A Thousand Years of Faith and Power
By Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair
The authors (two professors of Islamic Art) here track Islamic faith from its origins, in 610 A.D., to date. They define “Islam” as “submission to God”; the word is based on a verb (aslayma”) meaning “I surrender”, which is also the root of the word Muslim (or its anglicized equivalent, “Moslem”). The book does its best to take a positive view of Muhammad (570-632 A.D.) and Islam, and acknowledges, but briefly, the warlike manner in which Muhammad and his followers spread their faith and the lethal admonitions (of “kill the infidels” and the like), which abound in The Koran. Still, the book helps us under the Islamic culture.
It notes that there are “many Islam’s” (splinter groups or sects) and considerable disagreement as to the interpretation of The Koran. When Muhammad died (or ascended, as his followers assert) in 632 A.D., he left no chain or mechanism to provide for his successor. As a result, his successors (“caliph’s”) were selected more by consensus than by an election. As the local caliph was both the religious and political leader, he was tantamount to King. Since kings have absolute power and wealth, they tended to develop on a regional basis (as they fought each other bitterly for turf and serfs to tax); these endless skirmishes resulted in the splintering of Persia into the many countries that it is today. Caliphs may have palaces that are three or more times the size of the largest mosques, which are huge, and they are recipients of a “one-fifth” income-tithe from believers (as dictated by The Koran). The incentive to form a splinter group was (and is) great, just as it is today among the evangelical leaders who prolifically spawn personal churches where they control the collection plates – a scaled-down version of a caliph.
Some of the more prominent Islamic sects include the Sunnis, Shiites, and the Sufis. The Sunnis, the largest Islamic sect, choose the most learned man to lead, but they, too, choose him by consensus, rather than by election; they do not view their leaders as divinely inspired. Sunnis are likely less violent in general. The Shiites, the second largest Islamic sect, believe that Muhammad’s successors should be his direct descendents, and, therefore, divinely inspired like the Catholic’s Pope. One descendent, known as “the Divorcer” had 90 wives and 100 concubines, while The Koran permits only four wives (although Muhammad, being a prophet, allowed himself eleven). Shiites may be more “fundamentalist”, which in this culture, would suggest violence. The Sufis are another order of Islam, which emphasizes an inward form of piety; it is more metaphysical, poetic, and less reliant on literal reading of Koran and likely more pacifistic; they became masters at expressing the ineffable in poetry. Islamic Fundamentalists view Sufis as corrupt and pagan. The Sufi order of Whirling Dervishes is the most famous in the West, as their synchronized whirling-dance emulates the planets’ movements towards spiritual fulfillment. Sufis likely are more tolerant of our Western culture.
In addition to The Koran’s endless paraphrasing of the Christian Bible, its early mosques were modeled after Roman temples. (Lest we be too critical, Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount, liberally borrowed from the Old Testament (which Jesus had studied), e.g., paraphrasing Moses’ Ten Commandments, the Golden Rule, etc.) While The Koran forbids wine, it is lauded often in the rich Persian poetry and some sects consume wine freely, as the Christian Bible refers often to its consumption by many Christian “prophets”; Muhammad praised all such prophets in the
Old and New Testaments, from Abraham to Jesus and all of the Saints. Islamic church services are devoid of ritual and images, as Muhammad viewed them as vestiges of paganism.
Much space is devoted to “The Golden Age of Islam”, which is said to be from roughly 750-1250 A.D. (which, incongruously, overlaps much of The Dark Ages in the Western World). The Islamic countries then enjoyed the fruits of extensive trade, running water, sewers, paved streets and dined on Chinese porcelain. Mathematics advanced, as the Hindu numbering system became the Arabic numbers that we use today. Yet, paper (papyrus) was precious and most writing was done on leaves and wooden tablets or stone (as the latter two can be washed and reused, which is still done in the third word countries). The first paper version of The Koran was dated 972. As such, most learning was (and much still is) aural.
