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Islam is the religion founded on the revelation claimed by Muhammad (c. AD 570- 632). It is the second-largest religion in the world, with an estimated 1.188 billion adherents, called Muslims.[1] They see Islam as the last chapter in the religion of God, a monotheistic religion that can be traced back through Jesus to Moses to Abraham, often called the first Muslim. Muslims consider all three men to have been messengers of God. Thus, Islam accepts Christianity and Judaism as divinely revealed religions yet claims to supersede and correct the beliefs of Christians and Jews.

Islam is the most recent of the world's large religions and arose in the light of history. Whereas scholars have limited historical evidence about a figure such as Jesus or Buddha (Gautama Siddhartha), scholars can specify Muhammad's year of birth and the year, perhaps even the day of his death. Numerous descriptions of his life and his own words have come down to us, and the process of sifting through the accounts for accurate information is well advanced. The revelation he claimed to receive, embodied in the Qurʾān, appears to have been accurately transmitted to posterity.


Islam has been called "Muhammadanism" in the past, and its adherents have been termed "Muhammadans." Neither term is acceptable to many Muslims, however, because they do not view themselves merely as followers of Muhammad and do not speak of Muhammad as the founder of their religion. Instead, the founder is God and the Qur'ān, their scripture, is generally regarded as the eternally created word of God, not the words of Muhammad. The Qur'an and the Sunnah (the words and deeds of Muhammad) are regarded as the fundamental sources of Islam.[2][3] The word islam means "submission" in Arabic and refers to the submission of one's will to the will of God. "Muslim" means "one who submits" in Arabic. Thus, Muslims believe that Jesus, Moses and Abraham were Muslims, since they also submitted to the will of God. Closely related to the word islam is the Arabic word salam, which means "peace." Hence Muslims speak of Islam as the "religion of peace" as well.

From the noun Islam, in English, is coined the English adjective Islamic. Islamicist usually refers to a western-trained academic who studies Islam, but is sometimes used synonymously with "Islamist."

Pre-Islamic Arabia

Quite a bit is known about 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. Arabia was invaded by a Roman army once, in 24 BC, but the desert was impenetrable and the expedition proved disastrous. 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. Later coffee also became a major source of income for Yemen. The spice trade brought wealth to Yemen and it gradually became organized as a country. Yemen also established close ties with Abyssinia, the kingdom occupying modern Ethiopia to the west across the Gulf of Aqaba, in Africa. Abyssinia even conquered Yemen briefly.[4] From Abyssinia, Yemen learned of Christianity; by trading contacts with Iran, it heard of Zoroastrianism; and at least one king became a convert to Judaism, so that religion obviously had some impact.

Central Arabia was a desert occupied by migrating Arab tribes, who tended camels, goats, and other animals. The population was divided into clans and tribes, which 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 later towns, sprang up. Because of its isolation, civilization spread to the area only slowly, primarily via the caravan trade; much of Yemen's spices moved to the Mediterranean overland. Christians and Jews moved into the area and settled at the towns; a primitive monotheism also sprang up. The Arabs who had rejected polytheism in favor of one God, but who did not convert to Christianity or Judaism, were called hanifs..[5] While the Arabs knew about Christianity and Islam, 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 had a stone cube shaped building about forty feet square called the kab'ah or Kaaba (which is Arabic for cube), which was filled with 360 idols, representing the same number of gods and goddesses. The Kaaba came to be seen as the center of Arab religion; every year one month, the month of hajj, became a month when Arabs went on pilgrimage to Mecca. There they traded, arranged marriages, had a good time, and worshipped at the Kaaba. During the month of hajj, warfare was forbidden. Arab poets composed poetry to be read at the hajj celebration; pre-Islamic poetry has been preserved and gives us an idea about 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 Kaaba were automatically considered members of the Quraysh tribe, the tribe that controlled the Kaaba. Mecca gradually emerged as central Arabia's primary trading center. In the hajj, the Kaaba, 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, had Islam not come along.

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."[6] This was the year in which Muhammad was born.

Islamic literature, especially sunnah and hadith, offers a rich portrayal of Muhammad's life. Muhammad was born into a small, weak clan of the Quraysh tribe. His father was named Abdullah, which means "servant of God." The "ullah" part of the name comes from "Allah," the modern Arabic word for "God." It is generally argued that the word "Allah" is a contraction of al ilah, "the god" (al means "the" in Arabic).[7] The name of Muhammad's father suggests that the worship of Allah already existed in his family.

Abdullah died before his son was born and Muhammad’s mother died when he was six, leaving him an orphan. The boy was raised by his uncle, a caravan operator and merchant named Abū-Tālib. Muhammad was raised to be a merchant, and as a young man was hired by a wealthy widow named Khadījah to run her caravans. At age 25 she proposed to him and they married; they had about six children. Their life together was happy; Muhammad married no other women until after Khadījah died.[8]

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 Khadījah and hid himself in her robes. But Khadījah encouraged him to listen to his revelations, which came to him again and again. Khadījah's cousin, Waraqah, who was a Christian, also encouraged him. Finally Muhammad accepted that he was receiving messages from God. He began to take them to the people of Mecca.

The town's reception was mixed, but generally was hostile. A few, listening to Muhammad, accepted him as a prophet and became Muslims. Most Meccans, however, looked at him as a crazy poet and ridiculed Muhammad. Their taunts are preserved in the Qur'ān itself. When Muhammad began to preach against worship of the idols in the kabaa many Meccans became outwardly hostile, since such preaching undermined the hajj, and therefore their livelihood. Muhammad also condemned the town's economic inequalities. After ten years the Muslim community grew slowly to embrace a few hundred people, many of them young and poor. 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, courts, and prisons, 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, Bilāl, a black man, to recant. Bilāl 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 Bilāl and then emancipated him. 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.[9]

In 619 Khadījah died, as did Muhammad's uncle, who had guaranteed his protection from murder. This put Muhammad in grave danger. In 620 he was invited to move to the city of Yathrib, two hundred fifty miles to the north, and become the chief arbitrator of the city's feuding tribes.[10] The situation in Mecca finally became impossible and Muhammad and two hundred of his followers had to flee the city in the summer of 622. This event is called the hijra or hegira (the Latin pronunciation of the Arabic word). Muslims view the hijra as the beginning of Islam, so all dates in the Islamic calendar are reckoned from the hijra.

