From the 7th century AD

Islam: 7th century AD

In the 7th century Arabia becomes the cradle of the world's third great monotheistic religion. All three have begun within a small area of southwest Asia. First Judaism, somewhere in the region stretching up from the Red Sea to Palestine; then Christianity at the northern end of this area; and finally Islam to the south, in Mecca, close to the Red Sea.

Each of the later arrivals in this close family of religions claims to build upon the message of its predecessors, bringing a better and more up-to-date version of the truth about the one God - in this case as revealed to the Messenger of God, Muhammad. Islam means 'surrender' (to God), and from the same root anyone who follows Islam is a Muslim.

It is on Mount Hira, according to tradition, that the archangel Gabriel appears to Muhammad. He describes later how he seemed to be grasped by the throat by a luminous being, who commanded him to repeat the words of God. On other occasions Muhammad often has similar experiences (though there are barren times, and periods of self doubt, when he is sustained only by his wife Khadija's unswerving faith in him).

From about 613 Muhammad preaches in Mecca the message which he has received.

Muhammad's message is essentially the existence of one God, all-powerful but also merciful, and he freely acknowledges that other prophets - in particular Abraham, Moses and Jesus - have preached the same truth in the past.

But monotheism is not a popular creed with those whose livelihood depends on idols. Muhammad, once he begins to win converts to the new creed, makes enemies among the traders of Mecca. In 622 there is a plot to assassinate him. He escapes to the town of Yathrib, about 300 kilometres to the north.

Muhammad and the Muslim era: from AD 622

The people of Yathrib, a prosperous oasis, welcome Muhammad and his followers. As a result, the move from Mecca in 622 comes to seem the beginning of Islam.

The Muslim era dates from the Hegira - Arabic for 'emigration', meaning Muhammad's departure from Mecca. In the Muslim Calendar this event marks the beginning of year 1.

Yathrib is renamed Madinat al Nabi, the 'city of the prophet', and thus becomes known as Medina. Here Muhammad steadily acquires a stronger following. He is now essentially a religious, political and even military leader rather than a merchant (Khadija has died in 619).

He continues to preach and recite the words which God reveals to him. It is these passages, together with the earlier revelations at Mecca, which are written down in the Arabic script by his followers and are collected to become the Qur'an - a word (often transliterated as Koran) with its roots in the idea of 'recital', reflecting the oral origin of the text. The final and definitive text of the Qur'an is established under the third caliph, Othman, in about 650.

The Muslims and Mecca: AD 624-630

Relations with Mecca deteriorate to the point of pitched battles between the two sides, with Muhammad leading his troops in the field. But in the end it is his diplomacy which wins the day.

He persuades the Meccans to allow his followers back into the city, in 629, to make a pilgrimage to the Ka'ba and the Black Stone.

On this first Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, Muhammad's followers impress the local citizens both by their show of strength and by their self-control, departing peacefully after the agreed three days. But the following year the Meccans break a truce, provoking the Muslims to march on the city.

They take Mecca almost without resistance. The inhabitants accept Islam. And Muhammad sweeps the idols out of the Ka'ba, leaving only the sacred Black Stone.

An important element in Mecca's peaceful acceptance of the change has been Muhammad's promise that pilgrimage to the Ka'ba will remain a central feature of the new religion.

So Mecca becomes, as it has remained ever since, the holy city of Islam. But Medina is by now where Muhammad and his most trusted followers live. And for the next few decades Medina will be the political centre of the developing Muslim state.

An important element in Mecca's peaceful acceptance of the change has been Muhammad's promise that pilgrimage to the Ka'ba will remain a central feature of the new religion.

So Mecca becomes, as it has remained ever since, the holy city of Islam. And Muslim tradition locates in Mecca many of the events described first in the biblical book of genesis (see Biblical events in Mecca).

The preaching of Muhammad and the founding of Islam turn Mecca from a local place of pilgrimage to one of world-wide significance - though only Ka``ba are allowed to enter the city. Where pagan pilgrims once walked seven times round a Ka'ba filled with idols, Ka``ba now walk seven times round the same Ka'ba - but empty now, and sacred to the one God ('Allah' is God in Arabic).

The Ka'ba is not only the central shrine of Islam, and the focus of every pilgrimage to Mecca. It has also been, since Muhammad's time, the place towards which all Ka``ba turn when praying (see Ka'ba - description of the shrine).

Muhammad lives only two years after the peaceful reconciliation with Mecca. He has no son. His only surviving children are daughters by Khadija, though since her death he has married several younger women, among whom his favourite is A'isha.

