The following excerpt is provided as background information on Arabic culture in Southwest Asia and its roots in Islamic religion.
The majority of the countries specifically addressed in this guide are Arabic. There are many ties among these countries, yet there are some important differences. These differences are, in part, the result of the relative impact of the West and the degree of political and social conservatism evident in the various countries. Regardless, in order to understand the people and events in Southwest Asia, it is necessary to understand Islam which is not only a religion, but a total way of life for the people in the area.- Almost all of the world's people - 800 million in some 60 countries - are Muslin. The following information is an introduction to the history and beliefs of Islam.
Islam is the act of submission to the will of God. In Arabic, Allah is the name of God and means "the God," to emphasize that "He is one and there is no other." It is not just a religion, if religion means only a system of belief and worship; rather Islam is a way of life. It proclaims faith, sets forth rituals, and prescribes order for individuals and society. Islam is a complete complex civilization, in which ideally, individuals, societies and governments should all reflect the will of God. In essence, it is a system 6f rules or laws to be followed in which the sacred is not separated from the secular. The Western concept of such separation is alien to Islamic thought.
A Muslim is anyone who submits to God's will, worships him and expects his reward or punishment. To the Muslim, God is all-powerful, all-knowing, the creator of all that was and is and will be, the generous guide to mankind through his messengers and his scriptures. He has no peer, no partner, no offspring, and no human attributes that might limit him. The most important belief of Islam is "La ilaha ill' Allah, wa Muhammad rasul Allah" - "There is no god whatever but the one God and Muhammad is the messenger of God." All material blessings and even other people must be valued less highly than the one true God.
Islam teaches that God revealed his existence to a number of prophets through the ages. They include Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses and Jesus Christ. These revelations have taken the forms of books: The Torah of the Jews, The Gospels of the Christians, and The Quran (also known as The Koran) of the Muslim. Muslims believe that God's earlier revelations were corrupted and had to be corrected by the Quran, which they see as literally the exact word of God, not an interpretation or recollection, like the Torah or the Bible. The Quran must be reproduced letter perfect since man cannot change the word of God. Consequently, Saudi Arabia reviews and approves every edition; if there are any discrepancies, the edition is destroyed.
Muhammad was bom in Mecca about 570 AD. As an adult, he was unsatisfied with the pagan religions of his people and the prevailing social conditions. He spent much time meditating alone in the desert hills near Mecca. During one of these times, in the lunar month of Ramadan, in 610 AD, he heard revelations from the angel Gabriel. He was commanded to recite these. One of the tenets he preached was that there will be a final Judgement Day from which no one can escape. All will be summoned before the heavenly throne to be judged for the good and the bad things they have done. The Quran depicts Paradise as a shaded garden with cooling fountains, abundant food and beautiful maidens for the eternal bliss of righteous men. Righteous women, too, will enter Heaven, but the Quran is less specific on what they will find. Popular Islam says they will resume being the age at which they were most beautiful. Both women and men will know peace, live in harmony, and see God. Hell is everything that is horrible in the Arab mind; fearsome beasts, fiery tortures, noxious vapors, foul-tasting food to eat, and boiling water to drink. There will be no peace, no harmony, and the torments will never end.
What about the leaders who fired up their troops with promises of booty if they won and instant Heaven if they fell in battle? Martyrdom and death for a righteous cause surely benefits a Muslim in the afterlife, but there will be no way around the Judgment Day. Only by obeying God in this life can the believer find Paradise in the next.
These revelations, which Muhammad passed along to the people, lasted for more than 20 years until his death. The revelations were first written down during the lifetime of the prophet but were duplicated for distribution only after his death.
When Muhammad died in 632 AD, a dispute arose over leadership of the Muslim community, which was also the first Islamic state. Succession of Arab clan or tribal leaders is based on both seniority in the clan and personal qualifications. Two groups disagreed on who should succeed Muhammad. One faction, the Sunnis (derived from the Arabic word for tradition) supported the "rightly guided" Caliphs, who had been Muhammad's companions. These Caliphs (Arabic for successor) were Abu Baker, Omar, Uthman and Ali, and their rule is usually referred to as the Orthodox Calliphete.
The second faction (today called the Shia or Shiite) maintained Muhammad chose his cousin and son-in-law Ali as his spiritual and secular heir, and that succession should be through his bloodline. Ali was eventually chosen to replace Uthman after his assassination, but was contested by Mu awiyah of the Umay yad's. The two battled for control and an actual split in rule occurred within the Muslim community. Upon Ali's death, his sons Hassan and Hussein challenged Mu awiyah's authority. Mu awiyah bought off Hassan, who retired to a life of luxury. In 680 AD, Hussein led a band of rebels against the Caliphete, at the battle of Karbala and was killed on the 10th Muharrram. This day is commemorated by the Shias and witnesses fervent demonstrations and self-flagellation by the Shias attempting to share in Hussein's suffering and martyrdom.
