A Primer on Islam: History Behind the News (Lesson 4 of 6)

[Hi, all. John here. This is the fourth in a six-part series we're all extremely lucky to have. When Bob and I were preparing this series for presentation here on my site, we thought a good, basic name for the series overall was "A Primer on Islam." We were wrong. That's so boring. And what we have here is hardly a primer; this is at least 20 years worth of concentrated, distilled study by a crazily gifted intellectual and teacher. Oh, well. Later we'll rename the whole group of lessons. ("Lessons"! Who wants to read lessons? What were we thinking?) For now, this is one of the true gems of the six. Please pass it along to anyone you think might be interested. Feedback more than welcome. Thanks for giving it a read. Now heeeeeeeeeere's Pastor Bob!]

A Primer on Islam

Lesson Four: History Behind the News

by Pastor Bob

CALIPHATE (The dream of unity and the reality of multiplicity)

  • Caliph = “successor”
  •  Inherent problem of succession to Muhammad (571-632 A.D.)
  • Four “Rightly Guided” Caliphs (632-661): Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali
  • Sunni Muslims (85%) and Shi’a Muslims (15%)
  • No singular Islamic empire after initial Islamic expansion in 700s. Modern Islam witnessed three Muslim empires: Turkish (Ottoman), Indian (Mughal), and Persian (Safavid).
  • Difficult to hold both secular and religious authority
  • Distant central caliphate meant real power at a local level (village)
  • MUSLIM VIEW: “The good old days.” Some Muslims desire to return to Caliphate, or better, an idyllic state emulating the perceived harmonious community of the Prophet.
  • NEWS: No individual or group speaks for the whole of Islam—Diverse and contextual.

CRUSADES (Defining relationships between East & West and between Islam and Christianity)

  • The Crusades (roughly eight between 1095-1270), named after the Latin word for cross, “crux,” were fought ostensibly to retake Jerusalem and the Holy Land. They were initiated by Rome’s Pope Urban II’s response to the plea of Emperor Alexius I, of the faltering Byzantine Empire. Alexius I was afraid that the Muslims would finally take Constantinople.
  • Ultimately, in “aiding” the Christian Eastern Empire, they hastened its demise and hardened the schism between East & West. The crusades also added to the anti-Semitism of Europe as large Jewish communities were decimated along the way.
  • Irony: Jews faired better under Muslim control than Christian control.
  • Christians and Muslims were both promised that in fighting for God, their past record of sins would be wiped clean and they would be promised heaven/paradise.
  • The crusades are a watershed point in history in which the West continues to increase in power and the East gradually declines—in essence, they begin to switch places.
  • WESTERN VIEW: The crusades bolstered the Western papacy and diverted the energies of a feudal Europe. Europeans also became acquainted with the sophisticated Muslim culture and readily absorbed the preserved and translated classic Greek texts, particularly Aristotle.
  • MUSLIM VIEW: Seen as but the beginning of Western Christian aggression towards Muslims.
  • NEWS: The crusades are more meaningful to the people of the Middle East and to Muslims everywhere than to people of the West.

COLONIALISM (From colonizer to colonized: Fragmentation and loss of identity)