In Yathrib (subsequently called madīnat al-nabī or “City of the Prophet,” often shortened to “medina” or “city”) Muhammad promulgated a "constitution" that defined the rights of the various groups and which recognized him as a prophet.[11] 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: the latter never led a community of any sort, while Muhammad was both prophet and statesman. This makes his career more like Moses, a prophet and a lawmaker.

Medina was a large agricultural town containing Arab and Jewish tribes. Most of the Arabs embraced Islam but the Jews did not, which generated considerable friction between the two groups. After Medinan raids on their caravans, the Meccans decided to go to war against Medina and their cousin. Muhammad then became a general as well.

Warfare continued sporadically for several years, with Muslim victories and defeats. In 627 Meccans besieged Medina and almost conquered the settlement. Muhammad acquired more allies, however, as more and more tribes became Muslim. In 628 he asked to go on pilgrimage; as a result, a truce was declared. He performed the hajj in 629 peacefully with 2,000 Muslims. In 630 the truce was broken, Muhammad marched on Mecca, and the city surrendered; opponents of Islam were pardoned, and the city became the center of an Islamic Arabia.[12] Muhammad cleansed the kaaba 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. Yemen, then a Persian province, accepted him as well, and an army was dispatched northward toward the edges of the Byzantine realms. Muhammad led the pilgrimage one last time in 632. Returning to Medina in poor health, he died on June 8 of that year.[13]

Muhammad’s Station

There is a strong tension between the understanding (common in official Sunnī Islam) of Muhammad as a mortal man with a divine message and understandings in popular Islam and official Shi'ite Islam 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 to Mecca in 629. Accounts of his actions and words, called hadith, 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 hadith became a major pillar of the Muslim tradition, supplementing the Qur'ān itself when the Qur'ān was silent about a crucial matter.

Above all else, Muhammad’s rule over Medina is viewed as the golden age of Islam. The philosopher Plato gives us a model for how Muhammad is viewed: as a just ruler. 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 many seek to reform modern Islamic society to fit the seventh century pattern.

The Five Pillars (the main religious duties)

(CC) Photo: Hisham Binsuwaif
Muslim pilgrims at the Kaaba in Mecca.


Giving testimony of one's belief in the only God and his prophet Muhammad. If one says "There is no God but God, and Muḥammad is the prophet of God" with the proper intent (niyah) in the presence of at least two believers one is considered a Muslim; there is no other rite of initiation in Islam. The shahada is very simple, asserting the existence of the one God and of his prophet. More elaborate creeds (e.g., aqidah, what one affirms to be certain) have to be believed by Muslims, but they are not spoken by the congregation as part of a liturgy.

Salāt or obligatory prayer

This prayer, which consists of verses from the Qur'ān, begins with ablutions where one washes the face, hands, and feet. Mosques include places where one can wash. Ablution establishes a state of ritual purification. It is preferred to say the prayer on a prayer mat, in order to avoid contamination by the world while in a state of ritual purification; even a spread out newspaper can be used by Muslims as a prayer mat. A Muslim prays five times a day: between dawn and sunrise; at noon; in late afternoon; after sunset; and at night, before midnight. There are also optional Nafl prayers, such as Ishtar and Doha, which are performed 15 minutes after sunrise. Worshipers pray facing the qiblah, which is the ka'aba in Mecca; when a Muslim is traveling it is always an interesting problem trying to determine which way one should face in order to pray. The prayer involves a series of ritual acts, as well as reciting some Qur'ānic verses. These ritual positions include holding ones hands next to one's ears, palms facing forward, and repeating Allāhu Akbar, "God is Most Great"; it also includes lowering the head to the knees and prostration, when the hands, feet, and head are all touching the ground. In this position one is prostrating before God, admitting one's complete powerlessness and dependence on God.

Muslims prefer to pray the salāt together, but may pray individually instead. The Friday noon prayer is the big weekly prayer when all men go to a mosque; after the salāt there is usually a sermon.

Zakāt or alms giving

This pillar embodies the principle of social responsibility in it. A Muslim must give a portion of his wealth to the needy. It usually involves contributing to the mosque, which then redistributes it to widows, orphans, and other needy persons. Muslim legal experts have fixed the percentage one gives at about 2.5% of one's total income, though it varies depending on whether agricultural produce, property, or gold is the source of the wealth. Muslims believe that the giving of zakat purifies one's wealth, and one is then free to expend the rest on oneself if one desires. The institution of zakāt recognizes both the need for individuals to be free to earn as much money as they are capable, and the need of society to support the poor and those experiencing hardship. Many have regarded the institution of zakāt as Islam’s response to the concerns of socialism and communism.

Saum or fasting

Muslims fast an entire month, from new moon to new moon. During that period they must abstain from eat, drink, and sexual intercourse from the first light of day to the last light. Since the Muslim calendar consists of exactly twelve lunar months or 354 days, the month of fasting shifts eleven days per year relative to the seasons. There are times when the fast falls during the summer and Muslims may not drink water for fourteen or more hours when it is over a hundred degrees outside; under such circumstances the fast is quite a rigorous exercise. Exemptions from fasting are granted to various classes of people, such as the young, old, and ill. At night Muslims have large feasts and break the fast together. In spite of its rigor, the fast is very widely observed, more so than the obligatory prayers. It constitutes a mild form of asceticism, one which cannot do harm to the body if one is harmed, one should cease fasting and thus serves as a symbol of one's dependence on God, not on the material world. It reminds one of one's faith and tests that faith in a powerful, but not harmful, way.

