My social media feed went bonkers in the wake of the recent terror attacks around the world. There were the usual wackos talking about conspiracy theories, which are so easily dismissible that they hardly warrant discussion. Beyond the nonsense however, I found there was a common misunderstanding of what Islam is — who started it and why, what its core tenets are and why it’s so divided within itself. I picked up some knowledge on Islam during my time as a chaplain assistant in the Air Force and in my own private reading, as I’m fascinated with this stuff and I love talking about it. I feel it’s important that anyone living today know the basics of Islam in order to have a better understanding of the world around them.
It’s a relatively new religion, a product of the Dark Ages. It swept through the world rapidly and in a sense, was heir to the Roman Empire — along with Byzantium and the Catholic Church. It swept through at lightning speed, quickly taking up new territory and forever changing the cultures it absorbed, and it all started out in the middle of the desert.
Throughout antiquity, Arabia had been a kind of no-man’s land. Prior to the discovery of oil, it had been practically devoid of resources, stuck out on a bleak desert between the great empires of Persia and Rome, which would later become Byzantium. The southwestern part, over where Yemen is today, did pretty well in spite of this. It was situated along the trade route from India and the Horn of Africa and so they controlled it. But by the time of Mohammed in seventh century, southwestern Arabia’s best days were behind it.
Arabia’s most harsh deserts are actually in the south. If you go north and hit Medina or Mecca, there’s a little bit of water — not enough to sustain any long-term agriculture, but at least enough to sustain some life.
Mecca and Medina at the time were these fairly diverse trading cities. Christians and Jews of Arab and non-Arab decent were common. Arabia had its kingdoms, but for the most part, outside of the trading towns, these were feuding, nomadic societies organized along tribal lines based on units of kinship.
In much of the Middle East, these tribal structures are still important. Governments dissolve and what remains in the vacuum are tribal loyalties. Tribal loyalties tend to come in handy when your government collapses. Your third or second cousin can become kind of important to you in a world where there are no police.
Tribal structures are powerful in their ability to keep people together and just as powerful in their ability to drive them apart. The nomadic Arabs –the Bedouin tribes — were constantly feuding over water rights and other scarce resources. And they happen to live in one of the most inhospitable places on earth, so resource feuds are quite a common thing.
Because of this lack of resources, the Bedouins tended to raid a lot. We see this with other resource-depleted cultures throughout history, notably the Mongolians and Vikings. The Islamic conquests themselves first sprung forth from this tradition of raiding. It just happened to be that the places they were raiding had been weakened and what began as your everyday raid ended up as conquest after conquest.
The actual facts surrounding Mohammed are cloudy. Much of what we know of Mohammed comes from later, mostly Islamic writers. The problem with our documents on the subject is that the authors have obviously shaped the events in a way they saw fit.
We have the Hadith, the oral traditions. Oral traditions are almost never reliable. Then there’s the Sira, formal biographies which were written up to a hundred years after Mohammed’s death. Then of course there’s the Koran, which is hard to figure out when it was put together and how much of it is by Mohammed himself.
But here’s what we think we know — Mohammed was born into a prominent family in Mecca some time around 580. Because the Koran makes so many comparisons with trade and Mecca was a trading city at the time, it’s traditionally been assumed that he was a merchant, but that can’t be said for sure. We do know that he got his start as a prophet at the age of forty.
At this time, Mecca is a multi-cultural, multi-religious place. The tribes of Arabia are mostly polytheistic, but there are also Jews and Christians whom Mohammed was able to get a good portion of his ideas from. He begins preaching at around 620. His message, much like that of Judaism and Christianity, is of one God and His message by a series of prophets, starting with Abraham up through to Mohammed, the Last Prophet.
Mohammed first converts those within his immediate kinship. These people become important figures — his daughter Fatima, his wife, Khadijah, his cousin Ali, who winds up marrying Fatima, Abu Bakr, who was a powerful merchant, Uthman who was a member of the Umayyad family, an important family, and Omar. It starts as most religions do, as a fringe group. As the circle grew and gained more converts, it attracted the fear of the ruling class of Mecca. They were attracting more and more of the lower classes and they feared their grip on them was loosening.
So the leading clan of Mecca, the Quraish, drive Mohammed out. The city of Medina had been having all kinds of disputes within its factions, so in 622 Mohammed was invited to come and act as a kind of wise man ruler, someone above the factions who would settle their disputes. This would come to be known as the Hegira, a very important event in Islam.
Upon his arrival in Medina, he preaches that religious loyalty is more important than loyalty to any one tribal group. This is where he also establishes Mecca as the orientation for prayer, where Friday becomes the Sabbath, the Jews and Christians are expelled after a battle in 624 and Ramadan — the holy month of fasting, prayer and introspection — is instituted. Most importantly, this is where he crafts the notion that he is the Seal of the Prophets, the last prophet. He claims the Jews and the Christians were wrong — that it went from Abraham to Jesus, and now to Mohammad. This is where the Five Pillars of Islam are established — the confession of faith, the five daily prayers, the giving of alms, and the Hajj — the pilgrimage to Mecca.
