16 June 2008

Religious Beliefs: Islam's Golden Age

By Lisa Yarde

From the eighth to the thirteenth century during Islam's Golden Age, rule by Muslim caliphs, sultans, emperors and emirs stretched from the Iberian Peninsula to China. These leaders fostered advancements in the arts, industry, literature, navigation, natural science, jurisprudence, philosophy and technology. Despite regional variations, their common faith bound the lands together in a common goal: religious expansion. Today, with over one billion Muslims in every corner of the globe, Islam is the second-largest world religion after Christianity.

Islam originated in the Arabian Peninsula, with a fundamental belief in the Jewish patriarchs, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, which is also shared by Christianity. By Muslim tradition, Isaac's half-brother, Ishmael, son of the Egyptian slave girl Hagar, is considered the progenitor of the Arab people. The prophetic tradition which began with Judaism and continued in Christianity is also found in Islam. In 610AD, a young merchant named Muhammad from the Arabian city of Mecca began to receive revelations from God. He devoted the rest of his life to spreading God's words, requiring complete surrender to His teachings. The literal meaning of a Muslim is one who "submits to the will of God." The messages Muhammad received were memorized and later transcribed into verses of the Koran, Islam's holy book.

Thirteenth Century Koran from Islam's Golden Age

From its earliest origin, Islam impacted the daily lives of its adherents and converts, in particular with the Five Pillars of Islam. Practitioners then as now were required to declare their faith (Shahadah), perform ritual daily prayer (Salah), give alms to the needy (Zakat), fast during the month of Ramadan (Sawm) and where possible, make the pilgrimage (Hajj) to Muhammad's birthplace, the city of Mecca. The declaration of faith is the foundation for all other beliefs and practices in Islam; to speak it is to say "I testify that there is none worthy of worship except God and I testify that Muhammad is the Messenger of God." Muslims repeated it in prayer and converts gave a required testament to this creed to demonstrate their new found beliefs. Alms-giving remains obligatory for all who can afford it, similar to the Christian concepts of tithes in its fixed amount.

Of all the tenets of Islam, ritual prayers is the most apparent. Five times a day, Muslims still observe their compulsory devotions, often preceded by a call to prayer echoing from mosques. Friday prayers at the mosques remain especially important and are filled to capacity. The pilgrimage to Mecca and the fast at Ramadan are communal celebrations which stressed religious obligation. During the daylight hours of the fast, Muslims refrained from eating, drinking and other pleasures, to encourage the belief that God alone provides such comforts and to abstain from them is to grow closer to God. The pilgrimage, for those who could afford it, was a once in a lifetime opportunity to commune with fellow Muslims. Devotional acts ensued, including walking seven times around the Kaaba, the holiest place in Islam, believed by its adherents to be the work of the patriarchs Abraham and Isaac.

Modern-day Muslim Pilgrims near the Kaaba

Within a century of Muhammad's revelations, the expansion of the religion occurred. War and trade brought Islam out of the Arabian Peninsula. In the East, the new religion first spread among Turkic tribes in Central Asia into China via the Silk Road, followed by conquests in the Balkans, Southeast Asia and India. In the West, the Moors and Berbers began the Islamic conquest of North Africa in 643 AD and eventually reached sub-Saharan Africa and Spain.

When this expansion occurred, so too did a split among the religions adherents. There are two main denominations in Islam, Sunni and Shi'a. The leaders after Muhammad were described as caliphs or successors to the Prophet. The first two caliphs had been successful in maintaining a sense of communal unity. But tensions within the community surfaced during the era of the third caliph who was murdered by mutinous troops. They declared the new caliph to be Ali, a cousin of Muhammad who was an early convert and also the husband of Muhammad's daughter Fatimah. Muhammad's favorite wife Aisha, a daughter of the first caliph, defied Ali's rule and this struggle led to the divisions in Islam.

Conflict with Christianity, particularly the reconquest of Spain which began in the ninth century and the Crusades stifled the encroachment of Muslim rulers and their faith. While it flourished, Islam's expansion ushered in an age of discovery where Muslim communities encouraged and influenced the prevailing thoughts and ideals throughout many parts of the world.