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Chronology of Early Islam

compiled by Lewis Loflin

This was compiled from various websites and cross checked. The following should be noted: The Koran was not formalized until years after Muhammad's death. Almost from the beginning, fighting over who would be caliph would from 655-661 CE cause civil war and the bitter hatred and split in Islam between Sunni and Shiite that goes on to this day. A string of military defeats and the ravages of Mongolian invaders would give rise to Ibn Taymiyyah that would finally change Islam to a religion of rage and war.

There is nothing new at all in Islam clearly being borrowed from the Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians, etc. that once inhabited most of the Arabian peninsula and later exterminated. (Medina at the time was over half Jewish where Mohammed lived for eight years.) Whoever a man named Mohammed (more a title than lived 570-632 A. D.) was, he never wrote the Koran. It was written down years after his death at a time when his followers were already killing each other for control and the faith was splitting into its two major sects, Sunni and Shiite. The Koran has differing and conflicting translations.

Even more of a concern are the Hadiths, a collection of myths and stories on the alleged deeds and life of Mohammed written down in some cases over two centuries later. The Hadiths depict Mohammed as a thief, bandit, murderer, and rapist. The Hadiths are often used as an excuse for Muslim persecution and domination of non-Muslims. This was manufactured in the 9th-10th Centuries based mainly on the Hadiths. The two largest denominations of Islam, Shi'ism and Sunnism, have different sets of hadith collections.

We also look a Sufism an Islamic form of mysticism rejected by most Muslims and showcased by leftists to prove Islam is a "religion of peace", which it isn't.

Deism takes a very dim view of holy books and this is the reason why. No originals, questionable authorship, and a fixation on the various Founders and the political agendas of the men operating as organized religion.

The "Romans" mentioned here are the Byzantine Empire.

What follows comes from elsewhere and cross checked. Many of the words are not mine and there have been changes to the original sentences.

570 CE: Born in Mecca, Muhammad is the founder of Islam, which some argue is a title and not a name. He is considered by Muslims to be God's last and greatest prophet. The Koran (Qur'an), written years after his death, depict 114 chapters of Muhammad's divinely inspired revelations, is the Islamic scripture, which clearly shows his influences from Judaism and Christianity.

610 CE: Originally adhering to a polytheistic notion of the divine as claimed by tradition, Muhammad has a religious experience that changes not only his life, but the history of a large part of the world. He hears a divine voice, later believed to be the angel Gabriel of the Christian religion, tell him that Allah is the only god. He receives further instructions to adopt the name of "Prophet" and convert the Quaraish to accept the monotheism. He likely founded a Jewish messianic sect not what became Islam in the 9th-10th centuries.

622 CE: The Quaraishs resist the new religion. Muhammad and his small band of followers migrate to the town of Yathrib in the north, which is open to his new faith. The Hijrah of 622, the migration, marks the beginning of the Muslim era. After making himself ruler, Muhammad changes the name of the town to Medina ("city of the Prophet"), and Medina becomes the seat of the caliphate. This tradition is based on the hadiths, Sunnah, and has no proof from the time he lived.

630 CE: Muhammad and his followers overtake Mecca. With the Quaraish in submission, the Kabah, the central place of worship for Arabian tribes, becomes the main shrine of Islam. This again is hadiths and there's no historical proof from the 7th century.

Orthodox Caliphate (Mecca and Medina) 632-661. After this things get murky as the split between Shiite and Sunni produced differing Korans, hadiths, etc. as the two sets struggle for power and fight over succession.
  • 632-634: Abu Bakr
  • 634-644: Omar (Umar)
  • 636: Conquest of Syria
  • 637: Conquest of Jerusalem and Persia
  • 641: Conquest of Alexandria
  • 644-656: Othman (Uthman)
  • The official text of the Koran is established.
  • 656-661: Ali
  • 655-661: Civil War: Omayyads versus Ali

632 CE: With the death of Muhammad, his father-in-law, Abu-Bakr, and Umar devise a system in which Islam can sustain religious and political stability. Accepting the name of caliph ("deputy of the Prophet"), Abu-Bakr begins a military exhibition to enforce the caliph's authority over Arabian followers of Muhammad. He thereafter moves northward overtaking Byzantine and Persian forces. Abu-Bakr dies two years following his succession of Muhammad. Umar succeeds him as the second caliph and begins a campaign against the neighboring empires.

