In the Beginning

By M. Cherif Bassiouni , Professor of Law | Jan 24, 2012

It is estimated that there are over 900 million Muslims today. Many live in the Arab World (estimated at 120 million), but many more live in countries such as Iran, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, Malaysia, China, the USSR, Nigeria, Cameroon, Chad, and Sudan. An estimated 3 million Muslims reside in the United States.

The world's three monotheistic faiths—Judaism, Christianity, and Islam—were born and developed in that small region called the Middle East. Abraham was born in the city of Ur, Mesopotamia (Iraq), some 1900 years before Jesus was born in Bethlehem (Palestine). Muhammad was born in Mecca (Saudi Arabia) in 570 A.D. Moses lived in Egypt, as did Jesus for a brief period in his infancy; Muhammad traveled throughout the Arabian Peninsula.

The Middle East straddles Africa and Asia Minor It is bordered on the north from Turkey to Tunisia by the Mediterranean. To the southeast it is bordered by the Indian Ocean, which encircles the Arabian Peninsula, and to the east by the mountains of Iran and Turkey. To the west of Egypt lies the Sahara Desert. The races which inhabited these territories were the Semites, Hammites, Aryans, and the Indo-Europeans.

The Middle East region is the cradle of all the ancient civilizations. The oldest of these civilizations, the Egyptian, extended over five millennia. The fourth millennium B.C. witnessed the birth of the great civilizations along the Tigris-Euphrates valley (Turkey, Syria, Iraq). The Nile-centered Egyptian civilization was largely self-contained; those of the Tigris-Euphrates valley had more frequent contacts with other civilizations. As a result, they were periodically transformed as they came in contact with different cultures and peoples. The most important of these ancient civilizations were the Sumerian, Mesopotamian, Babylonian, Assyrian, Assyro-Babylonian, Aramean, Phoenician, Carthagenian, Canaanite, Hebrew, Philistine, Chaldean, Hurrian, Hittite, Kassite, and Mitani. Their peoples spoke a number of languages including Akkadian, Aramaic, Syriac, Sumerian, Hebrew (the language of the Torah), and Arabic (the language of the Qur'an).

In the first century BC the Greeks and then the Romans through conquest established their presence in the region. Then from the seventh to the eighteenth centuries AD the Arabs extended their presence to Europe and Asia. The ebb and flow of their conquests enriched the cultures with which they came in contact through the intermingling of peoples and the transfer of values and knowledge. The richness of Arab Islamic culture in the arts and sciences and the dissemination of Arab Islamic culture throughout the Mediterranean basin and Asia Minor and into Europe and portions of Asia and Africa has served to make it one of the foundations of today's civilizations.

He it is who created the heavens and the earth in six days; then mounted the throne. He knoweth all that entereth therefrom and all that cometh down from the sky and that ascendeth therein; and He is with you wheresoever ye may be. And Allah is Seer of what ye do.
Qur'an 57:4

Prophet Muhammad and the Birth of Islam

The word "Islam" is derived from the same root as the words salaam (peace) and silm (the condition of peace). Islam means to abandon oneself in peace. A Muslim, consequently, is one who in peace gives or surrenders himself or herself to God. Islam means accepting the faith freely—heart, mind, and soul. Surrendering to Islam, as a result, means giving oneself to belief without reservation, accepting the tenets of faith, and following both the letter and the spirit of the Qur'an's prescriptions.

Abraham, also called "The Patriarch," is the most important of the early prophets to the Jews, Christians, and Muslims. He founded, in what is now Mecca, the first temple in the world for the worship of a single god. He was also the father of lsma'il (Ishmael) and Ishaq (Isaac). The descendants of Isaac ultimately formed what became the Hebrew tribes. The tribes of the Arabian Peninsula, the descendants of Isma'il, were the first people to become Muslims.

Until the 7th century the entire area of the Arabian Peninsula bordered on the west by the Red Sea, on the east by the Arabian Gulf, on the south by the Indian Ocean and on the north by the Fertile Crescent (now Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, portions of Palestine and Jordan) was inhabited for the most part by nomadic tribes. There were three Jewish tribes in Yathrib near Madina and others in Yemen. There were also a few Christians in the north and west of the Peninsula and in Yemen. Most of the inhabitants, however, were pagans. Muhammad was known to meditate in the solitude of the desert. He frequently visited a cave called Hira just outside Mecca. During one of his meditations—he was 40 years old at the time—he received the first of his revelations from God. The Qur'an identifies the bearer of the message as the angel Gabriel, who commanded the Prophet Muhammad to read. When Muhammad responded that he didn't know how, Gabriel replied, "Read in the name of your Lord Who created man from a clot of blood..." In this way Muhammad became the bearer of the divine message.