Muhammad and the caliphate: from AD 632-656

There is no clear successor to Muhammad among his followers. The likely candidates include Abu Bakr (the father of Muhammad's wife A'isha) and Ali (a cousin of Muhammad and the husband of Muhammad's daughter Fatima). Abu Bakr is elected, and takes the title 'khalifat rasul-Allah'.

The Arabic phrase means 'successor of the Messenger of God'. It will introduce a new word, caliph, to the other languages of the world.

Abu Bakr, the first caliph, lives no more than two years after the death of Muhammad. Even so, within this brief time Muslim armies have begun their astonishing expansion, subduing the whole of Arabia and striking as far north as Palestine.

Abu Bakr is succeeded in 634 by Omar (another father-in-law of Muhammad), who in 638 captures Jerusalem. Six years later Omar is stabbed and killed in the mosque at Medina - for personal reasons, it seems, by a Persian craftsman living in Kufa.

Othman, chosen as the third caliph, is a son-in-law of Muhammad. By the end of his reign, in 656, Arabs have conquered as far afield as north Africa, Turkey and Afghanistan.

Othman, like his predecessor, is assassinated - but this time by rebellious Muslims. They choose Ali, another son-in-law of Muhammad, as the fourth caliph. For the first time within the Muslim community the selected caliph is the choice of just one faction. Ali's caliphate eventually provokes the only major sectarian split in the history of Islam, between Sunni and Shi'a (see The Shi'as).

Ali: AD 656-661

Raised to the position of caliph by rebels, Ali spends most of his reign in conflict with other Muslims. He wins the first battle, near Basra in 656, against an army fighting in support of Muhammad's widow, A'isha. She is herself in the fray, riding a camel, with the result that the event is remembered as the 'battle of the camel'.

But it is Ali's last success. The governor of Syria, Mu'awiya, wages a prolonged campaign against him to avenge the murder of the caliph Othman, his kinsman. Other opponents succeed in assassinating Ali, in 661, outside the mosque in Kufa - a Muslim garrison town to which he has moved the capital from Medina.


The Umayyad caliphate: AD 661-750

Mu'awiya, the leader of the struggle against Ali and his supporters, establishes himself after Ali's death in 661 as the undisputed caliph. His power base has been Syria. Damascus now becomes the capital of the first Muslim dynasty and the centre of the new Arab empire.

Mu'awiya is a member of one of the most prominent families of Mecca, the Umayya. Against considerable opposition he establishes a new principle - that the role of caliph shall be hereditary rather than elected. For the next century and more it is passed on within his family. The Umayyad dynasty will rule from Damascus until 750 and then will establish another kingdom at Cordoba, in Spain.

The Shi'as: from the 7th century AD

After the death of Ali, opponents of the new Umayyad dynasty promote the claims of Ali's two sons, Hasan and Husayn (grandsons of Muhammad). Their party becomes known as Shi'at Ali (the 'party of Ali'). The political cause crumbles after the death of the brothers (Hasan dies in about 669 and Husayn, subsequently the most holy of Shi'ite martyrs, is killed in the battle of Karbala in 680). But their faction has from now on a lasting religious disagreement with the Islam of the Caliphs in the clash between Sunni and Shi'a.

The main group under the caliphate becomes known as Sunni (those following Sunna, the orthodox rule) and the members of the new schismatic sect are known as Shi'as or Shi'ites, from the original name of their party.

The Shi'as argue that only the descendants of Ali can lead Islam. They themselves subdivide into several sects on the issue of which of his descendants have been the true imams, but the majority acknowledge a line down to a twelfth imam, Muhammad al-Muntazar, who is believed to have gone into hiding in 878. He is expected to return before the Last Judgement as the Mahdi ('one who is guided').

Among the minor Sh'ia sects, the most significant are the Ismailis. They are known as the 'Seveners' because they follow the seventh imam, Ismail. By contrast the larger group of Sh'ias become the 'Twelvers', awaiting the return of the twelfth and last in the line of imams.

Of these two Shi'a sects, the Ismailis are the first to win political power. They establish the Fatimid dynasty, which rules Egypt and north Africa from the 10th to 12th century.

Elsewhere the Shi'as remain for the most part a minority sect until the 16th century, when the founder of the Ismailis makes Shi'ism the state religion of Persia. From this derives the subsequent strength of the Shi'a faith in Iran and parts of Afghanistan, Iraq and Turkey.

Sufis: from the 8th century AD

As early as the 8th century, a reaction sets in against the worldly interests resulting from the rapid rise of the caliphate to the status of a great temporal power. Devout Muslims struggle to retain the purity and mystical fervour of the early years of their religion. Insisting on a simple life, like the Desert fathers of early Christianity, they are recognizable by their choice of plain woollen garments.

