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Key Ideas:



The Taj Mahal






Key Ideas:




Today, Islam is a subject more prevalent in the media of many Western countries than ever before, although comment is not al- ways well informed. It has been depicted as an actual threat to the West due to the
4 terrorism of radical Islamists, which reached a climax on September 11,2001. In the prevailing political climate the distinction between radical and mainstream Islam has sometimes been blurred, and the common elements of Islam, Judaism, and Christianity, as well as the rich intellectual and cultural history of Islamic civilizations, are often overlooked.


4 The leader of the Al-Qaeda network, Osama bin Laden (right),
speaking at an event


The theologization of politics, such as has occurred repeatedly in the history of man all over the world, has always tended toward radicalism and emotionalism and, above all, has often resulted in the suppression of, and intolerance toward, those of other faiths.

During its period of expansion and conquest, Islam, in contrast to Christianity, proved relatively tolerant, because respect toward other religions—particularly the other 2 biblical religions Judaism and Christianity—is anchored in the Koran.

2 A Muslim reading the Holy Scripture
in a mosque in Multan, Pakistan

The freedom to practice religion was very much the norm in the great Islamic empires—one need only consider Spain in the Middle Ages or the policies of the Ottoman Empire toward its many Christian subjects. The phrase "better the Turban than the Tiara" refers to the preference of some Orthodox Christians for the Sultan's rule rather than the persecution suffered under Catholics. It is arguably the humiliations suffered during the long years of colonization, and the support of the West for authoritarian regimes in the post-colonial Middle East, that have fed a hostile current of opinion in some Islamic countries vis-a-vis the West.


The Beginnings of Islam

The prophet Muhammad and a small group of his followers, who declared their faith in the one true God, stand at the beginning of the history of Islam.

Its development and diffusion were initiated by the Prophet's 5 emigration, the Hegim (Arabic hijrah), from hostile Mecca to more receptive Medina in 622.

5 The Hegira from Mecca to Medina in 622,
copper engraving, 1844

The move was considered so important by the early Muslims that they used this date as the start of the Islamic calendar. In Medina, Muhammad created the basis for a strong society of believers, with political as well as religious cohesion.


The Religious Teachings of Islam

"There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is His Prophet." So states the Islamic declaration of faith, the shahadah. It contains Islam's two most important principles of faith: monotheism and the belief in the teachings and practices (Sunnih) of the Prophet, including the Koran as the instructions of God to mankind that were revealed directly to Muhammad. The Koran proclaims God as the creator of heaven and earth.

It demands 3 obedience to the almighty, omniscient, and merciful God and describes a final judgment in which all mankind must answer to God for their deeds.

3 "Ma sha'a Allah"—"It is God's will;"
Ottoman-era tile, 19th century

Heaven awaits the believers, hell the nonbelievers. These aspects are also shared by Judaism and Christianity.

The standards of behavior demanded of Islam's followers are derived from the Koran and the examples of the Prophet. They are set down in Islamic law, known as the sharia, which constitutes a comprehensive guide to the righteous life.

The most important regulations for the practice of the religion form the Five Pillars of Islam: the repetition of the shahadah, the five daily 7 prayers offered to God, the distribution of alms, fasting during the holy month of Ramadan, and a pilgrimage to 1 Mecca at least once in a lifetime.

7 Worshipers perform Friday prayers
on the street near to the Bazaar
in Istanbul, Turkey

1 Pilgrims in the Great Mosque of Mecca, colored engraving, ca. 1860


Shia and Sunni

The most significant division of Islam was ignited by the issue of who the successor to Muhammad would be. After his death in 632, one group believed that only his son-in-law Ali and Ali's descendents were rightful heirs (imams) to the Prophet. This faction is known as Shia and its adherents Shiites—from Shiat Ali ("Party of Ali")—and comprises about 10-15 percent of all Muslims today.

