Within a century after its founding Islam spread until it reached the borders of China in the East and France in the West.
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In this vast territory the original Muslims, the Arabs, formed only a small part of the total population. Some of the people who were absorbed into Islam, such as the Persians, the Indians, and the Chinese already had great civilizations, literature, culture, and authority, even superior to those of the Arabs themselves. This feat of conquest has long been regarded as almost miraculous; it is clear, however, that there were good reasons for it, among them the similarity of Islam to Christianity and Judaism, the decay of heathen creeds, corrupt rule, tyranny of one class over others, and the lack of economic and social balance resulting therefrom.
A further factor was the basic spirit of tolerance in Islam itself, despite its strong compulsion to proselytize among other religions. So Islam continued to spread until it became the religion of millions in Asia and Africa, and even of a fairly good number in Europe, particularly in Albania and Yugoslavia. In this process of expansion, Islam interacted with foreign religions and cultures, influencing and being influenced.
If the chief locus of influence was literary and linguistic, there was also exchange at the most profound levels of theology. Abbas Mahmoud el-Akkad—a modern Egyptian writer—has suggested that if Christianity could be summarized in one word it would be "Love," and that the key word for Islam might be "Truth. As Rome moved toward a position of mediation between God and man, Islam, more in the spirit of the Christian Reformation, preserved the teaching in the Koran of Allah's closeness to man. There is no priest in the Muslim's mosque praying for him; he directs his prayer directly to the Deity.
There is no doubt that the world was in need of this doctrine, just as it was in need of the Christian doctrine that came before it.
It received these two doctrines at their destined times. Islam was much affected by the cultures over which it spread. New religious and philosophical schools were set up as a result of interaction between Islam and Greek philosophy; it also absorbed certain Indian and Persian mystical tendencies.
The Mutazilites subjected the texts of religion to Greek rationalism while the Sufis brought in an element of mysticism and ecstasy, which Islam had lacked. Dervish preaching, on the necessity of mediation between God and his slave, man, led in some periods and regions to a sort of cult of saints. The stimulation of these various tendencies produced a series of brilliant philosophers who were studied with respect in medieval Europe. The rapid spread of Islam over a huge area broke down a number of the social ideals of the early Muslim community. The spirit of Islam—Mohammed's reform of the society he had found—allowed a certain laxity to develop later: multiple marriage became a problem and easy divorce an evil, while the social equality of early Islam gave way to the customs of the conquered despotic empires.
It is against the backdrop of a long, and wearisome "Dark Age" that modern Islam must be viewed. Traditional Islam was a complete "way of life" in which social conventions and religious beliefs were closely integrated. Today Islam is moving toward a position more like that of Western religion, with separation of church and state.
This is reflected in education.
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There is no school in Muslim countries in which religious studies do not exist. But the teacher of religion is usually not also a teacher of the secular studies. The two fields are becoming entirely independent of each other. Thus Egypt, for example, has alongside of and separate from its ancient Azhar—the world's' oldest university—three modern, secular universities which are largely Western in organization and spirit. The central problem facing Arab Muslims, and indeed all Muslims, today is how to find a new way of life—Islamic in character—which will be halfway between the East and the West and which will provide the internal stability necessary to enable Muslims to face their problems independently.
The Arab World can borrow technology from the West but it must find the answers to its deeper problems within itself. One need only observe book-buying habits to see the strong interest in Islam still alive today. In Cairo any book discussing Islam is sure of a big sale.
This shows that people are not drifting away from religion. It is a fact also that the world struggle between democracy and communism has led Muslims to make a fresh evaluation of their religion to see where it stands in relation to these two conflicting movements. How far does Islam really penetrate into the hearts of Muslims today?
What tangible effects does it have in their lives? There is no simple answer and much depends on exactly what is meant by Muslims. Those who have a good understanding of Islam—unfortunately, the minority—are inspired by their religion with pride and self-respect, and a desire for freedom. The Muslim Brotherhood is the extreme expression of this side of Islam.
Hasan el-Banna, the founder of the movement, called on Muslims to be "leaders in their countries and masters in their homelands. This spirit underlay this century's continuous revolts against foreign rule, and we see it at work now in North-Africa.
