Understanding Islam – How and why Muhammad made a difference

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SHAFAQNA - Michael Cook, Cleveland Dodge professor of Near Eastern Studies, Princeton University, held a lecture regarding the leading figure who established an empire of faith, Prophet Muhammad.

Cook starts by explaining that the lecture is centered on events that happened during the 7th century. However, it is essential that one realizes that these events are not only pertinent to that time; but rather are very relevant to the present day.

Cook then gives a brief account of monotheism before leaping towards the 7th century. He then relates how: “the Arabs did not convert to Christianity like everybody else. Neither did they cling obstinately to their ancestral paganism. Nor did they turn up their noses at Christianity and adopt Judaism. What they did was to come up with a monotheist religion of their own. That initiated an extraordinary series of events.”

The Arabs, in their Arabian homeland, came together to form a state. Then they set out from their homeland and conquered an empire that stretched all the way from Spain to Central Asia and northwestern India. That empire was the crucible in which the Islamic world as we know it began to come into existence.

It’s an extraordinary sequence of events, and lots of people are involved in it. But the most crucial person is Muhammad, because he was the one who gave the Arabs their new monotheism and established their state.

What is rather intriguing is how Muhammad made an enormous “dent” on the history of the world and continues to dent the world as we know today. Cook attributes this to the Prophet’s being a successful prophet and a successful politician.

First, Muhammad as a prophet: Muhammad was born about 570. Forty years later, around 610, he began to receive revelations from on high. He continued to receive those revelations for something like 20 years, and collectively, those revelations constitute the Koran. The Koran was put together in the exact form in which we have it today something like 20 years after his death in 632. Sometime around 650 — give or take a few years — the Koran is put together the way it is now.

Then, Cook proceeds to explain how a coin signifies the political and the religious aspects of a certain nation: “Let me show you a typical coin, a completely non-Islamic coin, an American quarter. Does that look familiar? This is a classic recipe for a coin. One side is political; the other side you could call religious. On the political side, you have a guy’s head, and he’s your king, or if not, then some equivalent figure.

“Here is a seventh century coin, and it’s exactly the same recipe. This is typical of the design of coins minted by the Persian Empire, which is the empire the Arabs knocked down when they set out to conquer the world. This style is a little different, but it’s the same recipe. You’ve got the guy’s head there – that is the Persian emperor. Unlike George Washington, he has a crown on his head. Over here, we have a Zoroastrian fire altar and a couple of attendants on either side. There is the political side and the religious side — same basic design.

But the odd thing about this coin is, as some of you may have noticed, we have a bit of Arabic script. What’s that doing here? This coin was minted long after the Persian Empire disappeared, sometime in the 690s, and it was minted not under Persian rule but under the rule of the Arabs — the Muslims. What on earth were the Arabs doing making propaganda for an empire they had destroyed and for a religion theirs had superseded? It’s a good question, and eventually they started to ask themselves that question. They decided it was time for something different. It’s recognizable as a coin: It is round, has two sides, but everything else is changed. There is nothing but words here. Nobody’s head, nobody’s symbol, just words. In fact, 45 words in Arabic script, and those 45 words are the coin bite.

First, there are eight words used for a purely business purpose. This dirham — that’s the kind of coin this is — was minted in 733 or 734. That’s all we get. No name of any ruler is mentioned. Everything else on this coin is made over to God, and the words are derived from the Koran. Here we have the Koran reduced to a coin bite, and let’s see what the Muslims in the late seventh century decided to put there.

“There is no God but God alone without companion.” That is good: no-compromise, no-nonsense monotheism — very clear. We flip to the other side, and here in the center we have a rather longer passage: “He is God, One. God, the everlasting refuge, who has not begotten and has not been begotten and equal to him is not anyone” (Koran, chapter 112.) That’s the same uncompromising monotheism, but note also a side swipe at the Christians. The Christians are notorious for believing that God has a son; hence, the denial here that God has begotten anyone.

Finally, down here around the margin, we have: “Muhammad is the messenger of God” – that is a parting of the ways with the Jews and Christians, who do not believe that Muhammad is a prophet — “whom He has sent with the guidance and the religion of truth” — so Muhammad’s religion is the religion of truth, Islam is the religion of truth — “that He may uplift it above every religion, though the unbelievers be averse” — that’s what, in religion departments, is called triumphalism.

Cook continues to discuss some of the events that marked Muhammad’s career as a politician the migration from Mecca to Medina and the submission of Mecca.

The migration from Mecca to Medina is the central political event of the prophet’s career. The prophet has a problem in Mecca, and he finds the solution in Medina.

The problem in Mecca is he and his followers are unpopular with the pagan population. Why? Because of their monotheist incivility: They go around trashing pagan gods, and that is not appreciated. Muhammad has to get his followers out of Mecca and find somewhere where they’ll be more secure. The answer, after a long search, is Medina.

Medina is an oasis about 200 miles north of Mecca that is in an awful political mess. Some of the Medinans had a hunch if they brought in Muhammad, he could clear up the mess, get things together and life could be more tolerable for them. They invite Muhammad to come, and they let him bring his followers along, too.

Muhammad establishes himself in Medina, and once he is established in Medina, he starts to build a state — a rudimentary, rather tribal state. This is the depths of Arabia, but it’s a real state. Between 622 and 632, he is expanding the power of his state. One of the milestones in the expansion of that power over Arabia is the submission of his own hometown of Mecca in 630.

Afterwards, Cook discusses the extraordinary success of Muhammad in initiating a chain of events that establishes the Islamic world. We have seen he has a message from on high. He has skill as a military leader and a politician. But how does he make the leap from a being a guy with a message and political skill to having this enormous impact on world history?

Let us go back and think for a minute about Arabia. I have mentioned before that Arabia is an arid part of the world. Before the days of oil, Arabia is also poor. Very poor compared to the densely settled agricultural lands outside Arabia, and immensely poor compared to, say, northwestern Europe or southern China or the eastern United States. Poor environments are an unfriendly place for states. If you want to establish a halfway decent state, you need a nice, fat tax base, and you are not going to find that in Arabia. Instead of states in Arabia, what you find are tribes. Because of the impoverished environment, these tribes tend to be rather flat — they don’t have steep social hierarchies. That means in Arabia basically every adult male has to be a warrior and a politician in his own right. It’s a society with a high level of military and political skill and activity, but it is also a society without any central coordination. The result is, through the centuries, the Arabs fritter away their military and political energy in small-scale conflict among themselves. That’s why, before the seventh century, the tribes are never a big danger to their neighbors outside Arabia. Sure, they come and raid and steal the chickens and kidnap a few people, but it’s nothing big.

What Muhammad somehow did — using not only his political skills but also his monotheist message that came from outside the tribal system — was to get the Arabs on the same page. If you could do that, even temporarily, you could send the Arabs out to conquer the world. Not in Muhammad’s lifetime, but a couple of years after his death, starting in 634 – that is when his followers conquer this empire stretching from Spain to Central Asia. They had never done it before, and they never did it again. Muhammad, in his dual role as prophet and politician, is the absolutely crucial factor that made it possible.”

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