Shiites in turn are divided into various groups, according to the number of rightful 8 imams they recognize: There are the Fiver, Sevener, and Twelver Shiites.

Shia also differs from Sunni, the largest group in Islam, in diverging teachings and traditions. The martyrdom of al-Husayn, a grandson of Muhammad, in 680 is very significant to the Shiites.

8 The Golden Mosque Al-Kazimain in Baghdad,
a Shiite place of pilgrimage containing
the graves of two imams


Spread and Expansion of Power

While Islam has been spreading in the world as a result of migration since the end of the 19th century, the expansion of Islam in its early stages took place by military conquest. Within the first 80 years, the caliphs and their army commanders had opened up to Islam an area that reached from the Indus River in the east to Spain in the west. A caliph ruled over the entire great Islamic empire, while his governors ruled in the provinces. From the beginning, the system of rule was autocratic with divine authority invested in the ruler.

However they were bound by Islamic law and were often restricted in their authority by influential legal scholars (Ulema) and religious clerics. The first dynasty that reigned over a large Islamic empire was the Umayyads, followed by the Abbasids. Later phases of the expansion were carried out by the Turkic tribes and the Mongols of Central Asia. The last domain that combined major parts of the Islamic world, as well as other faiths, under its rule was the Ottoman Empire, which came to an end in 1923.

The political spread of Islam went with the Islamization of conquered countries, though seldom through forced conversions. Muslims and non-Muslims alike profited from political stability and a good infrastructure.


Pan-Arabism and Pan-Islamism

It was only in the 19th century that, under the influence of imperialism, nationalistic thought emerged in the Islamic world, out of which a secular pan-Arab consciousness developed. At first this new awareness was directed primarily against the Turkish Ottoman Empire and later against the European colonial powers.

The Pan-Arab movement, whose most important figure in the 1950s and 1960s was Egyptian president Gamal Abdel Nasser, is based on historical, cultural, and linguistic characteristics, not on religion. It ultimately failed, due to differing ideologies and political goals.

The goal of Pan-Islamism, on the other hand, was to foster a religiously motivated cooperation and solidarity. It had also been developing since the 19th century and strove to oppose nationalistic thinking through shared Islamic values.


Islamic States Today

By the end of the 19th century, the influence of Western politics as well as secular nationalism introduced by governments—such as that of Kemal Atattirk in Turkey—had already led to irreversible shifts in Islamic society, including changes in customs, Western clothing, and even the suppression of religion in daily life. A modern implementation of the Islamic principle of unity in religion and politics has succeeded in only a few nations.

One can only speak of "Islamic states" in a few cases. Although the Islamic Republic of Iran was created by a popular revolution of the faithful the civil society is complex. Secular lifestyles in large cities coexist with traditional Islam, although the highest state authority remains the religious committee of the guardian council. The country in which the legal system and public life are probably most determined by the sharia is Saudi Arabia.

Most of the nations with Islamic populations have secular—but only in rare instances democratic—governments that profess a separation of religion and state.

Islamic 6 fundamentalism can be judged to be a counter-movement to this secularization of politics as well as to living conditions that often benefit only a privileged minority.

A 9 revival of Islam has been noticeable since the 1960s.

Often, however, it is social conflicts and frustration with stifling and corrupt dictatorships that preside over closed economies and high unemployment that encourage the spread of radical and fundamentalist approaches to Islam.

6 Street demonstrators
brandishing a poster calling
for Jihad ("Holy War")

9 Muslim woman wearing the chador,
an outer garment that covers the body,
worn by the devout in parts of Iran.


Mecca, the holiest city in Islam




Encyclopaedia Britannica

major world religion belonging to the Semitic family; it was promulgated by the Prophet Muḥammad in Arabia in the 7th century ad. The Arabic term islām, literally “surrender,” illuminates the fundamental religious idea of Islām—that the believer (called a Muslim, from the active particle of islām) accepts “surrender to the will of Allāh (Arabic: God).” Allāh is viewed as the sole God—creator, sustainer, and restorer of the world. The will of Allāh, to which man must submit, is made known through the sacred scriptures, the Qurʾān (Koran), which Allāh revealed to his messenger, Muḥammad. In Islām Muḥammad is considered the last of a series of prophets (including Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, Jesus, and others), and his message simultaneously consummates and completes the “revelations” attributed to earlier prophets.