Despite the split into two branches, the new faith, spread quickly in all directions through conversion, commerce and conquest. In the Middle East, from modem Iraq to the Atlantic, most of the converts became Arabic, adopting Arabic language and culture. Elsewhere, conversion did not bring Arabization. Within a century, Islam had spread to northern Spain in the west and lndia and China in the east.
The rise in Islam not only brought empires into being, it also fostered the flowering of civilizations and the development of centers. of learning. A melding of new thought with ancient, of ideas from east and west took place, producing great contributions in medicine, mathematics, physics, astronomy, geography, architecture, art, language, literature, and history. Eventually, crucial ideas and concepts were transmitted, either directly or indirectly, from Islamic centers to medieval Christian Europe.
From the 7th to the 11th centuries, the community of Muslims was economically and militarily more powerful than Christian Europe. However, the rapid spread of Islam over a large area led to political fragmentation, which in turn made possible the Christian Crusades in the 12th and 13th centuries. This is still remembered by Muslim Arabs as a time of Western aggression.
In the period that followed, Europe discovered new wellsprings of vitality, partly fed from Islamic sources. The Renaissance in the 14th to 17th centuries led to the creation of powerful secular institutions, in particular the nation-state. Advancements in science and the industrial revolution generated new methods of organization and of producing physical strength. Europe was therefore able to dominate large portions of the rest of the world, including much of the Muslim world. The New World grew out of the European voyages of discovery, and the industrial revolution spawned both capitalist and communist theory, giving the rise to to the present superpowers.
Today, the Shia and the Sunni are the two major branches of Muslim, with the Sunni comprising about 85 percent of the total. The difference between these two major divisions are not so much in belief or law, which are fundamentally the same for both, as in practice and political theory. The Shia, mainly located in Iran, Iraq, Yemen, Afghanistan and Pakistan, have developed a hierarchical religious leadership. Both the Shia and the Sunni are further divided among themselves in ritual and practice, structure and political orientation.
Both the earlier period of Muslim dominance and the later reversal of historical fortunes have created stereotypes and misperceptions of Islam in the non-Muslim world. These are reinforced by the lack of contact between most Westerners and Muslims. Hence Islam, in many ways closely related to Western civilization, is often seen as hostile, dangerous or incomprehensible. Complex forces are sweeping Islam that affect not only Muslims but also the entire world. Understanding these forces is further complicated by the misperceptions.
One way to begin understanding Islam is to know its five "pillars of faith' or essential practices which are:
(a) Bearing witness to the one true God, and acknowledging Muhammad asmessenger (shahada);
(b) Praying five times daily -dawn, noon, aftenoon, sunset and night, facing Islam's holiest city, Mecca, in Saudi Arabia (salah);
(c) Giving alms to help the needy and for communal purposes (zakat);
(d) Fasting from dawn to sunset throughout Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar (saum); and
(e) Making the pilgrimage to Mecca, once in a lifetime, for those who are able (hab).
Another tenet which has become almost a "sixth" 'pillar is the Jihad, or Holy War. It is incumbent upon every Muslim to fight any threat to Islam. But what a Muslim may see as fighting a Holy War, a Westerner may see as terrorism.
In addition to the "five pillars' there are other practices commonly observed throughout the Islamic world. Muslims are forbidden to use intoxicating beverages or to consume pork blood, or anything that might be harmful. Because of the uncompromising nature of Islamic monotheism, no images or pictures of any kind are permitted in the mosque. Islam preaches that all men are equal. Therefore, there are no pews and generally no reserved places for dignitaries. The mosque is usually furnished with simple mats and occasionally with rugs. Worshipers form lines behind the "iman" as they arrive with no distinction of rank.
The belief in the equality of all men further means that Islam rejects the concept of ordained clergy. There are, nonetheless, religious leaders, many of whom exert power in the political as well as the strictly theological sphere, and who may be venerated by their followers. There is no separate religious organization or "church."
In our own time, the impact of industrial development, technology, urbanization and secular values has had far-reaching consequences. Around the world, rapid change has disrupted social patterns and cultural traditions which served as reference points for centuries. Muslims, no less than others, are reacting. Along with the flood of Western technology have come sometimes unwelcome ideas concerning individualism, materialism, sexuality, family, and politics. To some, these ideas seem to threaten basic Islamic values. Furthermore, the outlook of most Muslims is strongly colored by the very recent emergence from a long period of foreign domination. There is also an awareness of the clearly visible economic disparities between industrialized and developing nations and, within societies, between classes.
Concerned Muslims across Asia and Africa are actively exploring many routes to find the balance between modernization and tradition. This reflects a sense among the Muslim that Islamic principles may effect more appropriate solutions to their national problems than those offered by either capitalism or communism. Therefore, they call for a reemphasis of basic Islamic values in the lives of the individual and society. Among the varied responses advocated, one has been a resurgent call for pietistic reform. This response is closely related to similar outpourings of fundamentalism of all sorts around the world.
Just as Muslims are culturally diverse, there is no single "Islamic" politics or economics either. What unites concerned Muslims are common beliefs, common rituals, and determination to strengthen and preserve their heritage.