Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Rise of Islam

I. The Sasanid Empire, 224-651

A. Politics and Society--the Sasanid Kingdom was established around 224CE. While it was sometimes in conflict with the Romans located west of the kingdom--and subsidized Arab chieftains to protect the kingdom from invasion from the west (and the Romans--or, as they were known after 330CE, the Byzantines--did the same to ensure their kingdom wasn't invaded from the east)

1. Politics--the mountains and plateaus of the interior of Iran formed the hinterland for the Sansanid Kingdom. Cities were little more than fortified military outposts. Much of the area was ruled by aristocratic families, connected to the shah (king) by bonds of kinship--although there did not develop the feudal structure that dominated European society.

2. Society--Sananid society was dominated by the aristocratic families who lived on rural estates. The male members of these families spent most of their time hunting, feasting, and learning the arts of war, just like the the noble warriors described in the sagas of ancient kings and heroes sung at their banquets.

3. The Silk Road--brought trade goods into the Sansanid Kingdom, including plants like cotton, sugar cane, rice, citrus trees, eggplants, and other crops adopted from India and China. Sansanid farmers pioneered raising all of these crops in western Asia, and are responsible for introducing them to farmers further west

B. Religion and Empire

1. Zoroasterism--the Sansanids established Zoroasterism as the official state religion, something their predecessors the Parthians had not done.

2. Christianity--was the official religion of the Byzantines, the rivals of the Sansanids. Although Zoroasterism had previously encouraged religious toleration, this was transformed during the Sansanid era to intolerance--probably a result of it becoming a means to further a political ends. Christianity did not have the track record for tolerance of other religious faith practices, but it also became increasingly intolerant during this era--for much the same reason, probably, since it also served as an adhesive role in Byzantine society. Ordinary people in both Byzantium and the Sansanid Kingdom became pawns in the struggle between the two kingdoms, and saw that sometimes their differing religious views were tolerated, while other times they would be persecuted.

a. Heresy--from the 4th century onwards, Christian bishops exercised greater power in regulating the practice of the religion, declaring some practices and beliefs that had been tolerated un-Christian, or heresy

b. Nestorian Christians--maintained that divinity and humanity of Jesus Christ coexisted, and maintained that Mary was therefore not the Mother of God--but only the mother of the human Jesus. The majority of the bishops present held that this teaching was in error, and ordered the Nestorians to stop preaching it, or be barred from the Church. The Nestorians instead sought refuge with the Sansanids.

c. Manichaeanism--a preacher named Mani preached a dualist faith--a struggle between good and evil--that was theologically derived from Zoroasterism. While this would seem to make Manichaean practice a natural fit with the Sansanids, Mani and many of followers were martyred by the Sansanids in 276. Manichaeanism remained a potent force, however, and compete throughout Central Asia with Nestorian Christianity for converts.

d. Effects on Arabs--Arabs were exposed to the religious disagreements because they acted as border protectors for both the Byzantines and the Sansanids; because religious practice during this time helped to define one's self, Arabs did develop an appreciation of the doctrinal controversies among Christians.

II. The Origins of Islam

A. The Arabian Peninsula Before Muhammad--throughout most of its history, more people have lived as farmers on the relatively watered coast than in the interior of the Arabian Peninsula as pastoralists.

1. Agriculture--farming villages along the southwestern coast--particularly in Yemen--receive enough rainfall to support agriculture--a surprising development for many of us, no doubt, since the popular image of the Arabian Peninsula is one of a vast desert wasteland.

2. Pastoralists--in the interior, of course, the few people residing there made a living raising camels. With the advent of long-distance trade, because of the development of the Silk Road, some of these pastoral people became traders or involved in the trade through providing camels or as guides for trade caravans.

3. Mecca--was a late-blooming trade city, located near the western coast of the Arabian Peninsula. A nomadic kin group known as the Quraysh settled in Mecca in the fifth century and assumed control of the trade traversing through the region. Mecca occupies a barren mountain valley halfway between Yemen and Syria; it is too far away from Byzantine Syria, Sasanid Iraq, and Ethiopia-controlled Yemen to be attacked by any of those political entities, and therefore prospered as a local connection to a wider trade network. Mecca was home to a shrine called the Ka'ba, said to have been built by Abraham, and a site just outside the city as the place where God asked Abraham to sacrafice his son Ishmael (the son he fathered with Hagar, his wife Sarah's handmaiden)--identified by the Jewish bible as the forefather of the Arabs.