Retaining its emphasis on an uncompromising monotheism and a strict adherence to certain essential religious practices, the religion taught by Muḥammad to a small group of followers spread rapidly through the Middle East to Africa, Europe, the Indian subcontinent, the Malay Peninsula, and China. Although many sectarian movements have arisen within Islām, all Muslims are bound by a common faith and a sense of belonging to a single community.

This article deals with the fundamental beliefs and practices of Islām and with the connection of religion and society in the Islāmic world. The history of the various peoples who embraced Islām is covered in the article Islāmic world.

The foundations of Islām » The legacy of Muḥammad
From the very beginning of Islām, Muḥammad had inculcated a sense of brotherhood and a bond of faith among his followers, both of which helped to develop among them a feeling of close relationship that was accentuated by their experiences of persecution as a nascent community in Mecca. The strong attachment to the tenets of the Qurʾānic revelation and the conspicuous socioeconomic content of Islāmic religious practices cemented this bond of faith. In ad 622, when the Prophet migrated to Medina, his preaching was soon accepted, and the community-state of Islām emerged. During this early period, Islām acquired its characteristic ethos as a religion uniting in itself both the spiritual and temporal aspects of life and seeking to regulate not only the individual’s relationship to God (through his conscience) but human relationships in a social setting as well. Thus, there is not only an Islāmic religious institution but also an Islāmic law, state, and other institutions governing society. Not until the 20th century were the religious (private) and the secular (public) distinguished by some Muslim thinkers and separated formally in certain places such as Turkey.

This dual religious and social character of Islām, expressing itself in one way as a religious community commissioned by God to bring its own value system to the world through the jihād (“exertion,” commonly translated as “holy war” or “holy struggle”), explains the astonishing success of the early generations of Muslims. Within a century after the Prophet’s death in ad 632, they had brought a large part of the globe—from Spain across Central Asia to India—under a new Arab Muslim empire.

The period of Islāmic conquests and empire building marks the first phase of the expansion of Islām as a religion. Islām’s essential egalitarianism within the community of the faithful and its official discrimination against the followers of other religions won rapid converts. Jews and Christians were assigned a special status as communities possessing scriptures and were called the “people of the Book” (ahl al-kitāb) and, therefore, were allowed religious autonomy. They were, however, required to pay a per capita tax called jizyah, as opposed to pagans, who were required to either accept Islām or die. The same status of the “people of the Book” was later extended to Zoroastrians and Hindus, but many “people of the Book” joined Islām in order to escape the disability of the jizyah. A much more massive expansion of Islām after the 12th century was inaugurated by the Ṣūfīs (Muslim mystics), who were mainly responsible for the spread of Islām in India, Central Asia, Turkey, and sub-Saharan Africa (see below).

Besides the jihād and Ṣūfī missionary activity, another factor in the spread of Islām was the far-ranging influence of Muslim traders, who not only introduced Islām quite early to the Indian east coast and South India but also proved to be the main catalytic agents (besides the Ṣūfīs) in converting people to Islām in Indonesia, Malaya, and China. Islām was introduced to Indonesia in the 14th century, hardly having time to consolidate itself there politically before coming under Dutch colonial domination.

The vast variety of races and cultures embraced by Islām (estimated total 1.1 to 1.2 billion persons worldwide) has produced important internal differences. All segments of Muslim society, however, are bound by a common faith and a sense of belonging to a single community. With the loss of political power during the period of Western colonialism in the 19th and 20th centuries, the concept of the Islāmic community (ummah), instead of weakening, became stronger. The faith of Islām helped various Muslim peoples in their struggle to gain political freedom in the mid-20th century, and the unity of Islām contributed to later political solidarity.

