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Islam Through the Prism of History

The Prophet

The context of terrorism today has put Islam and Muslims in the limelight - but largely in negative terms. As such, the history of Islam has become mired in controversy and debate. However, contrary to conventional wisdom, the vast majority of Western historians of Islam are agreed on the essentials of the life of Prophet Muhammad, and their understanding of the emergence of the faith highlights a number of areas of fundamental agreement. The following account of Muhammad's life is based on the work of independent Western historians. Some historically robust biographies by widely respected authors include:

Karen Armstrong, Muhammad: A Biography of the Prophet (HarperOne, 1993)

Martin Lings, Muhammad: His Life Based on the Earliest Sources (Inner Traditions, 1983)

Barnaby Rogerson, The Prophet Muhammad: A Biography (Abacus, 2003)

Yahya Emerick, Muhammad (Alpha, 2002)

F. E. Peters, Muhammad and the Origins of Islam (State University of New York Press, 1994)

Muhammad was born in Mecca in 570 AD. He grew up an orphan, as his father died shortly before his birth, followed by his mother when he was just six. He was raised by his uncle, whom he worked for as a shepherd. As a young man, Muhammad worked primarily managing caravans between Syria and Arabia on behalf of merchants.  

At 25, Muhammad began working for Khadijah, a wealthy Meccan widow who was 15 years older than him. Eventually they married, and although polygamy was a common practice at the time, Muhammad did not take another wife until Khadijah's death 24 years later.

When Muhammad approached his late 30s, he began to increasingly retire in solitude to a cave in Mount Hira just outside Mecca, where historical reports say he would meditate sometimes for days. In 610 AD, at the age of 40, Muhammad returned from one such visit telling his wife he had been visited by an angel named 'Gabriel' who had communicated to him a message from the Divine, "Allah."

In the coming years, Muhammad intermittently received these 'revelations' which were transcribed and eventually compiled in the form of the book, the Qur'an, which literally means 'recitation.' 

Muhammad's basic message was simple: that his fellow countrymen had deviated from the the Way of previous prophets like Adam, Moses, and Jesus, and were indulging in economic exploitation, political corruption, spiritual polytheism, and widespread debauchery and barbarism - from murdering new-born female babies, to plundering the poor and vulnerable. He had been chosen as a prophet to restore consciousness of the original Way, to call for a return to devotion to the One God, and to restore justice. 

In the first three years, Muhammad acquired just 40 followers including his wife Khadijah, who was his first convert. His teachings, however, were politically, economically and socially radical for their times, threatening to overturn the deeply unequal and exploitative Meccan way of life which used pagan polytheism as a basis for attracting and subordinating pilgrims and subjugating them both politically and economically. As such, he and his small band of followers were systematically persecuted, until they were openly attacked and assaulted on the streets. These early Muslims were regularly mocked, stoned, covered in dirt when praying, beaten with sticks, and detained in prison. Several assassination attempts were made on Muhammad himself.

Eventually, Muhammad and his followers fled to neighbouring Medina, where they established what is now recognised as the first organised Islamic community. Disputes and tensions with the Meccans continued and accelerated, leading to several military clashes, before Muhammad amassed a following large enough to return to Mecca. When he did, he was able to stroll into his former homeland and re-take the city without a single act of violence.

After doing so, the Prophet famously said to the Qur'aysh, who had persecuted him and his followers so harshly, and even attempted to kill him: “O people of Quraish! What do you think I will do to you?" They said: “You will do good. You are a noble brother, son of a noble brother." Muhammad replied: "Then I say to you what Joseph said to his brothers: ‘There is no blame upon you.’ Go! For you are all free!"

Although Muhammad's superior military force at this time could have easily enabled him to enact revenge, this act of magnanimous forgiveness played a major role in the enthused mass conversions to Islam by the Meccans that quickly followed. 

Islam - Reaffirming the Primordial Universal Religion

The word "islam" is an Arabic term derived from the word "salam" which means "peace." The word itself however means simply "surrender", and specifically implies "surrender to God." A "muslim" is therefore simply one who "surrenders" to the One God, since the word "muslim" means literally "one who surrenders."

Islam, in the sense of this perennial definition, is a part and parcel of human existence, in fact of existence as such, and has therefore been the basic religion of humanity since the inception of the species. Since human history began, says the Qur'an, the Way of "surrender to the Divine Reality" has been revealed to humanity through chosen individuals ("prophets"), some of whom are inspired with "Books of Guidance" revealed to them by the Divine. In this sense, revelation embodies the relationship between humanity and Divine Reality, and is therefore a necessity of authentic human life, without which humanity is unable to retain a meaningful relationship with Reality, and thus unfold its potential harmoniously. 

A consistent theme of the Qur'an is that the historical role of Divine Revelation is precisely to enable humanity to awaken to its true nature, and to its relationship to the natural world, and the higher Reality that the world manifests. This entails awakening humanity to awareness of the ultimate values through which life can authentically realise its own true nature. For the Qur'an, Divine Revelation throughout history is the link between the human soul and the Supreme Being, by which the human being may fulfil the meaning of her existence in consciousness of her relationship with the Supreme Being.

