History and Major Themes
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To start with, it should be ascertained that Islam is one of the three dominant religions along with Christianity and Buddhism. Islam is considered to be one of the monotheistic religions and is based on the teachings of the Qur'an. The name of religion comes from Arabic and literally means "obedient to God". It is the second biggest religion in the world by the number of believers after Christianity. At the same time, Islam is relatively young religion as it is 700 years younger than Christianity. Nowadays, there are nearly one billion people who profess Islam worldwide. This religion is widely spread in the Middle East, North Africa, Asia, and in such countries as Indonesia, Malaysia, Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan and many others.
Islam appeared in the VII century in western Arabia and soon became popular in other regions. The founder of Islam was Prophet Muhammad, who began his preaching in the cities of Mecca and Medina. In 610 AD, the angel Gabriel appeared for Prophet Muhammad and dictated the first pillars of Islam. Muhammad preached the new religious teaching first in Mecca, where he found few followers. Some time later, the Prophet sermonized Islam in Medina, where he managed to gather many adherents. At that time, Muhammad integrated the big part of Arabia under the banner of a new religion. The Prophet also created an army with strict discipline and succeeded in uniting previously disparate Arab tribes. The VII century was marked by a triumphal march of Islam in Arabia. By the end of 631 AD, Islam was adopted, at least formally, throughout all Arabia. In 632, Muhammad made the pilgrimage to Mecca, which finally approved the new Muslim rite of Hajj. Muhammad preached in oral form and only after his death the set of teachings was compiled and named "Qur'an" ("Reading"). Qur'an is the main sacred book for Muslims, as well as Torah for Jews and Gospel for Christians.
The outcome of Muhammad's life was not only the creation of a worldwide religion, but the union of the Arabs, who embarked on the path of great achievements and cultural growth. According to Armstrong, the Prophet Muhammad formed an Islamic theocratic state, which occupied the entire Arabian Peninsula and was called the Arab Caliphate. In 630s AD, Caliphate defeated Byzantium, Iran, and Egypt. As a result of further Arab conquests, Islam spread to the Middle East, Far East, and Iberian Peninsula. In this case, Islam turned from the national religion of Arabs into a supranational "world" religion. The contacts of Arabic culture with the Syrian, ancient, Christian, Persian, and Indian cultures led to a flowering of poetry, philosophy, theology, and law. Islam entered a new phase of development, which allowed not only learn from other cultures, but also to create the great Arabic civilization. Islamic science and culture surpassed Christian Europe for many centuries in such branches as mathematics, philosophy, literature, and art.
In IX - XII centuries, Sufism appeared as an ascetic branch of Islam and was considered to be one of the manifestations of spiritual culture. The Sufi doctrine was influenced by the ideas of Mazdaism, Buddhism, and even Neo-Platonism. Sufis neglected the external rites and looked for God’s true knowledge by a mystical merging with the divine. Current religious movement was historically associated with Tariqa, which originally meant a pious way of life to communicate with God. Subsequenly, Tariqa was better known as the doctrine of fanatics who preached a "holy war" against Christians and other infidels.
In XI century, the most serious threat to the caliphate was approaching from the east. Iran managed to be reborn as a political force and started to manipulate Abbasid caliphs. According to Sonn, the new changes came when the Central Asian Seljuk tribes captured almost the entire eastern part of the Islamic world and raised their Sultans to the throne. Seljuk’s unity was quite short, and the East was divided into a great number of sovereign sultanates in the beginning of the XII century. In the XIII century, Islam endured numerous hardships during Mongol invasion, which destroyed a set of Muslim states in the Central Asia and put an end to the Arab Caliphate. The looting of Baghdad by Mongols ended the Abbasid caliphate and opened a new chapter in the history of Islam. The XIV century was marked by the total conversion of Mongol conquerors into Islam, which later led to the end of Mongol empire.
