amazon.de Islam - A Short History
Karen Armstrong

If you do not know much about Islam, the Islamic prophet of God Muhammad ibn Abdallah, the Quran or the difference between Sunni and Sufi Islam, then you should consider reading this book. It is a concise history of the Islam from its beginnings of the 7th century until today. Reading this book is no easy entertainment, as the authoress uses (but also explains!) terms from the Quran and the Arabian language which can't always be translated literally into English.
As it would almost be impossible to summarize this book, I'll concentrate on listing terms and facts which reveal as much as possible to the Islam.

  • In 610 AD the Arab businessman Muhammad ibn Abdallah began having revelations in the form of verses (surah) from God and wrote them down in a new scripture, called the Quran. These revelations or oracles occured to him later in his life several times.
  • The new sect around Muhammad was called islam (=surrender) which means that his adherents had to entirely submit and devot their lives to Allah. The term islam is related to salam which means peace.
  • Muslims were required to build a community (ummah) in which wealth was to be distributed fairly (social justice). If the ummah prospered, it was a sign that Muslims were living according to God's will. In the beginning Muhammad could assemble a group of 70 families who converted to Islam.
  • Kabah: the cube-shaped shrine in the heart of Mecca, the most important centre of worship in Arabia. Muslims are supposed to make a pilgrimage (hajj) to the shrine which they would circle seven times.
  • In the Quranic vision there is no dichotomy (separation) between the sacred and the profane, the religious and the political (government and religion are inseparably entwined), sexuality and worship.The ultimate aim of one's whole life is geared towards the devine.
  • The Quran does not require the veiling of all women or their seclusion in a separate part of the house. These customs were only adapted three or four generations after the Prophet's death (632) when Muslims were copying the Greek Christians of Byzantium who had long veiled and segregated their women.
  • During the Prophet's life there were three centres of Muslim worship: Mecca, Medina and Jerusalem.
  • Anti-semitism is a Christian vice. Hatred of the Jews became marked in the Muslim world only after the creation of the state of Israel in 1948.
  • The successors of the Prophet were the new deputies, called khalifah. The first four caliphs to succeed Muhammad were the rashidun, the 'rightly guided' caliphs. The first of them was Abu Bakr (632-4) whose main aim was a united community (ummah).
  • Under the second caliph, Umar, the Arabs conquered Iraq, Syria and Egypt.
  • A century after the Prophet's death, the Islamic Empire extended from the Pyrenees to the Himalayas. This success was in line with the message of the Quran which asserted that a correctly guided society must prosper because it was in tune with God's will. Conquest had nothing in common with militarism or violence, its main aim was making plunder and reinforcing the unity of the ummah, which condemns killing and aggression. In order not to usurp people from their own land, Muslims built their own garrison towns, called amsar, like Kufa in Iraq or Basra in Syria. However, Damascus became the only old city to become a Muslim centre.
  • The Quran's messages are among others:
    - actions of the individual as well as of all political institutions should express a fundamental submission to God's will
    - one is not to build a private fortune
    - it is good to share wealth (egalitarian society)
    - the weak and the vulnerable are to be treated with respect
    - social justice is to be the crucial virtue of Islam
  • Islamic countries were usually based on an agrarian economy - European counries, on the contrary, were based on trade, science and technology
  • The problem for Islamic countries has always been the impossibility of integrating the religious imperative in the world of politics, because the two contradict to each other too often.
  • The Shariah: the body of Islamic sacred laws derived from the Quran, the sunnah (customs) and the ahadith (documented traditions).
  • The five essential practices of Islam:
    - performing the salat (prayer) five times a day
    - paying the zakat (alms/tax)
    - fasting during Ramadan
    - making the hajj (pilgrimage) to Mecca once in one's life
    - recognizing Allah as the only God and Muhammad as his prophet
  • Sunni Islam: term used to describe the Muslim majority who revere the four rashidun (s.a.) and validate the existing political Islamic order
  • Shii Muslims: they belong to the Shiah-i-Ali, the Party of Ali; they believe that Ali ibn Ali Talib, the Prophet's closest male relative, should have ruled in place of the rashidun (s.a.) and revere a number of imans (religious leaders) who are the direct male descendants of Ali and his wife Fatimah, the Prophet's daughter.
  • During the 10th century the first madrasahs, i.e. colleges for the study of Islamic sciences, were established throughout the Islamic Empire.
  • End of 11th century: Christian crusaders attack Jerusalem (1099), only in 1187 would the Kurdish general Saladin free Jerusalem from the Christians. The crusades were devastating for the Muslims in the Near East whereas those in Iraq, Iran, Central Asia and India remained unaffected by the crusaders.
  • During the 14th century the Turkish Muslims defeated and occupied the Byzantium Empire, settled in the Balkans and reached the Danube.
  • By the 14th century Islam became more and more intolerant: non-Muslims were forbidden to visit the holy cities of Mecca and Medina and it became a capital offense to make insulting remarks about the Prophet Muhammad.
  • Reconquering of the city of Granada (Alhambra Palace) in 1492 by the Christians from Muslim occupation.
