34 Islamic Civilization

Islamic Civilization

The Rise of Muhammad

A man meditating alone in a cave near Mecca received a religious vision. This vision laid the foundations for a new religion. The year was 610 and the man’s name was Muhammad. And the belief system that arose from Muhammad’s ideas became the basis of one of the world’s most widely practiced religions: Islam.

Muhammad was born around 570 in the city of Mecca, located on the Arabian Peninsula. Both of his parents died before Muhammad was six and he was raised by his grandfather and uncle. His family belonged to a poor clan that was active in Mecca politics.

Following the traditions of wealthy families, he spent part of his childhood living with a Bedouin family. Bedouins led fairly isolated lives as nomadic herders in the harsh Arabian desert. Muhammad’s experiences among these people most likely had a strong influence on the development of Islam.

In his twenties, Muhammad began working as a merchant and soon married his employer, a rich woman named Khadijah. Over the next 20 years he became a wealthy and respected trader, traveling throughout the Middle East. He and his wife had six children — two boys (who did not live into adulthood) and four girls. By the time he was 40, he began having religious visions that would change his life.

While meditating in a cave on Mount Hira, Muhammad had a revelation. He came to believe that he was called on by God to be a prophet and teacher of a new faith, Islam, which means literally “submission.”

This new faith incorporated aspects of Judaism and Christianity. It respected the holy books of these religions and its great leaders and prophets — Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and others. Muhammad called Abraham “Khalil” (“God’s friend”) and identified him as Islam’s ancient patriarch. Islam traces its heritage through Abraham’s son Ishmael.

Muhammad believed that he himself was God’s final prophet.

Central to Islamic beliefs are the Five Pillars of Faith, which all followers of Islam — called Muslims — must follow:

Muhammad’s message was especially well received by the poor and slaves. But many people were opposed to his message. This opposition only seemed to make him more determined. After years of publicly promoting his ideas, he became so disliked that some began plotting his murder.

In 622, fearing for his life, Muhammad fled to the town of Medina. This flight from Mecca to Medina became known as the Hegira, Arabic for “flight.” The Muslim calendar begins on this year.

In Medina, the local people welcomed Muhammad and his followers. There, Muhammad built the first mosque, or Islamic temple, and began to work to separate Islam from Judaism and Christianity, which had originally influenced him.

Whereas his followers had originally prayed while facing toward Jerusalem, he now had them face toward Mecca. Muhammad continued to have revelations from Allah. The ideas from these revelations formed the basis of a poetic text called the Koran, which contains the fundamental ideas of Islam.

Muhammad fought a number of battles against the people of Mecca. In 629, Muhammad returned to Mecca with an army of 1500 converts to Islam and entered the city unopposed and without bloodshed. Before his death two years later, he forcefully converted most of the Arabian Peninsula to his new faith and built a small empire. (92)

Succession after Muhammad’s Death

With Muhammad’s death in 632 CE, disagreement broke out among his followers over deciding his successor. Muhammad’s prominent companion Umar ibn al-Khattab nominated Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s friend and collaborator. To retain the cohesion of the Islamic state, Abu Bakr divided his Muslim army to force the Arabian tribes into submission. After a series of successful campaigns, Abu Bakr’s general Khalid ibn Walid defeated a competing prophet and the Arabian peninsula was united under the caliphate in Medina. Once the rebellions had been quelled, Abu Bakr began a war of conquest. In just a few short decades, his campaigns led to one of the largest empires in history. Muslim armies conquered most of Arabia by 633, followed by north Africa, Mesopotamia, and Persia, significantly shaping the history of the world through the spread of Islam.

Abu Bakr nominated Umar as his successor on his deathbed. Umar ibn Khattab, the second caliph, was killed by a Persian named Piruz Nahavandi. Umar’s successor, Uthman Ibn Affan, was elected by a council of electors (Majlis). Uthman was killed by members of a disaffected group. Ali then took control, but was not universally accepted as caliph by the governors of Egypt, and later by some of his own guard. He faced two major rebellions and was assassinated by Abdl-alRahman, a Kharijite. Ali’s tumultuous rule lasted only five years. The followers of Ali later became the Shi’a minority sect of Islam, which rejects the legitimacy of the first three caliphs. The followers of all four Rashidun caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali) became the majority Sunni sect. (93)

The Islamic Caliphates

The Umayyad family had first come to power under the third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan (r. 644–656), but the Umayyad regime was founded by Muawiya ibn Abi Sufyan, long-time governor of Syria, after the end of the First Muslim Civil War in 661 CE. Syria remained the Umayyads’ main power base thereafter, and Damascus was their capital.

