Is Four Months Long Enough to Fully Learn the History of Islam?
Being born in the nineties, I was old enough to remember September 11th, 2001. This meant that I grew up around people who chose to hate an entire religious sect than try to understand Islam as a whole. They chose to teach, or at least tried to, that this whole religion was bad and was to be hated because it was not their God’s way. Lets be honest here, many of our preconceptions and prejudices comes from a lack and unwillingness to understand anything that deviates from what we perceive as the “norm.” Unfortunately, I grew up in the bible belt of southern Virginia with a grandmother who was a minister, a mother and step-father who were deacons of the church, and the rest of my family sticking close to their faith. I say this is unfortunate because, for many involved in this, the straight refusal to try understanding something other than what the majority did, left them with very limited vocabulary on the subject of other religions, especially in regards to Islam. Most thought of Islam as a backwards religion that was taught in caves in the Middle East, and it taught to kill anyone who was believed differently than them, making our nation, in their mind, target number one. When I was about fourteen, I decided to investigate other religions to see if maybe my personal beliefs fit better elsewhere because, I did not believe in the same view points as the majority of others in my faith. From an early beginning, I had disagreed with the bigotry and hate that filled what were supposed to be “God loving people.” Even though I had looked into other religions, I truly did not dig far enough. One would think in the times we live people would be more tolerant however, this is not the case. While working this past summer at a mental health day program, the custodian, who was a sweet older woman who would give you the shirt off her back, proved to me this point. One of the clients was considering changing their beleifs to Islam. As we stood outside for our lunch break she began to tell me how everyone who studied Islam in America was here to kill the United States from the inside out. Now, I do not know about y’all, but I for one kept my mouth shut to keep the peace at my place of employment that only had 15 people working there. It was for the very reason this woman, who I had held in high regards until this point, that I had wanted to have a deeper understanding of this religion.
Throughout the past four months, I have embarked on a journey with my fellow classmates to understand the diverse history of Islam. I can say with certainty, at least in my case, four months was just long enough to really scratch the surface for everything important in this history. So before we go any further, here is a quick thirteen minute video, that goes over the very basic of Islamic history.
At the beginning of this journey, we were all told to write down what we knew of Islam, had heard about it, or any preconceptions we may have had. I can honestly say most of the things on my card were negative views of this religion that I have heard more times than Jingle Bells during every holiday season I have been alive for. My mind blanked and these negative remarks were the only thing that came to mind. After completing this exercise, we got acquainted with a book to help guide us through this immense history called, No God but God, by Reza Aslan. This book, written on March 15th, 2005, covers an array of topics from the sanctuary in the dessert, that has the Kaaba, to the Islamic reformation. While I can’t say it was the most enjoyable thing to read, I can say Aslan makes sure to cover his basis on the knowledge within.
When first starting to read this book, I was transported back to Muhammad’s time, and learned how the religion came to be. As I continued to read, I was able to see how this diverse religion became just that. Aslan does an amazing job at giving us the history from Muhammad’s time forward. He spends the first six chapters of his text to lay the groundwork of Islam. He describes who the prophets were the life of Muhammad, How Islam came to be, and what happened after Muhammad died. He also describes in great detail the five pillars of Islam which are; salat, zakat, sawm, hajj, and shahada.
The salat is the ritual prayer expected to be performed by capable Muslims five times each day. The salat is usually done while facing Mecca, with the individuals knee to foot on a mat, their arms down on their mat and the head barley touching the mat. The zakat is the annual charitable tithe used to support the poor and vulnerable. This is just like the offerings that most churches collect especially during the winter months. The sawm is the annual fast that takes place from sunrise to sunset during the month of Ramadan. It appears to have been initially modeled on Jewish fasting practices. The hajj is the annual pilgrimage to Mecca for a prescribed set of rituals that Muslims must undertake once in their lifetime, if able. The shahada is the testimony of faith, which is summed up in the statement: “I believe that there is no god but God, and that Muhammad is God’s messenger.” While Aslan does a great job covering these, he also does a great job in other parts of his book.
Aslan also does a phenomenal job of laying the ground work for how this religion that started as one split. He uses multiple chapters to discuss the discord felt between different individuals within the religion. He makes sure to lay a clear path to each sect and how it played a part in the greater history of Islam.
One thing Aslan doesn’t cover that well is the Mongols. The Mongol Empire ranged from the thirteenth century into the mid-fourteenth century. The reason they should be included more is the expanse of their empire, how they dealt with other beliefs within their empire, and how they came to Islam. I feel Aslan does not cover the Mongols in such depth because of two reasons: he believes their part in the history of Islam is minor at best, and/or with the negative connotation people place with the Mongols, it would only perpetuate the stereotypes of Muslims in today’s society. The Mongols became acquainted with many different religions during the height of their empire. One of their emperors decided they needed a common religion in the empire however, he had issues with each religion he preferred. For example, he liked Christianity because you could still drink and it had only one God however, you could only have one wife and this particular emperor had more than a few. So to settle the debate on what the religion should be he made each of his four sons pick a religion to follow to aide him in his decision. It just so happened that when he passed the next emperor had chosen to become Muslim. All in all a very interesting story in the history of Islam however, maybe not as important as the crusades going on in the western half of Europe. The second reason I listed as to why he did not put much emphasis on the Mongols is because of their tendency towards violence. Now to be fair the Mongols did not just decide to go to a random village where they slaughter and pillage, just for the sheer fun of it all. They would only go into mass destruction mode when you broke one of their three cardinal rules which were basically do not mess with our trades people, do not claim war on us, and do not harbor fugitives from other villages that broke the first two. Even though this empire was very civilized, many people just focus on the stuff in movies. Thus, when tied with the negative stereotypes most Muslim’s receive anyway, I can see why Aslan chose to keep his introductory to the Mongols short and sweet. For those who want to learn more about Mongols, I have posted a video below from you tube which is a crash course.
While I have studied this subject for approximately four months now, I can honestly say that I am no where near being an expert. I would even wager I am below the novice level of understanding everything about this culturally rich and diverse religion. I say this because four months is not enough time to learn everything humanly possible about a religion that has been around for more than fifteen-hundred years.Also, with all of the different sects, learning the specific history of all of them would be nearly impossible during this short amount of time. I will say Ii have a greater understanding than I did when I began.