical Law.

The Koran talks at length about the prophets of the Bible, including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Isaiah, and Jesus. Yet it fits the stories of these men into the mold of Islam and its emphasis on monotheism. It becomes the same story told over and again. Man falls from God’s grace by reverting to polytheist pagan worship. God chooses one man to warn the people of their coming doom if they do not return to worshiping only Him. The people ignore the prophet’s warning, no matter if he is Noah, Moses, or whomever. God then destroys them in the most horrific ways. The few survivors repent and revert to the true faith. But over the generations they again lose sight of and return to their pagan ways. The cycle repeats. For example, in the Koran the people destroyed in the great flood of Noah’s time were guilty of idol worship instead of immorality and perversion, and Moses demanded from Pharaoh not that he free the Hebrew slaves, but rather that he renounce the many Egyptian gods. The Koran claims that Jesus refuted and denied his divinity. Jesus as an earthly incarnation of God goes against every fiber of the monotheistic grain of Islam, so this denial by Jesus is necessary before Muslims can grant him even the tiniest bit of legitimacy. In the Koran, he escapes crucifixion, and the Romans crucify another man in his stead. So while Jews reject Christ and Christians deify him, Muslims simply accept him as another in a long line of mortal prophets, a line that irrevocably ends with their final prophet, Muhammad.

Islam, Christianity, and Judaism share many commonalities, but different interpretations of them leads to more division between the three than unity. This shared history also implies that there will never be agreement or accord between them, for to accept the validity of another’s faith, one’s own is then compromised. Considering their adversarial roots, the odds of effective diplomacy between Jews, Islam, and the West seem rather slim. This is the relevance of ancient history to the modern Terror War.

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