  • Up until the 1700′s, the Muslim community had largely been ruled by Muslims. Even the Mongol conquers later converted to Islam. However, with the rise of European colonialism, this dramatically changed.
  • Colonizers essentially used the tactic of dividing and conquering its colonies.
  1. First by trading with a region and creating dependencies and then bringing in military to “protect” its interests (British control of India is a prime example).
  2. Created artificial boundaries that cut through natural ethnic and tribal cohesion.
  3. Created states dependent upon their colonizers by reorienting local, self-sufficient economies into producers of goods for the colonizers (ie: coffee, tobacco, and rubber).
  • By the end of WWI, Britain controlled Palestine, Transjordan, Iraq, the Arabian Gulf, Malaysia, Singapore, and Brunei. France controlled North, West and Equatorial Africa, Lebanon and Syria. The Dutch controlled Indonesia.
  • The Muslim world that had been ruled by three Islamic empires (the Ottoman of the Mediterranean, the Safavid of Persia, and the Mughal of India) would finally be parceled into today’s fifty some nation-states.
  • Christian missionaries accompanied colonialism with vigor. They, in keeping with their times, connected the triumphs of European nations with Christianity while blaming the misfortunes of the Muslim world on Islam. Christianity was inherently viewed as a religion of progress and Islam as a religion of stagnation.
  • A Western attitude of superiority manifested itself in a stereo-typical “servant-master” relationship with Muslims. European governments and missionaries sought to “civilize” the Muslims with Western style education, Christian virtues and “enlightened” social policies.
  • WESTERN VIEW: Manifest destiny. Colonialism helped create the great Western nation states.
  • MUSLIM VIEW: Muslims have mixed feelings towards colonizers (anger at oppression, jealousy of wealth and power) and negative feelings towards the associated “Christianity” of the colonizers. In addition, the combination of Western military dominance and Christian mission have caused many modern Muslims to perceive Colonialism as another version of the Crusades.
  • NEWS: The average Muslim will lift up any figure who challenges the dominance of the West (David and Goliath). Additionally, groups formed by tribal association or ethnicity often overlap the seemingly arbitrary boundaries of nations forming unexpected alliances and tensions.

NATIONALISM (Forming nations out of former colonies)

  • Nationalism grew out of a struggle with colonialism.
  • As groups, including Muslims sought to gain political control, they were bonded by their common oppression.
  • In India, nationalism against British control caused Hindu’s (led by Ghandi) and Muslims to temporarily unite, but would later lead to the formation of a Muslim Pakistan.
  • Emphasis was often placed not on Islamic unity or pan-Islam but rather in Arab ethnic/linguistic nationalism. This took many forms: In Turkey under Ataturk, a totally secular government was formed. In Egypt, Nasser’s Arab socialist movement prevailed. Interestingly in countries such as Syria, Lebanon and Egypt, Christians along with Muslims sought nationalism and even worked together.
  • Though Muslims succeeded in throwing off the considerable European yoke of political control, they were still heavily influenced by European economics, European-style education and government. The most enduring legacy of colonialism that shaped nationalism was secularism (something natively antithetical to Islam).
  • WESTERN VIEW: Threatens loss of control of natural resources in former colonies.
  • MUSLIM VIEW: Freedom from colonizers.
  • NEWS: Most militant extremism today comes out of nationalistic desires (e.g., to gain freedom or throw out a perceived oppressive government) but often uses religion to legitimate its cause.

OIL (Dependent independence and the fuel for Islamic extremism)

  • Made region invaluable to world economic stability
  • Colonialism became “Corporate Interest” (The real power in the region)
  • Control of oil creates an innate tension between nationalizing countries and international corporations.
  • Essentially, it has been impossible for Middle Eastern countries to emerge with governments or monarchies that are not intimately bound to international corporate interests.
  • Creates rapid wealth for a small group of people and their families. This causes an extreme separation of the classes. It allows a few to govern the many and typically creates unstable (and undemocratic) governing structures whose purpose is to keep power at all costs. With such extremities in wealth, one can buy almost anything…(Ex: Osama Bin Laden’s huge inheritance)
  • WESTERN VIEW: A vital component of the world’s economy lies underneath one of the most volatile areas of the world.
  • MUSLIM VIEW: Blessing and curse. A blessing in that oil is a tremendous resource, and a curse in that such a commodity brings much foreign intervention.
  • NEWS: Gasoline prices! A major component in the world’s economy, and accordingly, a vulnerable target for terrorist groups to attack.

COLD WAR (Changing the World Order)

