SPEAKER 1: To speak of Islam in history is necessarily to speak of an Islamic polity. And just as in the Christian world during the Middle Ages, one can speak comfortably about Christendom in addition to Christianity. In some sense, we could speak about the Islamic polity as Islamdom during this same period of time. This is because during the prophet's lifetime, he assumed and played multiple roles for what was, at its outset, only a rather small religious community.
The prophet Muhammad had been the messenger of God first and foremost, but he was also the chief jurist of the community, commander of the faithful in battle with pagan Arabs, and in the community of Muslims, sustained encounter with the Jews of Medina. The prophet was also the administrative head of the community. So that when the prophet died unexpectedly in 632, and without a natural male heir, the community was thrown into crisis.
In the last segment, we spoke at some length about how this religious crisis with the access to the word of God now closed, posed a tremendous religious challenge to the community, which had to seek other sources of religious guidance and inspiration. But there were other implications for the unexpected and unanticipated death of the prophet in 632.
In addition to Mohammad becoming even more of a necessary model for Islamic behavior, there was a vacuum in authority in this Islamic community, this ummah, this religious community. So who was going to supply the religious and political leadership that had been supplied by the prophet during his lifetime? These matters had to be provided by the community, but they were vigorously contested throughout almost the rest of Islamic history.
In the political and administrative, military, economic, as well as the religious sphere, the stakes were immense with the death of the prophet for this contest of authority. Because almost simultaneously with the end of the prophet's career and the prophet's death came the expansion of what was a religious community into a much larger polity that moved to the West all the way to Spain by the year 711, and all the way to the east to the very border of China within 100 years after the prophet's death.
So there were various claims and counterclaims within the community on how Muhammad should be succeeded, how his authorities should be assumed, who in the community was virtuous enough to assume this authority. In the end, the consensus of the community, according to the major view of Islamic history, is that the community settled on what is called an Arabic al-khalifa. In English, a caliph, or that might be familiar to you from books like The 1,001 Nights in English translation. This word means deputy or successor to the prophet.
And one scholar refers to the caliph, or the khalifa of Islam, the Islamic polity, very wisely as the head of a religion, but not a religious head. Because this person, while a major qualification for this new office was one's religious devotion, the quickness with which this individual had embraced the message of Islam during the prophet's lifetime, nevertheless, this person became the administrative head of this new Islamic polity from among the earliest converts to Islam. But nevertheless, despite the religious devotion of the individual in question and those who came next, questions of religious legitimacy remained about the selection of the individual. And every subsequent caliph was contested for the first generation after the death of the prophet.
These questions about how the community should be guided, the nature of that guidance of the Islamic polity, came to a head in 656 with the murder of the third caliph and the ascension of the fourth such caliph, man by the name of Ali, who also happened to be, not coincidentally, the son-in-law and cousin of the prophet Muhammad. Now some people, because Ali was by blood and marriage the closest male relation to the prophet during the prophet's lifetime and an early convert to Islam, had put forward claims about the right, the election of Ali to succeed his cousin the prophet Muhammad, with Muhammad's death in 632.
And apparently, when that did not happen, about three other figures from around the inner circle of the earliest converts to Islam became caliph before Ali, who was passed over. The partisans of Ali, the so-called party of Ali, developed misgivings about the religious legitimacy and political legitimacy of those first three leaders. When Ali himself was also murdered in 661, a short five years after he assumed the office of the caliphate, his partisans again put forward his leadership claims, advanced them on behalf of his son Hassan, who cut a deal, and who abdicated this office, and retired to private life in the sacred precincts of Mecca and Medina.
The mantle then fell upon Ali's other son, Hussein, who accepted the challenge, accepted the notion that he was the rightful person to lead this religious community. These positions on the divine election of the House of Ali, in particular, his son Hussein and Hussein's descendants, this position eventually crystallized into the branch of Islam called the Shia, or Shiite Islam, as opposed is to Sunni Islam, or the Sunnah.
This Shia Islam comes from partisans of the charismatic religious election of a member of the House of Ali. The Sunni, as we have seen, that notion was connected with the idea of the prophet Sunnah, the consensus of the community, the authority of the religious community to provide guidance through its most learned figures. And that in the Sunni notion of the guidance of the polity of Islam that is the caliphate, it's the clan of the prophet as well as the consensus of the community that provides the caliph. But this Shia group, which eventually crystallized into a group by that name, settled on the descendants of Ali, as mentioned previously.
These two factions engaged in battle, if you can call it that, in 680 on the plains of Karbala in present-day Iraq, where the forces of the first caliphate dynasty after the first four caliphs, the House of the Umayyads, routed the partisans of Hussein and murdered men, women, and children in trying to put an end to this question of their own religious legitimacy at the head of the House of Islam. The ill will and the sense of disaster and catastrophe that obtained as a result of this fate of Hussein and his family and his partisans in 6 AD was to have profound effects on the understanding of Islam for all of the rest of the generations of Shiite Muslims, who today are concentrated in Iran, to a lesser extent in Lebanon, a small group in Syria, with elements also in Yemen and some overtones of Shiite notions even as far afield from the heartland of the Middle East in present day Morocco.
