Week 2: The Advent of Islam

Week 2 Prompt – Which was more important for the rise of Islam: when God sent His prophet, or where He sent him?

In spatio-temporal terms both the location and the time of  Islam’s advent in Arabia are of great importance. Needless to say the location of Arabia, as a ‘blank spot’ located at the ‘center’ of the world of the dominant empires at the time, was a significant factor in the evolution of Islam. However it seems that the geography was not almost as critical as the time that Islam was sent. Ofcourse Arabia will forever remain a point of reference for Islam but Islam’s message is undoubtedly universal and the sociological vision of an Islamic community has maintained a rejection of the distinction between any geography, class, race, caste, tribe or ethnicity. The fact that Islam expanded outside of the Arab demographic even within the Prophet’s lifetime is an affirmation of the fact that geographical boundaries are somewhat irrelevant to Islam. Infact the inherent conflation of Islam with Arabia and of Muslims as Arabs can be easily questioned in the present context given that Arabs today represent less than a fifth of the world’s one billion Muslims today. 

The timing of Islam’s revelation in a period that is described as ‘late antiquity’, an era that was to be the harbinger of early modernity, was crucial. Much scholarship has depicted  Islam as standing between the ancient and the modern world with the source of Muhammad’s revelation being grounded in the ancient world and it’s spirit belonging to the modern world. As we know from Donner’s work, at the time of Islam’s revelation the ancient classical cultures were undergoing cataclysmic transformations and were changing beyond recognition. Furthermore this time period was one of extreme socio-cultural degeneration and of moral and ethical depravity, being described as an era of the worst form of ‘jahiliya‘ or ignorance in history. The period in which Islam arrived was thus conducive to the new spiritual message that Islam bought. This was possibly so because although people were familiar with diverse religious ideas and Judaism, Zoroastrianism and Christianity were well established religious traditions by the time Islam arrived, however one can learn from the history of the period that both the Byzantinian and Sassanian empires were floundering.  Had Islam been revealed at a time when these civilizations were at their peak or if the Abraham religions were not yet been fully actualized or become firmly grounded in the regional vicinity, it would have faced a totally different socio-political context and would possibly have followed a very different historical trajectory.

It is also significant that at this particular moment in history both the predominant Byzantinian and Sassanian civilizations were disintegrating from within and the underlying religious ideologies that was supposed to give coherence to these empires was actually dividing them. For instance the Byzantinian rule was facing immense difficulty in enforcing its official version of Christianity because of the diversity of theological thought that existed within the empire. Even within the Sassanian empire, while Christianity was predominant in the region aroundArabiait existed in variousdiverse manifestations. Such polarization and dissent within these empires could also possibly give us an insight into the peoples disenchantment with the structured religions of the time and underline a need that was felt for a change from existing religious paradigms. As Schimmel points out people were perhaps looking for a ‘purer’ and a ‘more satisfying faith’ than the ones being practiced at the time.

 In this sense, people were particularly receptive to Islam at this time in history because it gave them a new ‘frame’ to identify with, even as it did not reject the earlier Abrahamic religions and infact built a narrative based upon them. The Quran itself underlines this fact when it describes Muhammad as the seal of the Prophets. In Islamic traditions, for instance, the symbolic change in direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca, can be seen therefore not only to signify the geographic significance of Arabia but also as an indication of further development and continuation which complements and consolidates the earlier Abrahamic traditions. It is possibly because of this fact that Islam has come to be seen as religion in which both tradition and innovation sustain each other, making it relevant for all times. Given this context Islam would not been able to evolve in the distinct way that it did if it had not come into existence at such a particular time period.

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2 responses

  1. I strongly agree with your argument that it was the time in which the prophet was sent to deliver the message of Islam that had the greatest influence on the faiths ability to rise, and touched upon many of these same points in my own post! Something you bring up that I find very interesting, and did not think about as in-depth before, is the notion of Islam being able to bridge the gap between the period of classical antiquity and the dawning era of modernity, in the sense of the faith’s spirit. You point out that the contents of the revelations lay claim the the ancient traditions of Judaism and Christianity, which was crucial for a legitimate recognition of the faith in the progression of history, but more importantly, it was Islam’s ability to fulfill the need at the time for a collective identity that allowed the faith to expand from Mecca. For me, however, this raises a broader question as to what is most important for the strength and survival of a religion: its historical tradition or its ability to create a collective identity? Clearly, Islam emerged as a religion containing both elements, but I am curious as to the ways in which the hierarchy of importance for ancient authenticity and a modern religious unity is still playing out today.

  2. Interesting finds. It’s so classic, really, that he would replace value judgments such as “new heights of absurdity,” or “lunacy,” with a warning about Ashoura being “a danger to public health.” Surely everyone can get behind the latter; surely everyone will agree that the rituals are a problem if they’re going to endanger the public …

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