Islam (from the Arabic for submission to God): a monotheistic religion based on the writings of its founder Mohammed.
With 1.3 billion followers Islam is, after ►Christianity, the second-largest world religion. It is also the youngest and fastest growing. It was established in the seventh century A.D. by the merchant Mohammed and his followers in the Arabian City Mekka. From 610 to 630 A.D. Mohammed received the Quran by divine inspiration. It was orally transmitted at first, and written down some time after Mohammed's death. The Quran contains Islam's articles of faith in altogether 114 suras.
Islam considers itself a universal religion that includes Judaism and Christianity. It acknowledges Jesus and the Old Testament prophets as predecessors of Mohammed. However, it does regard certain Christian convictions — such as original sin, the divine nature of Jesus, and the trinity of father, son, and holy ghost — as blasphemies that were not taught by the prophets but added at a later time. Islam's five pillars of faith are the belief in ►God and Mohammed as His prophet, regular prayer, assistance to the poor and sick, an annual month of fasting (Ramadan), and the pilgrimage to Mekka. Islam includes less mystical elements and a clearer form of monotheism than Christianity. Images of God are strictly prohibited. Each person is individually responsible for her faith and actions and does not require a church for guidance. At the same time, Islam permeates everyday life and imposes a series of strict rules of conduct on its followers.
The Hegemony of Islam
Even prior to Mohammed's death, Islam spread rapidly across the Arabian peninsula. In the second half of the 7th century, the Arabian armies conquered Palestine, Syria, Mesopotamia, Egypt, and Persia. Islam subsequently spread across all of Northern Africa, established provinces in Southern Italy and Spain, and finally reached India and China. In sharp contrast to Christianity, Islam for the most part tolerated other religions in the conquered regions. There was a flourishing of Islamic culture, science, and medicine.
Islamic scholars translated the works of ancient philosophers into Arabic, created the decimal ►numbering system, and adopted the art of paper manufacture from the Chinese. In the 8th century Al-Fazari developed the astrolabe and compiled the first tables for the planetary motions. Al-Khwarizmi studied methods for solving linear and square equations; he first introduced the terms "algebra" and "algorithm". Ibn Haiyan established the foundations of modern chemistry. Islamic academies attracted students from all parts of the Islamic empire. Alongside China, the Islamic empire became one of the leading world civilizations and was superior to the Christian world not only culturally and with regard to military power but also ethically.
Astrolabium by Al-Fazari
The Decline of Islam
The decline of the Islamic empire began in the 11th century. Within no more than a few centuries economic crises, fragmentation into the mutually hostile groups of Shiites and Sunnis, growing religious intolerance, and decadence led to a collapse of Islamic culture. Cultural centers such as Baghdad and Cordoba were temporarily or permanently destroyed. The once-powerful Islamic empire disintegrated into various partial empires that further drifted into backwardness. Islam attempted to stem the decline by clinging to traditions; the effect was the opposite of the one intended. Though in the 16th century three new empires emerged in Turkey, Persia, and India, they were unable to restore Islam's previous hegemony. Instead, it was the Christian occidental world that accepted the legacy of Islamic culture and science during the Renaissance period.
The contemporary militant and fundamentalist variety of Islam, so-called Islamism, is supported only by a minority of Muslims. Scholars of Islam think that it has developed out of the painfully deep loss of Islamic cultural pride. This inferiority complex, which is rampant both in Islamic nations and among Muslim immigrants to Western nations, is fueled by antisemitism, misogyny, and medieval thought patterns in many spiritual leaders of Islam. It is also cultivated by perceived cultural invasion and arrogant politics of the Western nations. The most intolerant form of Islam is Wahabism, which originated in Saudi Arabia; it rejects culture, science, womens' and human rights in almost every shape or form. An omnipresent religious police relies on blows and repression in order to reinforce the right Islamic attitude in the people. Of all countries, it is the ►USA that probably promotes Wahabism most by supporting the Saudi Arabian monarchs. There are, however, also signs of gradual Islamic cultural progress such as the TV station Al-Jazeera in Quatar, which has developed into the voice of modern Islam.
The Islamic Hereafter
Islam's belief in the hereafter is reminiscent of ►Catholicism. The human body is but an external shell necessary to enable us to live on Earth. The soul, however, is immortal. In the hour of death the angel of death leads the soul up to receive her particular judgment. If the deceased has led a good and righteous life, all of her sins are forgiven. If not, then her soul is destined to endure a preliminary, finite period of torture.
Just as in Christianity, the final resurrection of the dead takes place on ►Judgment Day, the Islamic version of which more closely resembles a genuine court trial. Jesus appears as prosecutor and Mohammed often as defense, while God is the judge. After the trial an angel guides the dead across a bridge narrower than a hair and more sharp-edged than a sword. Underneath they can see the blaze of hell. Those that are convicted and/or unfaithful tumble down. The righteous, however, manage to cross the bridge unharmed to enter paradise, where the ►eternal joys are awaiting them.
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