637 CE: The Arabs occupy the Persian capital of Ctesiphon. By 651, the entire Persian realm is under the rule of Islam as it continues its westward expansion.

638 CE: The Romans are defeated at the Battle of Yarmouk and the Muslims enter Palestine. Before entering Jerusalem, Caliph Umar forms a covenant with the Jews, pledging protection of their religious freedom. The Muslims continue their conquest of Syria, Lebanon and Iraq, which is completed in 641 CE.

641 CE: Islam spreads into Egypt. The Catholic Archbishop invites the Muslims to help free Egypt from Roman oppressors. This exemplifies the alliances formed between Muslims, Christians and Jews due to the Muslims' establishment of religious freedom for Christians and Jews. Muslim conquest is based on liberation, rather than subjugation, of conquered peoples. Egypt, Persia and the Fertile Crescent are ruled by the four "Righteous Caliphs" until 662 CE.

644 CE: Umar dies and is succeeded by Caliph Uthman, a member of the Umayyad family which rejected Muhammad's prophesies. Rallies arise to establish Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, as caliph.

656 CE: Caliph Uthman is murdered, and Ali becomes the new caliph.

661 CE: Not satisfied with Ali, Uthman's followers murder Ali. One of Uthman's relations takes the title of caliph, and Damascus replaces Medina for the seat of the caliphate. The Umayyad family rules Islam until 750. Ali's followers form a religious party called Shiites and insist that only descendants of Ali deserve the title of caliph or deserve any authority over Muslims. The opposing party, the Sunnites, insist on the customs of the historical evolution of the caliphate rather than a hereditary descent of spiritual authority.

662 CE: Egypt falls under the control of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates until 868 CE. A year prior, the Fertile Crescent and Persia yield to the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates, whose reigns last until 1258 CE and 820 CE, respectively.

669 CE: The Muslim conquest reaches to Morocco in North Africa. The region is open to the rule of the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates until 800 CE.

700 CE: The beginning of the eighth century sees the rise of Islamic mysticism. Known as Sufism, this tradition is marked by the individual's effort to establish an intimate relationship with Allah. One of the most critical passages of the Koran for Sufis is verse 7:172 which describes the covenant between God and the individual's soul before the creation of the universe. Renunciation is more than a rejection of the material realm; its objective is a level of freedom that promotes harmony with one's physical life, resulting in mystical union.

710 CE: Tariq ibn Malik crosses the straight separating Africa and Europe with a group of Muslims and enters Spain. A year later, 7000 Muslim men invade Gibraltar. Almost the entire Iberian peninsula is under Islamic control by 718 CE.

711 CE: With the further conquest of Egypt, Spain and North Africa, Islam includes all of the Persian empire and most of the old Roman world under Islamic rule.

711 CE: Muslims begin the conquest of Sindh in Afghanistan. Until 962 CE, Afghanistan witnesses different regional rules, periodically controlled by the Umayyad and the Abbasid caliphates and other locally-based rulers.

717 CE: The Umayyads attempt to conquer the Byzantine capital and fail, resulting in the weakening of the Umayyad government.

732 CE: At the Battle of Poitiers, Islamic expansion is halted in France but continues into parts of Asia and Africa.

750 CE: The Abbasids overtake the rule of the Islamic world (except for Spain which falls under the rule of a descendant of the Umayyad family) and move the capital to Baghdad in Iraq. Their orientation resembles Persian absolutism. The Arabian Nights, a compilation of stories written under the reign of the Abbasids, is representative of the lifestyle and administration of this Persian influenced government. Abd al-Rahman of the Umayyad dynasty flees to Spain to escape the Abbasids and is responsible for the "Golden Caliphate" in Spain, the greatest Islamic civilization yet known.

768 CE: Formerly passed down as an oral record, the history of Muhammad is first recorded by the historian Ishaq ibn Yasar.

786 CE: Caliph Harun al-Rashid, a major figure in the Arabian Nights, rules until 809 CE.

789 CE: With the Idrisid dynasty of Morocco, which lasts until 985 CE, local rulers begin to control North Africa.

800 CE: North Africa falls under the rule of the Aghlabi dynasty of Tunis, which lasts until 909 CE.

819 CE: Persian unity begins to disintegrate with the Samanid rulers in Northern Persia, whose rule in this region lasts until 1055 CE. One year later, the Tharid dynasty begins to control Khorastan (lasting until 874 CE), and in 864 CE, the Alid dynasty begins rule over Tabaristan (lasting until 1032 CE).

