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Islam As It Was

January, 2009
By Michael Pixley

In an article datelined 31 August 2008, The Washington Post carried a small article from the AP briefly describing the comments of a Pakistani parliamentarian, Israr Ullah Zehri, speaking to his outraged colleagues. What made it interesting was that Zehri defended the actions of his constituents in Baluchistan who had shot and then buried alive five women. Their crime was that they wanted to choose their own husbands. According to Zehri, “These are centuries-old traditions and I will continue to defend them.” In the longer AP account, the reporter also noted that two other women were murdered because they had sympathized with the five other victims…

Aside from the horrible incident itself, the article disturbed me in other ways. Islamophobes will no doubt cut the article out and add it to their rich collection of anecdotes and use it as yet another example of Islam’s devilish nature. That is grossly unfair since the murder of these women had no foundation in Islam. On the other end, Muslims reading about this crime will denounce it, contending that it has nothing to do with Islam. They, too, will be wrong: in a state such as Pakistan which is struggling to create an Islamic way of life, to condone such murders is to aver that it is consistent with Islam.

So…which, then, is true? The murders are Islamic, not Islamic or something else? Just as lawyers never confuse justice with the law, so must we not confuse the actions of Muslims with Islam. They are very, very different things.

Standard Muslim historians write that the Prophet Muhammad first received his divine revelations in the year 610 AD whist meditating in a cave near Meccah. He was already married to Khadijah, an erstwhile widowed business woman and his social superior in Meccah. The messages received by the Prophet came, according to tradition, directly from God and these recitations continued for the next 22 years. By the time he died in 632 AD, Muhammad has been transformed from an illiterate caravan trader to a warrior, leader and the Prophet for the world’s third monotheistic faith. His pronouncements, eventually gathered together by the Prophet’s scribe, were to be assembled, examined for accuracy and then presented to the Muslim community as The Reading: the Quran.

The Quran itself is not a book that can be readily digested. It has two broad categories of chapters: those uttered in Meccah during the Prophet’s early years and those recited in Madinah where the Prophet had taken refuge after his flight (the Hijra) from Meccah where he had faced strong opposition from various sources. The actual organization of the Quran, however, is based upon the lengths of the various chapters (surah): save for the opening chapter, The Fatiha. Thereafter, the order of Quran is on the basis of a chapter’s length, with the longest being second in order and the shortest at the very end. The most common word in the Quran, not surprisingly, is Allah. The second most common is perhaps more intriguing: knowledge (‘ilm): the word “jihad” (alas, too well known nowadays) occurs with but extreme rarity.

As his role of Commander of the Faith became established, the Prophet put forth God’s demands for those who wished to submit (and Islam means submission) to His faith and these became known as the “Pillars of Islam”: the profession of faith, pilgrimage to Meccah once in a lifetime, payment of a tithe, daytime fasting throughout the month of Ramadan and five daily prayers. Once a Muslim, moreover, always a Muslim; while those who neglected their obligations were encouraged to mend their ways, those who turned away from Islam and found another faith were subject to the ultimate penalty: death.

By the time of the Prophet’s death in 632 AD, he was essentially the ruler of Arabia Felix. His followers were devastated and faced a grim situation: what now? The eldest companions of the Prophet (the Ansar) rejected the bid of Muhammad’s son-in-law and cousin, Ali to become his successor. Instead, they voted for Abu Bakr to become the Vicar of the Prophet: thereafter known as the caliph (khalifa). It was a surprisingly democratic decision. Abu Bakr’s first crisis was to ensure the continued fealty of the Bedouin tribes who had sworn allegiance to the Prophet but who now, after his death, felt their obligations fulfilled and thus free to resume their old ways and deities. Though not particularly bloody, various military campaigns finally compelled tribal leaders to resume their loyalty to the new Islamic leader.

But Abu Bakr had another problem: for the tribes of Arabia, raiding their neighbors was literally the national sport and, if not a particularly bloody adventure by modern standards, it was still a great passion amongst many tribes. Instead of raiding each other, however, Abu Bakr organized campaigns aimed at the empires to the northwest and northeast: the Byzantines and Sassanians. By encouraging such ventures, several benefits came forth. First, the missionary zeal of Islam would expand outward, the energies of the tribes would be directed in a useful and beneficial manner and the booty would be come in quite handy. Perhaps more important, Abu Bakr’s timing was flawless.