Hajj or pilgrimage

As already noted, hajj is a pre-islamic ritual that Muhammad modified and continued. Pilgrimage is to Mecca and sites near it; an additional pilgrimage to the sites connected to the life of the prophet in Medina often is performed, but is not required. Pilgrimage is binding on all Muslims who have the financial means, health, and freedom to go. In recent years, with rapidly improving air transportation and health facilities, the pilgrimage has swelled to over two million people, all of whom must be in the same places at the same time. The result is massive costs for Saudi Arabia, which fortunately has the oil wealth to pay for the facilities.


For more information, see: Jihad.

In addition, some Muslims consider jihād a major principle of the Faith, in fact, some unofficially call it the sixth pillar of Islam. Jihād stems from the phrase jihād fī sabīli llāh and is commonly said to mean the "struggle in the path of Allah" in Qur'anic Arabic. Originally a Christian concept already found as agonia ("mental struggle of the faith [for victory]") in the First and Second Epistle to Timothy[14] the struggle in the path of God—in the Islamic as well as the original Christian manifestation—used to refer to one's effort to control one's passions and avoid vices and was usually an internal effort. It could also mean telling others of one's true faith, including missionary efforts. The Islamic concept of jihād possesses these meanings as well.

The popular translation of jihād as "holy war" is linguistically misleading, since—as Muslims are quick to point out—the Arabic language has no word for "holy war".[15] As an analogous translation, "holy war" often is correct, however, because most contexts of the word jihād in Islamic scriptures imply the struggle as physical violence against the enemies of Islam, especially in the Hadith, e.g. the collection of Bukhari. Most instances of jihād in the Qur'an would render the phrase fī sabīli llāh as "on the warpath of Allah",[16] thereby remaining in accordance with the Prophet's final words, who said that he was "assigned to fight all men, until they say: 'ilī:ha 'īlla(: 'a)llā:h(u) ("There is no god but the God" [i.e. Allah: al-ilāh]).[17]

For most of Islamic history jihād had a distinctive military meaning, either of Muslim defense or aggression. Accordingly, in modern Arabic rhetoric for traditionalist or political purposes Muslims also invoke jihād either as a religious war against non-Muslim outsiders and rival Islamic denominations or as a secular war against political enemies: the Iran-Iraq war was considered jihād by both sides. Nonetheless, peaceful and strictly faith-oriented theological interpretations of the Classical Arabic term jihād have been derived from Islamic scriptures, including the concepts of "Lesser Jihād" and "Greater Jihād."

Main Beliefs

There are several creeds in the Qurʾān:

Whoever disbelieveth in God and His angels and His scriptures and His messengers and the Last Day, he verily wandered far stray (4:136)
Who is an enemy of God, His Angels, His Messengers, Gabriel and Michael! Then, lo! God is an enemy to the disbelievers (2:98)
…righteous is he who believeth in God and the Last Day and the angels and the scripture and the prophets (2:177)
…believer believe in God and His angels and His scriptures and His messengers (2:285)

God (Allah)

Islam's fundamental theological concept is tauḥīd—the belief that there is only one God. The Arabic term for God is Allāh; most scholars believe it was derived from a contraction of the words al- (the) and ʾilāh (deity, masculine form), meaning "the God" (al-ilāh), but others trace its origin to the Aramaic Alāhā.[18] The first of the Five Pillars of Islam, tauḥīd is expressed in the shahādah, which declares that there is no god but God, and that Muḥammad is God's messenger. In traditional Islamic theology, God is transcendent and above all comprehension; Muslims are not expected to visualize God but to worship and adore him as a protector. Although Muslims believe that Jesus was a prophet, they reject the Christian doctrine of the Trinity, considering it a form of polytheism. In Islamic theology, Jesus is just a man and not the son of God; God is described in a chapter (sura) of the Qurʾān as "…God, the One and Only; God, the Eternal, Absolute; He begetteth not, nor is He begotten; And there is none like unto Him."[19]

Revelation, Prophethood

Angels and Spirits

Belief in angels is crucial to the faith of Islam. The Arabic word for Angels (malak) means "messenger", like its counterparts in Hebrew (malʾakh) and Greek (angelos). According to the Qurʾān, angels do not possess free will, and worship God in perfect obedience.[20] Angels' duties include communicating revelations from God, glorifying God, recording every person's actions, and taking a person's soul at the time of death. They are also thought to intercede on man's behalf. The Qur'an describes angels as "messengers with wings—two, or three, or four (pairs): He [God] adds to Creation as He pleases…"[21] The Qur'an also refers to jinn, "spirits."

Judgment Day / Afterlife

God's Omnipotence vs. Divine Justice

This last point of the common creeds in not mentioned in the Qurʾānic creeds cited above, but made it into the creeds because of the first theological controversy among Muslims.

The Qurʾān

For more information, see: Qur'an.
(CC) Photo: Ferdinand Reus
Mauritanian children learning the Qur'an from wooden tablets.

Muhammad revealed the verses of the Qurʾān over a twenty two year period. The verb "revealed" is used carefully here to refer to a process that sometimes involved physical pain, included a sound in his ears similar to the reverberation of a bell, and which caused him to sweat, even on cold days; Muhammad was not simply writing down or composing text.[22] Some verses were revealed more than once; Muslims have carefully recorded and scrutinized the context of the revelation of each verse, to understand its impact on the verse's meaning. Sometimes later verses were revealed to supersede earlier ones. All of them were memorized by Muḥammad's followers; some were written down in the lifetime of the Prophet, on leather, palm bark, the shoulder blades of sheep, and whatever material was available. The Caliph Uthmān gathered the various texts together and had them fashioned into the Qurʾān. The chapters were arranged generally by length, longest to shortest, with no effort to rearrange material topically. As a result, some chapters jump from one subject to another.