This Golden Age of Islam was gradually brought to an end by the Christian Crusades of the 11th, 12th and 13th Centuries, in which Christians used just as much force, torture and murder to “convert” infidels into believers as had the Muslims to convert “unbelievers” into believers in their “true faith” – everyone’s faith being the “true [and only] faith” to them. All of them are correct, of course. The Jews, who often found themselves between these monstrous armies, generally feared the Christians more than the Muslims, as Muslims would spare those who quickly “converted”, while the Christians seemed to spare no one. In 1099, after a 40-day siege, the Christians recaptured Jerusalem from the Muslims. While then Pope Urban II purportedly promised the civilians protection, the Christians slaughtered every non-Christian. Interestingly, Pope Urban is reported as having said of the slaughter, “God wills it,” echoing Muhammad’s sentiments in The Koran, “It was not you, but God who slew them” (Koran 8:30). When the Muslim warlord-caliph Saladin reconquered Jerusalem in 1187, instead of indiscriminately murdering all of the Christians and Jews, he released anyone for a ransom of “ten gold dinars” (about five month’s wages in the middle class). To compound the suffering from these religious wars, in roughly 1200, the Mongols, led by Ghenghis Kahn, emerged and conquered most of Eurasia. The Ottomans (Muslims originating in Turkey) then began to conquer enormous chunks of Europe, and they “reined” in their territories longer than any group in history (1281-1924, roughly). Inspired by love of plunder and the resultant spoils, which plunder was generally excused as religious fervor (to convert nonbelievers), the wars went on and on and on. Slavery was rife, as those not killed by the conquerors were often made slaves (the word stemming from the word “Slav”, many of whom were enslaved). The ebb and flow of these disparate armies of Muslims, Christians, Mongols and other, random regional feudal lords, created bloody upheavals that, in today’s world, can only be understood in the suffering third world countries.
The authors of Islam imply that all faiths are guilty of the same atrocities, but, to be fair, the Hindus, Buddhists and Confucians have never lifted a hand in battle to advance their respective faiths, and the Jews have been far more the victims than the aggressors (sacrificing their own at alters but not attempting to force their faith on others). The Muslims appear no less guilty of violence than the Christians, but Islam is based on The Koran, and (unlike the Tora or the Christian Bible), no reading of it can avoid the clear conclusion that Muhammad expected and wanted his “one true faith” to be spread by force and murder, if necessary, as he said countless times. (The Christian Bible, in Deuteronomy, says much the same things.) Happily, there are non-violent sects of Muslims who quite disagree and follow the Ten Commandments as
best they can. It remains difficult, however, to identify those kindly souls from the ones who decimated The World Trade Center on 11 September 2001, and this religion of one billion-plus is growing rapidly (now by migration), especially in developing countries. When, one wonders, will respect for others, kindness, tolerance and compassion become more important to religious zealots than the faith, dogma and literal-readings of ancient texts (of which no originals exist and which are interpreted – read “rewritten” — by today’s avaricious, self-appointed spokesmen)? The reader must wonder: Might mankind ever learn to “Love thy enemies,” (Matthew 1:4) and cease the obsession to force others to pray at the same alter and/or to be intolerant and rejecting of those who have different views? As Virgil said, “Only love conquers all”, and love has no allegiance to any faith. “God is love.” (John 4:8) Perhaps Sophocles said it best in “Oedipus Rex”: “One word frees us from all the weight and pain of life; that word is love.”
1. “A book of verses underneath the bough
A jug of wine, a loaf of bread – and thou
Beside me singing in the Wilderness –
Oh, Wilderness were Paradise enow!” The Rubiayat of Omar Khayyam
2. The Indians (Hindus), as early as the 5th Century, developed an ingeniously simple system of using nine symbols (1-9) and decimals to represent all numbers. (The Greeks, Romans and Arabs had used letters, a, b, etc., until the Romans introduced a dice like device, the abacus.) The Arabs added the zero and the Arabic numbering system developed and survives today.