Islam is a relatively new religion. Judaism almost seems to transcend the history of Mankind. Hinduism, Confucianism and Buddhism seem to be part of the mystical East. When one thinks of the East, one conceives of civilizations that go beyond ancient. Christianity is pretty new, especially when one considers that the Roman Empire had been going strong for centuries before Christ was born. The Greeks, with their wars and philosophies, preceded Jesus by 300 to 400 years, too.
But Islam did not come around until 571 A.D. Today, with all the problems in Islam, what with the question of Palestinian freedom under the yoke of Israeli administration, and the extremism of Muslim terrorists, this religion appears to some to be archaic, out of date, part of a time so ancient as to be irrelevant if it was not so dangerous. Islam is neither out of date, irrelevant or dangerous. There is a dangerous strain to it, to be sure, but this is based on the misinterpretations of a relatively misguided few. Islam is a religion with many beautiful concepts. Adherents of its faith are among some of the kindest and finest people in the world. It is called the "religion of peace." The ugly murderers who bring shame to this precept will not erase the moniker.
Mohammed was born in a humble household in Quraysh, in Mecca, in what is now Saudi Arabia, in 571 A.D. He was soon orphaned and raised by his grandfather. He became a shepherd and traveled to Syria and Yemen. At 25, he married a wealthy widow. In a culture where men took multiple wives, Mohammed never had another one. He also spent time listening to Jews, Christians and pagans. He determined, as the Jews (and, depending on the interpretation), the Christians did, that their was one true God. He called him Allah, after Allah Taala, the Most High God of the Kaaba.
Allah prayed that God would appear to him, as He had to the Jews and Christians. An angel appeared, and urged him to speak out. Mohammed became the prophet of Allah. He called the religion Islam, which means “surrender” in Arabic. Followers are called Moslems, or Muslims.
Mohammed’s message was similar to the Old and New Testaments. There is one true God, people who obeyed God’s laws would go to Heaven, while those who did not would go to hell. But he was mocked when he preached to the people. In particular, the officials of Mecca tried to quiet him because if this Allah were found to be a false god, then tourism to Mecca would dry up. Mohammed kept at it. In 620 at the Mecca fair, he managed to convert a group of pilgrims to Islam. Mohammed attempted to get the Jews to convert to Islam. They pointed out errors that he made in his interpretations of the Old Testament and refused to convert. Mohammed did find converts among the pagans, the poor and the dispossessed. In order to feed some of his people, Mohammed led a group of men on an attack of a rich caravan. His scheme was known ahead of time, however, and the Moslems were surrounded. Mohammed proved to be an adept military commander who led a group of men who were filled with fury. In the Battle of Badr, as it came to be called, Mohammed had won a victory. The fact that Mohammed led a violent charge is the first reason some have called him a terrorist. His actions were no more violent than numerous Jewish kings and generals who resorted to fighting in order to bring freedom to their people. Jesus has no record of such violence, although he did create a ruckus in the temple when he went into a fury over the business that was being conducted in the holy place.
Mohammed did assume a military rank, although it should be pointed out that the Moslems were under attack. A Meccan army, led by a defector named Abu Sufyan, badly wounded Mohammed. Mohammed decided that the defection was because his men drank wine, so he forbade drinking as a rule of the religion. Sufyan mounted another offensive, but by this time Mohammed had joined forces with the Persians. They succeeded in creating a defensive barricade at Medina. The local Jews aided the attack. After its failure, Mohammed ordered the slaughter of 600 able-bodied Jews. The rest of the Jews were exiled. Still another group now hated the Jews!
Mohammed was unable to convince Jewish and Christian clerics of his visions. He tried to demonstrate that his readings of the Old and New Testaments contained errors. The Jews and Christians therefore did not recognize him as a legitimate religious visionary. Mohammed decided that Judaism and Christianity were enemies. He decided that Moslems would pray on Fridays, called by a man standing on the top of the tallest building, and not a trumpet. Mosques were building to effectuate this.