The Qurʾān is understood by Muslims as the literal word of God, revealed to humanity through Muhammad, but not composed by Muhammad; rather, most Muslims believe the Qur'ān to be eternal and uncreated, existing in the mind of God since before the world began. One consequence is that many Muslims reject translation of the Qurʾān, but Persians believe that Salman, one of the companions of the prophet, translated it into Persian, and the famous jurist Abū Ḥanīfa even thought it admissible that those who do not know Arabic could use a good translation in prayer. This view did not prevail, but for centuries nobody doubted that one could (and should) study this book in translation. In the 19th centuries Indian Muslims had no problems with a "Bangali Qurʾān" or a "Urdu Qurʾān" ignoring thus fundamentally correct titles as "The meaning of the Glorious Qurʾan being an explanatory translation". Of course, no translation can do justice to the original; thus the Qurʾān should be recited in the original. For a thousand years Muslims have produced interlinear translations of the Qurʾān 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 was to give the meaning and to assist the student to learn Arabic. This caution prevented attitudes common among Christian sects who view the Vulgate or the King James Version as divinely inspirited.

The Qurʾān plays a unique role in Muslim life. Study of the Qurʾān is supposed to be a central activity in the life of each Muslim. Muslims gather to chant the Qurʾān 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. The Qurʾan is understood to be received through a single individual and to contain a single theological viewpoint. In a sense, dialogue and pluralism are not built into the Qurʾān because it had a single, historical source.

Interestingly, Muslims generally do not venerate Muhammad (not in the official religion, at least; Muhammad veneration is popular in folk Islam, however). For Muslims, devotional emphasis is placed more on God and on the revealed word of the Qur'ān.

Muslims not only are devoted to the Qur'ān; many seek almost literal adherence to it. Muslims view the Qur'ān 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, the Shari’ah. Traditional life styles have also evolved in various Muslims cultures, based on the Qur'ān and the example of the Prophet. Features of these traditional lifestyles—such as the role of women and what sorts of clothing they should wear—are being criticized in some Muslims societies, modified in others, and reestablished in yet others.

The Rightly Guided Caliphs; The Sunnī-Shī’ī Split

(PD) Image: IIT Galvin Library Government Documents Collection
Expansion of Islam.
(CC) Photo: Brian Jeffery Beggerly
Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem.
See also: Shi'a Islam

The death of Muḥammad in 622 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 whom to turn to.

The crisis was resolved when a small group of leading Muslims came together and discussed who should succeed Muḥammad as the leader of the community. Soon two positions emerged. One position was that the family of Muḥammad should lead the community. Muḥammad's first cousin, `Alī, had married his daughter, Fātima, and they had two sons, Ḥusayn and Ḥasan. `Alī claimed to be the rightful successor of Muhammad and even cited statements by Muhammad suggesting `Alī should be his successor. Other Muslims, however, interpreted the statements of Muhammad differently or were suspicious of the dynastic principle. They preferred that Muhammad's successor be someone who was not from the family of the Prophet. ʿUmar, a prominent and highly respected man who was one of the earliest believers, was a leading candidate. To avoid an open rift between ʿAlī and ʿUmar, a compromise candidate was put forward: Abū Bakr, an older man who was a devoted Muslim, one of the first believers, father of ʿAīsha (one of Muhammad’s wives, and his favorite after Khadījah), and highly respected. Abū Bakr was declared the first caliph (Arabic khalīf), which means "deputy" or "successor." His rule lasted only two years (632-34) and he died of old age. But in those two years Abū Bakr was able to rally Islam, bring the rebellious tribes back into the fold and unify Arabia.

When Abū Bakr died the succession question arose again. This time ʿUmar was declared caliph. His ten years (634-44) 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 defeated both of them. The entire Persian Empire was overrun and the Byzantine Empire was overrun as far north as modern 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 late 637 or early 638; it is interesting to note that the Patriarch of Jerusalem surrendered the city to ʿUmar, who gave the city very generous terms. In 642 Alexandria, the largest city in Egypt and one of the largest in the world, surrendered to the Muslim armies. In the next few years northern Africa was overrun half way to the Atlantic. In 642, also, the capital of the Persian Empire, Ctesiphon, which was located a few dozen miles north of modern Baghdad, fell to Muslim armies; Iran was overrun in the next decade.[23]

ʿUmar led this expansion, which continued at least another century after his death. The Franks turned back the Muslim armies at Tours in 733 and the Chinese turned them back 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.

After a decade of vigorous leadership, Umar was assassinated by a slave in 644, leading to another conclave of Muslim leaders. They again passed `Alī by in favor of Uthmān (reigned 644-56), an early convert and a son-in-law of Muhammad. Uthmān'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, hence his faith was suspect by some. Uthmān 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 must pay it with tax revenues, and that meant establishment of a tax system, something the largely illiterate Arabs had never had before. Consequently, they rehired the old Byzantine and Persian tax collectors. The Muslim governors had never had experience ruling over huge provinces and often were incompetent or corrupt. Uthmān was blamed for these troubles, and as caliph he was responsible.