The Arabic for someone wearing wool is sufi. This name becomes attached, in later centuries, to any Muslim inclined to the mysticism which has always been part of Islam.

There have been, and still are today, many different Sufi sects. They often begin as the followers of one particular holy man, and pilgrimage to the tomb of a saint has been an important part of Sufi devotion. So has the use by ascetic Sufis (or dervishes) of repetitive phrases and actions, conducive to mystical experience. A well-known but extreme example is the whirling of the so-called dancing dervishes, a Sufi sect founded in the 13th century by the Persian mystical poet Jalal-ud-din Rumi.

But Sufism is a form of religious experience and commitment open to any Muslim, without membership of a particular sect. In keeping with its name, it runs through Islam like a thread within a woollen garment.

Arabs and Muslims: 8th century AD

During the explosive first century of Arab expansion, the relationship subtly changes between two concepts - Arab and Muslim. At first they are inseparable. The Muslim armies are made up entirely of Arab tribesmen, and it is taken for granted that only Arabs can be Muslims. Between campaigns the Arab armies stay together in winter camps or garrison towns. They are an occupying force, having little link with the inhabitants of the conquered territories.

But by the early 8th century, when the Muslim expansion has reached something approaching its peak, there are not enough Arabs to provide the troops.

Out of necessity, people of other groups begin to be received into Islam, fighting alongside the Arabs. Berbers do so in the west, and Persians in the east. Inevitably there are resentments. Non-Arabs often feel they are treated as second-class Muslims, particularly when it comes to sharing out loot after a campaign. And the conversion of outsiders to Islam brings a financial burden. Non-Muslims are charged a poll tax, which is not paid by believers. The spread of the faith is a drain on the treasury.

These various tensions, and the inevitable difficulty of controlling the vast new empire, result in a rebellion in 747 against the Umayyad caliph.

The Abbasid caliphate: from AD 750

Persia is the region in which resistance comes to a head against the caliphate of the Umayyads in damascus. The uprising is partly a simple struggle between Arab factions, each of impeccable pedigree in relation to the pioneers of Islam. A revolt in Persia in 747 is headed by descendants of al-Abbas, an uncle of the prophet Muhammad. Their new caliphate, established in 750, will be known as Abbasid.

The involvement of Persia is also significant. The Umayyad caliphate in Damascus derives from the early days of Islam when all Muslims are Arabs. But many Muslims in the east are now Persian, and Persian sophistication is beginning to divert Muslim culture from its simple Arab origins.

Abbasid forces reach and capture Damascus in 750. Abul Abbas is proclaimed the first caliph of a new line. Male members of the Umayyad family are hunted down and killed (though one survives to establish a new Umayyad dynasty in spain).

The centre of gravity of the Muslim world now moves east, from Syria to Mesopotamia. In 762 a new capital city, Baghdad, is founded on the Tigris. It is about twenty miles upstream from Ctesiphon, one of the leading cities of the preceding Persian dynasty, the Sassanians.

Baghdad: 8th century AD

In their new city of Baghdad the Abbasid caliphs adopt the administrative system of the long-established Persian empire. Persian Muslims are as much involved in the life of this thriving place as Arab Muslims. Here Islam outgrows its Arab roots and becomes an international religion. Here the Arabic and early Persian languages coalesce to become, from the 10th century, what is now known as Persian - combining words from both sources and using the Arabic script. Here Mesopotamia briefly recovers its ancient status at the centre of one of the world's largest empires.

At no time is this more evident than in the reign of the best-known of the Abbasid caliphs, Harun al-Rashid.

The luxury and delight of Harun al-Rashid's Baghdad, in the late 8th century, has been impressed on the western mind by one of the most famous works of Arabic literature - the thousand and one nights. Some of the stories are of a later date, but there are details in them which certainly relate to this period when for the first time a Muslim court has the leisure and prosperity to indulge in traditional oriental splendour.

The caliphate is now at its widest extent, with reasonable calm on most borders. The international fame of Harun himself can be judged by the emphasis of Charlemagne's biographers on the mutual esteem of these two contemporary potentates, who send each other rich gifts.

Islam and other religions: from the 7th century AD

Muslims are instructed in the Qur'an to be tolerant of the two older and closely related religions, Judaism and Christianity, which share with Islam the essential characteristics of monotheism and a sacred book; they are all linked in the phrase 'people of the book'. Jews and Christians have therefore, through most of history, fared better under Islam than has been the fate of Jews or Muslims in Christian countries.