The Moslems waged war on caravans moving through their territory, enriching themselves. Eventually Mohammed forced the Quraysh leaders to accept a peace treaty. The Bedouins joined his ranks, and Islam grew. An uneasy peace existed in Mecca, until a skirmish between armed Meccans and Moslem Bedouins gave Mohammed the excuse to break the peace with the Quraysh. In 630, during the month of Ramadan, he led a force of 10,000, armed with swords and spears. They overwhelmed Mecca, taking it for themselves and proclaiming it the holy city. His supporters called for mass executions. Mohammed kept the killings to a minimum, preferring instead to consolidate power by drawing his ex-enemies in. He sent armies to take over Taiuf and gain control of the Arabian Peninsula. Christian and Jewish settlements were surrounded, but Mohhamed spared them when they paid him off. Mohammed was admired as a warrior and politician who had consolidated the varying tribes in a way not even the Roman Empire had done.
Mohammed called for an annual pilgrimage to Mecca every March. In 632 he fell sick after his return to Medina and died in June of that year. Mohammed was a warrior and a politician who practiced violence. The enemies and critics of Islam have used this to identify the religion as a destructive one. This explains why so much violence always has and continues to emanate from its practitioners. In recent times, Christian pastors like Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson have pointed out the facts outlined herein, regarding Mohammed’s leading of troops into battle. They have gone so far as to call him a terrorist.
While Jesus somehow resisted any use of violence to promote His cause, He is the great exception. Violence was almost impossible to avoid during Mohammed’s day. Wars, plunder and conquering armies took what they needed as a matter of routine. The question is whether Mohammed was a divine being, as his followers claim, or just a great leader of a movement. Either way, once he had established peace, Mohammed lived an ordinary life, eschewing the riches that could have been accorded him as a king. He preached kindness, particularly towards orphans, the poor, the weak, the unprotected, and women. He had about a dozen wives, including a Christian woman named Mary who gave birth to a child who died shortly thereafter. Of all his women only one bore him children. Only one of them, Fatima, outlived him. He dictated his thoughts to his secretary, and this was translated into the Koran. It actually contains many of Mohammed’s interpretations of the Old Testament. Despite being rebuffed by the Jews, Mohammed was greatly influenced by the Hebrews. He also mentions the “prophet Jesus” among his stories and characters from the New Testament. Mohammed himself never called himself divine. He simply saw himself as an apostle. Among his teachings were the Five Pillars of Islam, which involved laws regarding diet, prayer, alcohol, charity and pilgrimage to Mecca.
The religion deals harshly with theft, by slicing off the hand of the robber. Any disrespect toward the religion is cause for the death penalty with the person sentenced to eternity in hell, which the Koran pictures as a pit filled with flames. Heaven, or Paradise, on the other hand, is pictured as a cool mountaintop. The Moslem approach towards punishment and the call for death to any who disrespect the religion are seen as the genesis for and justification of violence towards any “infidels.” These are basically anybody who is not a true-believing Muslim. Jews and Americans are easily identified as being infidels. The religion calls for “no mercy” to those who do not believe in Allah. The conflict in this view is the interpretation of Allah. Since Muslims believe in “one God,” it is therefore a reasonable explanation that the major religions – Judaism and Christianity – believe in the same thing. The Jews certainly believe in “one God,” too. Christians believe in “one God,” but they see this as a tri-partite God that is encompassed as One, composed of the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.
Muslim extremists have decided that belief in one God is not good enough; the belief must come equipped with all the tenets of the Koran. If not, death must come to those who fail to observe these tenets. Moderates are willing to accept the concept that the “one God” is a God of all people on Earth. The Koran, however, leaves little out for moderation. It says that the “people of the Book” – Jews and Christians – are to be given a chance to accept Islam. If they refuse they are to be branded pagans, and therefore subject to jihad. Moderate readers of the Koran have said that jihad is some kind of interpretation of one’s mind, meant to free the soul. There is little to dissuade the general language that indicates jihad is a call to kill Jews, Christians and everybody who is not Muslim.
