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By Alex Brown




Islamic civilization and culture are truly global in character. Stretching from Morocco on the Atlantic coast along the Southern shores of the Mediterranean Sea, (Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Egypt), large parts of Africa, through the Middle East (Turkey, Iran, Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Saudi Arabia) and the Gulf States into Central Asia and the Indian sub-continent, (Pakistan and Bangladesh), South East Asia  (Indonesia and Malaysia) and the Western part of China.


Within this vast area, Islam brings a unity not only of religion but of culture so that although each of these places has a particular racial, ethnic and cultural identity of its own, they also share a social and philosophical world view which stems from their  common Islamic heritage.


Starting in the 7th century AD and in a continual expansion which lasted for a thousand years, Islam established itself as a religious and political world power  the reality of which can still be seen today. In order to understand this expansion and its political and cultural impact both present and past, it is necessary firstly to look at the history of Islam, its beliefs and its Arabic origins in the deserts of Saudi Arabia.




The Arabian peninsula lies between the Red Sea on its western side and the Persian Gulf in the East. To the North lay the countries of Iraq and Jordan. To the South lay Yemen and Oman bordering the Indian Ocean. To the East across the Red Sea lay Egypt, Sudan and Ethiopia. To the West, across the Gulf is Iran.


While most of the land in the centre  and to the North of the Arabian peninsula is desert in the Southwest (present day Yemen) a substantial rainfall on the hills produces a fertile crop-growing region. A narrow coastal plain contained by high mountains runs up the western side of Arabia alongside the Red Sea.  Behind the mountains is the great central desert.


This kind of geography produced two different kinds of society. In the fertile south the first Arabian societies established themselves around the city of Saaba and grew wealthy on the incense produced from trees in the area, spices shipped from Southeast Asia, luxuries from India and silk from China which they transported north along the coastal plain to the Egyptian, Babylonian and later the Roman empire. Goods were carried north by camel caravan along the narrow coastal road.


The other kind of society which existed in Arabia was that of the nomads (wandering tribes)  who from season to season moved across the desert with their flocks of sheep and goats from one fertile spot to another. These Bedouin tribes travelled in groups or clans and set up tents wherever they stopped. The harsh life of the desert nomad produced a simple, direct and sometimes cruel society which owed allegiance only to its local ‘sheik’ or leader.




The religious situation in Arabia before the founding of Islam was quite diverse. Local pagan cults (a moon goddess) flourished in the wealthy south while the Beduoin had their own pantheistic religion involving a large number of more or less benevolent or mischievous spirits (genii) who could be pacified by sacrifices. There were also a number of Jewish communities in Arabia who had fled from Roman persecution in Israel. However the power of the Roman  Empire (now Christian)  and in continuous conflict with the Persian empire gradually penetrated the Arabian peninsula especially in the South and for a time it looked as if Christianity would become the dominant religion in the province. However a number of military disasters stopped the spread of Christianity leaving a number of important pagan cults still in place and powerful.


This was the somewhat mixed situation in Arabia in the year 570AD when Muhammad was born in the city of Mecca. At the time the city of Mecca had been a main stopover and trading centre on the northbound caravan routes from the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean and also an important pilgrimage centre for the worship of certain ancient pagan cults. Born into the merchant Hashim clan, Muhammad was brought up firstly by his grandfather and later by his uncle Abu Talib, (his father having died before he was born and his mother when he was 6 years old).  Until he was forty, Muhammad, like his uncle, was a merchant travelling  and trading from Mecca to Syria in the north. At the age of 25 Muhammad married the widow, Khadija. Little more is known of this period in his life  before he founded Islam.




According to tradition, Muhammad was in the habit of retreating to a cave in Mt. Hira outside Mecca for solitude and contemplation. It was on one of these retreats that he received the call of God. However, when Muhammad began to preach his revelations about the one true God in the streets of Mecca around 613 AD, he was ridiculed and abused by those who followed the pagan goddess cults. Threats to his safety forced Muhammad and some of his followers to flee Mecca for the city of Medina. The Hegira commemorates the journey of the Prophet Muhammad from Mecca to Medina. It corresponds to the year AD 622 and forms the starting point of the Muslim calendar.


Safe in the city of Medina, Muhammad continued his activity of conversion, established his first Islamic community and expanded his civil and religious influence in the area including amongst the Beduoin tribesmen. However, his condemnation of the pagan cults of Mecca led to war between his followers and the leaders of Mecca. Starting with a series of attacks on their caravans as they headed north, Mohammad’s followers slowly gained control of the whole area and in the year 630, the city of Mecca surrendered to Muhammad. The pagan idols in the Kaaba temple were destroyed and the place dedicated to the one god: Allah.


Within a decade of the Prophet's message, Islam had spread throughout the Arabian peninsula and in the first of a series of startling conquests, Mohammed’s armies  pushed north into Syria and Iraq - inside the frontiers of the Byzantine Roman Empire and at the gates of the collapsing Persian Empire. However, before he could see the remarkable successes of his armies, and the spread of Islam beyond Arabia, Muhammad died on the 8th June 632. 




