The Princeton Encyclopedia of Islamic Political Thought

By Gerhard Bowering | Go to book overview

Introduction

The Islamic World Today in Historical Perspective

In 2012, the year 1433 of the Muslim calendar, the Islamic population throughout the world was estimated at approximately a billion and a half, representing about one- fifth of humanity. In geographical terms, Islam occupies the center of the world, stretching like a big belt across the globe from east to west. From Morocco to Mindanao, it encompasses countries of both the consumer North and the disadvantaged South. It sits at the crossroads of America, Europe, and Russia on one side and Africa, India, and China on the other. Historically, Islam is also at a crossroads, destined to play a world role in politics and to become the most prominent world religion during the 21st century. Islam is thus not contained in any national culture; it is a universal force.

The cultural reach of Islam may be divided into five geographical blocks: West and East Africa, the Arab world (including North Africa), the Turco- Iranian lands (including Central Asia, northwestern China, the Caucasus, the Balkans, and parts of Russia and the Ukraine), South Asia (including Pakistan, Bangladesh, and many regions in India), and Southeast Asia (the Indonesian archipelago; the Malaysian peninsula; Singapore; and minorities in Thailand, the Philippines, and by extension, Australia). Particularly in the past century, Islam has created the core of a sixth block: small but vigorous communities living on both sides of the Atlantic, in Europe (especially in France, Germany, Great Britain, the Netherlands, and Spain), and the Americas (especially in Canada, the United States, the Caribbean, and Argentina).

Islam has grown consistently throughout history, expanding into new neighboring territories without ever retreating (except on the margins, as in Sicily and Spain, where it was expelled by force, and the Balkans, where it is now regaining its foothold). It began in the seventh century as a small community in Mecca and Medina in the Arabian Peninsula led by its messenger, the Prophet Muhammad (d. 632), who was eventually to unite all the Arab tribes under the banner of Islam. Within the first two centuries of its existence, it came into global prominence through its conquests of the Middle East, North Africa, the Iberian Peninsula, the Iranian lands, Central Asia, and the Indus valley. In the process and aftermath of these conquests, Islam inherited the legacy of the ancient Egyptian and Mesopotamian civilizations, embraced and transformed the heritage of Hellenistic philosophy and science, assimilated the subtleties of Persian statecraft, incorporated the reasoning of Jewish law and the methods of Christian theology, absorbed cultural patterns of Zoroastrian dualism and Manichean speculation, and acquired wisdom from Mahayana Buddhism and Indian philosophy and science. Its great cosmopolitan centers— Baghdad, Cairo, Córdoba, Damascus, and Samarqand— became the furnace in which the energy of these cultural traditions was converted into a new religion and polity. These major cities, as well as provincial capitals of the newly founded Islamic empire, such as Basra, Kufa, Aleppo, Qayrawan, Fez, Rayy (Tehran), Nishapur, and San’a’, merged the legacy of the Arab tribal tradition with newly incorporated cultural trends. By religious conversion, whether fervent, formal, or forced, Islam integrated Christians of Greek, Syriac, Coptic, and Latin rites and included large numbers of Jews, Zoroastrians, Gnostics, and Manicheans. By ethnic assimilation, it absorbed a great variety of nations, whether through compacts, clientage and marriage, persuasion, and threat or through religious indifference, social climbing, and the self- interest of newly conquered peoples. It embraced Aramaic-, Persian-, and Berber- speaking peoples; accommodated the disruptive incursions of Turks and the devastating invasion of Mongols into its territories; and sent its emissaries, traders, immigrants, and colonists to the lands beyond the Indus valley, the semiarid plains south of the Sahara, and the distant shores of the Southeast Asian islands.

By transforming the world during the ascendancy of the Abbasid Empire (750– 1258), Islam created a splendid cosmopolitan civilization built on the Arabic language; the message of its scripture, tradition, and law (Qur’an, hadith, and shari’a); and the wisdom and science of the cultures newly incorporated during its expansion over three continents. The practice of philosophy, medicine, and the sciences within the Islamic empire was at a level of sophistication unmatched by any other civilization; it secured pride of place in such diverse fields as architecture, philosophy, maritime navigation, and trade and commerce by land and sea and saw the founding of the world’s first universities. Recuperating from two centuries of relative political decentralization, it coalesced around the year 1500 into three great empires: the Ottomans in the west with Istanbul as their center, the Safavids in Iran with Isfahan as their hub, and the Mughals in the Indian subcontinent with Agra and Delhi as their axis.

As the Islamic world witnessed the emergence of these three empires, European powers began to expand their influence over the world during the age of global discoveries—westward across the Atlantic into the Americas and eastward by charting a navigational route around Africa into the Indian Ocean—there entering into fierce competition with regional powers along the long- established network of trade routes between China on the one hand and the Mediterranean and East Africa on the other. The European exploration of the East and growing ability to exploit an existing vast trade network, together with the inadvertent but eventually lucrative “discovery” of the New World, were to result in Europe’s economic and political hegemony over the Islamic world, with which it had rubbed military and mercantile shoulders since the early Muslim conquests. The early modern Islamic world (and much of the rest of the world) fell behind the West economically and politically with

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