I would like, at this point, to tell a personal story that concerns the Moslem religion. In the late 1980s, I was in the United States Army. In my unit was a young man, whose name I cannot recall, but he was a Muslim with a Middle Eastern surname. This fellow was as American as I was. I do not know if his parents were from the Middle East, but this guy was from Cerritos, California, a suburb of Los Angeles. He was into all the things that any other young guy was into: Girls, music, sports, partying. He was a nice guy and a good-looking kid with an engaging personality. He liked to laugh and joke around and was popular. Then one day the subject of Salman Rushdie came up. Rushdie was the Iranian writer who had recently written The Satanic Verses. The Ayatollah Khomeini had issued a fatwa in which all Muslims were expected to kill Rushdie if they found him. This young man, a member of the U.S. Army, very casually remarked that he would kill Rushdie if he had the chance.
I was stunned. He said it the way he might say he would go see a Dodger game if he could get the tickets. I did not get into an argument with him, preferring to let it pass. I do know he was not joking. I cannot say I really think he would have killed Rushdie if he suddenly appeared in front of us, but it had a profound effect on me and my view of Moslems.
It was not the first time that I had heard such intolerance. In 1984, Indira Gandhi was assassinated. She was an Indian Hindu. I knew an Indian woman who was Muslim. She was relatively attractive, had a good personality, and worked as a customer service representative for the discount brokerage firm, Charles Schwab & Co. She jumped up and down, clapping and hollering, when she heard of Indira's death. It was the same reaction a Georgia football fan might have when the Dawgs scored a touchdown. It was disgusting.
The Moslems developed into fierce desert warriors, able to defeat large, well-equipped European armies because they were used to the hardships of the desert. They were often nomads with little of their own, able to attack and take rather than hold and defend. Moslem armies spread throughout the Middle East. Eventually, the religion had splits and varying sects. The Moors, for instance, were Moslems who invaded and captured Spain. While the violent strains of Islam – the call to jihad, the frequent use of the death penalty, violence against the bodies of law-breakers, and the fierceness of its armies – have never gone away and, in fact, have grown, there are many splendid aspects of the religion. It does call for a fair share of morality and compassion towards the poor. Tourists have often remarked at the kindness of these people, who are known to be hospitable hosts. It is too simple to just disregard Islam as violent extremists. There must be some acknowledgement that they were at times forced to fight for themselves, and they fought well. In the current context, Islam is a religion that needs to evaluate itself, just as Christianity went through a long, long period of violence themselves. The Christians evaluated themselves after the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition, through Vatican councils and Protestant Reformations that forced them to be honest about who they were and what they stood for. The Christians certainly did make adjustments. Even today they will have to make more adjustments, since it is becoming increasingly obvious that Catholic requirements of chastity and bachelorhood for priests has created a breeding ground for sexually disturbed people.
By 1099, Christianity was more than 1,000 years old. Islam was approximately 400 years old. Throughout the 11th Century, the divided Arab Empire became weaker, while Christian lands to the north became strong. The Christians were alarmed at the language of Islam, the jihadist call for their deaths, and the growing strength in numbers and fighting ability demonstrated by its adherents. Decisions were being made, and history has debated the events of the Crusades. Were they violent wars of aggression committed by intolerant Christians? Were they justified acts of unilateral war, meant to stop the Moslems before the Moslems could kill them? Or were they brought about by violent wars wrought by Moslems? The answer, like all answers in history, is not one answer, but rather the answer to many questions that events brought about.
Christian armies snatched back Arab-controlled lands in northern France, Sicily and southern Italy. The fact that the Arabs had ventured to Europe and enslaved entire populations offers some evidence that the Crusades at least started from a defensive posture. The Pope called on European rulers to unite in rolling back the Muslim invaders. It would drag on for two centuries. In 1099, Frankish troops captured Jerusalem, the original Christian city of Jesus. In 1187 Saladin re-captured it. By the time the Crusades were over, the Moslems had repelled the Christians from all of the Middle East, except for Cyprus.
