Islam: A Cultural and Historical Background

An Essay By Hannah D. // 7/16/2014

In continuation of my review of The World’s Religions by Huston Smith, I have now left the strange waters of surreality and false optimism of the Eastern religions and near more familiar shores. In his book, Smith begins the Western religions with Islam, a belief near enough to express some similar philosophical ideas but still foreign in many respects.

Before diving into the details here, I’d like to offer a sort of disclaimer; Smith writes with great admiration of each religion (at least, so far) and offers several defenses against common critiques of Islam that I have heard. While I have read various essays concerning Islam extremism, the evils of Allah’s character, the treatment of women in Muslim society, and Muhammad’s own rather distasteful character, for the purposes of this essay I am going to leave them out and give Islam – and Smith – the benefit of the doubt. For now I want to treat it exactly as it is presented in this book, and to determine whether in this light it is philosophically and religiously tenable.

The man who founded Islam became an orphan at six years old. He was raised by his uncle, and when he came of age, joined the caravan business under a woman named Khadija. When he was twenty-five (and when she was forty), Khadija became his first wife.

The culture Muhammad lived in was polytheistic, but he disagreed with mainstream beliefs. As a hanif, he was among those who worshipped only one of the gods, or jinn – one named Allah. The hanifs believed that Allah was the only creator, the only provider, the only one in whom human destiny was controlled. Muhammad took to meditation over this Allah in a cave where he soon began receiving visions.

“Gradually, as Muhammad’s visits to the cave became more compelling, the command that he later saw as predestined took form. It was the same command that had fallen earlier on Abraham, Moses, Samuel, Isaiah, and Jesus. Wherever, whenever, this call comes, its form may differ but its essence is the same. A voice falls from heaven saying, ‘You are the appointed one.’” (Smith, 225)

For Muhammad this command came from, he claimed, the angel Gabriel. Specifically, Gabriel commanded,

Proclaim in the name of your Lord who created!
Created man from a clot of blood.
Proclaim: Your Lord is the Most Generous,
Who teaches by the pen;
Teaches Man what he knew not.

- Koran 96:1-3

At this Muhammad fled home. He knew he had either become divinely appointed or had lost his mind. He confided all this in his wife, who instantly believed him, “which, Muslims often remark, in itself speaks well for his authenticity, for if anyone understands a man’s true character it is his wife” (Smith, 226). Her confidence spurred Muhammad to return to the cave, and again he heard the angel’s voice, always telling him to proclaim. It was this that convinced him to become a prophet, and he began to preach to the people. Determined to not resort to miracle-working, of which he saw himself unworthy, Muhammad appealed “to human reason” (226) and his message grew despite a great deal of defiance from the leaders at his hometown, Mecca.

Mecca was a powerful city with three hundred and sixty shrines to the jinn, which of course reaped plenty of revenue for the leaders of the city year round. Their strict social statuses and lack of moral resolve made Muhammad’s opposing teachings unpopular among the elite, and soon he led his hundreds of followers out of Mecca to Yathrib, later to be named Medina.

Muhammad became the leader of Medina, both religiously and politically. But he lived in a clay house, mended his own clothes, and lived overall a very humble lifestyle. Although Allah had “put before him the key to the treasures of this world . . . he refused it” (229). His Muhammad’s leadership and diplomacy were exemplary; he managed to unite the five warring tribes in Medina (of which three were Jewish) and though strict in upholding the law was always forgiving to his own enemies and personal offenders.

Yet Medina and Mecca were at war until 630 AD, when Muhammad arose victorious, rededicated a shrine to Allah, and peacefully returned to Medina.

Although Muhammad was illiterate, his sayings were recorded by his followers to become the Koran. The people could tell when their leader had fallen into a trance – he would stiffen, his voice would change, and Gabriel would speak directly through him.

Today, Muslims see Muhammad as the ultimate follower of Allah. In each of the many stages of his life – orphan, husband, widower and then “the husband of many wives, some much younger than himself” (231) – they see him as someone to pattern their own actions after. Still, the focus of their faith on this earth is the Koran.

The culture before Muhammad was pagan and morally reprehensible. Infants – especially baby girls – were often buried alive. Gambling, promiscuity and drunkenness were the norm. The religion encouraged all this.

“Best described as animistic polytheism, . . . it peopled the sandy wastes with beastly sprites called jinn or demons. Fantastic personifications of desert terrors, they inspired neither exalted sentiment nor moral restraint.” (223)

Yet within fifty years Muhammad’s religion had eradicated this greatly from society. The reason? Smith declares it to be the explicit nature of the rules Islam puts forth.

“Its basic objective in interpersonal relations, Muslims will say, is precisely that of Jesus and the other prophets: brotherly and sisterly love. The distinctive thing about Islam is not its ideal but the prescriptions it sets forth for achieving it.” (249)

Muhammad’s societal changes were largely beneficial. He ordered that all children, and not just the eldest son, be given an inheritance. Punishment for such crimes as adultery or thievery were severely punished, but easily avoided (if there was a lack of four witness for the former or a genuine need in the latter, for example). Science flourished, for Islam taught that Allah’s world was created to be “both real and important” (238). But one social reform Smith is keen on emphasizing is the role of women in Islam.

Women were protected by Islam by the ban on infanticide and the order that all children be given an inheritance portion (a daughter would receive a half portion, but it was assumed that she would never have to be financially independent). According to Smith, “It was in the institution of marriage, however, that Islam made its greatest contribution to women. It sanctified marriage” (251). In our modern society in which Harvard researchers can be lauded for arguing that marriage is a position akin to prostitution for a woman, this quote is an interesting remark. Prior to Muhammad, “marriage arrangements were so loose as to be scarcely recognizable” (251) and promiscuity was rampant. Smith wrote that by sanctifying marriage and exposing promiscuity as sin a woman’s position in a society elevates. Here, I would agree with him. He also adds that although marriages were arranged, the woman’s approval was required for matrimony, and that though divorce was strongly discouraged, a woman was just as free as a man to initiate one.

There are other aspects of Islam that that leave some outsiders dubious, however; for example, polygamy. But Smith is quick to remind us that polygamy is common in societies plagued with frequent wars, when men experience higher death rates but the female population remains the same. Besides, though Muhammad limited polygamy to four wives at once, he also demanded each wife to be equally loved. This has led some Muslims to teach strict monogamy, for how can one love four wives the same all at once? Furthermore, Muslims see high divorce rates in the West as “serial polygyny” and think it no better to have several spouses in succession than to have several all at once.

Overall, Smith is quite optimistic on the matter of women in Islam, writing that

“the Koran leaves open the possibility of woman’s full equality with man, an equality that is being approximated as the custom of Muslim nations become modernized. If in another century women under Islam do not attain the social position of their Western sisters, a position to which the latter have been brought by industrialism and democracy rather than religion, it will be time, Muslims say, to hold Islam accountable.” (251)

Quite convenient. I’d personally like to know what is meant by the word ‘equality’ in its social, economic and intellectual connotations. And it is rather interesting to look at the influence religion had on democracy and industrialism and their individual effects on women in society. But a hundred years are a long time, and there are probably better ways to determine the status of Muslim women in the present.