But for Shiite Muslims, who essentially lost the battle to serve as the head of the Islamic polity, all of history took a wrong turn in 680 with the proper religious, as well as political rights of the House of Ali and the person of Hussein being denied and deprived. And it's at this point in 680 that we can talk about a very serious schism in the House of Islam. There are further subdivisions among Shiite Muslims, and the Sunni world is divided among itself in a less significant way into schools of legal interpretation.
But the main schism in the Islamic world dates back to this traumatic event in 680, when it appeared to those partisans of Ali that all of the cosmos were shaken by having the rights of someone who had been elected by God to serve at the head of the community, those rights were deprived and turned aside and usurped by those pretenders to religious legitimacy. All of the rest of Islamic history from this period is a succession of dynasties, first centered, as I mentioned, the Umayyads in Damascus, Syria. Then subsequently the Abassids who moved the capital from Syria towards the east in Baghdad. And the Abbasid Dynasty lasted until the middle of the 13th century, when Baghdad was sacked by the Mongol invasion.
It's at this point in the history of the Islamic polity that we find Islam increasingly dominated in its political respects by Turkic and Iranian groups, both in those domains-- Anatolia, and farther to the east-- but also in the heartland of Islam. And while Arabic and Arabs continued to populate the central lands of the Islamic world-- in Egypt, in Syria and Palestine, in the Arabian Peninsula, with Mecca and Medina in the Arabian Peninsula, still very much the locus of holiness in Islam-- nevertheless, the political operation of these various dynasties tended to move towards Turkic and Iranian groups.
But already before the 13th century, with the Mongol invasion of Baghdad and the sack of that city, Islam had long since been politically divided into what one scholar calls its natural geographic units, with one rival caliphate dominating the scene in Alandalus, that is Muslim Spain in the farthermost west. Another rival caliphate in the 10th century, existing first in North Africa around Tunisia, but then moving its capital to Cairo in 969, both competing against that Abbasid Caliphate centered in Baghdad until the middle of the 13th century. So that the political unity of Islam was long since fragmented after the death of the prophet, a subject to which we're going to return at the very end of our talk.
Because of its close resemblance to Judaism and Christianity, Islam was able to spread very, very quickly from the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century to the heartland of the Middle East and beyond, to Europe, Asia, and Africa within 100 years after the death of the prophet. That spread was also hastened by the weakness of the Byzantine Empire in the West, and the Sussanian-Persian Empire in the East. In any case, the successful administration of the Islamic polity in all of these regions involved the participation and engagement with many non-Muslims who had been living there when Islam came to these various regions.
We need to talk about two interrelated processes that made this successful administration of the Islamic polity so swift and comprehensive in a region spanning the area from Spain in the West almost to China in the East. And those two processes are arabicization and islamization. Not all of the people in these various regions immediately converted to Islam. But within 100 years after the coming of the Islamic polity to these various regions, we find evidence that all of these communities, in particular Christians and Jews and their elites are becoming fully arabicized. Because the Arabic language, as the language of administration within 100 years after the death of the prophet, became the means for advancement by people in society.
Now for purposes of understanding this advancement, we need to go back to some citations from the Quran. What does Islam and the Quran have to say about how Islam and Muslims ought to treat those Jews and Christians, and perhaps others in more remote regions than the Islamic heartland when they do contest Islam, and when they do find themselves in conflict with Muslims? Chapter 2 of the Quran, verse 190 says, "and struggle in the way of God with those who fight you. But aggress not. God does not love aggressors."
This very, very important citation puts limits on how and in what way Muslims finding themselves in conflict and contest with non-Muslims, in particular Jews and Christians, may engage them on the battlefield. You might be interested to know that the word "struggle," the Arabic word for "struggle" is the verbal form of the verbal noun "jihad," a word very often in our media that's translated as "holy war," but which in fact means striving or struggling in the path of God.
So here the Muslim is enjoined in the very language of the Quran that they must struggle in the way of God, and they may and must fight those who fight them. But the limit on the way and the time in which that battle can take place ends with the notion of aggression. God does not love aggressors. The end statement of this Quranic utterance punctuates and modifies the notion of aggress not. You may not bring those hostilities to those who cause you no harm, who pose no threat to you, who do not engage you in an aggressive way. God does not love aggressors.
