Islam: The Islamic Tradition Through History

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Origins

Islam originated as an political body which in many ways shared characteristics with what we would now describe as a nation. The key difference being the total rejection in Islam of all hierarchies based on racial or linguistic differences. In Islam all that mattered was the commitment to the Qur’an and Muhammad; this is explored in the previous section on Islamic Beliefs and Teachings. 

It is important to dwell for a moment on just how revolutionary this shift was. Mecca, the city where the Islamic community originated, was a central trading hub which relied primarily on kinship ties and finance to define the social hierarchies that shaped the city. Islam, against this backdrop, is a radical voice of equality and universalism. It is perhaps no surprise that it met such fierce resistance from the vested interests of the region. However, at the same time, after Islam became the dominant force in the region it also put an end to the seemingly endless tribal and familial conflict in the region. This in turn made the new Islamic theo-political body increasingly wealthy from the trade routes that it sat in the middle of.

Islamic Theology was developed and at least initially a direct extension of Abrahamic theology; Judaism and Christianity. The main difference is that Islam held at its center the innerancy of the Qur’an as the word of God. This central sacred language and accompanying socio-political system means that Islam can be seen as best described as a civilisational theology.  

The socio-political system only developed after Muhammed and his community were pressured into relocating to Medina in the face of intense scrutiny. This move, the Hijrah, marked the establishment of Islam as a complete socio-theological system and Year One in the Islamic calendar. The eight years following the Hijrah saw a conflict which is remembered in the Islamic narrative as a period of what can perhaps be described as defensive aggression towards Meccah. The conflict between the newborn Muslim community based in Medina and Meccah, which was dominated by Muhammad’s own Quraishi tribe, is justified by the hostility that the Quraish showed Muhammad and his followers. These conflicts, including the key victory at Badr and moderate defeat at Uhud, are referred to in the Qur’an in theological terms. Key developments in the Islamic narrative. 

Evolution

After Muhammad’s death in 632 CE Islam continued its military conquest of the neighbouring territories, taking much of the land once controlled by the Byzantine Empire. At its greatest extent it spread from South-Western Europe and North-Western Africa and then deep into Central and Southern Asia. As Islam expanded it began to take the shape of Empire as the vast area that it covered contained so much diversity that nothing else would make sense. It persisted as a coherent and singular theo-political body under what are known as the Four ‘Rightly-guided’ Caliphs. 

It did not spread through military conquest alone. Many of the most densely populated areas were won over through a combination of missionary activities, Muslim social egalitarianism, and also the allure of the vast wealth and power brought by trading and new inventions. The Islamic Golden Age can be said to have lasted for about 6 centuries, from the 8th till the 14th. It resulted in the Islamic world being the undisputed centre of learning for the medieval world. It is thought that the European advances that came at the end of the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ were made possible only because of increased engagement with the Muslim world. Islam also diversified as a tradition across its history and geography as we saw with the development of Sufi’ism under the Umayyad caliphate.

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As various empires and other political bodies rose and fell over time, all claiming Islamic Theology as the source for their political legitimacy, then Islam took on its current form as a Civilisational Theology; not a system but a tradition that many socio-theological systems relied on for their claims to authority. 

Current State

Islam, like so many other Theological Traditions, finds itself at a crossroads. Some wish to cement the movement towards Islam becoming a Global Theology. They reject that there is any contradiction between being Muslim and belonging to a particular national identity. They want dialogue with the other great Theological Traditions of the world. And, they celebrate the growth of Islam across the world outside its historic civilisational core.

However, there is a major issue that the Islamic tradition seems to be wrestling with at the moment is its relationship with nationalism. Nationalism saw the downfall of the Ottoman Caliphate. It has a complicated relationship with Islam, because it simultaneously returned Muslim people from being subjects in Western Empires to being ruled by Muslims. But it did so in a form that is alien and maybe even contradictory to the Islamic tradition. The Islamic community is not supposed to place any significance to diversity in ethnicity or language, but these are the things that nations are built on. 

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As a result, there are other groups within Islam that do see Islamic Theology as in conflict with any and all National Theologies. In their place, such groups want to set up an Islamic Nation, taking as its model the political body that Mohammed himself led over a thousand years ago. This movement gained a lot of support among a rapidly growing young population who were consistently disenfranchised by authoritarian national governments in Muslim majority lands. Some are fighting for a future where the entire globe is covered by a single Islamic State. Others are fighting for an authentically Islamic Community built on the precedent set by Muhammad. Negotiating what that means is still heavily contested. Iran, Saudi Arabia and other nations all claim to be legitimate inheritors of the Islamic theo-political tradition, and they are locked in conflict with each other. However, many Muslims seek to transcend such conflicts, even transcend conflict, and negotiate how the Islamic tradition interacts with other Global theologies on the world stage.

Future

Islam seems set to transform itself into a Global Theology, but that does not mean it is free from the movement that would rather see a global Islamic State. The fact that this issue persists can perhaps be traced to Islam’s own history, which saw a particular time, place, people and language priviledged above all others. Settling this exclusivity with the diversity of other Theological Traditions of the world is a major issue that remains in Islamic Theology.

Having said this, it seems that the Islamic tradition perhaps more than any other sees clearly the theo-political realities of the world. Detractors point to the fact that Islam means submission to criticise Islam. But all of the theo-political systems that we belong to openly require our submission in order for them to function. Each society has its own mythology, its own appeals to theological traditions to its authority, and backs up this authority with a monopoly of the use of violence. 

We tend to think of theology being defined by personal choice. But what we profess to believe is not always demonstrated in the actions we take. Especially when we accept that our actions can be coerced by the societies that we live in. Regardless of how we describe ourselves, we still submit to theo-political powers that can force us to kill and die in their name. In light of this, Islam in its emphasis on submission rather than belief seems to merely speak uncomfortable truths, and is clearly happy to call out this hypocrisy in other theo-political groups which claim a monopoly on violence whilst claiming that such power should not belong to any theo-political body.

In this way Islam offers the sharp edge of an argument that is needed in shaping the conversations around Global Theology. However, this argument can just as easily be the fuel for acts of violence perpetrated by those who place the desire for purity in theology above the open pursuit of truth, and thus refuse the legitimacy of any other tradition but Islam. This is the crossroads that the Islamic tradition sits at, and while there is a voice still violently advocating for Islamic purity, the dominant voice in the tradition is certainly the one that calls for open and respectful pursuit of truth.

Islam, as a theological tradition, has had an out sized impact on the world when we consider the relatively short period that it has been around. It is difficult to convey that dynamism and complexity in the short amount of space that these pages take up. As a result we would love your feedback, criticisms, and comments. These pages, and the larger project they belong to, are both works in progress so please help us improve their quality and scope. In the meantime please feel free to read about the other great theological traditions of the world by clicking the button below.

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