Review: Islam – a thousand years of faith and power, by Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair

ISLAM IS the fastest growing religion in the US and rivals Christianity worldwide: "’They’ are now ’us’," is how Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair put it. They call for a greater understanding of Islam in the West and denounce the victimisation of Muslims in the wake of 11 September.

By Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair. Reviewed by Manny Thain.

Bloom and Blair cover over one thousand years of human history in 250 pages.

They describe rather than analyse, outlining how Islam rose from its oasis base to an imperial religion. They show that Islam has adapted to different conditions. It has been used by the ruling class to consolidate power and as a means of expression by the oppressed.

Muhammad was born around 570 into one of the clans of the Quraysh – an Arab tribe based around Mecca, a trading centre. To the north and east were the two superpowers: the Christian Byzantine empire and the Zoroastrian Sasanian empire in Persia. Aged around 40 years, Muhammad began attracting followers after claiming that the angel Gabriel had revealed God’s message to him. He criticised the traditional polytheist religions, falling foul of tribal leaders, and was forced out with a small band of followers. They settled in Medina, 280 miles north. (The Muslim calendar begins on the first day of the first lunar month of the year in which Muhammad arrived in Medina – 16 July 622.) Central to Islam are God’s revelations to Muhammad, known collectively as the Qur’an (recitation). Considered to be God’s actual words, Muslims believe that the Qur’an can only be truly understood in Arabic. This was important in developing a cultural and linguistic bond between believers of all nationalities. Apart from the Qur’an, Muslims draw on the hadith (traditions), which are examples of what Muhammad reportedly did or said.

Islam shares many prophets with Judaism and Christianity: Ibrahim (Abraham), Musa (Moses), and Isa (Jesus), for example. According to Islam, Muhammad was the last in the line of prophets and represents the perfection of the religion.

Muhammad died suddenly on 8 June 632. His death left open questions on the nature of the religion, and who would succeed him. Under Abu Bakr, the first khalifa (successor/caliph, 632-34), and Umar (the second), Muslim forces conquered Arabia and Egypt, parts of Palestine and Western Iraq. The Sasanian empire crumbled. By the early eighth century, the Islamic empire stretched from North Africa to the Central Asian steppes and into Sind (now Pakistan), an area larger than the empires of Persia, Alexander the Great or the Romans.

Islam, however, was far from unified. There were – and remain – bitter disputes over Muhammad’s succession which led to the establishment of different Islamic factions. Both the third and fourth caliphs, Uthman and Ali, were murdered by disaffected Muslims. Shiites argued that the caliph should be descended from Muhammad but differences developed within Shiism over who was the rightful seventh caliph.

By the mid-eighth century, the majority of Muslims were known as the people of tradition and unity – Sunnis. They remain the overwhelming majority today. Unlike the Shiites they did not endow the caliph with spiritual authority. They considered him Muhammad’s political successor who should enforce the doctrines expressed by the learned men, the ulema. By the eleventh century four dominant Sunni schools had emerged.

Caliphs increasingly held power as the heads of dynasties. The Umayyads (r 661-750) moved the capital to Damascus, better suited for a large state machine. Its more centralised regime was modelled on Byzantine and Persian kingdoms. Arab armies became regularly paid troops. Arabic, long the language of religion, was extended into administration and finance.

Standardised coinage was introduced and public works undertaken. In 692 Abd al-Malik commissioned the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem – a public announcement to Jews and Christians that Islam was here to stay.

These were slave societies which need a constant supply of labour and expansion into new areas. Maintaining control of the centre was an endless battle and the relative strength of contending empires and regions within empires ebbed and flowed.

>From 749, the Abbasid dynasty was established. Persians took over the administration with Turks in the army. A dominant military caste evolved with the caliphs providing the regime religious authority. The new capital, Baghdad, symbolised a period of relative peace, prosperity and cultural progress: the so-called Golden Age of Islam (750-1250).

Bloom and Blair detail many of the technical achievements which were far in advance of anything in Western Europe. In all spheres, from the sciences to food to language, the influence of Islamic civilisation on subsequent human culture is staggering. But this is a history of the ruling class. Certainly, the phenomenal wealth amassed touched only a small minority.

The main cities boasted paved streets, running water and sewerage systems.

Urban caravansaries – secure resting places for merchants – acted as wholesale markets and de facto consulates. Commerce was often conducted on credit, to avoid transporting gold over long distances. The Treasury of Knowledge was founded where writings in Syriac and Greek were translated into Arabic, along with works of Persian and Indian science.

The use of numbers, imported from India, was known in late eighth century Baghdad, spreading to Muslim Spain by the end of the tenth and from there into the Christian world. Muslim scholars developed algebra and calculated the circumference of the earth to within 41 metres. Baghdad had over 800,000 inhabitants at its height in the Abbasid period and Cairo had around 400,000 in the fourteenth century. (Before the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century, Paris had a population of 210,000, Venice 180,000 and London 40,000.) Infighting left the Middle East vulnerable to attack. On 27 November 1095, Pope Urban II launched the Crusades to reclaim Jerusalem. Within three years, the city had fallen. Muslim and Jewish men, women and children were slaughtered. A breakthrough for Muslim resistance came under Salah al-Din bin Ayyab (Saladin), who consolidated Egypt and Syria under a Sunni caliph during the 1180s. Jerusalem was taken on 2 October 1187, the anniversary of the miraj – Muhammad’s ascension to heaven. There was no slaughter, but a ransom levied on those wanting to leave.

After the Turco-Mongolian invaders took Baghdad in 1258 three main regional powers emerged: the Mongols in Iran/Iraq; Mamluks in Egypt and Syria; and a series of dynasties in the Maghrib (North Africa).

The Maghrib occupies a special place in Islamic history. It had been conquered from the Berbers in the seventh and eighth centuries. But, because of its distance from the centres of Islamic power, it was always a place apart, attracting non-conformists. Berber dissatisfaction was often mobilised to overthrow regimes, by Sunni and Shiite groups alike. There were Muslim Berber dynasties in Spain, Morocco and Senegal.

The greatest threat to Islam would come from the West. One of the driving forces behind the voyages of Vasco da Gama and Christopher Columbus et al was to gain direct control of Asian produce. Indeed, the final blow to Mamluk power was the discovery of a sea route around Africa at the end of the fifteenth century. In 1517 Cairo was easily taken by the Ottoman Turks, who headed a new type of Islamic society where the state was the dominant institution.

Bloom and Blair mention the sub-Saharan Islamic states and the spread into India, where Islam had been especially successful converting lower-caste Hindus – attracted by the promise that all believers were equal. Merchants and missionaries took Islam to South-East Asia where it expressed cultural identity and political resistance to Portuguese and Dutch rule.

The extraordinary economic and military power of Western Europe in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the exploitation of the Americas, the formation of dynamic nation states, and the development of capitalism enabled the European powers to dominate the world. Islam continued to evolve. In the nineteenth century, attempts were made in Turkey, Egypt, Syria and Iran to modernise Islamic societies to try and compete with Western capitalism. That evolution continues. Bloom and Blair have sketched out the reasons for the rise and fall of Islam as an imperial power, and its continuation as one of the world’s two largest religions. They have provided a well-researched introduction into a subject which demands further study.

Islam: a thousand years of faith and power, by Jonathan Bloom and Sheila Blair, Yale University Press, 2002, £9.99.

This article first appeared in the May 2002 issue of Socialism Today, monthly magazine of the Socialism Today (England and Wales)

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