As a result, revolt seethed in the Islamic empire. When Uthmān was assassinated by three Egyptians, many were relieved. But Uthmān's cousins, who were governors of many provinces, plotted revenge. In particular, Mu'āwīya, governor of Syria, was powerful. When the next council of Muslim leaders chose `Alī the fourth caliph (reigned 656-61), many were dissatisfied. When `Alī pardoned the assassins of Uthmān, many were furious. A bloody civil war between `Alī and Mu'āwīya began, which dragged on until `Alī was assassinated in 661, after six years of rule. Thousands of the companions of the prophet died in the fighting, which rent the unity of Islam. A Muslim sect, the Kharijites, separated themselves from the other Muslims, who they viewed as too worldly and willing to compromise the revelation. With `Alī’s death, Mu'awīya emerged as fifth caliph.

Those who accepted `Alī's claim to be the rightful successor of Muhammad understood the successorship to pass to his sons. Hasan, the older grandson of the prophet, retired to Arabia, then died mysteriously. The claim to the leadership of Muhammad's family then passed to Ḥusayn.

When Mu'āwīya died in 680, the caliphate passed to his son, Yazīd, viewed by most Muslims as a tyrant. The transition 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 considerable dissatisfaction with Yazīd and with the dynastic principle, so a city in Iraq called on Husayn to lead them in revolt. Husayn accepted, but by the time he had arrived from Arabia, Yazīd had sent an amry and it had already subdued his supporters, so Ḥusayn found himself facing an army of thousands with a company of about sixty men, women, and children. A massacre resulted; Yazid's general decapitated Husayn. This cruel act, which occurred at the town of Karbila, is remembered to this day, reenacted through passion plays, and remains a point of contention among Muslims.

After 680, a line of descendants continued, and a movement to assert their leadership remained. The line of leaders of Muhammad's family was called the imāms. `Alī was the first imām, and the only one to be a caliph as well; Hasan was the second imām, and Ḥusayn the third. The supporters of the family were called the "party of `Alī," or "party" for short, which is shī in Arabic. Thus these people became the Shī'ah or Shiites. About fifteen percent of the Muslims today are Shiites, including ninety percent of the population of Iran and sixty percent of the population of Iraq. Shiites tend to view the imāms as individuals divinely empowered to interpret the Qur'ān; thus the interpretations traditionally attributed to the imams are supplemental to the Qur'ān.

The other eighty-five percent of the Muslims are called the Sunnīs, a term which comes from the Arabic word sunnah or "practice [of the Prophet]." These people follow the Islamic traditions, but do not accord any special status to the imāms. The Sunnīs have not broken up into sects, as much as they have different legal schools, which interpret Islamic law differently.

The Shiites have broken into numerous sects, depending on their understanding of who succeeded whom as imām. The Shiites who dominate Iran are called Twelvers because they recognize twelve imams, the twelfth of whom, they say, was taken up to heaven in the year 260 A.H. (874 C.E.). They believe he will return in the future as the Qa’im, “the One Who will Arise,” and bring a reign of justice and righteousness on earth. The promise that the Twelfth Imām will return constitutes the messianic ideal in Twelver Shi’ism. Sunnīs do not believe in the Twelfth Imam, but folk belief among the Sunnīs expects the Mahdī, often also referred to as the return of Christ.

Until the Qā’im returns, Twelver Shiites see themselves as the true Islam, doomed to remain a persecuted minority. The annual recapitulation of Husayn's martyrdom takes on tragic significance for Shiites as a recapitulation of their own suffering.

The Ismāʿīlī Shiʿites share most of the same first six imāms with the Twelvers, but do not recognize Hasan. They hold that succession can pass only to a direct descendant, not to a collateral. They differ as to which brother succeeded the sixth imām according to the Twelver reckoning. The largest group of Ismāʿīlīs view their leader, the Aqa Khan, as the current (forty-ninth) imam.

In recent times al-Azhar, the most respected authority in the Sunnī world, has recognized the Shī'ah as orthodox.

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 central Arabia, 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 controlled cities of a half million people. They thus faced many challenges they could not even have imagined decades earlier.

Arabs had been tribesmen, herders, and soldiers; now they slowly learned how to be governors and administrators. At first it was impossible to find Arabs to serve as bureaucrats because almost none could read and write, hence Armenian, Greek, and Persian administrators were retained from the previous regimes.[24] 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'ān exactly and clearly pushed the development of Arabic orthography and grammar forward; grammar books and spelling were standardized based on the Qur'ān itself. Under Uthman the text of the Qur'ān was standardized.

Other than the Qur'ān and some poetry, Arabic had been a language with no formal 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 was created. The earliest works were religious. Lives of the Prophet were written based on oral accounts. The traditions (hadīth) about the Prophet's words and actions were collected and analyzed. Commentaries on the Qur'ān 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 continued to study it. As a result books by Aristotle, Plato, and Plotinus were translated into Arabic, often by Jews or Christians, and 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 and establishing in Islamic science. From India came a numbering system using a zero, which Arabs spread around the world.[25]

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 considered idolatrous.[26]

As Islamic thought developed, several major issues immediately arose. The first was political theory and law; who was to rule over Muslims, and what laws could the ruler establish? This issue was of immediate concern during the lives of the first four caliphs. It led to the collation of the Qur'ān, the compilation and assessment of the hadīth, and eventually the creation of four major Sunni legal schools of thought. Almost as early, in terms of formal organization, was philosophical 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'ān and hadīth, 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'ān. 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 Law

Islamic legal theory developed because judges--qadis--were rendering inconsistent and unjust decisions, often based more on their personal opinions than on the Qur'ān. Thus under the Abbasid Dynasty (750-1258) attempts to codify Islamic law became more and more systematic and thorough. The result was the field of fiqh, legal theory, and the creation of learned men in this field. Eventually, after much disputation, a consensus emerged about the basis of legal decisions. There were four sources of law:

1. Qur'ān. It has 6236 verses, but only 600 concern law; and only 80 give specific laws. Thus the Qur'ān provides a legal skeleton only. Its statues primarily concern slavery, consumption of alcohol, gambling, polygamy, the status of women, and the killing of girl children.
2. The Sunna of the Prophet (hadīth) (and those of the Imams, for the Shi'ites): Following the hadīth is itself based on a hadīth, "obey God and obey the Messenger," which provides the basis for accepting the sunna as an infallible source of legal guidance.
3. Reasoning (ijtihad, interpretation; or qiyas, analogical reasoning): The role of this faculty was suspect in Islam and has been progressively restricted, except in Twelver Shi'ism (which still accepts reasoning). In much of Sunni Islam today, the "gates of ijtihād" are considered closed.
4. Consensus of the community. This is based on the hadīth "my community will never agree on an error." The community here, usually, is understood to be the community of legal scholars, who over time sift through the various interpretations and come to favor certain ones.