Proclaim! (or Read!) In the name of thy Lord and Cherisher, Who created—
Created man, out of a (mere) clot of congealed blood:
Proclaim! And thy Lord is Most Bountiful,—
He Who taught (the use of) the Pen...
Qur'an 96:1-5

In Islam there can be no confusion or doubt that Muhammad was a man, and only a man, chosen by the Creator to fulfill a divine mission as a prophet. Muhammad's mission was literally to "read" what Allah had ordered and ordained, nothing more. The Prophet received his revelations from God, sometimes in solitude sometimes in the presence of others. Words flowed from his mouth in a way that others described as inspired. This was Muhammad's wahy (divine inspiration or revelation). Muslims believe that the Qur'an is the Word of Allah expressed through the revelations to the Prophet.

Among the Arab tribes, the most powerful and noble was the Quraysh, into which Muhammad ibn 'Abd Allah ibn 'Abd al-Muttalib was born on Monday at dawn on the 12th of Rabi' Awal (the year 571 in the common era calendar). That year was known as the year of the Elephant—the year the Abyssinians invaded Mecca to destroy the Ka'ba. The year received its name from the fact that the army of the Abyssinians was supported by elephants!

According to tradition, the Prophet Muhammad is a direct descendent of Ishma'el, the son of Abraham. Muhammad's mission was presaged by the deliverance of his father, 'Abd Allah, after he had been chosen for sacrifice. The story is this. 'Abd Allah had nine brothers, but he was the favorite son. His father 'Abd al-Muttalib was in charge of the well of the pilgrims. When the water of the well, Zamzam, dried up, he was at a loss as to what to do. He was advised to make offerings to the gods of one of his sons. Muhammad's father was chosen by lot. Reluctant to carry out the act, 'Abd Allah's father beseeched the pagan priests to spare his favorite son. They suggested that camels be offered in his stead. It took one hundred camels to satisfy the gods. The well filled again, and the life of 'Abd Allah was spared. This recalls the saying of the Prophet: "I am the son of the sacrificed..."

After his birth, as was the custom of the Arabs, Muhammad was given to a wet nurse, a nomad named Halimah as-Sa'diyah, to learn the ways of the desert early on in life. She recounted the following story about the Prophet. When the boy was four years old, two men dressed in white came, took the child, and removed something black from his chest. This story is often used to interpret Surah 94, Verses 1-3, of the Qur'an, which reads: "Have we not Expanded thee thy breast?, And removed from thee thy burden, the which did gall Thy back?"

At the age six, Muhammad lost his mother, Aminah of the clan of az-Zuhrah. 'Abd al-Muttalib cared for him until the age of eight. His uncle, Abu Talib raised him, and taught him caravan trade after the death of his grandfather. Over the years Muhammad earned the name al-Amin—the honest—for his rare qualities of character.

The history of the Prophet, his deeds and sayings, were at first memorized by his companions and passed on as oral record. They were first comprehensively recorded by the historian Ishaq ibn Yasar (ca. 768). Later the deeds and sayings of the Prophet (the Hadith), the circumstances surrounding their occurrence, and the evidence of those who first witnessed and reported them to others were recorded by a number of scholars. The most authoritative is al-Bukhari. His text is still relied upon today.

Interior of the Dome of the Rock, Jerusalem. The uppermost inscription in the dome is a Qur'anic verse which begins, "God there is no god but He, the Living, the Self-Subsisting Eternal...." The lower inscription, above the windows, records the restoration of the building by Saladin in the late 12th century. (Aramco World Magazine, September-October 1996; photo Peter Sanders).
The Spread of lslam

After discussing his message secretly with his wife, Khadijah, his cousin Ali, and his friend Abu Bakr, the Prophet decided in the year 622 to leave Mecca, where he had lived in some danger. He migrated to Yathrib (later Madina), whose inhabitants had invited him to come and spread his message. For this reason the history of the Islamic community is considered to have been formally born on the night of the hejira, the night of migration, when the Prophet departed Mecca for Madina. The city became the caliphate seat until Damascus replaced it in the year 661. The people of Madina embraced Islam, and gradually, through a series of both military engagements and acts of diplomacy, Muhammad was able to reenter Mecca and to spread the word of Islam throughout the Arabian Peninsula.