The Umayyad caliphate was marked both by territorial expansion and by the administrative and cultural problems that such expansion created. Despite some notable exceptions, the Umayyads tended to favor the rights of the old Arab families, and in particular their own, over those of newly converted Muslims (mawali). Therefore, they held to a less universalist conception of Islam than did many of their rivals.

During the period of the Umayyads, Arabic became the administrative language, in which state documents and currency were issued. Mass conversions brought a large influx of Muslims to the caliphate. The Umayyads also constructed famous buildings such as the Dome of the Rock at Jerusalem and the Umayyad Mosque at Damascus.

According to one common view, the Umayyads transformed the caliphate from a religious institution (during the Rashidun) to a dynastic one. However, the Umayyad caliphs do seem to have understood themselves as the representatives of God on Earth.

Many Muslims criticized the Umayyads for having too many non-Muslim, former Roman administrators in their government. St. John of Damascus was also a high administrator in the Umayyad administration. As the Muslims took over cities, they left the people’s political representatives and the Roman tax collectors and administrators. The people’s political representatives calculated and negotiated taxes. The central government and the local governments got paid respectively for the services they provided. Many Christian cities used some of the taxes to maintain their churches and run their own organizations. Later, the Umayyads were criticized by some Muslims for not reducing the taxes of the people who converted to Islam.

The Umayyad dynasty was overthrown by another family of Meccan origin, the Abbasids, in 750 CE. The Abbasids distinguished themselves from the Umayyads by attacking their moral character and administration. In particular, they appealed to non-Arab Muslims, known as mawali, who remained outside the kinship-based society of the Arabs and were perceived as a lower class within the Umayyad empire. The Abbasid dynasty descended from Muhammad’s youngest uncle, Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib (566–653 CE), from whom the dynasty takes its name.

The Abbasids, who ruled from Baghdad, had an unbroken line of caliphs for over three centuries, consolidating Islamic rule and cultivating great intellectual and cultural developments in the Middle East in the Golden Age of Islam. By 940 CE, however, the power of the caliphate under the Abbasids began waning as non-Arabs gained influence and the various subordinate sultans and emirs became increasingly independent. The political power of the Abbasids largely ended with the rise of the Buyids and the Seljuq Turks in 1258 CE. Though lacking in political power, the dynasty continued to claim authority in religious matters until after the Ottoman conquest of Egypt in 1517. (93)(94)(95)

Islamic Golden Age

From the 8 th century to the 13 th century, during which much of the historically Islamic world was ruled by various caliphates, science, economic development, and cultural works flourished. This period is traditionally understood to have begun during the reign of the Abbasid caliph Harun al-Rashid (786–809) with the inauguration of the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, where scholars from various parts of the world with different cultural backgrounds were mandated to gather and translate all of the world’s classical knowledge into the Arabic language. (11)

Islamic Literature

With the introduction of paper, information was democratized and it became possible to make a living from simply writing and selling books. The use of paper spread from China into Muslim regions in the 8 th century, and then to Spain (and then the rest of Europe) in the 10 th century. Paper was easier to manufacture than parchment and less likely to crack than papyrus, and could absorb ink, making it difficult to erase and ideal for keeping records. Islamic paper makers devised assembly-line methods of hand-copying manuscripts to turn out editions far larger than any available in Europe for centuries. The best known fiction from the Islamic world is The Book of One Thousand and One Nights , which took form in the 10 th century and reached its final form by the 14 th century, although the number and type of tales vary.

The Arabs assimilated the scientific knowledge of the civilizations they had conquered, including the ancient Greek, Roman, Persian, Chinese, Indian, Egyptian, and Phoenician civilizations. Scientists recovered the Alexandrian mathematical, geometric, and astronomical knowledge, such as that of Euclid and Claudius Ptolemy.(96)

Islamic Scholarship

Persian scientist Muhammad ibn MÅ«sÄ� al-KhwÄ�rizmÄ« significantly developed algebra in in his landmark text, Kitab al-Jabr wa-l-Muqabala , from which the term “algebra” is derived. The term “algorithm” is derived from the name of the scholar al-Khwarizmi, who was also responsible for introducing the Arabic numerals and Hindu-Arabic numeral system beyond the Indian subcontinent. In calculus, the scholar Alhazen discovered the sum formula for the fourth power, using a method readily generalizable to determine the sum for any integral power. He used this to find the volume of a paraboloid.