Only the first two are material sources of the law; in other words, analogy and consensus cannot create laws from a vacuum, only from Qur'ān and sunna.

The application of these four resulted in four major Sunnī legal schools (Hanafī, Hanbalī, Malikī, Shafī'ī). While each school tends to be dominant in a particular area, Muslims accept all four as legitimate variants. Sometimes Twelver Shi'ism is accepted as a fifth legitimate legal school.

The result of this effort was codification of the Sharī'ah or code of laws in Islam. But local laws continue to exist, either parallel to or in place of the Sharī'ah. Even in modern Saudi Arabia, laws outside Shari’ah exist (such as traffic laws).

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 (kalām, "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. The two different foundations produced different results, and it took centuries for theology and philosophy to merge in any sense.

The earliest theological thought developed among the Qur'ān memorizers, the "hadīth folk," 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'ān, 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'āns 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 and Asharites

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'ān. They also stressed the oneness of God--tawhīd--and viewed it as rejecting the idea of God having attributes. Many Muslims had come to view the Qur'ān as eternal and uncreated and they viewed that position with skepticism as well, as compromising the unity of God by creating a second eternal divine principle. The Mutazilites also viewed many Qur'ān 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.[27]

The Mutazilites eventually attempted to force all Muslims to accept their views; under the Caliph al-Ma'mūm, a Mutazilite himself, an inquisition was initiated. But the Mutazilites 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'ān, 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.[28] His synthesis was successful and became the basis of most Sunni theology today.


In contrast to 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 philosophia.

The earliest philosophers, such as al-Kindī (d. ca. 870 C.E.) and al-Razī (died ca. 925-34), were often on the fringe of Islamic adherence. They championed reason over revelation. Subsequent philosophers took reconciliation of philosophy and theology as a major task of their careers. Al-Fārābī (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.[29] Ibn-Sīnā (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-Ghazzālī (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-Sīnā as Avicenna) and they were accepted as philosophical fathers of the church.

In the later centuries of medieval Islam, the philosophical tradition changed. Many scholars of Islamic culture have seen Islamic philosophy as in decline from the thirteenth century, dominated by mindless copyists and encyclopedists. Several reasons have been put forward for this decline. Two prominent theories have been a conservative reaction in the wake of Al Ghazzālī and the sack of Baghdad by the Mongols in 1258.

However, George Saliba has recently argued that it is a mistake to see later medieval Islamic thought as derivative and sterile. In closely studying the works of Islamic astronomers (including Nasir al-Din al-Tusi), Saliba has concluded that astronomical innovation continued from the thirteenth well into the sixteenth century, and he maintains that Arabic astronomy was an important, even essential, influence on Copernicus.[30]

Either way, few deny that one of the greatest thinkers in the Islamic tradition lived during this period, Ibn Khaldūn (1332-1406), who contributed to political theory, linguistics, and has been called the father of modern sociology.[31]

Today, philosophers in the Islamic world try and seek a distinctive philosophy, separate from that of the West. Some philosophers in the Arabic world try and seek reasons for the decline of Islamic philosophy and science, while others provide a distinctive Islamic take on Western philosophical topics. Current names in Islamic philosophy include Akbar S. Ahmed, Fazlur Rahman, Musa al-Sadr and Muhammad Abid al-Jabiri.

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'ān 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, Zoroastrian, 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 developed as Muslims came 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 sūfī comes from. One theory--the most popular--traces it to sūf 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 safā, "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-Basrī (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'ān 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.[32]

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-Rābi`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-Rābi`ah was set free by her master because of her exemplary piety. She was one of the earliest Sufis to write poetry, though her works were only a few lines long.[33]

Not all early Sufis were Arabs; Ibrāhīm ibn-Adham (died c. 770) was from Balkh, an ancient Buddhist city in Central Asia, north of Iran. Ibrāhīm 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.[34]

Egypt also contributed to early Sufism in the form of Thaubān ibn-Ibrāhīm, surnamed Dhū'n-Nūn (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`rīfa or mystical knowledge (also called irfān). He developed a concept of the different mystical states a Sufi passes through, ultimately reaching annihilation or extinction in God (fanā) and subsistence in God (baqā). His poetry was the first Sufi poetry of quality.[35]

The eighth and ninth 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-Mansūr al-Hallāj, 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 (Shinjiang 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'ān commentary, prayers, and works of theology, some of which has been preserved.