The Great Powers of the day, the Byzantines and Sassanians, had done a marvelous job of exhausting themselves after years of battle. When the armies of Abu Bakr spread north, east and west, neither empire was in a state to defeat the unexpected surge of warriors emerging from what had been a quiet front for both of those empires. Between 632 and 680, the armies of the caliphs had conquered all of what now constitutes the Middle East, had penetrated up through Afghanistan, going also into Central Asia and effectively controlling all of North Africa. It was a stunning defeat for the Great Powers: the Sassanians vanished from history and the Byzantines lost their possessions south of Asia Minor forever.

If the arrival of vast amounts of booty and slaves was a blessing for the young Islamic state, it did not mean that all was well in Meccah. Three of the first four caliphs were assassinated and with the murder of Ali, the fourth caliph (and the Prophet’s son-in-law), the politics of dynasty set in and the new caliph moved to Damascus where the Umayyid caliphate prospered from 661 to 750. The dynastic and tribal conflicts which had allowed the Umayyids to succeed, however, continued unresolved. One claimant to the throne was Husayn, the son of the fourth caliph and, thereby, the grandson of the Prophet. Despite the minute size of his following, he challenged Damascus on the field of battle and was annihilated in 680 at Karbala in Iraq. The faction he led, however, lived on: The Shi’at ‘Ali (Party of Ali), now simply known as the Shi’a.

In 750, the Umayyids collapsed and were replaced by a new dynasty, the Abbasids who, once more, relocated the capital. It did not go to Meccah, however: Baghdad was its choice and this would remain the seat of the caliphate until 1258. Secure in itself, the Abbasids took advantage of the extraordinary amount of wealth which now flowed into its coffers from the east, west and north. Muslims paid their tithe, non-Muslims paid a higher poll tax and the armies of Baghdad continued to advance. It was perhaps in part due to this security that scholarship in the Abbasid state not merely flourished: it exploded. And the reason was simple: Islam needed to be understood.

In Muhammad’s community of believers (the ummah), there was no difference between secular and religious law, nor any gulf between faith and polity: they were as one. Some would call this a theocracy but this is wrong: it was—and is—a ‘divine nomocracy’ (a phrase coined, I believe, by Majid Khadduri): a society governed by holy law. Yet what was the law? The Quran, perhaps surprisingly to some, includes little commentary on law per se. Pious scholars thus reasoned that they must look elsewhere and the greatest trove of insights into divine law drew inspiration from the words and actions of the Prophet: these are the ‘hadith’ (sayings of the Prophet). ‘Hadiths’, however, existed in the tens of thousands: how could these be shown to be true, false or dubious? Two ninth century scholars, Bukhari and Muslim, began a monumental task: they began to examine hadiths in accordance with logic and pure scholarship. Hadiths normally had a chain of authorities (“Ahmad b. Salim heard from Umar al-Khattab who heard from Ali b. Abdullah… that the Prophet said…”). What they did was brilliant: they conducted research on the various individuals in the ‘chain of authorities (called the ‘isnad’) to determine if they were reliable individuals and, more important, could they have actually met each other and thereby relayed the hadith associated with them. If, for example, Abd al-Qadir of Meccah never left that city but is cited as the source for Ahmad al-Dulaymi (who never left Damascus), then a hadith is probably spurious. By the extraordinary achievement of reviewing thousands of hadiths, Bukhari and Muslim helped to provide a body of hadiths that could rightly be described as sound, possible or dubious. A second source of shari’a was thereby shaped and formed.

Even with the hadiths, other jurists believed that additional sources of Islamic law were possible and eventually the most prominent jurisprudents settled on two further inspirations: consensus (ijma) and analogy (qiyas). In the ninth and tenth centuries, therefore, the sources of Islamic law were settled and another source of law, judicial reasoning (ijtihad) slowly faded away for the Sunni population. Aside from the benefit to the Muslim population, the works of Muslim and Bukhari raised a standard of scholarship and reasoning that benefited all aspiring scholars.

If the sources of Islamic law were now well-launched, the religious nature of the state held other unexpected demands on scholars. Curious men wondered about the nature of God and the Muslim conquests of the seventh and eighth centuries yielded a trove of inspiration: the works of Greek philosophers. These were translated by the hundreds and served as an intoxicating source of inspiration and debate. Other Greek and Indian manuscripts spawned a generation of brilliant mathematicians. “Arabic numbers” (though almost certainly Indian in inspiration) were employed, the use of ‘zero gained acceptance and the study of higher mathematics became a passionate study for many scholars. It was a book by al-Khwarizmi (9th century) which inspired the studies of al-Jabr: and his name became “algebra”. His name also became the source of the word “algorism” (see also “algorithm”).