The beginning of the risala, the message from a transcendental perspective, might be said to have begun with Creation, which is when God ordained things to be. From a temporal perspective, however, it began with the first revelation of the Prophet.

After the death of the Prophet in 632 AD, his message spread north of the peninsula into Syria, Lebanon, Iraq, Palestine, and Persia. In 638, after the battle of Yarmouk against the Romans, the victorious Arab Muslims entered Palestine. The Romans, during their occupation of Palestine—particularly after their occupation of Jerusalem— had destroyed the Jewish temple and expelled the Jews from Jerusalem in 70 AD They had subsequently prevented freedom of religion for Jews and Christians in Palestine until Constantine officially recognized Christianity in the fourth century.

It must be noted that the official church of Byzantium (Eastern Roman Empire), at al-Roum, was equally oppressive as its pagan forebearers. In particular, it vigorously suppressed the Eastern Christian churches of Syria and the Coptic Church of Egypt. However, since Muslims were by the Qur'an's mandate obligated to respect the "People of the Book," their predecessors in receiving divine revelation, they established a covenant with Christians and Jews. Earlier, when the Prophet had migrated to Madina in 622, he had entered into an agreement with the Jewish tribes of Yathrib (later called Madina) when he had journeyed to that city. However, when they joined forces with the Meccans against him, he was forced to turn against them. This brief episode did not harm subsequent Muslim Jewish relations.

Umar ibn al-Khattab was the second elected khalifa or caliph (successor) after the death of the Prophet. He was the head of state of the Muslim nation at the time. About to enter Jerusalem in 638 after his forces had triumphed over the Romans at the Battle of Yarmouk, Umar descended from his horse and called at the gates of the city for all of the leaders of the Christian Church to meet him there. Addressing their elder, Bishop Sophronious, he made the historic Covenant of Umar, requiring all Muslims forever to guarantee Christians freedom of religion, use of their houses of worship, and the right of their followers and pilgrims to visit their holy places. Umar also rescinded the Roman decree banishing Jews from Jerusalem and pledged to protect their freedom of religious practice. The Covenant of Umar was, in effect, the first international guarantee of the protection of religious freedom.

Islam then spread to Egypt in 641 and to all of North Africa by 654. Until the Middle Ages, Islam was present from southern France to China—virtually the entire known world. The spread of Islam was due in part to the military prowess of the Muslim forces. But the message the Muslims were spreading and the manner in which they administered the conquered regions were their strongest asset. They brought with them not only a new and uplifting faith but a system of government which was honest and efficient. They established a civilization that was to flourish for hundreds of years.

Man reads the Qur'an atop an old fort in Hunza, a remote valley in the the Karakorum Mountains in northern Pakistan, possibly the highest outpost of Islam in the world. (Aramco World Magazine, January-February 1983; photo S. M. Amin).

By establishing freedom of religion and religious practice for Christians and Jews, they made the followers of these two faiths their principal allies in the countries they sought to enter. In Egypt, for example, it was the Archbishop of the Coptic Church who invited the Muslims to free Egypt from the Roman occupiers in 641. The Coptic Church had been established by St. Mark shortly after the death of Jesus. However, it had been persecuted on religious grounds by the Byzantine Church ever since the Council of Chalcedon had declared monophysitism a heresy in 451. Promises of Coptic support caused Umar ibn al-Khattab to send Amr ibn al-As, the leader of the Muslim forces, into Egypt. With less than 2,000 men, Amr defeated the 12 Roman legions stationed there. The support given the Muslims by the Copts of Egypt insured the success of the campaign.

Although the primary objective of Muslim administration in every new territory was the establishment and propagation of Islam. Muslims also brought to the conquered peoples more effective government administration with a high level of motivation, integrity, and service. Frequently they ended tyrannies that had long existed in many of these countries, liberating rather than subjugating the population.