Hallāj finally settled in Baghdad, where he taught. His religious views were generally seen as extreme. He stressed `ishq, "mystical love," but when Hallāj used the word it still primarily meant erotic love, not a trait one normally associated with the divinity. He also utilized the Christian terms lāhūt, "divine nature," and nāsūt, "human nature" in his writings, terms Christians had usually used to refer to Christ's two natures; this appeared heretical to many Muslims. He was also an outspoken man. The result was imprisonment and finally execution on charges of blasphemy. Hallāj's last words reportedly were anā'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. Hallāj and many other Sufis experienced a profound feeling of transformation as a result of their intense mystical experiences.[36]

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-Ghazzālī (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. Farīdu'd-dīn `Attār (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’al-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 Sīmurgh (Phoenix), the king of all birds. At each valley many birds perished or turned back until only thirty birds reached the Sīmurgh'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 Sīmurgh; for sīmurgh not only means "phoenix" but "thirty birds." In this way `Attār teaches the mystic truth that the individual soul is identical with God (in this case, the Phoenix, symbol of the divine).[37]

No doubt the greatest Persian mystical poet--if not the greatest Sufi poet of all time--was Maulānā Jalālu'd-dīn Rūmī (1207-73). From northeastern Iran, as a boy Rūmī was taken by his father to Rūm (Anatolia) to escape the Mongol destruction. There both men served as religious teachers. But Rūmī 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'ān of the Persians, a title that captures the work's impact on the language and its enduring popularity. By Rūmī's day the Sufi custom of dhikr--remembering God--had evolved from chanting the ninety-nine beautiful names of God to dancing to the rhythm of the chanting. His followers became the Mevlevi Order of Sufis, often called "whirling dervishes" because of their mystic dances.[38]

At the same time the Persian poets were developing their ideas, Arab Sufis were going beyond the theological system of Ghazzālī and formulating new mystical conceptions. Shihābu'd-dīn Suhrawardī (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. Unfortunately he was misunderstood by many divines, who had him imprisoned for his beliefs; and he died in prison at only 37 years of age.[39]

Even greater a gnostic Sufi was Muhyīu'd-dīn ibn-`Arabī (1165-1240), from Spain, a prolific and comprehensive writer who developed the concept of wahdat al-wujūd or "unity of being." Some argue that by this term ibn-`Arabī meant to imply that nothing truly exists except the One. Others say that ibn-`Arabī 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-`Arabī 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 insān al-kāmil or "perfect human" who serves as the spiritual guide of humanity. Such an idea resembles the Shi'ite notion of the imām. The ideas of Ibn-`Arabī and Suhrawardī had widespread influence on Shi'ite thinkers. In seventeenth century Iran, Mullā Sadrā was an important transmitter of their ideas to mainstream Twelver Shi'ism.[40]

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 Orders, 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 come increased criticism that Sufism is the cause of Islam's weakness. Consequently Sufism has been systematically dismantled by some twentieth-century governments, even as it has become a popular vehicle for spreading Islamic ideas to the west.

Shi’ism in Iran

Twelver 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 hostile to it, but gradually found ways to incorporate some of its practices and ideas. In the fifteenth century, several Sufi orders became Shi'i.[41]

It was the rise of the Safavid dynasty in Iran that took Shi`ism to the masses. The first Safavid shah, Shah Isma`il, was the leader of the Safavid Sufi order, which was a extremist (somewhat syncreatist) order sufi order, which as lots in common with Bektashism. But when he assumed political power in Tabriz in 1501 he declared Twelver Shi`ism to be the state religion of his kingdom. Shah Ismā`il made a concerted effort to fund missionary projects to educate the population in his realm in Shi`ism. His successors imported prominent Arab Shi`i ulamā (“learned”), who appointed Shi`i prayer leaders in most Iranian towns and established Shi`i theological colleges. The ulamā 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 imāms 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 Qajar dynasty assumed control of the area in the 1790s, it was Shi`i.[42]

The spread of Twelver Shi`ism in Iran was not unaccompanied by controversy. The authority of the ulamā soon became an important issue because they had to speak on behalf of the Hidden Imām. Many ulamā claimed that ijtihād, analytical reasoning, was a legitimate means for determining the will of the Hidden Imām and that it was necessitated because the ancient sources did not provide guidance on all matters; this group came to be called the Ūsūlīs. Others said the ulamā had to stick to the Qur'ān and the traditions (akhbār) of the Prophet and of the imāms and not add other principles to the derivation of Muslim law; they came to be called the Akhbāris. 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 ulamā in society. Supporting the Akhbāri position were Sufi orders and others who sought to retain more heterodox views of Islam. After two centuries of bitter dispute the Ūsūlīs finally defeated the Akhbārī position in the late eighteenth century. This opened the way for establishment of the ulamā 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 Ūsūlī position involved taqlid, "imitation," the importance of the ordinary Shi`i choosing 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.[43]

Iranian Shi`ism also developed an esoteric philosophical tradition based on various Sufi philosophers, especially Ibn-`Arabī and Suhravārdi. The most important exponent of this tradition was Sadru'd-dīn Muhammad ibn-Ibrāhim-i-Shīrāzī, known as Mullā Sadrā (1572-1641). Sadrā 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. 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-Ūsūlī position Sadrā was severely persecuted. His ideas became the foundation for many of the esoteric doctrines put forward by the Shaykhis.[44]

Modern Developments

In the modern period, the Islamic world has been pulled in different directions, both toward secularizing changes and stringent fundamentalism. Islam has always possessed reforming tendencies. Often at the beginning of each new Islamic century there has been an unusually strong tendency to seek reform. Traditionalist reform tends to follow a 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 ulamā.[45]

One of the first examples of Islamic revivalism in the modern time was the Wahhabī movement, which started in Saudi Arabia in the late eighteenth century. The Wahhabīs 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.[46]

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--notably 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 two new 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 superseded by the coming of Muhammad, to become superior over Muslims?

Four principal responses resulted from the crisis brought on by European dominance:

1. Secularist: Separate private Islam from public secular life and establish western-style nation states;
2. Conservative: Retain traditional Islam;
3. Fundamentalist: Return to Islam but reinterpret it so that strict observance will work in modern contexts; accept modern science and some institutions (schools, hospitals, traffic laws, voting), but reject westernization (banking that is dependent on interest, public mixing of the sexes);
4. Modernist: Open the gates of ijtihād; reject blind imitation of the past; create a modernized Islam..[47]

The first is best demonstrated by the Turkish reforms promulgated by Atatürk. Most modern Islamic nation-states are a mixture of the other three.