Islam inspires its followers to cleave to the Islamic community and be absorbed by it. I indicated above that Islam emphasizes the freedom of the community at the expense of the freedom of the individual. The truth is that the individual enjoys vast freedom, so long as he remains inside the Muslim community.
But if he goes against it, he loses his liberty, or to put it more precisely, he loses his standing in Muslim society. Sheikh Mohammed Abdu—the great reformer, who died in —once wrote, "If someone says something implying unbelief in a hundred ways and implying belief in one single way, his words should be taken as belief rather than unbelief. Islam inspires its followers to sanctify the mind, reject the miraculous, and meditate on God's creation to confirm belief. Mohammed did not prove the validity of his message by miracles.
The Koran is full of verses which call us to the knowledge of God through reason alone. Abdu maintained that Islam demands faith in God and His unity through rational inference, and that the belief in God should come before the belief in the prophecies. Islam instructs its followers to believe in this world and the world to come in such a way as not to have one overpower the other.
The Muslim has the right to enjoy the pleasures of this world, because it was created for him. And there is a well-known proverb widely spread among Muslims: "Work for this world as though you will live forever, and work for the next world as though you will die tomorrow. Different Muslims have reacted to the incursion of Western ideas diversely. The Egyptian writer, Ahmad Ameen, said frankly: "The reform of Islam will come about in two ways: one, by separating science from religion, and advancing in science as extensively as possible; the other, through the practice of absolute Ijtihad.
Another contemporary Muslim writer has advocated implicitly that free interpretation should be applied to matters pertaining to Islamic doctrine and not to matters of jurisprudence alone. But the conditions of Muslims today do not yet permit this absolute freedom of interpretation, though they are moving toward it.
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A third position, which calls for the separation of religion from the state, but not from society, has been advocated by Sheikh Ali Abdel-Razik in his book Islam and Principles of Rule and by a powerful writer of the younger generation, Khalid Mohammed Khalid, whose From Here We Start has been widely read. While, to be sure, the Muslim Brotherhood disagrees with this line of thought, the majority of cultured Muslims tend to endorse it. In fact , almost all the Muslim world now uses secular civic law, with some slight Islamic modifications rather than the old religious code.
Only the laws covering "personal status"—marriage, divorce, inheritance, and the like—have remained unchanged. And even the old Muslim code is civil to some extent, particularly in marriage, which is carried out by a written contract, the conditions of which are dictated by both parties. There are also certain traditional concepts which facilitate the modification of Muslim law; the idea of "free interpretation" applies in this field as does that of "consensus of opinion.
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Islam's central teaching is that there is only one all-powerful, all-knowing God, and this God created the universe. This rigorous monotheism, as well as the Islamic teaching that all Muslims are equal before God, provides the basis for a collective sense of loyalty to God that transcends class, race, nationality, and even differences in religious practice. Thus, all Muslims belong to one community, the umma , irrespective of their ethnic or national background. Within two centuries after its rise in the 7th century, Islam spread from its original home in Arabia into Syria, Egypt, North Africa, and Spain to the west, and into Persia, India, and, by the end of the 10th century, beyond to the east.
In the following centuries, Islam also spread into Anatolia and the Balkans to the north, and sub-Saharan Africa to the south. The Muslim community comprises about 1 billion followers on all five continents, and Islam is the fastest-growing religion in the world. The most populous Muslim country is Indonesia, followed by Pakistan and Bangladesh. One of the reasons for the growth of the Muslim community has been its openness to new members. Children born to Muslim parents are automatically considered Muslim.
At any time, a non-Muslim can convert to Islam by declaring himself or herself to be a Muslim. A person's declaration of faith is sufficient evidence of conversion to Islam and need not be confirmed by others or by religious authorities. Some 40 years later Muhammad started preaching a new religion, Islam, which constituted a marked break from existing moral and social codes in Arabia.
The new religion of Islam taught that there was one God, and that Muhammad was the last and most important in a series of prophets and messengers. Through his messengers God had sent various codes, or systems of laws for living, culminating in the Qur'an Koran , the holy book of Islam. These messengers were mortal men, and they included among many others Moses , the Hebrew prophet and lawgiver, and Jesus , whom Christians believe to be the son of God rather than a prophet.
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