Let's have a look now at several Quranic proof texts for how Muslims are enjoying to treat Jews and Christians in an Islamic polity. "Belivers, Jews, Christians, and Sabians: whoever believes in God and the last day and does what is right shall be rewarded by their Lord. They have nothing to fear or regret." We see one of the sources of the sense of tolerance in Islam, in particular for the other two monotheistic dispensations, and more importantly, their adherents. But this is not alone as a source of tolerance in Islam and in the word of God in the Quran for the treatment of Jews and Christians in a Muslim polity.
"Oh humankind, God created you male and female, and made you into nations and tribes that you might know one another. Surely, the noblest among you is the most God-fearing." This utterance from chapter 49 in the text of the Arabic Quran seems to be a statement celebrating the diversity of humankind as a representation of God's purpose, God's ennobling purpose in educating all of humankind. But here in particular, addressed to Muslims in the Arabic language, of the diversity of humanity in terms of its languages, nations, tribes, as well as genders, as a reflection of God's purpose in the world. "Surely, the noblest among all are those who are most God-fearing." That some of the distinctions by which most people conduct themselves in society in different times and places in God's eyes are far less important, the Quran is telling us, then is being God-fearing.
But this does not by any means exhaust the sources of tolerance in Islam going back to the Quran itself. "There is no compulsion in religion." Now this brief utterance, also from chapter 2 of the Quran, was taken by the overwhelming majority of Muslim scholars over the course of time, as a direct statement that Muslims may not, under any circumstances, compel non-Muslim monotheists in the Islamic polity to forced conversion, that they are to be given religious freedom.
The freedom to worship. Complete freedom of economic enterprise. Complete freedom of movement within the polity that is Islam. That they are encouraged to be encouraged and to be invited to embrace Islam, but because as we saw in the previous segment about the text of the Quran, Islam acknowledges the basic truthfulness and certainly the divine source of the previous monotheistic dispensations. They are to be tolerated. They have a defined, protected place within the Islamic polity.
One last utterance speaking to this question of tolerance in Islam. From chapter 109, in the text of the Arabic Quran, "to you your religion, to me my religion." Another utterance that was used by the overwhelming majority of Muslim scholars over the course of time to argue for an essential tolerance as basic to the way in which Islam was to treat other people, and in particular, other monotheists. Now already in the Quran other monotheists are referred to in a way that speaks of them as peoples of the Book. This seems to be a term reserved especially for Jews and Christians. Peoples of the Book with a capital B. The recipients of a previous divine dispensation, as I mentioned.
But they also come to be understood in early Islam as protected people, or people who are engaged in a pact with Islam, a thima. And the adjective in Arabic is thime, protected people, or people with whom the Islamic polity has entered into a kind of protective covenant or treaty. Now this defines a honored but subordinate place in the Muslim polity for Jews and Christians, in particular. Subordinate because like all pre-modern societies, there's no sense that a society ought to exist for any purpose other than protecting the interests of those in whose name it has come into being.
So first and foremost, the Islamic polity exists to provide the most perfect conditions with which Muslims may observe Islam and may submit to the will of God. Secondarily, however, there is a place in that polity, a defined place, a protected place, for Jews and Christians so long as the protection of their religious freedom and economic freedom and freedom of movement in no way clashes with the interests of Muslims or Islam. So there are a series of disabilities that are articulated in early Islam. The first and foremost of which already is articulated in the Quran itself, that these peoples of the Book, in order to obtain this protection from the Islamic polity, must pay a poll tax. And must pay it in a way that is humbling, and is a physical demonstration of the sign of their subordinate place in a Muslim polity, even though they are granted religious freedom and freedom of economic enterprise and movement.
I'm sure that some of the things that we've talked about in the last segment will elicit some questions and comments, and maybe some objections from some of you. And I invite you to post them on the discussion board. Before we move on to our next section, speaking about Islamic civilization, I want to draw your attention to the idea that the involvement, the engagement of Jews and Christians through their arabicization in all of the lands of the Middle East, opened for them access to participation in Islamic society and Islamic culture.
We often tend to equate Islam, thinking about the Middle East, with a desert civilization, its origins in the Arabian Peninsula, and so forth. But in fact, we've already mentioned some of the great cities of Islam. Damascus, Baghdad, Cairo, to which we can add a number of cities in Central Asia. Fez, Cairoan in North Africa, and Cordoba in Islamic Spain. Just to mention of that roster of great cities of classical Islam is enough to draw our attention to the fact that during its classical period, Islam was an urban civilization first and foremost. In the next segment, we'll be talking about all of those various accomplishments of classical Islam in its urban centers.
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Islam, which means acknowledging the sovereignty of God, is first and foremost a monotheistic system of belief and practice. In the simplest sense, then, a Muslim is a person who submits to Allah (Arabic for God).
This CyberTower Room offers an introduction to Islam and Islamic civilization. In particular it highlights some of the lasting achievements of classical Islam and invites the CyberTower visitor to consider these over against the misguided popular tendency to regard Islam and Muslims as "others."
This video is part 3 of 5 in the Islam series.