From the arid sands of Arabia emerged in the seventh century, Islam. A religion so progressive in its philosophy and dynamic in its scope that it revolutionized society as it was known till then. It brought God and man together in a deeply personal bond that had nothing to do with intermediaries. Soon, this new religion powered its way into the deepest interiors of Africa. Asia and Europe. So vigorous was its impact that today, one-fifth of the world's population claims adherence to it. But there's another face to Islam: the face which has seen the exquisite mosques of Damascus, the delicate art of calligraphy, the sumptuous palaces of Spain and the beautiful gardens of Persia and Kashmir.
This remarkably lucid and fascinating narrative traces the story of Islam from its birth to its expansion and development, details its customs and traditions and the amazing arts it gave rise to. Illustrated with over a hundred pictures and line drawings from all over the world, this book would be valuable to both enthusiasts and scholars.
About the Author
Azra Kidwai is an eminent sociologist. After finishing her education from the Delhi School of Economics, she taught at Jesus and Mary College, University of Delhi, for twenty-four years. She has been a participant observer in an exhaustive and authoritative study of Muslim society in the Awadh region of Uttar Pradesh in northern India.
The Arabian peninsula where Islam first appeared lay at the edge of two great and ancient civilizations: the Egyptian and the Mesopotamian. Both these civilizations were irrigated by mighty rivers, the Nile and Tigris respectively. Arabia on the other hand had no rivers and thus very little cultivation. The development and prosperity in the neighbouring worlds seemed to pass it by.
Closer to the time of Muhammad's birth, the peninsula was on the margins of two other powerful empires: the Byzantine and the Sassanian. The Byzantine Empire with its capital at Constantinople (modern Istanbul) was concentrated around the Mediterranean Sea and included the Anatolian and Balkan peninsulas, Syria and Egypt. The Sassanian Empire had its capital at Ctesiphon (close to modern Baghdad) and included Iraq and Iran and extended right up to the river Indus. Both empires controlled vast, fertile lands, busy trade routes and had large armies and bureaucracies.
The two empires also had a close relationship between state and religion. Christianity was the official religion of the Byzantine Empire and Zoroastrianism was widespread among the Sassanians. The religious traditions of this wider region were an important backdrop for the rise of Islam. This area had seen the appearance of universal monotheistic religions which demanded the individual's adherence to a cosmological belief system and belonged to two main traditions:
1. The Abrahamic tradition of the Hebrew prophets of which Judaism and Christianity are the examples.
2. The Magian tradition of which Zoroastrianism is the most important.
Both these monotheistic groups believed in the prophetic tradition, a universal scripture and one transcendental god. They also believed that human beings had just one life and that there was life after death. Whether this life was going to be spent in Heaven or Hell depended on one's actions. They advocated a life of individual moral responsibility because man was accountable to god for his deeds.
The Byzantine and Sassanian empires competed with each other for resources and territories but they largely ignored the Arabian peninsula. It is not difficult to see why. Most parts of the penunsula were dry, barren and often inaccessible except on camels. The landscape consisted mostly of sandy deserts, arid steppes and an occasional oasis. The climate too was extremely inhospitable. The two empires also realized that controlling the nomadic tribes which lived in Arabia would be very difficult and definitely not worth losing men and money over. It was easier to deal with them by hiring them or paying them off.
The dry Arabian sands were inhabited by various tribes called the Bedouins. Each tribe consisted of a number of clans claiming common ancestry. The tribe therefore considered itself a distinct entity, tied by blood and willing to fight for its interests and avenge any wrong done to its members.
Some of these tribes had settled in areas, which were well watered and allowed for regular cultivation of dates and wheat. Others continued to be nomadic, constantly moving with their livestock in search of food and water. Since natural resources were scarce and pasturelands had to be fought for, inter-tribal warfare was an integral part of Bedouin life. This state of constant tension was sharpened by the tribal belief in blood feud. Every death had to be avenged by the tribe. This endless cycle of violence made political unity within Arabia impossible.