During the middle of this terrible division between the Christian and Moslem worlds, a new enemy emerged who terrified Arab and European alike. His name was Genghis Khan. The Mongols of Genghis were very much like the Arabs of Mohammed – nomadic horsemen, and tough fighters. The Mongols had long raided Chinese farmlands along the northern frontier where the Great Wall stood. The Chinese paid them off with bribes, until Genghis Khan came along. Using cavalry tactics and sheer terror, Genghis cut a swath through Asia, Eastern Islamic territories, and Eastern Europe. After capturing the Chinese capital of Peking, Genghis advanced on the Islamic Khwarizmiam Empire, causing the occupants to flee. Genghis died but his sons carried on his bloody rampages. By 1258, Mongol hordes had enlarged China, captured parts of Russia, streamed into Europe and Mesopotamia, destroyed the Abbasid caliphate, and sacked Baghdad.
But the Moslems re-grouped. Two years later a Mameluke jihad stopped the Mongols’ westward expansion in Syria. What happened after that was a great victory for Islam. Moslems, Mongols and Christians mixed together. Marco Polo visited the Chinese ruler, Kublai Khan, and the Middle East almost became “officially” Christian. Ghazan, a Mongol khan, became a Moslem and proclaimed Islam the new religion of the Mongols. After all the fighting and bloodshed, the Koran triumphed.
Unfortunately, the Mongol/Moslem world was not peaceful for long. Mongol fighters spread out and conquered Afghanistan, Persia and Kurdistan, leaving severed heads piled to the sky. Baghdad fell in 1393. Mesopotamia was overrun, and eventually Moscow was occupied. Fighting spread across north India, and in 1400 Timur, a claimed descendant of Genghis, sacked Aleppo in Syria. He left 20,000 severed heads, destroyed Damascus, and returned to Baghdad to kill some more. He piled up an additional 120 mounds of heads there. In 1402, Timur invaded Asia Minor, crushed the Turks, then returned to China where he finally was killed fighting in 1404.
Think his soul ascended to Heaven? Some people just have to be stopped, and some times war is the only way to stop them.
With Timur finally gone, the way was open for new rulers in the Arab world – the Ottoman Turks. The Turks were related by blood to the Mongols. The Moslems originally victimized them, when Arab armies overran their Central Asian homeland in the eighth century. But the Turks could fight, and they were made a part of the Moslem fighting force. They adopted the religion and became integrated into it. A Turk tribesman named Seljuk led a large conversion to the Sunni creed of Islam in the 10th Century. The Sunnis then went on a rampage of conquest themselves. The fighting crossed western Asia and, in 1055 Baghdad, which seems to fall a lot, fell to them.
Christian Armenia fell, and in 1071, the Byzantines fell, too. Seljuk Turks took parts of Asia Minor, and what is now modern Turkey was now within their control. The Seljuks enjoyed maximum power from 1072 to 1092, but when they employed foreigners to fight their battles, they grew soft and they lost to the Mongols at Kozedagh in 1243. But the Mongols divided lands among themselves. Eventually Turkish emirs created independent power structures. One of the emirs was named Othman. He declared holy war on his Christian neighbors bordering in and around the Byzantine Empire. By 1400, the Ottomans, named after Othman, had conquered Macedonia and Bulgaria, and swept the Teljuks aside. Then the Ottomans were crushed by Timur at Ankara. Civil wars raged for 10 years, but Sultan Mohammed united the Ottomans again. Turkish armies under his command marched on southeast Europe. Allies of Rumanians, Hungarians, Poles, Germans and even the French met them and halted their advance in 1443. In 1448 the Ottomans beat back a Christian attack in Serbia. With Constantinople by this time virtually undefended, the Ottomans seized on this prize. On May 29, 1453, Turkish gunners knocked down the city walls and went on a slaughter. Sultan Mohammed entered the city, ordered the rampage to stop. He took possession of the Church of St. Sophia, and with it, Constantinople. The last real stronghold of Christianity in the region was now Moslem.
Now masters of Asia Minor, the Ottomans pushed east to the Persian Gulf, taking Armenia and Iraq. In the 16th Century they added Persia (now Iran), Syria, Egypt and western Arabia to their domain. Under Suleiman the Magnificent, who reigned from 1520 to 1566, the empire grew to include Morocco in North Africa, and most of Hungary. A siege was laid on Vienna, Austria. Suleiman ruled from Budapest to Baghdad, from Crimea on the Black Sea to the Egyptian Nile.