In XV century, the Reconquista led to the downfall of the Muslim states in the Iberian Peninsula. At the same time, the mighty Ottoman Empire appeared in XVI-XVII centuries, which brought the Minor Asia, Middle East, North Africa, and Balkan Peninsula to the prosperous state. O’Connor admitted, "XVII century is considered the peak of Islam power, when Turkish Ottomans, Iranian Safavids, and Indian Moguls ruled the vast empire from North Africa to the Bengal". In the end of the XVIII century, Egypt, Arabia, and India faced Muslim Reformation movement, which allowed Muslims to gain the ability of self-organization and self-confidence. By the end of the XIX century, there were two main trends in Islam: the conservative and the modernist. The conservatives (fundamentalists) called for the return of Islam into its original base, which meant the return to a literal understanding of sacred texts and acceptance of the Prophet Muhammad’s theocratic power. Modernists aimed to bring certain provisions of Islam to the realities of the modern world.
In the beginning of the XX century, almost all Muslim countries were dependent territories or colonies of European countries. The struggle against colonialism led to the unprecedented politicization of Islam, the process of which took almost the entire XX century. Sonn stated, "After the World War II, the collapse of the colonial system led to a period of radical social change and created a slogan of Islamic socialism". In 1970s, the growing economic and political strength of Islam lead to the increase of nationalistic ambitions of the ruling classes in many Islamic countries. It helped to increase the role of Islam as a powerful national tradition, which was used as a strong tool in the struggle against foreign influences. This decade was marked by the emergence of political Islam (Islamism), which strengthened its positions after the Islamic Revolution of 1978-1979 in Iran. Last decades of the XX century created certain objective conditions for the revival of Islam in its most rigid form, which led to the emergence of Islamist terrorism.
Nowadays, Islam consists of two main currents: Shiism and Sunnism. The main feature of Shiism is that the legitimate successors of the Prophet Muhammad can only be his descendant relatives while elected community caliphs are ineligible. In this case, Shias reject the Sunnah, which was compileed according to the traditions of the Prophet. Contrary to Shiism, the orthodox Islam is called Sunnism and includes the majority of Muslims around the world. Sunni believers recognize the legitimacy of Sunnahs and the sanctity of the Prophet's companions. Sunnis interpret the Muslim teachings in a rational manner by arguing the existence of free will and God’s justice.
There are five main pillars of Islam, which define the spiritual life of religious people. Allah is the only God, and Muhammad is his Prophet. In this case, the testimony of monotheism was called Shahadah. Every Muslim must pray five times a day (Namaz). Ramadan was defined as the holy month when Muslims must adhere to a strict fast. Every faithful Muslim must give charity to the poor people (Zakat). In addition, every Muslim, at least once in his life, has to make a pilgrimage to the holy cities of Mecca and Medina.
Islam is considered to be the most powerful religion of the world. It may be explained by the fact that Islam always played a different role in the Muslim East than Christianity in Europe. Islam, contrary to Christianity, occupied all spheres of Muslim society by defining the nature of economic relations, forms of political administration, social structure, and culture. The merger of spiritual and secular life along with formal significance of religion had a great impact on many aspects of religious and cultural traditions of Islam. In this context, the idea of a "holy war" against infidels became of an absolute value and sanctity in Islam. According to Ruthven, strong emphasis on the ritual side of life, daily prayers, mandatory monthly fast, and pilgrimage are one of the most typical Islamic religious and cultural traditions. Islam, like many other religions, helps people to choose the right path, realize the presence of human sins, and find the true meaning and harmony in life. Being the world religion, Islam comprises a system, which has a significant impact on international politics due to the active intervention of religion in state affairs.
Islam developed a value system, which has to be adopted by every religious person without any discussion. Muslims believe that human values are given by Allah through the Koran, and so, they are the undoubted truth. Sharia is religious and moral law, which implements the principles of Koran and officially operates in such Muslim countries as Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, and Nigeria. Islam is the knowledge which allows bringing order, clarity, and consistency into ones life. Hadrat admitted that Islam regulates the relations between human and God in order every person could effectively use divine possibilities and realize the hidden potential.
To sum up, Islam is one of the most significant forces among all religious systems of the modern world. The strength of Islam is not only in its adherents but in the ideological and institutional structure of the universal Muslim community, whose foundation was installed by Mohammed. Established at the crossroads of the ancient European and Middle Eastern civilizations, Islam absorbed the elements of Christianity and Judaism and became the result of a complex multi-synthesis. Islam is characterized by its integrating function of religion, which appears in the most demonstrative and efficient manner. Nowadays, Islam is a fairly coherent religious system, despite the presence of different trends, movements, and sects.