This passion for mathematics also had a useful religious side to it. Navigation throughout the great empire, be it by sea or land, called for an understanding of astronomy and here mathematics served a critical purpose. Observatories were built and universities established with science studied hand in hand with Islam. The study of geography also became important as a means of facilitating travel, particularly when that journey involved the pilgrimage to Mecca or international commerce with the Far East.

Along with schools of higher learning, Baghdad also served as a spawning ground for physicians and hospitals. Going beyond the knowledge passed on through Greek manuscripts, doctors in Baghdad and elsewhere made extraordinary discoveries in anatomy, ophthalmology, and the study of contagious diseases such as tuberculosis. Probably the most famed of these doctors was Ibn Sina, known eventually in the West as Avicenna. Others, such as al-Razi (Rhazes), treated bladder and kidney ailments.

The list of scholarly and scientific achievements during the long reign of the Abbasids is not simply interesting: it is extraordinary. And all of it took place at a time not far removed from the time of the Prophet. In less than three centuries, the Arab Muslims had gone from desolate, impoverished and largely illiterate groups of tribes and grown into an empire spanning three continents, pushing the boundaries of science and helping to secure and maintain international trade extending from China to Spain. Throughout all of this the Christian and Jewish inhabitants of the Abbasid state, the so-called “People of the Book” (ahl al-kitab) found themselves in a fairly benign state of existence. Their status was formally second class in every sense but they enjoyed remarkable freedom with their churches and synagogues left free to function. They paid a higher tax than Muslims but their communities were generally subject to rule by their own religious leaders. Indeed, Baghdad was the site of a half dozen Nestorian Christian monasteries. There is little doubt that a second-class Christian was far better off under Muslim rule than a first class Christian in Constantinople where political and religious intrigue brought with it oppression and intolerance based upon arcane interpretations of proper Christian doctrine.

If the scholarly achievements of Baghdad were beyond dispute, that was not so in the political sphere. Distance from the capital took its toll and the distant realms of the Abbasid state soon found greater solace in cultivating local dynasties. It seemed to be the time of the ‘ids’: Tulunids, Ayyubids, Ghaznavids, Fatimids, Buwayids, Ikhshidids, Tahirids, Saffarids…more ‘ids’ than Freud could dream of…. However independent of Baghdad, most of these local dynasties paid at least lip service to the central spiritual authority of Baghdad where the vicar of the Prophet maintained his position as the true Caliph of the Islamic world. Even the Crusaders had little effect on the Abbasid state, separated as they were by several hundred miles. However, in January of 1258 everything changed forever.

In the late 12th century, occasional rumors (mostly fictional) circulated in the West about a mysterious Christian Prince in the East who would advance to the West and rid the world of the Saracens: Prestor John. But he was not a Christian: he was a Buddhist and his name was Jengiz Khan. He commanded not merely a series of armies but a mass of men who formed a killing machine unrivaled until the slaughters of humanity in China and Russia during the Second World War.

In the early part of the 13th century, the Mongols attacked to the west and, with some difficulty, destroyed the Kwaresmian Empire and forced its ruler Alai al-Din Muhammad to flee for his life. Miffed that Muhammad had eluded him, Jengiz Khan dispatched a total of 30,000 troops in order to capture him and him alone. The Mongol armies conducted less an invasion than a campaign of extermination wherever they attacked. Cities that surrendered immediately were usually spared; any that resisted were routinely annihilated. Thus such great cities as Bukhara, Herat, Merv, Nishapur and Bamian were conquered, the populations forced into the open and then subjected to Mongol execution squads. The Khan’s displeasure was sometimes particularly gruesome: after the destruction of Bamian and Merv, he sent back large contingents of soldiers to ensure that the precious few survivors of those slaughters were also eliminated. The number of victims in those cities alone numbered over one million.

In January 1258, the Mongol army under Hulagu besieged Baghdad and, within weeks, captured that great city and spent the following week executing the population: at least 500,000 died. It was not simply the enormous scale of the slaughter that stunned the Muslim world: it was the fact that the spiritual heart and scholarly mind of that universe had been erased with stunning speed. The Abode of Islam was all but annihilated.

Within a few years, a putative member of the Abbasid family showed up in Cairo and the ruling Mameluke dynasty wasted no time in proclaiming him the new caliph: the Islamic world needed such a spiritual leader. If more than a few Muslims questioned his legitimacy, there were few others from whom to choose. The continuity of the Prophet’s lineage had to be maintained since it bestowed upon his community the cohesion it so desperately needed.