Despite these animosities, there were cultural traditions that were common to the Bedouins. They were united by a common language - Arabic, a rich literary tradition and a sense of common history. Each tribe had its own idols, trees, rocks and spirits that it worshipped but the Ka'ba (haram), the holy sanctuary at Mecca, was revered by many of the tribes. The Arabs also worshipped a powerful though vague figure called Allah, the supreme god regarded as the Creator.
The Bedouin society was like any other nomadic group. There were no rich and poor within a tribe, all were equal. Nomadic life reinforced this relative equality for people could only possess as much as they could comfortably travel with. Tribal values were based on hereditary economic and social solidarity expressed through shared responsibilities and resources in good times and bad.
The Bedouin society was a tri-lable pyramidical structure. At the base was the family; related families together formed clans and a number of such clans came together to form tribes. Each tribe was headed by a Saiyyid, chosen not because of his descent but because of his wisdom and courage. His decisions were morally binding on every member of the tribe. Since loyalties were based on clan and kinship ties, the Bedouin society rejected authoritarian political forms. Major decisions like war which involved the lives of all members of the tribe were taken by consensus. The Saiyyid did not nominate his successor, he was selected by consensus from among the various clans.
For their livelihood, the Bedouins depended on livestock, particularly camels, horses, goats and sheep. Camels were crucial to their lives for many reasons: their flesh and milk provided food, they could travel long distances (well over a hundred miles a day), carry heavy loads (over five hundred kilograms) and could do without food or water for eight days at a stretch. They could also survive in temperatures up to fifty seven degrees Celsius.
No wonder the domestication of camels made the Bedouins an important social force. They could now not just defend themselves but also raid and extract tribute from the settled areas; they were a recruiting ground for mercenaries and most important, they became protectors of trade and trade routes. The economic resources of the tribes were supplemented by raiding the resources of other tribes and trade-caravans which moved under their protection.
In the sixth century particularly, political developments in the neighbouring lands made the Bedouins crucial to world trade. The constant warfare between the Byzantine and the Sassanian empires blocked the land routes from Asia to the Mediterranean lands and Europe. An alternative trade route was found across the Arabian peninsula. Textiles, spices and luxury foods from the East were brought by sea to the southern ports of the peninsula. From ports in Yemen they were transported over land on camel-back t the Mediterranean ports. Similarly, goods from Africa, particularly slaves - who were in great demand - were shipped across the Red Sea and then conveyed over land to markets in Asia. Commerce and trading thus exposed the Arabs to the workings of big empires and the intricacies of world trade.
One direct result of this increased economic activity was the rise of the city of Mecca. Mecca did not have an oasis though it did have the spring Zam zam which provided drinking water to the city. It had no agriculture, it was in fact completely dependent on the import of food.
The importance of Mecca was however, the result of three factors: the north-south and the east-west trade routes across the peninsula intersected at Mecca and it developed into a bustling commercial center. The Bedouins who had settled there learnt the complexities of international trade and soon became successful trades themselves.
Second, Mecca was where the holiest shrine of the Bedouins, the Ka'ba, was located. The annual pilgrimage by different tribes had developed into an important fair and brought plenty of business.
Third, and equally crucial, Mecca was controlled by the tribe of Quraysh, one of the largest tribes of Arabia.
The Quraysh had settled in Mecca and had been successful in organizing the trade system within the peninsula to their advantage. They made alliances with other tribes and created what is often referred to as the 'Commonwelth of Mecca'. Their annual trade with Syria alone has been estimated as being worth about eleven thousand kilograms of gold.
The Quraysh were also the protectors of the Ka'ba, within which they have had accommodated the gods of other tribes. They guaranteed the safety of those who came to worship here, particularly during Hajj, the annual pilgrimage. The Quraysh also ensured that there was no fighting during the four months that they had deemed sacred. They thus managed to maintain the peace that was so essential for trade and as a result flourished.
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