Islamic modernism arose in the nineteenth century. Its principal spokesman was Jamālu'd-dīn Afghānī (1838-97). He was actually an Iranian, but called himself an Afghan because they were Sunnī, 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 denounced stagnation in the Islamic world. He criticized Sufism as other-worldly.[48]

Two of his principal students were Muhammad Abdūh (1849-1905) and Rashīd Ridā (1865-1935). Abdūh stressed tawhīd 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. He called for the reopening of ijtihād., criticized lack of educational institutions in Islam, and the continued practice of polygamy. Ridā, a Syrian, was a disciple of Abdūh. He also stressed monogamy.[49]

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 modernity.
3. Their call for reinterpretation (ijtihād) 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.[50]

Expansion of Islam

Islam has continued to grow, especially in the Third World. According to the World Christian Encyclopedia, a major source of reliable statistics, Muslims made up 12.3% of the world's population in 1900 and 19.6% in 2000, for a total global membership of 1.188 billion.[51] 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 meager; 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, while 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.[52] The number of converts from European Christian background is not known, but is probably in the tens of thousands. It is estimated that by 2025, the number of American Muslims will exceed the number of American Jews.[53]


  1. David B. Barrett, George T. Kurian, and Todd M. Johnson, World Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative survey of churches and religions in the modern world, Vol. 1: The world by countries: religionists, churches, ministries 2d ed. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2001), 4.
  2. Ghamidi (2001): Sources of Islam
  3. Esposito (1996), p.41
  4. W. Montgomery Watt, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman (London: Oxford Univ. Press, 1961), 5.
  5. Watt, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, 117.
  6. Watt, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, 7.
  7. Watt, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, 26.
  8. Watt, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, 7-13.
  9. Watt, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, 66-68.
  10. Watt, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, 83.
  11. Watt, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, 93-96.
  12. Watt, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, 197-207.
  13. Watt, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, 226-28.
  14. I Tim 6:12, II Tim 4:7, the former corresponding closely to Sura XXV that offers an example of a non-martial instance of jihād (verse 52) apart from several other parallels to I Tim 6.
  15. The term "holy war" could well have developed in the Western cultures as a way to translate jihād with reference to the Christian crusades.
  16. E.g. in Sura IX.73, II.216, VIII.39 & 67. The central theory of jihād is based on Sura IX.5, 6, 38 & 39, which offer a clear account of warfare in a literal sense.
  17. Efraim Karsh, Imperialismus im Namen Allahs, Munich 2007, p. 9
  18. L. Gardet "Allah". Encyclopaedia of Islam Online. Retrieved on 2007-05-02.
  19. Qurʾān 112:1-4.
  20. Qur'an 21:19-20, Qur'an 35:1
  21. Qur'an 3:1
  22. Watt, Muhammad: Prophet and Statesman, 18-19.
  23. J. J. Saunders, A History of Medieval Islam (London: Routledge and Kegal Paul, 1965) 45, 48-49, 52-57.
  24. Saunders, A History of Medieval Islam, 48.
  25. Marshall G. S. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam: Conscience and History in a World Civilization, Vol. 1: The Classical Age of Islam (Chicago: Univ. Chicago Press, 1974), 412-22
  26. Oleg Grabar, The Formation of Islamic Art (New Haven: Yale Univ. Press, 1973), 131-32 and plates 13 and 14 at the end of the book.
  27. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, Vol. 1, 384-86, 437-440.
  28. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, Vol. 1, 439-440.
  29. Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, Vol. 1, 428-37.
  30. George Saliba, Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, MIT Press, 2007. Saliba notes that, although Early Modern Arabic science seems to decline, becoming dependent on Western science, scholars have largely assumed the unoriginality of the period without closely studying it.
  31. N. J. Dawood, "Introduction," in Ibn Khaldūn, The Muqaddimah: An Introduction to History, trans. Franz Rosenthal (Princeton: Princeton Univ. Press, 1967), vii-xii.
  32. Annemarie Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam (Chapel Hill: Univ. of North Carolina Press, 1975), 30.
  33. Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, 31, 36-38.
  34. Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, 36-37.
  35. Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, 31, 42-47.
  36. Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, 62-77.
  37. Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, 303-08.
  38. Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, 309-28.
  39. Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, 259-63.
  40. Schimmel, Mystical Dimensions of Islam, 263-74.
  41. Moojan Momen, An Introduction to Shi'i Islam: The History and Doctrines of Twelver Shi'ism (Oxford: George Ronald, 1985), 209.
  42. Momen, Introduction to Shi'i Islam, 105-09, 118-19, 12-26, 143.
  43. Momen, Introduction to Shi'i Islam, 117-18, 222-25.
  44. Momen, Introduction to Shi'i Islam, 218-19
  45. John L. Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path (Oxford: Oxford Univ. Press, 1988), 118.
  46. Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path, 119-21.
  47. Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path, 178-83.
  48. Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path, 130-32.
  49. Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path, 132-36.
  50. Esposito, Islam: The Straight Path, 146-48.
  51. David B. Barrett, George T. Kurian, and Todd M. Johnson, World Christian Encyclopedia: A comparative survey of churches and religions in the modern world, Vol. 1: The world by countries: religionists, churches, ministries 2d ed. (New York: Oxford Univ. Press, 2001), 4.
  52. Barrett, World Christian Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, 772-73. This source says the United States had 4.13 million Muslims in 2000. Muslims estimates their American membership between 2 and 6 million.
  53. Barrett, World Christian Encyclopedia, Vol. 1, 772.
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