In the late 13th century, however, another inchoate Muslim power was quickly growing in Asia Minor: the Ottomans. They made no extravagant religious claims but were simply one of several small warrior states struggling to establish themselves in western Anatolia. By the mid-14th century they had swallowed up most of their Muslim rivals and had crossed into Europe near the Dardanelles and with that bridgehead they began to form a more serious threat to the remnants of the Byzantine Empire. Much of their advance was greatly eased by the Black Death which wiped out a third of the population in southeastern Europe but left the Ottomans untouched: surely, the hand of God could not have been more clearly manifested.

By the mid-15th century, the Ottomans were so powerful that they were preparing to carry out a feat of arms that no other Muslim state had succeeded in doing for nearly 800 years: the capture of Constantinople. Mehmet II had mounted the throne in 1451, not as a caliph but as a sultan: a ruler in this world, and without religious overtones. Young and urbane, Mehmet II spoke several languages and organized religious debates in his court with Muslim, Jewish and Christian scholars arguing their various points of view about the current and eternal worlds. He understood power, however, and in May 1453, the Ottomans penetrated the fabled (though now greatly neglected) walls of Constantinople. By custom, the victorious Ottoman forces pillaged the great bastion of Christianity (second only to Rome) until the sultan called a halt to the looting. Instead of destroying the great churches of Constantinople, in particular Haghia Sophia, he converted them into mosques, thereby preserving them.

With Constantinople (sometimes called Istanbul, based on the Greek phrase ‘to the city’) as their new capital, the Ottomans continued their march north, south, east and west. Gifted administrators, the Ottoman ran an efficient empire with a highly centralized structure, tax system and variety of institutions. Islam recognized no formal clergy, but the Ottomans organized an effective system of schools in order to educate both judicial figures (qadis) and religious scholars (muftis) for their legal system. Tolerance for non-Muslims was, moreover, highly organized. Jewish, Greek and Armenian religious authorities administered their own communities (called the ‘millet’ system) which minimized bigotry and maximized both taxes and public order. In the finest tradition of West European bigotry, the Reconquista of Iberia in 1492 compelled both Muslims and Jews to flee or convert to Christianity. It was in the Ottoman domains that the Jews in particular found refuge, with tens of thousands finding new homes in Salonika and Istanbul.

The Ottomans were, by the early 16th century, very much in the running as the pre-eminent Islamic power in the world. One thing eluded them, however: the mantle as the heir of the Prophet and, more important, the caliphate. That honor still resided in Cairo under the protection of the Mamelukes. The Ottoman sultan, Selim the Grim, paid a courtesy call upon them in 1516, accompanied by a very large army. The last Mameluke caliph, al-Mutawakkil, found himself a guest of the sultan who, in 1517, had annihilated the Mamelukes. He returned to Istanbul with the sultan and decided in 1520 to abdicate his office in favor of Selim’s successor, Suleyman the Magnificent: it was probably a very wise move for al-Mutawakkil who later returned to Cairo, minus his title but with his head intact. Suleyman could now rightly claim not only secular authority within the Islamic world but also religious authority over all Muslims, regardless of their where they lived. All in all, things were going extremely well for the Ottomans in that century. Though they failed to capture Vienna in 1529, elsewhere their empire expanded and they held dominion over a vast swath of land stretching across three continents. The empire was militarily strong, the state well-administered through both sharia and secular law and the wealth of the sultan/caliph was legendary. And through it all, both Christians and Jews, whatever their legal status, usually prospered to a degree that was all but unimaginable in Western Europe where the joys of Christian brotherhood and piety often served as an excuse for religious bigotry, murder, mayhem and torture...

The remarkable success of the Ottomans, however, owed much to an extraordinary run of ten successive sultans who were strong, competent and attentive rulers. That string of success ended with the eleventh sultan, known as Selim the Sot. The machinery of state did not grind to a halt: it could survive a poor leader or three. Indeed, the Ottoman Empire continued to grow, in fits and spurts, but there was discernible rot at the top. The empire’s enemies to the north (Russia) and east (Safavid Iran) could be managed but the nature of its foes to the west was undergoing a dramatic change: the West was on the rise.

(to be continued in the March/April issue)

Michael M. Pixley served for 22 years as a Foreign Service Officer in the U.S. Department of State, with 17 of those years overseas, primarily in Turkey and Iraq. He began his second career as a bookseller (Eastern Approaches Books, Annapolis, MD) in 1999, specializing in the Middle East.