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Since the event of “September 11 attacks”, the tension between USA and Islamic countries are growing. Most westerners: Americans and Europeans implicitly link Islam with terrorism (Esposito 3). In order to fully interpret the event, the religion behind it: Islam should be analyzed in its social context, as religion isn’t created out of vacuum and always grows out of the nourishing soil of the society. Religion, in its essence, is how people defined themselves regarding politics, ethnicity, culture, social identity and citizenship (Aslan 80). I agree with the view, because during the time period considered the origin of Islam when Muhammad revealed the message of God to the Caliph Ali, Muslim community experienced gradual changes led by the religion and at the same time shaped the religion.
The Muhammad’s revelation took deep root in the era referred as the Jahiliyyah or “the Time of Ignorance” viewed by Muslims. The social life at this time was signified by the stratification of society and the mixture of believes and ideas. In Arabian Peninsula, a barren desert, various religious ideas sparkled independently and were influenced mutually. The nomad Bedouin tribes were governed by the henotheistic paganism and dominated the region (Aslan 13). Meanwhile, Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrian were spread through trade (Esposito 8). Most religious activities, or pilgrimage and trades centered around Kaaba. Kaaba, the cube-shaped structure with the well flowing the fresh water in the desert, housed different statues of various Gods and was considered the holy place, or sanctuary by pilgrims. The society was tribal structure that tribes were composed of clans which are the large extended families (Aslan 24). The wealthiest tribe Quayash controlled Kaaba and therefore achieved authority and dictatorship socially, politically and religiously. The leader of the tribe controlled the market of exchanging goods and taxed the citizens to gain wealth (Aslan 26). In this social context, the social status was stratified, and people of the inferior status or weaker tribe lived a miserable life and were threatened by survival.
Under the influence of above social context, Muhammad’s revelation was basically a social reform. He was gradually influenced by social structure and the mixture and confrontation of the believes at that time in Hijaz region. Hanifism, the Arab monotheistic movement shaped his idea of worship of one God. One example is that he talked with Zady who was involved in Hanifism and derided his paganism (Aslan 16). Although belonged to the tribe Quayash, he as an orphan and a merchant probably observed the stratified social order and witnessed the lives of the poor and the weaker tribes thus forming the second main idea of the message from God. When he practiced paganism and meditated on Mt. Hira one day, the message from God finally came to him. The first message was the worship of one true God. The second main idea spoke for people considered inferior in social status and power while recognizing their rights to be taken care of the rich and the powerful and proposing the tribal egalitarianism (Aslan 41). Therefore, he become a prophet through self-justification and his idea spread first to his close friends and his family. In a general sense, his belief was essentially bringing up the reform in terms of tribal ethics and tribal structure with both heredity and innovation in the bigger background of tribal society. He, as a prophet, summarized the contemporary beliefs including Judaism, Christianity and Zoroastrian to the people and changed the social structure.
Starting from this point, a more morally structured Muslim community referred as Ummah evolved through wars and conflicts. There was confrontation of beliefs between the old force mainly composed of rich and powerful classes of Quraysh tribe and the people supporting Muhammad’s revelation. Muhammad emigrated with his supporters to Yathrib as the unchallenged and prophet and established Ummah, the society with more structured religion. The Quraysh’s interest and status were obviously challenged. Muhammad declared Yathrib also called Medina as a new sanctuary city posing threat to the status of Ka’ba in Mecca (Aslan 82). Therefore, three wars between the Quraysh and Muhammad: battle of Uhuh, battle of the Trench and battle of Badr took place and ended with Treaty of Hudaybiyyah. Finally, Muhammad achieved victory and took over Mecca. Muhammad smashed all the statues depicting various gods in the Kaaba marking the end of pagan gods in Arab and the beginning of the religion: Islam (Aslan 106).
After Muhammad died in 632, the Muslim community evolved led by the religion Islam or message from Muhammad. The Muslim community expanded and achieved relative social stability under the leadership of four Caliphs: Abu Bakr, Umar ibn al-Khattab, Uthman ibn Affan and Ali ibn Abi Talib who were Muhammad’s past companions and generally preserved the ideals of Muhammad of tribal ethics. The four Caliphs are therefore considered “The rightly guided ones” who fought for social egalitarianism (Aslan 114). For example, under the humble leadership and economic practice of Abu Bakr from 632 to 634, the Muslim society achieved unity and stability and people had the economic power to practiced Islam (Aslan 113). Caliph Umar ruled from 634-644 and stressed upon military victories and therefore the Muslim community expanded to include the territory of today Egypt and Libya.
However, there were political and social instabilities due to political division. Muslim community experienced political faith disputes over electives and credentials of Caliphs, because Muhammad as a “living Quran” died unexpectedly and left no clear instruction towards his successors. Therefore, different groups of people held multiple opinions. The conflict between Ali and Abu Bakr was an example. The Ansar and Banu Hahism tribe viewed Ali as credible successor after the death of Muhammad while Quraysh in Mecca suggested Abu Bakr as better choice. Ali and the Banu Hashim were forced to accept the leadership of Abu Bakr through threats from Umar to burn the house of Fatima (Aslan 117). Abu Bakr even gave Ali’s property from the prophet Muhammad to his daughter, Aisha (Aslan 112).
More specifically, the dispute over the Caliphs derived from the question over the intrinsic role of Caliph. How should the Muslim society be built and be led based on the subjective interpretation of the Prophet Muhammad? As the Muslim territory expanded, how should religion play a role in society? There were three main views inspired by different aspects of Muhammad’s message. The first group can be classified as the supporters of Ali, mainly the Banu Hashim who thought the preservation of Muhammad’s tribal ethics was the most important without consideration of larger social context. The second group was referred as Shi’atu Uthman centered around Aisha and her supporters re-defining the role of Caliph (Aslan 130). The third group Shi’atu Mu’wiyah composed of Banu Umayya clan viewed Caliphate was hereditary property and should relate to bloodline. Additionally, the group of Kharijites directly associate the politics with religion claiming that the holiest or the most divine person should lead the society. The three main views created political friction. The civil war deemed as the Battle of the Camel (Aslan 131) was resulted from the conflict between the groups of Ali and Aisha. Mu’wiyah, who belonged to the Shi’ atu Mu’wiyah group and viewed himself as the direct bloodline associated with Uthman, the former Caliph, raised an army to rebel against Ali (Aslan 140). In the leadership of Ali, he was killed by his own supporters because of the dispute over the interpretation of Muhammad’s message regarding the war’s CISs fire. These conflicts imply that different views shaped the religion by interpreting the message differently when put into the practice of establishing society.
Conclusively speaking, from Muhammad to Caliph Ali, Islam as a religion evolved out of the specific social context originating with Muhammad’s revelation which influenced the Muslim community in terms of politics and social structure. In return, the changing Muslim community shaped the interpretation of the religion. In the light of the reasoning, religion is a belief that is strongly associated with the large community and social context. Therefore, events propelled by the religion can be analyzed better with empathy and understanding.
- Aslan, Reza. No god but God. New York, Random House, 2005.
- Esposito, John L. What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam. New York, Oxford University Press, Inc., 2011
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