Mohammad is both spiritual leader and a political leader. In order to get rid of old tribal loyalties, he starts having legal arguments settled in religious courts. So the political and religious community became one in the same in Islam in order to govern more completely.
By 624, Mohammed was planning to take over Mecca. It took until 630 for Mecca to fall to Mohammed and his forces and for all the tribes to submit. Two years later, in 632, Mohammed was dead and after his death, Islam spreads incredibly rapidly.
Mohammed had no real heir apparent upon his death, so it’s unclear who would succeed him. He had no son, and of course there was no prophet that would succeed him, that was perfectly clear. The other original followers, those with the most authority at the time, elected Abu Bakr, his father-in-law, as successor — the new Caliph.
Abu Bakr was forced to impose military control over the tribes in order to make them recognize his authority, further imposing a military culture that would eventually project outward in the form of raids.
The raids ensued on the big empires of Persia and Byzantium in order to keep the tribes happy with plunder. These raids soon turned to conquest when it was discovered that these empires were crumbling from fighting each other for so long, exhausting each other. And so Damascus, the capital of Byzantine Syria, one of the oldest cities in the world, fell to Islam in 634, two years after the death of Mohammed.
Abu Bakr died in 634. Ali, an original follower, lost the election to another original follower, Umar, who would go on to rule for ten years until 644. Under the Caliphate of Umar, the Byzantine Empire was chewed up horribly. It was devastated with the loss of Alexandria, Egypt — the Byzantine bread basket. It also suffered the loss of Palestine. But most impressive of Umar’s conquests was the conquering of the entirety of the Persian Empire.
The Arabs were masters of desert warfare. They were quite literally able to pick their battles. The ease with which they were able to travel through the harsh desert meant that they were able to pop in and out of it quickly, taking the best opportunities to attack and then disappearing again back into the wasteland if needed.
The Byzantine and Persian empires had very disgruntled and oppressed religious minority populations. The Orthodox Christians in Byzantium and Zoroastrians in Persia had been persecuting their minorities for years, so much so that when Muslim invaders showed up, these minority groups joined right up with the Muslims and even helped them get started setting up a navy as soon as 655.
Then of course, there is the elephant in the room — jihad. Jihad means “to struggle.” To struggle against what? Well, it’s a struggle against other religions. It’s also a struggle within Islam. The Koran says lots of inconsistent stuff about the jihad. What is clear is this — martyrs, those who die in the struggle, will receive favor in the afterlife. Jihad served as a major motivation during the conquests.
The Arabs had a policy of allowing conquered people to maintain their religion and local customs, their jobs, their property. They also actually stuck around after their conquests and were able to hold onto them because of this. They also plundered and seized the land of churches and the state governments, of course. The conquerers themselves were rewarded with the best lands of their own that had once belonged to the Church or the state and didn’t need to go around taking from the average citizen.
This wasn’t done out of the goodness of anyone’s heart, it was simply a strategic tactic. Non-Muslims were forced to pay a poll tax that their Muslim counterparts didn’t have to. However, the everyday citizens of these empires were already paying loads of taxes, so their lives didn’t change significantly. The conquest is rapid, Islamization is not.
Sunni and Shiite origins
In 644, Umar is assassinated, which brings about a disputed election. Ali runs again and loses again, poor bastard. Uthman, another original follower and member of the powerful Umayyad clan, wins the election. This changes everything.
The Umayyads were one of those groups who had originally opposed Mohammed. This is when we start to see pro-Umayyad, monarchist traditions which would become the Sunnis and pro-Ali, more fundamental traditions that would become Shiite.
Uthman himself carries on more wars of conquest, but he isn’t well-liked. He’s seen as corrupt and lethargic and he’s assassinated in 656. After all of this, Ali is named Caliph. The Umayyads aren’t happy about this. It’s widely believed that those who killed Uthman were supporters of Ali.
So Umayyads in Syria rose up and started the first civil war of Islam on the Caliphate that will go on from 656 to 661. The governor of Syria, a guy called Mu’awiya leads the revolt and eventually Ali is killed. Mu’awiya establishes an Umayyad dynasty and moves the capital from Medina to Damascus. Damascus is centrally located, cosmopolitan and not a traditionally Arab city. This is the start of an Umayyad ruling dynasty that would go on until 750.
The Shiites, those originally loyal to Ali, still would not be eliminated, no matter how in the minority or how overwhelmed by the Caliphate they were. They don’t want a single political ruling dynasty. They want their rulers elected, they don’t want their rulers to be born into it the way they are with these ruling dynasties.
There’s this feeling among Shiites that they are the true followers of Islam against a corrupt, monarchical establishment. They’re also really into apocalyptic thinking at this time. They believe in a time when the hidden Imams will come out again and make things right with the world, spewing their wrath on a day of judgement. Though this isn’t exclusive to Shiites, of course. Sunnis and many other religious sects have their own brand of end of the world terror, which a major part of the ideology of terror groups like ISIS now — a major problem the world continues to deal with as our terrifying world keeps turning.