  • By the end of the 15th century Islamdom had become the greatest power bloc in the world. This was possible to happen through the Osmanli family (=the Ottomans) and their successors who conquered the Byzantium Empire and invaded into the Balkans. Muslim merchants (all missionaries of their faith) went as far as East Africa and Malaysia which became predominantly Muslim.
  • Three major Islamic empires were created in the late 15th and early 16th centuries:
    - the safavid Empire in Iran
    - the Moghul Empire in India
    - the Ottoman Empire in Anatolia, Syria, North Africa and Arabia.
    All three empires gave up their Islamic egalitarian traditions and set up absolute monarchies and what's more, all became military powers with the discovery of gunpowder weapons in the 15th century.
  • All three empires still had a strong Islamic orientation:
    - in Safavid Iran: Shiism became the state religion
    - in Moghul India: Falsafah and Sufism became the dominant influence
    - in the Ottoman Empire: life was determined by the Shariah
  • In the 15th and 16th centuries so far backward European countries began to evolve an entirely new civilization, free of the constraints of agrarian societies (like the Islamic ones). Its features were trade, establishing colonies, emphasis on navigation, science and technology and investment of capital to reproduce resources. Thus Europe began to overtake and even subjugate the Islamic world.
  • When the British began trading on the Indian subcontinent, the Muslims there for the first time faced the prospect of being governed by infidels.
  • The Ottoma Empire (capital: Constantinople) continued to spread its dominance as far as Vienna (1530s) and also lead their jihad against the Safavid Empire of Iran in the East.
  • Under Suleiman the Magnificent the Ottomans reached the limits of their expansion (mid 15th century). Mosques were built all over the Empire. Their features were: low domes, high minarets, filled with light.
  • The courts were run on the Shariah. They had legal experts (qadis) and consultants (mufti) who interpreted the law.
  • When the Ottoman Empire began to decline in the 18th century, Abd al-Wahhab founded a new state in Centarl Arabia and the Persian Gulf which was based again on the original ummah of the 7th century and the true interpretation of the Quran. Even today, this kind of fundamentalist Islam is practised in Saudi Arabia.
  • The progressive nature of Western societies and the industrialized economies had fateful consequences for the agrarian-based countries of the Islamic world. The West was looking towards the future, whereas the Islamic world was still looking back to its Islamic traditions and their obsolete agrarian culture.
  • The West also began to prosper due to colonization. But for the developing countries (also for Islamic ones) this process was a painful one, because they lost their independence and national autonomy. On the other hand, the spirit that developed in the USA and Europe was characterized by innovation and autonomy. Westerners began to think that they were superior to 'orientals' and expressed their contempt in many ways.
  • Colonization had its positive effects, too, for the developing countries, as the new masters tackled diseases, famine and kept war away from the colonies. This resulted in a growth of population, which eventually resulted in overpopulation.
  • By 1800 India was mostly ruled by the British, later they occupied Aden, Tunisia, Egypt, the Sudan, Libya and Morocco, whereas the French invaded into Algeria, Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, Iraq and Jordan.
  • When the British withdrew from India in 1949, the Indian subcontinent was divided into Hindu India and Muslim Pakistan.
  • The loss of the Palestine to the Jews (with the help of western powers) became a symbol of the humiliation of the Muslim world.
  • The Islamic world could simply not understand that it was permanently falling under the domination of the secular, Godless West. And what's more, the Quran had promised that a society which surrendered to God's will could not fail.
  • The West, on the other hand, had found it necessary and prudent to separate religion and politics in order to free government, science and technology from the constraints of conservative religion.
  • There were attempts to free politics from religion in Islamic countries (eg. Atatürk), but Islam in Turkey did not disappear, it only went underground. Other examples are Reza Shah Pahlavi in Iran and Nasser in Egypt.
  • There are and have been fundamentalists in all religions, they have in common that they want to go back to their pure faith and bring back the mainstream to the right path. In many cases religious traditions and customs have been distorted by them. When they feel they can't succeed, they sometimes resort to terrorism and acts of violence.
  • The real founder of Islamic fundamentalism in the Sunni world was Sayyid Qutb (1906-66). The Taliban, who came to power in Afghanistan in 1994, are also affected by Qutb's original vision of Islam. This view of religion perverts the Islamic faith and turns it in the opposite direction of what was intended. Muslim fundamentalists in their struggle to survive make religion a tool of oppression and even violence. Most Sunni fundamentalists, however, have not resorted to extremes.
  • Veiling can also be seen as a tacit critique of some of the less positive effects of modernity. It defies the strange western compulsion to 'reveal all' in sexual matters.
  • Five to six million Muslims reside in Europe, seven to eight million in the UsA. There are 1000 mosques each in Germany and France, but only 500 in the US. Muslim immigrants to the USA are better educated than Muslims living in Europe (predominantly working class).

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