As important as it is to understand the life of Mohammed the Prophet in our appreciation of Islam, we really only observe the seed of the massive oak that is today’s Muslim world. Whether the tree would bear resemblance to the seed beneath it, and what type of fruit it would bear, would be the responsibility of the first and subsequent generations of leaders to follow.
The first pillar of Islam is known as the Shahadah, the Muslim profession of faith: “there is no god but God, and Mohammed is the messenger of God”, declaration of which constitutes being a Muslim. The second part of this affirmation, in which Mohammed declares himself the absolute authority, as one who spoke for God, was to be the source of much consternation for his followers after his death.
In the absence of a named successor, who was to replace Mohammed as the leader, and what was to be his role? The one who spoke for God was no longer among them. Would Mohammed’s successor also succeed him in speaking for God, or would his role become that of answering the question, “What would Mohammed do?”
The answer to the first question would result in a major division in the community, eventually resulting in the two major sects of Islam, the Sunnis and Shiites. The answer to the second question would result in the creation of the Quran, which is the compilation of all the recitations Mohammed received from the angel Gabriel, in the written assemblage of his practices, known as the Hadith, and in the body of scholars known as the Ulama, Islam’s theologians, who diligently studied them both.
The Unified Caliphates (A.D. 632-1258)
From A.D. 632 – 1258, the Muslim world was a unified empire under the leadership of a caliph. This period is broken up into three divisions:
The Rightly Guided Caliphs, A.D. 632 – 661
- The first four successors of Mohammed, each from among his early followers
- Rapid expansion into territories that had been part of the Byzantine Christian and Iranian Zoroastrian kingdoms
- The Quran came into existence late in this period, the practice of Islam was not well defined.
The Umayyad Dynasty, A.D. 661 – 750
- The first Umayyad caliph came to power after a civil war in which he defeated Ali, Mohammed’s cousin.
- All caliphs were members of the Umayyad clan.
- The Islamic Empire reached its maximum size.
- Sharia law was defined and had four basic schools.
The Abbasid Dynasty, A.D. 750 – 1258
- Ushered in the Islamic Golden Age – a time when science and culture flourished
- Eventually overrun by the Mongol Empire
- The end of the unified Muslim Empire
The Sultanate Period (A.D. 1299 – 1923)
Out of the ashes of the destruction by the Mongol hordes arose three separate sultanates: the Ottoman Turks (1299 – 1923) would rule over the Middle East, Turkey, and North Africa until they were defeated in World War I; the Persian Safavid kingdom (1501 – 1722), which dominated Iran and the North Caucasus area of Russia; and the Mughal empire (1520 – 1857), which reigned in the Indian subcontinent.
The Iron Fist of British Colonialism (early 1800s – 1960s)
The once mighty empire of Islam would eventually give way to the ruthless arrogance of British colonialism. Massive and powerful private concerns such as the East India Company, supported by their own private armies, as well as government troops and the Royal Navy savagely oppressed local populations. Initially this typically involved bullying their way into hugely unfair trade agreements allowing them to loot valuable natural resources with virtual slave labor, and almost always resulted in rebellion on the part of the local population. Any such resistance was ruthlessly snuffed out by the British military.
The Brits took over the entire Indian subcontinent, and millions were killed in the subsequent rebellion. They eventually granted the region its independence almost 100 years later in 1947, carving the subcontinent up into Hindu-dominated India and Muslim-dominated Pakistan. In the ensuing mass migration, hundreds of thousands died.
They took their heavy-handed tactics to Egypt and Iran as well, and even played a role in the creation of the radical Wahhabi/monarchic State of Saudi Arabia. It was the British who created the scenario in Palestine that resulted in the ethnic cleansing of 700,000 Arab Palestinians during the creation of the nation of Israel, and the massive Palestinian refugee catastrophe that continues to this day.
In the aftermaths of World Wars I and II, it was the French and the British, primarily, who carved up the Middle East and North Africa into the current set of nation-states.