827 CE: Aghlabi rulers of Tunis begin conquests of Sicily which last until 878 CE.

857 CE: Sufi Al-Muhasibi introduces the study of conscience into Sufism.

865 CE: Rhazes discovers the difference between measles and smallpox. He is considered the greatest physician of medieval times. Rhazes dies in 925 CE.

868 CE: The Sattarid dynasty, whose rule continues until 930 CE, extends control throughout most of Persia. In Egypt, the Abbasid and Umayyad caliphates are ended and rule turns to Egyptian-based control with the beginning of the Tulunid dynasty (lasting until 904 CE).

877 CE: Syria and different sects of Lebanon are ruled periodically by the Tulunid, the Ikhidid, the Fatimid and the Ayyubid dynasties of Egypt until 1250 CE.

879 CE: The Seljuk Empire unites Mesopotamia and a large portion of Persia.

900 CE: The Fatimids of Egypt overtake north Africa and include the territory as an extension of Egypt until 972 CE.

909 CE: Sicily falls under the control of the Fatimids' united rule of North Africa and Egypt until 1071 CE. From 878 until 909 CE, the rule of Sicily is uncertain.

935 CE: Until 969 CE, the rule of Egypt is under the Ikhidid dynasty.

945 CE: A Shiite band invades Baghdad, and the Abbasid Empire becomes a powerless symbol of unity and legitimate government to the Muslim community. Until the sixteenth century, rule of Islamic civilization is decentralized and different sects are ruled by different rulers.

950 CE: Al-Farabi, the greatest of the faylasufs (Arabic for philosopher), lives most of his life in Baghdad and teaches that the enlightened individual could perfect his life through philosophy without being corrupted by the common beliefs of the public.

962 CE: Afghanistan is stabilized by the rule of the Ghaznavid dynasty which lasts until 1186 CE.

972 CE: North Africa is under the control of the Zayri rulers in Tunis. Their control lasts until 1148 CE, much longer than the Aghlabi rulers were able to sustain control.

969 CE: The Fatimid dynasty assumes the title of caliphate in Egypt until 1171 CE.

997 CE: Mahmud, ruler of a Turkish dynasty in Gujarat, conducts seventeen raids into northwestern India before his death in 1030. He is named the "Sword of Islam."

1037 CE: Avicenna, a faylasufs in the east, teaches a rationalistic philosophy which borders Sufi mysticism. Also a physician, Avicenna discovers that disease can be spread through the contamination of water and that tuberculosis is contagious. Among his medical writings, the Canon is accepted as authoritative until the late seventeenth century.

1037 CE: A region of Persia, Azerbajjan, falls under the rule of the Sajid dynasty. Azerbajjan is periodically ruled by different rulers from the end of the Seljuk Empire until 1502.

1056 CE: The Al-Moravi rulers of Morocco begin control over North Africa (lasting until 1147 CE).

1077 CE: The Seljuk, a Turkish dynasty, disrupts political and social structures formed by the Abbasids. The Seljuks extend their control over most of the Arab and Persian regions.

1099 CE: Christian Crusaders capture Jerusalem, murder every Jew and Muslin in the city including women and children.

1100 CE: Islamic rule is weakened due to power struggles among Islamic leaders and the Christian crusades.

1100 CE: Afghanistan falls under the control of Ghorid rulers until 1215 CE.

1123 CE: The greatest of the Islamic poets is a Persian named Umar Khayyam. His poem The Rubaiyat is most popular in the West due to its use by Victorian Edward Fitzgerald.

1126 CE: In Spain, the Aristotelian Averroes of Cordova is the last important Islamic philosopher. He supports the official faith in public and is an extreme rationalist outside of the public realm. He dies in 1198 CE.

1130 CE: Until 1269, the Al-Mohad dynasty rules North Africa.

1168 CE: The Ayyubid dynasty rules Egypt until 1250 CE.

1187 CE: Muslim general Salah al-Kin al-Ayyubi, in Egypt, ends the Christian crusades.

1228 C: The Haisi rulers of Tunis in North Africa assume control.

1248 CE: Muslim control of Spain is reduced to the Kingdom of Granada, which survives for more than two centuries more.

1251 CE: The last of the Egyptian-based dynasties, the Mamluk dynasty takes the caliphate until 1517 when Egypt falls under the control of the Ottoman Turkish Empire.