Medicine was a central part of medieval Islamic culture. Responding to circumstances of time and place, Islamic physicians and scholars developed a large and complex medical literature exploring and synthesizing the theory and practice of medicine. Islamic medicine was built on tradition, chiefly the theoretical and practical knowledge developed in India, Greece, Persia, and Rome. Islamic scholars translated their writings from Syriac, Greek, and Sanskrit into Arabic and then produced new medical knowledge based on those texts. In order to make the Greek tradition more accessible, understandable, and teachable, Islamic scholars organized the Greco-Roman medical knowledge into encyclopedias. (96)

Islamic Art

Ceramics, glass, metalwork, textiles, illuminated manuscripts, and woodwork flourished during the Islamic Golden Age. Manuscript illumination became an important and greatly respected art, and portrait miniature painting flourished in Persia. Calligraphy, an essential aspect of written Arabic, developed in manuscripts and architectural decoration.

Islamic art is not restricted to religious art, but instead includes all of the art of the rich and varied cultures of Islamic societies. It frequently includes secular elements and elements that are forbidden by some Islamic theologians. Islamic religious art differs greatly from Christian religious art traditions. Because figural representations are generally considered to be forbidden in Islam, the word takes on religious meaning in art as seen in the tradition of calligraphic inscriptions. Calligraphy and the decoration of manuscript Qu’rans is an important aspect of Islamic art as the word takes on religious and artistic significance. Islamic architecture, such asmosques and palatial gardens of paradise, are also embedded with religious significance.

While examples of Islamic figurative painting do exist, and may cover religious scenes, these examples are typically from secular contexts, such as the walls of palaces or illuminated books of poetry. Other religious art, such as glass mosque lamps, Girih tiles, woodwork, and carpets usually demonstrate the same style and motifs as contemporary secular art, although they exhibit more prominent religious inscriptions.

Islamic art was influenced by Greek, Roman, early Christian, and Byzantine art styles, as well as the Sassanian art of pre-Islamic Persia. Central Asian styles were brought in with various nomadic incursions; and Chinese influences had a formative effect on Islamic painting, pottery, and textiles. (96)(97)

Themes of Islamic Art

There are repeating elements in Islamic art, such as the use of stylized, geometrical floral or vegetal designs in a repetition known as the arabesque. The arabesque in Islamic art is often used to symbolize the transcendent, indivisible and infinite nature of God. Some scholars believe that mistakes in repetitions may be intentionally introduced as a show of humility by artists who believe only God can produce perfection.

Picture of a doorway at the Mughal Agra Fort, India. The doorway includes elaborate geometric inlays around the outer edges of the door along with intertwined plant designs.
Figure 7-6: A doorway at the Mughal Agra Fort, India by Hans A. Rosbach is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Typically, though not entirely, Islamic art has focused on the depiction of patterns and Arabic calligraphy, rather than human or animal figures, because it is believed by many Muslims that the depiction of the human form is idolatry and thereby a sin against God, forbidden in the Qur’an. However, depictions of the human form and animals can be found in all eras of Islamic secular art. Depictions of the human form in art intended for the purpose of worship is considered idolatry and is forbidden in Islamic law, known as Sharia law. (97)

Islamic Calligraphy

In a religion where figural representations are considered to be an act of idolatry, it is no surprise that the word and its artistic representation have become an important aspect in Islamic art. The most important religious text in Islam is the Qur’an, which is believed to be the word of God. There are many examples of calligraphy and calligraphic inscriptions pertaining to verses from the Qur’an in Islamic arts.

Worn section of Qur'an composed in the angular Arabic lettering emblematic of kufic script.
Figure 7-7: A section of the Koran by unknown artist is licensed under Public Domain

The earliest form of Arabic calligraphy is kufic script, which is noted for is angular form. Arabic is read from right to left and only the consonants are written. The black ink in the image above from a 9 th century Qur’an marks the consonants for the reader. The red dots that are visible on the page note the vowels.