The foundations of Islām » Sources of Islāmic doctrinal and social views
Islāmic doctrine, law, and thinking in general are based upon four sources, or fundamental principles (uṣūl): (1) the Qurʾān, (2) the sunnah (“traditions”), (3) ijmāʿ (“consensus”), and (4) ijtihād (“individual thought”).

The Qurʾān (literally, “Reading” or “Recitation”) is regarded as the verbatim word, or speech, of God delivered to Muḥammad by the angel Gabriel. Divided into 114 sūrahs (chapters) of unequal length, it is the fundamental source of Islāmic teaching. The sūrahs revealed at Mecca during the earliest part of Muḥammad’s career are concerned mostly with ethical and spiritual teachings and the Day of Judgment. The sūrahs revealed at Medina at a later period in the career of the Prophet are concerned for the most part with social legislation and the politico-moral principles for constituting and ordering the community. Sunnah (“a well-trodden path”) was used by pre-Islāmic Arabs to denote their tribal or common law; in Islām it came to mean the example of the Prophet—i.e., his words and deeds as recorded in compilations known as Ḥadīth.

Ḥadīth (literally, “Report”; a collection of sayings attributed to the Prophet) provide the written documentation of the Prophet’s words and deeds. Six of these collections, compiled in the 3rd century ah (9th century ad), came to be regarded as especially authoritative by the largest group in Islām, the Sunnites. Another large group, the Shīʾah, has its own Ḥadīth contained in four canonical collections.

The doctrine of ijmāʿ, or consensus, was introduced in the 2nd century ah (8th century ad) in order to standardize legal theory and practice and to overcome individual and regional differences of opinion. Though conceived as a “consensus of scholars,” ijmāʿ was in actual practice a more fundamental operative factor. From the 3rd century ah ijmāʿ has amounted to a principle of stability in thinking; points on which consensus was reached in practice were considered closed and further substantial questioning of them prohibited. Accepted interpretations of the Qurʾān and the actual content of the sunnah (i.e., Ḥadīth and theology) all rest finally on the ijmāʿ in the sense of the acceptance of the authority of their community.

Ijtihād, meaning “to endeavour” or “to exert effort,” was required to find the legal or doctrinal solution to a new problem. In the early period of Islām, because ijtihād took the form of individual opinion (raʾy), there was a wealth of conflicting and chaotic opinions. In the 2nd century ah ijtihād was replaced by qiyās (reasoning by strict analogy), a formal procedure of deduction based on the texts of the Qurʾān and the Ḥadīth. The transformation of ijmāʿ into a conservative mechanism and the acceptance of a definitive body of Ḥadīth virtually closed the “gate of ijtihād” in Sunni Islam while ijtihād continued in Shiʿism. Nevertheless, certain outstanding Muslim thinkers (e.g., al-Ghazālī in the 11th–12th century) continued to claim the right of new ijtihād for themselves, and reformers in the 18th to 20th centuries, because of modern influences, have caused this principle once more to receive wider acceptance.

The Qurʾān and Ḥadīth are discussed below. The significance of ijmāʿ and ijtihād are discussed below in the contexts of Islāmic theology, philosophy, and law.

The foundations of Islām » Doctrines of the Qurʾān » God
The doctrine about God in the Qurʾān is rigorously monotheistic: God is one and unique; he has no partner and no equal. Trinitarianism, the Christian belief that God is three persons in one substance, is vigorously repudiated. Muslims believe that there are no intermediaries between God and the creation that he brought into being by his sheer command: “Be.” Although his presence is believed to be everywhere, he is not incarnated in anything. He is the sole creator and sustainer of the universe, wherein every creature bears witness to his unity and lordship. But he is also just and merciful: his justice ensures order in his creation, in which nothing is believed to be out of place, and his mercy is unbounded and encompasses everything. His creating and ordering the universe is viewed as the act of prime mercy for which all things sing his glories. The God of the Qurʾān, described as majestic and sovereign, is also a personal God; he is viewed as being nearer to man than man’s jugular vein, and, whenever a person in need or distress calls him, he responds. Above all, he is the God of guidance and shows everything, particularly man, the right way, “the straight path.”