1258 CE: The Abbasid period is completely ended with the destruction of Baghdad by the Mongols.

1327 CE: With the disintegration of the Seljuk Empire, the Arab and Persian regions are fragmented into several military kingdoms until 1500. The Ottoman Turkish Empire establishes its capital at Bursa.

1453 CE: The Ottomans defeat the Byzantine Empire and continue expanding into the Balkans. The Ottoman Turkish Empire moves its capital from Bursa to Istanbul (Constantinople). After 1500, the Moguls (1526-1857 CE) and the Safavids (1520-1736 CE) follow the military example set by the Ottomans and create two new empires.

1492 CE: Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, later benefactors of Christopher Columbus, end Muslim rule in Spain.

Muhammad ibn Abd al Wahhab

From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia.

Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703 - 1792) was preacher of a puritanical, fundamentalist form of Islam known as the Wahhabi movement. He touted this theology as a "purified" form of Islam, which attempted to return all Muslims to what he believed were the "true" principles of Islam.

He was educated in Medina (Saudi Arabia), and traveled in Iraq and later, Iran. It was in Iran that he began preaching against the Sufi Muslims then predominant in the region. After his return to Medina he wrote his Kitab at-tawhid (Arabic, "Book of Unity"), which became the main text for the Wahhabi sect of Islam. His teachings led to a controversy which resulted in him being expelled; he moved onto the city of Ad-Dir'iyah (Saudi Arabia).

Wahhabism spread due to an alliance Abd al-Wahhab and Ibn Sa'ud; they initiated a campaign of conquest that has still is in existence to this day. Followers of his doctrine usually call themselves Muwahhidun ("Unitarians"); Non-Muslims refer to followers of his sect as Wahhabists.

Abd al-Wahhab's theological program aimed to cleanse Islam of what he viewed as bidah (innovations), deviances, heresies and idolatries. In his view, by following his theology and practice, a Muslim would return to the original form of Islamic faith that Allah originally had intended all of mankind to follow. Most historians (both Arab and non-Arab), however, hold that Wahhabism is in fact a new form of Islam, containing many changes in both theology and practice.

His particular interpretation of Islam forbids the use of gravestones as tending toward idolatry and the use of minarets (see mosque) because they are not known to have been used in the time of Muhammad. Smoking is forbidden as a religious offense. Wahhabism is the official practice of Islam in Saudi Arabia; Saudi Arabia considers it a state crime to convert to any other form of Islam, or to convert to any other religion.

Sufism

Sufism in my view is pre-Islamic drawing from Greek mysticism and Gnosticism. Sufism is not considered Islam by Sunnis in particular. Many defenders try to depict Sufism as mainstream Islam and that is false. Many Islamic apologists in the west hold up Sufism as proof of Muslim tolerance.

To quote one source, "... their basis did not come from authentic religious doctrines, but rather from exaggerated human emotions." This is attractive to some in the West as another form of New Age mysticism.

Sufism is an Islamic school of thought that includes philosophers and mystics. Sufism embraces the Quran and most of Shiite and Sunni Islam's beliefs. Sufis believe that Sufi teachings are the essence of every religion, and indeed of the evolution of humanity as a whole. The central concept in sufism is "love". Sufists believe that, love is a projection of the essence of God to the universe. God desires to recognize beauty, and as if one looks at a mirror to see oneself, God "looks" at itself within the dynamics of nature. Since everything is a reflection of God, the school of sufism practices to see the beauty inside the apparent ugly, and to open arms even to the most evil one.

This infinite tolerance is expressed in the most beautiful way perhaps by the famous sufist philosopher Mevlana: "Come, come, whoever you are. Worshiper, Wanderer, Lover of Leaving; ours is not a caravan of despair. Though you have broken your vows a thousand times...Come, come again, Come." Sufi is the Arabic word for "wool", in the sense of "cloak", referring to the simple cloaks the original Sufis wore, but the Sufi use the composing letters of the words to express hidden meanings, and so the word could also be understood as "enlightenment".