The basic features of Islam (meaning: 'submission' in Arabic) as laid down in the Koran and the Hadith (record of Muhammad's sayings) are briefly as follows:


1.       Belief in a single indivisible God (Monotheistic) with  Muhammad as his Prophet

2.      That the Koran is the word of God

3.      The concepts of sin, repentance, submission to the will of God and a Last Judgement

4.      That all Moslems belong to a common brotherhood or community (umma). The central institution is the mosque                   together with an acceptance of Sharia or Holy Law and Jihad (Holy  War)

5.      The profession of faith (Shahada). Daily worship five times per day. (Salat). The  fast of Ramadan (Sawm). The                   giving of one tenth of ones income to charity (Zakat). The pilgrimage  to Mecca at least once in a lifetime (Hajj).


Arabic was the language of revelation of the word of God and remains the most important medium through which the religious message is transmitted. Since its origin in the 7th century Islam has integrated social and religious thinking into an all-embracing world view in which even political, legal and social activities can be understood in terms of the basic religious beliefs.




After Mohammad’s death, the leadership of Islam passed to Abu Bakr, loyal friend, supporter and agreed successor (Caliph) of the Prophet. The position of Caliph joined both religious and political roles together in one man as Muhammad himself had done. Abu Bakr and his successor, Omar  continued the policy of conquest started by the Prophet by launching against both Byzantine and Persian territories with considerable success. The reason  for the victory of these Bedouin tribesmen against two large empires can be explained to some extent by several factors:


1.      Both empires had been fighting a war against each other for 30 years. They were economically and militarily                         exhausted.

2.      A serious plague had spread throughout the Middle East in 542 weakening the social and economic situation of both           the Persian and Byzantine empires.

3.      The unity of the Byzantine/Christian empire was split into many different and conflicting religious groups. No unified              religious/military position could be established on this basis against a united and dedicated religious intrusion.

4.      The remarkable unity, commitment , boldness and speed of the Islamic forces carried all before it. Their ability to                 move very quickly sometimes across harsh desert county and under very difficult conditions gave them a military                 advantage  over the more static forces of the Byzantines and Persians.




Although Islam as a religion had spread throughout many different cultures and societies, each of which had its own unique identity, it is possible to define the sources  which together produced a recognisable Islamic culture:


a)   The direct impact of Islam itself in terms of determining attitudes and perceptions about the world. Its simplicity, directness and the effects of the religious practices on architecture and art. (Eg. The building of Mosques and calligraphy required for copying the Koran) .


b)  Although South Arabia (Yemen) had developed a reasonably sophisticated culture, Central Arabia, (ie. Mecca and Medina), from which Islam came did not. Its society and culture remained that of the small merchant/trader class or that of the nomadic Bedouin tribes.


c) The direct influence of the Roman (Byzantine) Empire which controlled the  Mediterranean area and most of the Middle East. Roman and Greek art, architecture,  political and military organisation, law and so on were the model for most societies in the  region. (Roman religion at the time was not a centralised body of beliefs and did not  therefore provide a clear model for imitation).


d)   At a later period when political power in the Islamic world had moved east into Persia and Central Asia, it was Persian culture which became the key model for Islamic culture. Indeed up until the Islamic Ottoman Empire in 1500, Persian Art was the most typical and complex art of the Islamic world.


e)   The recognition of an international community (umma) which arose under Islam and the mass movement/ mobility of peoples which took place during that time led to a continuous interchange of ideas between cultures and some degree of unification of their central ideas.




a)       One of the most typical and recognisable features of Islamic art which can also be seen in architecture and the decorative arts and even in the most functional of products is that of Arabic calligraphy. There are several reasons why this happened:


1.  The centre of the Islamic religion was NOT the figure of Muhammad himself, but the Koran which, according to Islam is the word of God. In a sense the whole of the religion is focused on this WRITTEN WORD produced in Arabic script.


2.   There was a restriction in early Islam (derived from a saying in the Koran) against the production of images of human beings and animals. The reason for this may be a reflection of Mohammed’s attack on the pagan idols which existed in pre-Islamic Mecca.


3.   Forced to decorate many different forms, yet unable to use human images freely, Islamic artists used the Arabic script made significant by its use in the Koran as a decorative instrument. Not only did it give colour, texture and detail to forms, but  since it used quotations from the Koran as decoration, it gave every object a religious significance.