Zoroastrianism does not feature in the Qur'an. But it also has one god and a sacred book. The Muslim conquerors of Persia therefore show a degree of tolerance to the state religion of the previous dynasty.

Arab civilization: from the 8th century AD

By the end of the 8th century a distinctive Arab civilization is emerging in widely separated regions. It is evident from the 8th century in Baghdad in the east and in Cordoba in the west. By the 10th century, between the two, there is a similar centre in the new city of Cairo.

The shared characteristics of these great cities are Islam, the Arabic language and a tolerance which allows Christians and Jews to play a full part in the community. The results include an expansion of trade (making these places the most prosperous of their time, apart from T'ang China), and a level of scholarship and intellectual energy superior to contemporary Christian cities.

Together with the spread of Islam, a lasting result of the events of the 7th century is the triumph of Arabic as a language in the middle east and north Africa. In Palestine and Syria it gradually replaces Aramaic as the popular tongue; in Egypt it does the same with Coptic; further west along the north African coast, it edges the language of the Berbers into a minority status.

The sense of identity of Arabs in subsequent centuries does not necessarily involve descent from the tribes of Arabia. It depends instead on the sharing of Arabic as both language and culture (implying also in most cases a commitment to Islam). It is this which provides the strong Arabic element in the civilization of the Middle Ages, from Mesopotamia to Spain.

Spread of the faith

Islam in east Africa: 8th - 11th century AD

Africa is the first region into which Islam is carried by merchants rather than armies. It spreads down the well-established trade routes of the east coast, in which the coastal towns of the Red Sea (the very heart of Islam) play a major part.

There is archaeological evidence from the 8th century of a tiny wooden mosque, with space enough for about ten worshippers, as far south as modern Kenya - on Shanga, one of the islands offshore from Lamu. Shanga's international links at the time are further demonstrated by surviving fragments of Persian pottery and Chinese stoneware.

By the 11th century, when Islam makes its greatest advances in Africa, several settlements down the east coast have stone mosques.

At Kilwa, on the coast of modern Tanzania, a full-scale Muslim dynasty is established at this period. Coins from about 1070 give the name of the local ruler as 'the majestic Sultan Ali bin al-Hasan'. Three centuries later the Muslim traveller Ibn batuta finds Kilwa an extremely prosperous sultanate, busy with trade in gold and slaves. In the 20th century Muslims remain either a majority or a significant minority in most regions of the east African coast. But the early penetration of Islam is even more effective down the caravan routes of west Africa.

Islam in west Africa: 8th - 11th century AD

From the 8th century Islam spreads gradually south in the oases of the Sahara trade routes. By the 10th century many of the merchants at the southern end of the trade routes are Muslims. In the 11th century the rulers begin to be converted.

The first Muslim ruler in the region is the king of Gao, from about the year 1000. The ruling classes of other communities follow suit. The king of Ghana, the most powerful realm, is one of the last to accept Islam - probably in the 1070s.

The effect of Islam on African communities, with their own strong traditional cultures, is a gradual process. In 1352 Ibn batuta visits Mali. He is impressed by the people's regularity in saying their prayers, but he looks with stern disapproval at certain practices which are more evidently African.

He particularly frowns upon performances by masked dancers, and on the tendency of women to walk about in an unseemly shortage of clothing.

The effect of Islam on African communities, with their own strong traditional cultures, is a gradual process. In 1352 Ibn batuta visits Mali, the kingdom which in effect replaces Ghana. He is impressed by the people's regularity in saying their prayers, but he looks with stern disapproval at certain practices which are more evidently African.

He particularly frowns upon performances by masked dancers, and on the tendency of women to walk about in an unseemly shortage of clothing. Nevertheless the influence of Islam on this part of Africa is profound. From the Sudan to the Atlantic, the entire region north of the equatorial forests remains to this day largely Muslim.

Mali is famous throughout the Islamic world at the time of Ibn batuta's visit, because only a generation earlier its ruler has astonished Cairo by his wealth.

In 1324 Mansa Musa, the sultan of Mali, decides to make the pilgrimage to Ibn batuta. His richly attired retinue and his heavily laden animals reflect his financial status - for he effectively controls the African gold trade which now supports the currency not only of Islamic states but of European communes and kingdoms. (The most valuable coins of Roman Catholic Europe have until recently been minted in silver, but Genoa, Florence and Venice reintroduce gold in the late 13th century and northern kingdoms soon follow their example.)

Contemporary accounts say that when Mansa Musa passes through Cairo, on his way to Ibn batuta, his caravan numbers 60,000 people and his camels carry 12 tons of gold. He distributes largesse to religious institutions and to fawning courtiers alike.