Sufis teach in personal groups, believing that the intervention of the master is necessary for the growth of the pupil. They make extensive use of parables and metaphors, in such a way that the meaning is only reachable through a process of seeking for the utmost truth and knowledge of oneself. A large part of Muslim literature comes from the Sufis, who created great books of poetry, which include for example 1001 Arabian Nights, all of which contain the profound, and hardly graspable, teachings of the Sufis.

Universal Sufism

Sufism is usually seen as an offshoot of Islam. Still there is a major line of Sufi-thought that sees sufism as predating Islam and being in fact universal and therefore not dependent on the Quran and the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. This view of sufism has understandably been popular in the West. Major exponents of this view were Hazrat Inayat Khan and Idries Shah.

Other material

Other than the Qur'an and a few poems, Arabic was a language with no written literature. But as Arabs settled in cities and as their affluent children learned to read, and as the conquered peoples became Muslims and Arabic speakers, new literature began to be created. The earliest works were religious. Lives of the Prophet were written based on oral accounts.

The traditions (hadith) about the Prophet's words were collected and analyzed. Commentaries on the Qur'an were written. Over several generations a rich religious literature developed. The codification of Muslim law also commenced, a task that took several hundred years to complete.

The Kharijites maintained that a true Muslim could not sin; his deeds had to meet the high expectations of his faith. Thus sinners were unbelievers who had to be converted. The Kharijites also championed free will, for they could not accept the notion that human sinfulness was somehow caused by God. Others, reading their Qur'ans carefully, noted many verses in the Holy Book supporting the notion of predestination.

The arrival of Greek philosophy in the Arabic language gave both sides, but especially those advocating free will, many new ideas for making their case.

The Mutazilites. The Mutazilites were one of the earliest advocates of positions that show Greek influence. In particular, they championed intellectual and reasoning as a complement to revelation and the Qur'an. They also stresses the oneness of God--tawhid--and viewed it as rejecting stress on the idea of God having attributes. Many Muslims had come to view the Qur'an as eternal and uncreated and they viewed that position with skepticism as well, as compromising the unity of God by creating a second eternal divine principle.

The Mutazilites also viewed many Qur'an passages as metaphorical, especially those referring to God having a face, talking, walking, etc. The utterly transcendent God obviously (to them) could not be so represented. The Mutazilites also championed free will, for otherwise, they maintained, God's justice would collapse. One cannot punish someone for a sinful act if that person was not a free moral agent.

The synthesis accepted by most of Sunni Islam was Asharism, founded by al-Ashari (d. 935), a prominent Mutazilite. He reasserted the doctrines of predestination, the uncreatedness of the Qur'an, the omnipotence of God and the existence of divine attributes, but tempered them some and utilized the Mutazilite language drawn from Greek philosophy to explain them. His synthesis was successful and became the basis of most Sunni theology today.

In contrast Mutazilism and Asharism, philosophy based primarily on Greek texts and thought started with human reason rather than revelation. As one can imagine, it was highly suspect to most Muslims, even most intellectuals, and thus remained marginalized. The Arabic word for philosophy, falsafah, is borrowed directly from the Greek philosophy.

As the conquered peoples adopted Arabic as their mother tongue, pre-Islamic ideas began to enter the Muslim community. Many Syrians and Iraqis, as Christians or Jews, had read Greek philosophy, and their Arabic-speaking descendants also wanted access to philosophy. As a result books by Aristotle, Plato, and Plotinus were translated into Arabic, often by Jews or Christians.

They were then read by Muslims. The result was the birth of Arabic philosophy. Hundreds of words were borrowed from Persian and Syriac or coined in Arabic from Persian and Syriac models to represent new ideas. Scientific, mathematical, and medical texts were translated from Greek, Middle Persian, and Sanskrit, thereby uniting much of the world's knowledge in Islamic science. From India came a numbering system using a zero, which Arabs spread around the world.

The earliest philosophers, such as al-Kindi (d. ca. 870 C.E.) and al-Razi (died ca. 925-34), were often on the fringe of Islamic adherence. They championed reason over revelation. Subsequent philosophers took reconciliation of philosophy and theology as a major task of their careers. Al-Farabi (died 950) used Plato's concept of the philosopher-king in The Republic as a way of understanding the role of Muhammad, thereby united philosophy and religion.