Thus, all Prophets brought one essential message; surrender to the One:

"Surely, the true religion in Allah's sight is Surrender (Islam)" (Qur'an 3:19)

"We have told you about some Messengers sent previously, while other Messengers We have not yet told you about. Allah spoke directly to Moses. We have sent Messengers bringing good tidings and a warning, so that humankind would have no argument against Allah, after the Messengers had come. Allah is Powerful, Wise." (4:164-165)

"We have sent Messengers before you, about some of whom We have told you while We have not told you about others. No Messenger may bring any sign unless it is with Allah's permission." (40:78)

"There has been no community but a warner has passed among them." (35:24)

The Qur'an itself claims categorically to be the final protected Word of God as revealed through the vehicle of the Prophet Muhammad, who is defined as the 'Seal of the Prophets': "Today, I have perfected your Din for you and I have completed My favour upon you, and I have chosen Islam to be your Din." (5:3)

The Arabic word 'Din' is often translated simplistically to mean "religion," but in reality like many Islamic concepts there is no straightforward parallel translation in English. A better translation would be 'Way of Being,' implying a totality of external conduct and internal disposition. 

Islam after the Prophet

After Muhammad's death, the Muslim community experienced an escalating schism over who should succeed the Prophet in terms of responsibility for the governance of the community, as well as in terms of spiritual authority to explicate the Prophet's teachings. 

The dispute occurred primarily between Sunnis, those who believed that Muhammad had told his followers to seek out his teachings from his Companions (his immediate followers, the 'Sahaba' in Arabic); and Shi'as, those who believed that Muhammad had told his followers to seek out his teachings from his Family (his cousin Ali, and daughter Fatema, and their descendants, his 'Ahlul Bayt' in Arabic). 

This dispute manifested politically in disagreement over political succession, with Sunnis believing that Muhammad should be succeeded through the community selecting leaders from amongst the Companions, and Shi'as believing that Muhammad had explicitly appointed Ali to be his immediate successor and spiritual authority. 

In any case, the Prophet was succeeded by his Companion, Abu Bakr, who thus became the first Caliph after Muhammad's demise, followed by Umar, Uthman, then Ali. Despite their disagreements, Sunnis and Shi'a broadly agree that this period of the first four Caliphs represented the closest to the Prophet's own practice, after which the rise of the Ummayyad dynasty is widely recognised as having led to fundamental departures from Qur'anic and Prophetic practice. However, there remains considerable disagreement between and amongst Sunnis and Shi'a over the extent to which the conduct of the first four Caliphs represented Islamic ideals. 

Further splits occurred within Shi'ism as disputes continued to arise over the succession to the Prophet within his familial lineage. The most prominent of these is the split between the 'Twelver' Shi'as, who constitute the majority of Shi'as, and the 'Ismaili' Shi'as. The 'Twelvers' believe that the Prophet was succeeded by 12 'Imams', each of whom were his consecutive descendants and who were also to some extent Divinely appointed and inspired (although they did not receive any new revelation), culminating in the final Imam who went into spiritual occultation until his re-appearance toward the end of time. Ismailis believe that the Prophet's lineage of Divinely-inspired descendants continued indefinitely until today. 

Orthodox Islam as we know it today is largely dominated by Sunni, the majority, and Twelver Shi'a, the minority, perspectives. However, within these broad swathes, there are myriad internal schools of thought and differences, pre-occupied largely with identifying 'legal' opinions (fiqh) on Muslim conduct. Sunnism can be largely divided into four main classical 'schools of thought' or 'madhabs' which were consolidated in the 9th and 10th centuries after the Muslim scholars that founded them, Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi, and Hanbali. To this, we may add the main Shi'a 'madhab', Jafari, which was recognised by al-Azhar, a leading centre of orthodox Sunni scholarship in Cairo, as a legitimate 'madhab' or school of Islamic thought. 

In the Amman message, a religious ruling (fatawa) issued by 200 Islamic scholars from over 50 countries, eight Sunni and Shi'a 'madhabs' are officially recognised as legitimate Islamic legal schools of thought.

In addition, there are 'Sufi' sects which focus on the inner or esoteric dimension of Islam. Sufism itself is made up of multiple tariqas or paths. For the most part, Sufi tariqas are not separate as such, but are situated within various Sunni and Shi'a denominations. 

However, even within these broad 'schools,' there are further myriad scholars operating within the specific framework of their respective 'schools', who nevertheless offer different and distinctive opinions on matters of belief, as well as personal and social legal issues covering all spheres of life. Consequently, the number of differing legal opinions on belief and practice is in fact vast, and while there are many overlapping areas of common agreement between different 'madhabs' and scholars, there is also a wide multiplicity of opposing and sometimes even mutually contradictory rulings. It is therefore important to recognise that there is no single, monolithic 'Islam'. Indeed, there are many hundreds of discrete interpretations of Islam across the Muslim world. However, within this overarching diversity, there is a unifying consensus regarding the main precepts of Islam, as espoused by the leading Sunni and Shi'a centres of scholarship. 

Beyond Orthodoxy

Approaching Islam, it is clear that much of our understanding of the faith and of the Prophet Muhammad himself comes filtered through the prism of history, and thus rises and falls with the accuracy or inaccuracy of the historical methods applied. perennial's approach here is not to take any particular account or approach for granted, but to apply an open-minded yet critical analysis that is beholden to no particular sect, school or 'madhab.' In this way, we hope to explore Islamic sources in such a way as to illuminate their implications, context and meaning in the most nuanced and accurate way possible, regardless of which schools, madhabs or approaches this involves.