Throughout the history of Muslim rule, relations between Muslims, Christians, and Jews varied. The Muslims as a rule used leaders drawn from the indigenous population in public administration and did not seek to destroy the local identity of the various areas in which they became implanted. This is why centuries later, notwithstanding the fact that much of the Arab portion of the Islamic nation had been absorbed into the Turkish Ottoman Empire, most of these areas continued to be separate regions with their own institutions, leaders, and particular characteristics. Thus, for example, Egypt and Morocco were entities administered most of the time by their own people. They enjoyed a territorial, administrative, and cultural identity distinct from other regions of Islam. The concept of Ummah or nation of Islam never precluded regional and local identity. Islam did not seek to impose radical cultural changes. In fact, because of the flexibility of Islam, it readily became part not only of the belief of the people but of the popular culture.

Islam was also spread by Muslim merchants throughout the known world along the ancient trade routes. People readily converted to a simple religion that appealed to individualism, dignity, logic, and reason. Moreover, it didn't require an organized clergy or the power of a state to propagate or enforce it.

The spread of Islam was halted in France in the year 732 at the battle of Poitiers, but it continued to expand into parts of Asia (e.g., into what is now India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Afghanistan, parts of the Soviet Union, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, and China) and into Africa. After the eleventh century, a succession of power struggles among Muslim leaders, as well as regional jealousies and a resurgence of Christian power in the West and in Byzantium, caused the Islamic nation to weaken. The Christian crusades of the eleventh and twelfth centuries battered the Islamic nation, although they were finally brought to an end in 1187 by the famous Muslim general leader of the Ayyubi dynasty of Egypt, Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi. The Ottoman Turkish Empire's expansion was stopped at Vienna in 1683. By the fifteenth century, however, the Arab portion of the Islamic nation had become part of the Ottoman Turkish Empire, which in turn broke apart and was ultimately dismantled by the Western European allies after World War I. Thereafter, the Arab Muslim world fell under the colonial occupation of France and England. Each country in the Arab region obtained its independence from England and France between the years 1922 and 1965, except for Palestine.

A variety of factors brought about the decline of the Islamic state between the twelfth and fifteenth centuries. But the spread of the faith continues even today. The clarity, simplicity, and logic of the faith embodied in its tenets and religious practices are its principal attractions. In addition, the emphasis on individual responsibility and personal commitment as well as the absence of an organized clergy, makes Islam readily transmittable. As the Qur'an states Allah is closer to each one than his own jugular vein.

An historical chronology of the Islamic state and its various rulers follows. It shows the temporal reach and geographic spread of Islamic influence. Islam is a complex political, historical, social, and economic phenomenon; it can be studied and interpreted from a variety of philosophical, historical, and social perspectives. As a faith, however, Islam continues to speak to the modern world irrespective of its other meanings. What constitutes the Ummah, the Community of Islam, is not the existence of a political structure but the conscious acceptance of its Muslim participants of Allah's will and their mission on earth.

Mosque at Panfilov, Kazakstan, near the Chinese border. The facade is typical of the austere Islamic architecture of Central Asia, while the minaret is shaped like an ornate Chinese pagoda. (Aramco World Magazine, July-August 1988; photo Tor Eigeland).
We have honoured the sons of Adam; provided them with transport on land and sea; given them for sustenance things good and pure; and conferred on them special favours, above a great part of our Creation.
Qur'an 17:70

It was We who created man, and We know that dark suggestions his soul makes to him: for We are nearer him than (his) jugular vein.
Qur'an 50:16

Islam in Andalusia
The history of Islam in Spain is the history of one of the most brilliant Islamic civilizations the world has known, the "Golden Caliphate" of the Umayyads. The caliphate was founded by Abd al-Rahman, the sole surviving member of the Umayyad dynasty of Damascus. He had been forced to flee for his life with a younger brother when the Abbasids of Baghdad overthrew the Umayyads as the ruling dynasty in 750. His brother was captured and killed. But, enduring great hardship and peril, Abd al-Rahman—a tall, red-haired, poet warrior was able to make his way to Spain and Cordoba, the leading city, to claim his rightful position as the surviving head of the Umayyad dynasty.