4.   With time, the original Arabic calligraphy became extremely sophisticated, refined, and very abstract in visual expression.


b)      Geometric decoration (very complex star-shaped patterns) used in Islamic art  in part as a substitute for human figures and very rich flower patterns which covered walls and carpets and ordinary products (vases, cups, etc). Even the flowers were made semi-abstract. A characteristic of Islamic thinking itself - the visual expression of abstraction and mathematics.


c)     Multi-coloured glazed tiles to cover wall surfaces. These were decorated with calligraphy, geometric and floral patterns.


d)     The arch and the dome came originally from Roman (Byzantine) architecture for public buildings. However, Muslim architects took over these forms for their Mosques and public buildings. The earliest (and most important) domed building was the Dome on the Rock - the mosque built in Jerusalem in the 7th century. It also shows calligraphic decoration on a large scale.


e)     The walled garden courtyard became a key feature of Islamic architecture. Its use lies in the nature of the climate in the Middle east - hot and dry. The arcaded  shade, pools and fountains and glazed tiles gave a cool and sophisticated exterior/interior space within private and public buildings. Eg. Palaces, mosques. The best remaining examples of these are to be found in Spain which Islamic forces conquered in the early 8th century.




By the middle of the 7th century, Islam had conquered the whole of the Middle East, including Persia and much of the Byzantine Empire. It had also taken Egypt, the whole of North Africa and most of Spain. At this point there was a temporary halt to Muslim expansion. However at this point a serious problem  arose within Islam itself: how to choose the next Caliph and how much support he would get from the various Arab clans. While the first Caliph Abu Bakr and his successor, Omar, were much respected, later Caliphs were not fully recognised by the tribes. This issue was to lead to civil war and the religious division of Islam between the Sunni and Sh’ite traditions. Key events are as follows:


a)  644: Othman, from a powerful Meccan family, the Omayyads is elected Caliph. Disagreements between his family and others result in conflict and civil war between the Arab tribes.


b)  The political capital of Islam is moved to Damascus in Syria. Mecca remains the religious capital. Othman is assassinated in 656 and his successor Ali is also murdered as the struggle continues.


c)  The Omayyads set up a family dynasty to retain control of the Caliphate. (Ie no more elections). A second and third civil war in 750 result in the Abbasid family taking control of the Caliphate. The capital is moved to Bagdad in Iraq. In 809 another civil war and the gradual ending of Arab dominance over the Islamic empire.


d)  By the 10th and 11th centuries there was a fragmentation of the empire into semi- independent Islamic kingdoms or Sultanates. Eg Persia, Egypt, Spain. The end of major Islamic expansion and the invasion of the empire by barbarian tribes from the north: Turks, Franks, and Caucasians. In 1031, the Christians retook most of Spain from the Muslims and in 1088 launched their first crusade to regain Jerusalem which was successful. At the same time the Turks establish themselves as a major power within Islam which would eventually become the powerful Ottoman Empire which would last for 500 years and conquer parts of Europe.


e)  In 1258 the Mongol invasions under The Great Kublai Khan from central Asia destroy Muslim armies and conquer much of the Middle East, including Bagdad. This was the first major shock to Islam. For the first time since Muhammad, non-Muslims dominate Muslims in the Middle East. In time the Mongols are converted to Islam and integrated but their intervention shatters the unity of the Islamic empire. 


f)    After the Mongol conquests and the break-up of the Islamic empire there were four key centres of Islam : Egypt, Persia, the Ottoman Empire and the Mughal (Mongol) empire of Northern India.  It was from Northern India and the state of Gujarat that Islam spread to Southeast Asia.




Politically, the Islamic empire in its various forms lasted for 1200 years. During that time its cultural impact on Western civilization was enormous.  The collapse of the Roman empire in the 5th century had all but destroyed the intellectual resources of Western Europe which had been reduced to a number of semi-barbarian kingdoms. Arab and Islamic thought  developed and flowered as Europe itself culturally collapsed. In art, architecture, mathematics, philosophy, geography, astronomy and technology, Islamic culture established a marvellous intellectual tradition which would be used by Europeans in their attempt to re-establish civilization in Europe. For instance, one cannot imagine the Renaissance without the major contributions of Islamic thought in terms of mathematics and the translation and interpretation of Greek philosophy provided by Arab scholars. Nor could we imagine the Renaissance without the intellectual resources of Arab universities being made available to European scholars.  Both in its own right as a major civilization , and as a major contributor to the development of other cultures, Islamic culture can be marked out as one of the key institutions and philosophies of human society.


The slow political disintegration of the unity of the Islamic civilization  into a group of sometimes warring  states left it open to eventual attack and dominance by a newly assertive Europe.


It ended as a real political force after the First World War when the Ottoman Empire (which had supported the Germans) was dismantled by the British and French. They also reconstructed the national boundaries of the Middle East to suit their own imperial purposes and placed Islamic countries under their ‘protection’. While Islam as a religion remained as strong as ever, it had ceased to be a major political or military force.


However, during the long period of its history, Islamic civilization had shown itself to be remarkably creative and inventive in its many contributions to the scientific and artistic culture of the world.  The most visible of these are of course the architecture and art of the period which remain to be seen and touched and of course the Islamic religion which offers another major example of human spiritual achievement.



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