  • Middle East becomes a pawn between Soviet Union and U.S.
  • Previously, it was the “Great Game” between Britain and Russia.
  • Soviet Union seeking warm water ports and world domination.
  • U.S. containing Communism and securing economic resources that it had become dependent upon.
  • Isreael:
  1. Isreal has been and is a significant ally of the U.S. The U.S. has provided billions of dollars in aid and advanced military weaponry that gives Israel a distinct advantage in the region. Therefore, the U.S. has become connected with the complex issues of the Israeli/Palestinian conflict and has inherited the negative perceptions by Muslims over the creation and expansion of the state of Israel.
  2. Muslims viewed the creation of Israel in 1948 as a European-American colony in the midst of an Arab nation.
  3. Israeli military advancements in 1956 and 1967 further humiliated the Arabs.
  4. Israel is often perceived as European-American colonialism aimed at keeping the Arabs divided and weak.
  • U.S. aids Iran (Shah’s regime), Iraq (Saddam Hussein) and Afghan rebels
  1. American hostages taken in Iran
  2. Heavily armed Iraq invades Kuwait (Gulf War follows). Leads to a massive U.S. military presence, particularly in Saudi Arabia.
  3. A small segment of the Afghan rebels (and Arabs from all over the world), in part trained by U.S. to terrorize the Soviets in Afghanistan now terrorize world.
  4. Soviet invasion of Afghanistan contributes to a weakening of its economic base and is a key factor in the crumbling of the Soviet Union.
  5. Former Soviet Union now fractured into many groups with much expertise, weaponry and the desire for economic survival.
  • After Cold War: U.S. became sole “super-power” in the region (China is a relatively uninvolved player as of yet) and therefore the easiest target for the present political and economic unrest of the region.
  1. U.S. essentially inherits the historical “Western” baggage, particularly colonialism.
  2. U.S. replaces the Soviet presence in Afghanistan as the U.S. topples the Taliban.
  3. U.S. invades and occupies Iraq.
  • WESTERN VIEW: Containing Communism and now international terrorism.
  • MUSLIM VIEW: Same-old-thing: Another version of the Crusades/Colonialism.
  • NEWS: After forty years of shaping political, economic and military strategy in the world, the effects of the Cold War are still in play.

COUNTERING CHANGE (Rise of fundamentalism and militancy)

  • Care is needed in defining “Fundamentalism.”
  1. Misconception: Fundamentalists are inherently conservative and trying to live in the past.
  2. Rather: Their ideas are essentially modern and often innovative.
  • Common traits of “Religious Fundamentalism”:
  1. Emerge out of and react to a perceived spiritual crisis.
  2. Oppose secular forces and view conflict as a cosmic war between good and evil.
  3. Often withdraw from mainstream society fearing contamination and annihilation.
  4. Through charismatic leadership, a counter-cultural community and an ideology are built.
  5. Certain doctrines and practices of the past are selectively retrieved, but creatively interpreted.
  • Additional traits of “Religious Fundamentalism” specific to Islam:
  1. Response to modernity and Western “isms” such as secularism, colonialism and materialism.
  2. Lack of historical perspective: A refusal (or out of ignorance) to interpret the Qur’an and Hadith in light of historical circumstances.
  • WESTERN VIEW: Fear and anger: Fear of terrorism and a motivating anger to subdue terrorism at all costs.
  • MUSLIM VIEW: Anger and fear: Most Muslims share in the anger towards their own despot governments and towards foreign intervention, but they are fearful of the violent, indiscriminate (“non-Islamic”) methods of militant fundamentalism.
  • NEWS: The predominant images of Islamic, militant fundamentalism in the news, has for many Westerners, defined the meaning of Islam and its community.

ISLAMIZATION (Reclaiming an “Islamic” world view)

  • A series of differing movements seeking to revitalize and return to an Islamic way of life. These movements share the common negative reaction to Western imperialism and secularization.
  • For some this means rejection of modernism and Western influences. It means a returning to the past, specifically to 7th/8th century shari’a (Islamic law) that dictates all aspects of Muslim life including its government. This is sometimes called the SALAFI MOVEMENT (“salaf” means “ancient one”). This movement has been expressed both peacefully through political change and forcibly through extremist action (sometimes called ISLAMISM).
  • For others, Islamization means an integration of modernity with Islamic values. This means a careful assimilation of science, technology and political structures filtered through an “Islamic” lens.
  • Islamization has yet to provide stable, equitable governments but it is making inroads within educational systems.
  • WESTERN VIEW: Threatening.
  • MUSLIM VIEW: Marginal groups within Islam that try and speak for all of “Islam”
  • NEWS: The press focuses on extremist forms of Islamization while ignoring peaceful forms that seek to revitalize Islamic identity.