Indeed he is so generous with the abundant gold of Mali that the value of the metal in Cairo suffers a temporary slump. But the reputation of Africa and its wealth is securely established.

Muslims from Ghazni: 10th - 11th century AD

The long-standing threat to India from Muslim invaders is renewed when an aggressive Turkish dynasty wins power in Ghazni, southwest of Kabul. On several occasions Subuktigin, the first of these Ghazni rulers, makes raids on the region around Peshawar. Under his son, Mahmud, expeditions into India become a regular policy. During a 33-year reign, the number of his campaigns in the subcontinent is somewhere between twelve and seventeen.

Many of them are sorties for plunder and booty among the riches of India, sometimes as far down the Ganges as Kannauj. But Mahmud's most famous undertaking, in 1025, is different in kind. It is undertaken in a mood of religious zeal as much as for plunder.

India is the first place where invading Muslims are confronted with a highly developed cult of idolatry. The Hindu profusion of Sculpted gods and goddesses, often provocative or weird in the disposition of their limbs, is well calculated to outrage any attentive reader of the Qur'an - with its prohibitions against idols and graven images. Mahmud's strenuous effort in marching an army across the desert south from Multan, in 1025, has a holy purpose.

His destination is the great temple at Somnath, where Shiva's linga is washed daily in water brought by runners from the Ganges.

The temple has 1000 Brahmin priests and 600 musicians, dancers and other attendants. Countless pilgrims bring it vast wealth (the removal of which adds to the pleasure of pious indignation). When Mahmud arrives to destroy the place, it is said that 50,000 Hindus die in defence of it. No trace is allowed to remain of the building or its sacred contents.

In the annals of Muslim India, Mahmud acquires a heroic status for this act of destruction. It is the first in the long series of sectarian outrages which have marred the 1000-year relationship between Muslims and Hindus.

Since most of Mahmud's expeditions have been in the nature of raids, he and his heirs never extend their control beyond the Punjab - the territory closest to Afghanistan. But this foothold beyond the Khyber Pass gives easy access to the rich north Indian plain. In leaving the door ajar, Mahmud creates an opening for countless Muslim adventurers from central Asia.

This northwest region of the subcontinent will never again be Hindu. For the next five centuries, Muslim marauders push eastwards through the Punjab to find their fortunes in India. Some of them (in particular the Moghuls) settle down as the most spectactular of India's rulers.

Muslim Malaya and Indonesia: from the 13th century AD

Islam's final push to the east derives from the strength of Muslim India. By the end of the 13th century Indian merchants from Gujarat, trading through the Straits of Malacca, have established Muslim settlements in northern Sumatra; they are noted by Marco polo.

The wealth and sophistication of these traders brings converts to Islam, and the influence of the religion becomes rapidly stronger after a Muslim sultanate is established in Malacca from 1445. The threat of conquest and the benefits of trade now provide two good reasons for the neighbouring communities to embrace the Muslim faith.

During the 15th and 16th centuries Islam spreads through the Malay peninsula and the islands of Sumatra and Java. By the 17th century the Hindus, with their warrior princes, brahmin priests and caste system, are confined to the eastern tip of Java. Soon they are ousted even from there.

They cross to Bali, where they and their traditions manage to survive. By this time the mainland regions from Burma to Cambodia have resolved centuries of indecision between Hinduism and buddhism. They have chosen Buddha. The small island of Bali becomes, as it remains to this day, the only Hindu outpost in a southeast Asia otherwise divided between Buddhism and Islam.

Three Muslim empires: 16th - 18th century AD

By the mid-16th century the broad sweep of the Muslim world, from the Atlantic coast of north Africa all the way to India, has settled down as three powerful neighbouring empires.

In the west, occupying roughly the extent of the Byzantine territory before the Arab conquests of the 7th century, is the Ottoman empire with its capital in Istanbul. In the centre is the Safavid dynasty of Persia, passionately committed to the doctrines of the Shi'as in opposition to the Sunni orthodoxy of the Ottoman Turks. In the east is the Moghul empire, covering the greater part of India. It differs from the others in that its Muslim ruling class is a minority in an infidel population.

There is frequent border warfare between Persia and its neighbours on either side, but for a century and more the three regions are relatively stable and prosperous.

Then, during the 18th century, Persia is shaken by internal conflicts, bringing three new dynasties within fifty years. At the same time there are external threats, from European powers, to the Ottoman and Moghul empires. The Turkish sultans acquire a powerful and hostile neighbour in the form of the expanding Russian empire. India finds itself drawn gradually and inexorably into the British empire.

This History is as yet incomplete.
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