Islam had come to Spain or to "Al-Andalus" as it was known to its Moorish rulers a scant 40 years before when in 710 a raiding party led by a Berber officer, Tariq ibn Malik, crossed the narrow eight mile straight separating Africa from Europe. Less than a year later an invading force of 7,000 men led by Tariq ibn Ziyad landed at Gibraltar (in Arabic "Jabal Tariq" or the Mountain of Tariq). And by 718—despite some initial resistance from the Visigoth Christian rulers and their King, Roderick— nearly the whole of the Iberian peninsula was firmly under Muslim control.

So begins the story of the rise of a caliphate that was to become the cultural center of western Islam and seat of learning for Christian Europe. Abd al-Rahman was not able to consolidate his rule for 20 years, since his claim to rule did not go uncontested either in Baghdad or Cordoba. Thus Cordoba's era of splendor really began with his successors, principally Abd al-Rahman II. It was he who imported fashion and culture from the East and set the foundations for the later cultural flowering. He even recruited scholars from the East by offering handsome inducements to overcome their initial reluctance to live in so provincial a city.

By the time of Abd al-Rahman III (912-61), the culture and civilization of Islam in Al-Andalus were in full bloom. Cordoba was a large and vibrant metropolis with a population of roughly 500,000 persons (compared to 40,000 for Paris at the time). There was a university and some 70 libraries containing hundreds of thousands of volumes. Al-Hakim II's library alone contained some 400,000 books, whereas the library of the monastery of St. Gall, had only a few volumes. Science, philosophy, and the arts flourished. The greatest minds in every discipline and from all over Europe and the Levant journeyed to Cordoba to study and learn.

The greatest of these scholars made enduring contributions to science and letters. Many have become familiar to students in the west under their Latin names, men such as the philosopher Averroes (Ibn Rushd), the mathematicians Arzachel (al-Zarqali) and Alpetragius (al-Bitruji), and the physician Avenzoar (Ibn Zuhr) to name a few.

Perhaps the most notable of all contributions of Muslim scholars to science lay in the field of medicine. Muslim physicians made important additions to the body of knowledge which they inherited from the Greeks. Ibn al-Nafis, for example, discovered the lesser circulation of the blood hundreds of years before Harvey. Al-Zahrawi wrote a masterwork on anatomy and dissection, the Tasrif, which was translated into Latin by Gerard of Cremona and became a standard text in European medical schools throughout the Middle Ages. Ibn Baitar wrote a famous work on drugs called Collection of Simple Drugs and Food. This work served for centuries as an invaluable reference guide to medicinal plants native to Spain and North Africa.

The greatest contribution of Muslim medicine—as it was in other fields—was to distinguish science from pseudo-science. Indeed, in an era of pervasive superstition and ignorance, the great achievement of Islamic scholars was to place the study of medicine and other subjects on a scientific footing. The West didn't achieve a comparable clarity of vision until the Enlightenment. The strongly rationalist orientation of Islamic scholars was especially pronounced in Andalusia, where new scientific developments and fashions coming from the East were often viewed with suspicion. Ibn Hazm, a prominent 11th century Andalusian scholar, put the matter this way. "Those," he said, "who advocate the use of talismans, alchemy, astrology, and other black arts are shameless liars." This pervasively rationalist attitude did much to recommend Islamic science to the rest of the world.

It is a quirk of history that, after periods of exceptional cultural brilliance, periods of decline and decay seem to come most quickly. So it was in Andalusia. With Abd al-Rahman III's successor, the effective but unpopular al-Mansur, the long decline of Muslim rule in Andalusia began. The vibrancy and energy of the culture was sapped by internal strife, as minor Muslim principalities revolted, and by the long and costly effort against the Christian reconquista. Muslim religious vigor was periodically renewed by successive Almoravid and Almohad invasions, but the culture was never again to attain the heights it had during the Golden Caliphate.

By 1248 the stronghold in Seville had fallen, and the area of Spain under Muslim control was reduced to the Kingdom of Granada. There, miraculously, Islamic culture survived and prospered for more than two and a half centuries. Ironically, however, it was most likely the Ottoman capture of Constantinople in 1453 that sealed Granada's fate. Soon after, fueled by the Christian fear of Islam, Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile—the future patrons of Christopher Columbus—brought the curtain down on one of the most remarkable and glorious civilizations inspired by Islam. The date was January of 1492.

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