COMMUNICATION (A shrinking world)

  • Internet:
  1. Rapidly collapsing the boundaries between countries and continents with instant information.
  2. A medium in which truth, lies, wisdom and propaganda commingle without discrimination.
  • Al-Jazeera:
  1. Arab news network working out of Qatar, famous for broadcasting tapes from Osama Bin Laden.
  2. Former employees of the BBC, Al-Jazeera has sought to provide a window into the Arab world that works to show the different sides of each situation. This has caused them to be criticized by virtually everyone, yet everyone watches.
  3. There are other similar Arab networks, but for many Arab speakers, this is where they get their understanding of the world.
  • WESTERN VIEW: Challenged to make sense of so much readily available information.
  • MUSLIM VIEW: Growing access to events of the world and a profound way of connecting Muslims with each other.

COMPASSION, COOPERATION AND POWER (Living together amidst power & powerlessness)

  • Hilm: A pre-Islamic, Arabic word that describes the virtue of one who has the power to destroy, but instead shows moral forbearance towards those who are weaker.
  • WESTERN VIEW: Must maintain power at any cost.
  • MUSLIM VIEW: Must obtain power at any cost.
  • NEWS: Usually controlled by those in power. Occasionally, the power of compassion emerges.

Pastor Bob is a pastor in San Diego.

More in this series:

A Primer on Islam: The Basics (Lesson 1 of 6)

A Primer On Islam: Groups, Sects and Shari’a (Lesson 2 of 6)

A Primer on Islam: Historical Outline (Lesson 3 of 6)

A Primer on Islam: Muslims in Context (Lesson 5 of 6)

Primer on Islam: Muslims in North America (Lesson 6 of 6)

[Note to commenters: Be nice; be respectful; keep it extremely civil. Anything else will get you booted. Thanks for understanding.]

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About John Shore

John Shore (who, fwiw, is straight) is the author of UNFAIR: Christians and the LGBT Question, and three other great books. He is founder of Unfundamentalist Christians (on Facebook here), and executive editor of the Unfundamentalist Christians group blog.  (In total John's two blogs receive some 250,000 views per month.) John is also co-founder of The NALT Christians Project, which was written about by TIME,  The Washington Post, and others. His website is JohnShore.com. John is a pastor ordained by The Progressive Christian Alliance. You're invited to like John's Facebook page. And don't forget to sign up for his mucho awesome monthly newsletter.

  • Diana A.

    “Hilm: A pre-Islamic, Arabic word that describes the virtue of one who has the power to destroy, but instead shows moral forbearance towards those who are weaker.”

    This is what I’d like to see more of both in Christianity and in the rest of the world.

    • Luke

      Sounds like God doesn’t it?

      • Diana A.

        It does!

  • Zsolt Sandor

    An addition to the situation in Iran: Mohammad Mosaddegh was democratically elected in 1951, but was overthrown by the MI5 and the CIA in 1953. The reason: oil. More info: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mohammad_Mosaddegh

    Knowing the events before the Islamic Revolution is essential in order to understand Iran (and actually the whole region).

  • Felicia Shamoomoo Burkhardt via Facebook

    read all six lessons. :-). these lessons have confirmed what i have suspected and what knowledge i have of Islam, for my friend is muslim. :-) i am glad you have posted these thank you :-). i intend to spread the word soon.

  • http://allegro63.wordpress.com sdgalloway

    I have viewed with suspect the anti-Islamic rhetoric I have heard repeatedly over the years. When one looks at the seven pillars of Islam, one can see that they have positive correlations to Christian tenets. Just like there are bad examples that abound within the Islamic faithful, so to there exists within the Christian or just about any faith. Yet ironically the principles which are supposed to shape us as a religious people aren’t really all that different.

    Even more ironically is that what separates us has less to do with religion, despite what labels people try to adhere. It is the secular that is the true dividers, the quest for possession, position, and power.

  • http://www.asad123.com Asad123

    There are some strengths and weaknesses in this article. Most of the facts here are accurate but there are one or two that I would like to correct. First, the Medieval Muslims did not simply translate Greek texts for Europeans to rediscover. They did translate Greek texts, but they extended the knowledge in them through argument and research. They made significant advances in nearly every imaginable science including astronomy, biology, chemistry, geology, geography, linguistics, medicine, music, physics, and many others. Second, I think it is important to mention that while the First Crusade was successful for Europe, the subsequent Crusades were almost entirely failures.


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