The Turks assaulted Vienna again in 1683, but could not quite capture the city, withdrawing from Western Europe. Eventually they created alliances with the Austro-Hungarians. In the 18thCentury, France, England and Austria began plans to grab parts of the empire. In the 19th Century wars broke out. Various deals were struck, with the Ottomans finding themselves on the wrong side of history. Thinking the Austro-Hungarians to be the strongest military force in the world, because of their alliance with an emerging unified Germany, the Ottomans cast their lot with them. When World War I broke out, they found themselves dragged into the conflict. When the Central Powers lost, their empire, already reduced to a shell of its old self, officially ended in 1922. By that time, Constantinople’s name had been changed to Istanbul, but the Turks did not even choose Istanbul as their capital, choosing instead Ankara.
Britain carved up the Ottoman Empire. It was too expensive to hold after World War II. They relinquished it, including Palestine, to the dispossessed Jewish Holocaust survivors. Today, the region is control by autonomous governments. To the extent that there is any hegemony, the United States is the most influential overall player.
Those who have not studied history look at the modern day Middle East and see a Third World wasteland that has value only because of an accident of fate. The accident of fate is that automobiles were invented, they needed oil, and the region has most of the oil. A racially tinged bias has emerged, in which the Muslims are dismissed as “rag heads” and “camel jockeys.” They are viewed as the violent progenitors of a religion that modernity has passed by. The uninformed view Arabs as dusky and stupid. History has favored the West, and the losers are in the Middle East. The Arabs threw their lot in with the Soviets, and that gamble went badly. They are made to look backward and dumb in comparison with the brilliant success of Jewish Israel. These concepts have not been developed out of nowhere without reason. However, to dismiss the Arabs, the Persians and the Moslems world as “rag heads” is not accurate. It does not do justice to their contributions to the world. Mohammed used violence and there is a strong strain of violence and intolerance within the tenets of Islam, but violence and intolerance are part of the history of man. Singling the Moslems out for the violence and intolerance within their ranks is not entirely fair. It is, in fact, hypocritical. Western politicians who reach out to moderate elements within the Moslem world are choosing the only sane course. Friendship and human understanding stems from the realization, as John Kennedy said, that “we are all mortal.” This is the common bond between us.
The Middle East is a cradle of civilization. Great contributions to medicine, mathematics, architecture, astronomy, literature and the decorative arts have been made. While Europe tore itself up through constant fighting, Moslem scholars preserved the ancient world.
A few centuries after the Crusades, Europeans came back to the East. This time, they did not come by horseback. They arrived in India by way of ships. Instead of plunder, they sought trade. Instead of conquering the sub-continent, these Europeans wanted control of the seas that surrounded it. A new kind of “technology” had taken over. The Europeans had mastered it.
In 1498, just six years after Christopher Columbus set sail for the New World, Vasco de Gamaset set sail from Portugal. He went underneath Africa, and landed at the port of Calicut, South India, in search of “Christians and spice.”
The development of naval fleets was a matter of necessity. Throughout the Middle Ages, Europe had depended on the East for silk, precious stones, and spices, especially pepper. The only way to get them to the “civilized countries” was to carry them through Moslem territories. The shipments were subject to Moslem looters. The Turks held up shipments, and after a while they realized it was more profitable to take bribes than to simply steal what they came across. The Portuguese outsmarted the Moslems by building sea-worthy ships that could evade Turk blockades and set up a sea route to India. They also wanted to subvert the Eastern religions by bringing Christianity to India.
Portugal did well in their efforts, although they were a small country without the resources to maintain control of India. Christianity was popular amongst the lower castes in Hindu society. The tenets of the new religion made all humans equal in the eyes of God, instead of inferior by religious fiat, as Hinduism proposed. Other European countries arrived to make trade with India, and settlements were established. By 1707, the British had secured Madras, Bombay and Calcutta as de facto colonized cities.
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