Islam

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11

ISLAM 570 C.E. – 1500 C.E.
SUBMISSION TO ALLAH: MUSLIM CIVILIZATION BRIDGES THE WORLD

COMMENTARY
The thesis of Chapter 11 is clearly stated by Howard Spodek on page 334: “Islam was not only a faith, not only a system of government, not only a social and cultural organization, but a combination of all four.” This, it might be argued, could be said about any of the “world religions” during at least some stage of their development, but is perhaps more true of Islam than the others, owing to the simplicity of its basic teachings, the lack of a true priesthood and the dual religious and political roles assumed by Muslim elites, and the reliance on the Quran – viewed as the literal word of Allah (God) as revealed to the prophet Muhammad – as both the sole source of religious truth and the sole source of law. The chapter begins with a summary of the life of Muhammad and discussion of the early development of Islam, including the origins of the split between its two principal groups, Sunni and Shi’a. It reviews basic tenets of Muhammad’s teachings, the “Five Pillars” of Islam; and the importance of the concept of the umma or community of believers; and shari’a, or Islamic law; and then discusses the ways in which Islam was transmitted throughout Eurasia and Africa and transformed from a regional Arab sect into a world religion and cosmopolitan cultural ecumene. In addition to explaining the basic beliefs and organizational structure of Islam, the history of its early development, and its religious and political expansion and cultural diffusion throughout much of Asia and Africa and parts of Europe, the text addresses several important and controversial historical questions and seeks to dispel some commonly-held misconceptions. One historical issue that is explored is Islam’s effect on the status of women: was women’s role (particularly in Arab society) raised or debased as a result of conversion to Islam? And, to the extent that the effects of Islamic conversion are seen to be detrimental to women, was this the result of the teachings of Muhammad and the Quran, or more the result of the absorption and diffusion of essentially non-Muslim, non-Arab, traditions about gender (such as those of Persia and the Byzantine Empire) throughout Islamic society? The debate over the meaning of jihad (usually translated as “holy war”) is also discussed, along with the closely-related questions of the extent to which Islam was spread by “the sword” (military conquest), as opposed to more peaceful means; and the actual reasons why people converted to the new religion. Less directly, Spodek attacks the view of Islam as a monolithic creed, by demonstrating the variety of its branches and sects and discussing the wide range of its religious and cultural expression, from the regional variations within the shari’a, or Islamic law, to the differences between mainstream Islam and sufi mysticism, on the one hand, and rationalist dissent on the other. In the text’s discussion of the Crusades and the Reconquista, Islam is shown to be inherently no more aggressive or warlike than Christianity. An implicit sub-theme in the chapter is the enormous range of sources available to students of Islam, including all sorts of literary works, from sacred or semi-sacred texts such as early biographies of Muhammad, the hadith (collected and edited sayings of Muhammad and anecdotes about his life and teaching) and the Quran itself; and the writings of Muslim teachers, theologians and qadis (legal scholars); to texts on history, law, medicine, astronomy, mathematics, engineering, warfare, and a wide range of other topics; to poetry and prose literature. Added to these more formal and traditional text sources is a rich trove of more everyday writings: government edicts, rihla, or travel accounts and diaries; the records of business transactions and court decisions; and folk tales and songs. Then there are the unwritten sources, including a myriad of cultural...
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