He was also very interested in "prophetic psychology," the nature of the soul of a prophet and how prophets knew what they knew. Ibn-Sina (980-1037) developed prophetic psychology even further. Ibn-Rushd stressed the importance of philosophers in understanding divine law, especially in enforcing it properly; his thinking influenced medieval Judaism in particular. Al-Ghazzali (1058-1111) ultimately rejected most of philosophy as a waste of time in favor of direct, mystic knowledge of God.

The works of these men, translated into Latin, had a major impact on Catholic theology during the late Middle Ages. Their names were often latinized (Ibn-Rushd as Averroes, Ibn-Sina as Avicenna) and they were accepted as philosophical fathers of the church.

But after about 1400 Islamic philosophy and science declined. The last great thinker was Ibn-Khaldun, who contributed to political theory, linguistics, and has been called the father of modern sociology. But even in Ibn-Khaldun's day few Islamic thinkers were doing original work, and after him copyists and encylopedists dominated. No one has a good theory to explain the decline of Islamic science and philosophy.


Islam and Liberal Democracy

Robin Wright

Robin Wright is global-affairs correspondent for the Los Angeles Times and former Middle East correspondent for the Sunday Times of London. Her books include Sacred Rage: The Wrath of Militant Islam (1985) and In the Name of God: The Khomeini Decade (1990).

Selected extracts form Journal of Democracy - April 1996

Of all the challenges facing democracy in the 1990s, one of the greatest lies in the Islamic world. Only a handful of the more than four dozen predominantly Muslim countries have made significant strides toward establishing democratic systems. Among this handful - including Albania, Bangladesh, Jordan, Kyrgyzstan, Mali, Pakistan, and Turkey - not one has yet achieved full, stable, or secure democracy. And the largest single regional bloc holding out against the global trend toward political pluralism comprises the Muslim countries of the Middle East and North Africa.

Yet the resistance to political change associated with the Islamic bloc is not necessarily a function of the Muslim faith. Indeed, the evidence indicates quite the reverse. Rulers in some of the most anti-democratic regimes in the Islamic world - such as Brunei, Indonesia, Iraq, Oman, Qatar, Syria, and Turkmenistan - are secular autocrats who refuse to share power with their brethren.

Overall, the obstacles to political pluralism in Islamic countries are not unlike the problems earlier faced in other parts of the world: secular ideologies such as Ba'athism in Iraq and Syria, Pancasila in Indonesia, or lingering communism in some former Soviet Central Asian states brook no real opposition. Ironically, many of these ideologies wee adapted from the West; Ba'athism, for instance, was inspired by the European socialism of the 1930s and 1940s.

Rigid government controls over everything from communications in Saudi Arabia and Brunei to foreign visitors in Uzbekistan and Indonesia also isolate their people from democratic ideas and debate on popular empowerment. In the largest and poorest Muslim countries, moreover, problems common to developing states, from illiteracy and disease to poverty, make simple survival a priority and render democratic politics a seeming luxury.

Finally, like their non-Muslim neighbors in Asia and Africa, most Muslim societies have no local history of democracy on which to draw. As democracy has blossomed in Western states over the past three centuries, Muslim societies have usually lived under colonial rulers, kings, or tribal and clan leaders.

In other words, neither Islam nor its culture is the major obstacle to political modernity, even if undemocratic rulers sometimes use Islam as their excuse. In Saudi Arabia, for instance, the ruling House of Saud relied on Wahhabism, a puritanical brand of Sunni Islam, first to unite the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula and then to justify dynastic rule. Like other monotheistic religions, Islam offers wide-ranging and sometimes contradictory instruction. In Saudi Arabia, Islam's tenets have been selectively shaped to sustain an authoritarian monarchy.

In Iran, the revolution that overthrew the Shah in 1979 put a new spin on Shiite traditions. The Iranian Shiite community had traditionally avoided direct participation by religious leaders in government as demeaning to spiritual authority. The upheaval led by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini thus represented not only a revolution in Iran, but also a revolution within the Shiite branch of Islam. The constitution of the Islamic Republic, the first of its kind, created structures and positions unknown to Islam in the past.

Yet Islam, which acknowledges Judaism and Christianity as its forerunners in a single religious tradition of revelation-based monotheism, also preaches equality, justice, and human dignity - ideals that played a role in developments as diverse as the Christian Reformation of the sixteenth century, the American and French revolutions of the eighteenth century, and eve the "liberation theology" of the twentieth century. Islam is not lacking in tenets and practices that are compatible with pluralism. Among these are the traditions of ijtihad (interpretation), ijma (consensus), and shura (consultation).

