(Literary Masterpieces, Critical Compilation)

Stephen Schwartz offers a history of Islam that delineates the divergence of fundamentalist Wahhabism from the religion’s mainstream tradition of tolerance and pluralism. He defines the two faces of modern Islam this way: “On one side [in Kosovo], there was the bright aspect of Sufi traditionalism . . . always committed to the defense of human dignity. On the other was the ugly visage of Wahhabi fundamentalism, narrow, rigid, tyrannical, separatist, supremacist, and violent.”

Muhammad (“the glorified”) ibn Abdallah ibn Abd al-Muttalib was born in 570 in Mecca. The Sirahand the Hadith, Muhammad’s oral commentaries and teachings, make up the Sunna, or the substance of Islamic faith and morals. The Ka’bah is a stone temple in Mecca devoted to worshiping the One God (Al-Lah), and it has a precious Black Stone supposedly built into one wall by Abraham. Muslims believe the Ka’bah to have been built by Adam and repaired by Abraham. Muhammad belonged to a lawless Arab tribe known as the Quraysh, and in 605 the Quraysh rebuilt the Ka’bah, defiled, as the story goes, by a serpent and by the introduction of idols. Because of his reputation for fairness, Muhammad was chosen to restore the Black Stone to its proper place.

Muhammad’s innate decency and benevolence earned him admirers, and after he began receiving divine revelations in about 610, his prophecy attracted millions of people over the generations. The teachings that came to him through the angel Gabriel are known worldwide as the Qur’an (the recitation). Unfortunately for Muhammad, his own Quraysh tribesmen rejected his monotheism, preferring their traditional idol worship, and a group of his followers left for Ethiopia, the beginning of a tension in Islamic history “between separatism and the perseverance of Muslims living alongside others who hew to unbelief.” A decade after his first revelation, Muhammad had a mystical experience known as the Night Journey in which he rode a winged creature called Buraq to the former Temple of the Jews in Jerusalem, a site interpreted as signifying Muhammad’s continuance of faith in the One God. In 622, the people of the village of Yathrib invited Muhammad and his followers to lead them, and he left Mecca just ahead of a Quraysh assassination plot. The village was renamed Medina, “city of the Prophet,” and 622 became the first year of the Islamic calendar.

Muhammad died in 632 and was succeeded by a series of caliphs. The second, Umar ibn al-Khattab, led the Muslims of Arabia to victory over the Persians, the Syrians, and the Egyptians. Umar proclaimed the dhimma, a set of rules governing Muslim relations with Jews and Christians but leaving them outside of Islamic law, or sharia. After Umar’s assassination in 644, Uthman ibn Affan conquered Cyprus, Libya, Afghanistan, and western India. The favoritism he showed his own family, the Umayyads, over Muhammad’s family, the Hashimites, led to his murder in 656. His successor, Ali ibn Abi Talib, husband of the prophet’s daughter Fatima, was fair and honorable, but his good intentions were ruined by rebellions of the Umayyads and a puritanical sect, the Khawarij, who Schwartz says,

foreshadowed the extremist ideological regimes of modern times, but especially the Wahhabi phenomenon that emerged in central Arabia in the eighteenth century, and which gained immense influence over the ummah [community of the faithful] thanks to the proclamation of the Saudi state and the discovery of oil in the Arabian Peninsula.

The Khawarij taught that all Muslims were obliged to pursue a jihad to establish Islam everywhere.

The story of Islam’s rise to power and assimilation into the pluralist Ottoman Empire is narrated in great detail in Schwartz’s chapter “Fortresses and Mountain Paths.” After Ali’s murder in 659, the Iraqi Muslims became known as the Followers of Ali, or the Shi’at ‘Ali, the founders of Shiism, who were more pluralist than the Sunni, adherents to the Sunna. In 680, the Shiite imam, or spiritual leader, Husayn suffered a hard defeat by the Umayyads at Karbala in Iraq, and for the next century the Umayyads expanded even into Spain and France. The Iraqi mystic Husayn bin Mansur al Hallaj (858-922) was a major figure in the growth of Sufism, which, Schwartz says, “embodies certain basic elements: the principle of divine love; the search for spiritual union in contemplation of the divine; and the social mission of studying and absorbing other, earlier esoteric beliefs.” Sufis are also known as dervishes, and they represent the benign face of Islam that the Wahhabis have been trying to eliminate since they emerged as a violent force in the eighteenth century.


(The entire section is 1943 words.)