However, calligraphic design is not limited to the book in Islamic art. Calligraphy is found in several different types of art, such as architecture. The interior of the Hagia Sophia, for example, features calligraphic inscriptions within its six interior roundels as well its uppermost dome.

As in Europe in the Middle Ages, religious exhortations such as Qur’anic verses may be also included in secular objects, especially coins, tiles, and metalwork. Calligraphic inscriptions were not exclusive to the Qur’an, but also included verses of poetry or recorded ownership or donation. Calligraphers were highly regarded in Islam, reinforcing the importance on the word and its religious and artistic significance. (98)

Example of zoological calligraphy. In this case, the artist has interlocked Arabic lettering to form the likeness of a bird. Zoological calligraphy served as one way for Arabic artists to get around Islamic aniconism.
Figure 7-8: Example of zoomorphic arabic calligraphy by YassineMrabet is licensed under Public Domain

Islamic Architecture

Islamic architecture encompasses a wide range of both secular and religious styles. The principal Islamic architectural example is the Mosque. Specifically recognizable Islamic architectural style emerged soon after Muhammad’s time, and incorporated Roman building traditions with the addition of localized adaptations of the former Sassanid and Byzantine models.

The Islamic mosque has historically been both a place of prayer and a community meeting space. The early mosques are believed to be inspired by Muhammad’s home in Medina, which had served as the first mosque. The Great Mosque of Kairouan (in Tunisia) is one of the best preserved and most significant examples of early great mosques. Founded in 670, it contains all of the architectural features that distinguish early mosques: a minaret, a large courtyard surrounded by porticos, and a hypostyle prayer hall. (99)

Dome of the mihrab that sits atop the Great Mosque of Kairouan, also known as the Mosque of Uqba, in Kairouan, Tunisia.
Figure 7-9: Dome of the mihrab  by GIRAUD Patrick is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5

After the Ottoman Conquest, many of the Christian mosaics within the Hagia Sophia were covered over with Islamic calligraphy and only rediscovered in the 20 th century CE after the secularization of Turkey (Hagia Sophia became a museum in 1935 CE). This includes the mosaic on the main dome which was probably a Christ Pantocrator (All-Powerful) which spanned the whole ceiling and is now covered by remarkable gold calligraphy. On the floor of the nave there is the Omphalion (navel of the earth), a large circular marble slab which is where the Roman and Byzantine Emperors were coronated. One of the final additions the Ottoman Sultans made to finalize the transition from Christian basilica to Islamic mosque was the inclusion of eight massive medallions hung on columns in the nave which have Arabic calligraphy inscribed upon them with the names of Allah, the Prophet, the first four Caliphs, and the Prophet’s two grandsons. The Ottomans also added a mihrab, a minbar, and four enormous minarets in order to complete the transition to a mosque.

Interior picture of the sanctuary apse within the Hagia Sophia. From this vantage, one sees the Arabic roundels at each corner of the edifice's second floor along with the uncovered Christian iconography at the center of the apse.
Figure 7-10: Hagia Sophia, Istanbul by Magnus Manske is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0

Additionally, after the fall of Constantinople in 1453 CE, the genius of Hagia Sophia’s architects continued to dominate the conquering Ottomans who made use of the designs for their mosques. The Ottomans conquered the city, but the artistic culture of the Byzantines, in a way, conquered the Ottomans. Hagia Sophia, under orders from Mehmed the Conqueror, was converted into a mosque within days of the conquest preserving the Byzantine architectural legacy in a new form and era.

Later Ottoman mosques were equally influenced by Hagia Sophia. The Blue Mosque, for example, preserves a layout inspired by Hagia Sophia that builds upon its innovations of pendentives and semi-domes to create internal space. Additionally, Islam’s use of geometric shapes and patterns, as opposed to Orthodox Christianity’s use of icons, also finds continuity in Greco-Roman-Byzantine’s use of geometry in sacred architecture as mentioned previously. In fact, the very same Sinan who built the Suleymaniye also worked to repair the millennium-old Hagia Sophia during the reign of Selim II. (100)

Picture of the Suleiman Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey. Sometimes called the Blue Mosque because of its blue hue, the edifice includes a stacked layer of domes with a singular dome at its top. Six large minarets, three on each side, surround the edifice.
Figure 7-11: Suleiman Mosque  by Dersaadet is licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0


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