B. Muhammad in Mecca and Medina

1. Muhammad--was born in Mecca in 570, and grew up as an orphan in the house of his uncle. He became a trader, and married a Quarysh widow named Khadija, whose caravan interests he superintended. During the year 610, Muhammad began meditating at night in the mountainous terrain around Mecca, and during one night vigil, he received what he claimed was a visit from the angel Gabriel, telling him to preach about the one true God (Allah in Arabic).

2. Revelations--Muhammad related what Allah told him in verse. This would have been in line with practice at the time, especially with pre-literate people, because verse is easier to remember than straight text. Because Muhammad's verse was extremely beautiful, people hearing him assumed he was under a spell from jinns, the spirits thought to possess seers and poets; Muhammad, of course, believed that he was communicating with Allah.

3. Islam--translates to "the will of God," and Muslim means one who submits to Islam

4. Muhammad's banishment--the leaders of Mecca feared that accepting Muhammad as the sole agent of the one true God would diminish their own power, so they began to put pressure on his relatives to disavow him, and to punish the weakest of his followers. As a result, Muhammad and some of his followers removed to Medina, 215 miles north of Mecca.

C. Formation of the Umma--Before Muhammad, Arab society was completely organized by kin relationships. Leaders in Medina decided to accept Muhammad and his followers, because they viewed him as a mediating force that would end the internal feuding that the leading families in Medina had engaged in. It was during this time in Medina that the strictures in behavior developed in Islam.

1. Battle for Mecca--these continuing revelations led to a determination that Mecca had to be won over to Islam, and a low-grade war, defined by raids and negotiations with desert nomads, sapped Mecca's strength (and a portion of its wealth), and brought that city's leaders to the belief that God favored Muhammad--although Muhammad himself remained in Medina.

D. Succession to Muhammad--in 632, after a brief illness, Muhammad died, and a battle over the religion he founded commenced.

1. Abu Bakr--Muhammad had no direct male heir, because his only son had died of an illness years before. Within 24 hours of his death, a group of Medina leaders along with three close friends determined that a man named Abu Bakr, one of Muhammad's early followers and the father of Muhammad's favorite wife A'isha, should become the khalifa (caliph in English, meaning successor).

2. Five Pillars of Islam--1) Avowal that there is only one God, and that Muhammad is his messenger; 2) prayer five times a day; 3) fasting during the lunar month of Ramadan; 4) paying alms; and 5) making a pilgrimmage to Mecca at least one during one's lifetime. Muslim armies fought to confirm the authority of the newborn caliphate against other Arab communities that had abandoned their allegiance to Medina or followed other would-be prophets; some of this fighting spilled over into non-Arab areas in Iraq.

3. The Q'ran--Abu Bakr reportedly ordered the men who had written down Muhammad's revelations to collect them in a book, which Muslims believe took its final form in 650. They view this book not as the words of Muhammad, but as the unalterable word of God. Theologically, it compares not so much to the Bible, as to the person of Jesus Christ.

4. Disintegration of the Umma--although willing to accept God's will, members of the umma could not come to an agreement over the successors to Muhammad. When rebels assassinated the third caliph, Uthman, in 656, the assassins nominated Ali, Muhammad's first cousin and the husband of his daughter Fatima.

a. Shi'ites--the party of Ali, who believed that Ali was the rightful heir to Muhammad. When Ali accepted the nomination of the assassins, civil war broke out. Ali prevailed in the initial battle, but the challenge was renewed by a relative of Uthman. Inconclusive battle gave way to arbitration. The arbitrators decided that Uthman did not deserve to be killed, and that Ali was wrong to accept the nomination; Ali rejected these findings, but was murdered anyway by one of his followers for agreeing to arbitration in the first place.

b. Sunnis--the "People of Tradition and Community" supported the first three caliphs, and regarded the succeeding caliphs--except for the Ali interlude, of course--to be immans.

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