Diversity of Reform

Politicized Islam is not a monolith; its spectrum is broad. Only a few groups, such as the Wahhabi in Saudi Arabia, are in fact fundamentalist. This term, coined in the early twentieth century to describe a movement among Protestant Christians in the United States, denote passive adherence to a literal reading of sacred scripture.

By contrast, many of today's Islamic movements are trying to adapt the tenets of the faith to changing times and circumstances. In their own way, some even resemble Catholic "liberation theology" movements in their attempts to use religious doctrines to transform temporal life in the modern world. The more accurate word for such Muslim groups is "Islamist."

The term is growing in popularity in Western academic and policy-making circles, since it better allows for the forward-looking, interpretive, and often innovative stances that such groups assume as they seek to bring about a reconstruction of the social order.

The common denominator of most Islamist movements, then is a desire for change. The quest for something different is manifested in a range of activities, from committing acts of violence to running for political office. Reactive groups - motivated by political or economic insecurity, questions of identity, or territorial disputes - are most visible because of their aggressiveness.

Extremists have manipulated, misconstrued, and even hijacked Muslim tenets. Similar trends have emerged in religions other than Islam: the words "zealots" and "thugs" were coined long ago to refer, respectively, to Jewish and Hindu extremists. Contemporary Islamic extremists have committed acts of terrorism as far afield as Buenos Aires, Paris, and New York, and they have threatened the lives of writers whom they regard as blasphemous from Britain to Bangladesh.

At the opposite end of the spectrum are proactive individuals and groups working for constructive change. In Egypt, Islamists have provided health-care and educational facilities as alternatives to expensive private outlets and inadequate government institutions. In Turkey, they have helped to build housing for the poor and have generally strengthened civil society. In Lebanon, they have established farm cooperatives and provided systematically for the welfare of children, widows, and the poor.

In Jordan, Yemen, Kuwait, and elsewhere, they have run for parliament. The specific motives vary from religiously grounded altruism to creating political power bases by winning the hearts and minds. But in diverse ways, they are trying to create alternatives to ideas and systems that they believe no longer work.

Less visible but arguably more important - to both Muslims and the world at large - is a growing group of Islamic reformers. While reactive and proactive groups address the immediate problems of Islam's diverse and disparate communities, the reformers are shaping thought about long-term issues. At the center of their reflections is the question of how to modernize and democratize political and economic systems in an Islamic context. The reformers' impact is not merely academic; by stimulating some of the most profound debate since Islam's emergence in the seventh century, they are laying the foundations for an Islamic Reformation.

The stirrings of reform within Islam today should not be compared too closely with the Christian Reformation of almost five hundreds years ago. The historical and institutional differences between the two faiths are vast. Nonetheless, many of the issues ultimately addressed by the respective movements are similar, particularly the inherent rights of the individual and the relationship between religious and political authority.

The seeds of an Islamic Reformation were actually planted a century ago, but only among tiny circles of clerics and intellectuals whose ideas were never widely communicated to ordinary believers. At the end of the twentieth century, however, instant mass communications, improved education, and intercontinental movements of both people and ideas mean that tens of millions of Muslims are exposed to the debate.

In the 1980s, interest in reform gained momentum as the secular ideologies that succeeded colonialism - mostly variants or hybrids of nationalist and socialism - failed to provide freedom and security to many people in the Muslim world. This sense of ferment has only grown more intense amid the global political upheaval of the post-Cold War world. Muslims now want political, economic, and social systems that better their lives, and in which they have some say.

The reformers contend that human understanding of Islam is flexible, and that Islam's tenets can be interpreted to accommodate and even encourage pluralism. They are actively challenging those who argue that Islam has a single, definitive essence that admits of no change in the face of time, space, or experience - and that democracy is therefore incompatible or alien. The central drama of reform is the attempt to reconcile Islam and modernity by creating a worldview that is compatible to both.


I believe in one God, and no more; and I hope for happiness beyond this life. I believe the equality of man, and I believe that religious duties consist in doing justice, loving mercy, and endeavoring to make our fellow-creatures happy. Thomas Paine

Excerpts from Will Durant's The Age of Faith Pages 162-186 Pub. 1950