This picture of God—wherein the attributes of power, justice, and mercy interpenetrate—is related to the Judeo-Christian tradition and also differs radically from the concepts of pagan Arabia, to which it provided an effective answer. The pagan Arabs believed in a blind and inexorable fate over which man had no control. For this powerful but insensible fate the Qurʾān substituted a powerful but provident and merciful God. The Qurʾān carried through its uncompromising monotheism by rejecting all forms of idolatry and eliminating all gods and divinities that the Arabs worshipped in their sanctuaries (ḥarams), the most prominent of which was the Kaʿbah sanctuary in Mecca itself.

The foundations of Islām » Doctrines of the Qurʾān » The universe
In order to prove the unity of God, the Qurʾān lays frequent stress on the design and order in the universe. There are no gaps or dislocations in nature. Order is explained by the fact that every created thing is endowed with a definite and defined nature whereby it falls into a pattern. This nature, though it allows every created thing to function in a whole, sets limits; and this idea of the limitedness of everything is one of the most fixed points in both the cosmology and theology of the Qurʾān. The universe is viewed, therefore, as autonomous, in the sense that everything has its own inherent laws of behaviour, but not as autocratic, because the patterns of behaviour have been endowed by God and are strictly limited. “Everything has been created by us according to a measure.” Though every creature is thus limited and “measured out” and hence depends upon God, God alone, who reigns unchallenged in the heavens and the earth, is unlimited, independent, and self-sufficient.

The foundations of Islām » Doctrines of the Qurʾān » Man
According to the Qurʾān, God created two apparently parallel species of creatures, man and jinn, the one from clay and the other from fire. About the jinn, however, the Qurʾān says little, although it is implied that the jinn are endowed with reason and responsibility but are more prone to evil than man. It is with man that the Qurʾān, which describes itself as a guide for the human race, is centrally concerned. The Judeo-Christian story of the Fall of Adam (the first man) is accepted, but the Qurʾān states that God forgave Adam his act of disobedience, which is not viewed in the Qurʾān as original sin in the Christian sense of the term.

In the story of man’s creation, the angel Iblīs, or Satan, who protested to God against the creation of man, who “would sow mischief on earth,” lost in the competition of knowledge against Adam. The Qurʾān, therefore, declares man to be the noblest of all creation, the created being who bore the trust (of responsibility) that the rest of creation refused to accept. The Qurʾān thus reiterates that all nature has been made subservient to man seen as God’s vice-regent on earth: nothing in all creation has been made without a purpose, and man himself has not been created “in sport,” his purpose being service and obedience to God’s will.

Despite this lofty station, however, the Qurʾān describes human nature as frail and faltering. Whereas everything in the universe has a limited nature and every creature recognizes its limitation and insufficiency, man is viewed as having been given freedom and is therefore prone to rebelliousness and pride, with the tendency to arrogate to himself the attributes of self-sufficiency. Pride, thus, is viewed as the cardinal sin of man, because, by not recognizing in himself his essential creaturely limitations, he becomes guilty of ascribing to himself partnership with God (shirk: associating a creature with the Creator) and of violating the unity of God. True faith (īmān), thus, consists of belief in the immaculate Divine Unity and Islām in one’s submission to the Divine Will.

The foundations of Islām » Doctrines of the Qurʾān » Satan, sin, and repentance
In order to communicate the truth of Divine Unity, God has sent messengers or prophets to men, whose weakness of nature makes them ever prone to forget or even willfully to reject Divine Unity under the promptings of Satan. According to the Qurʾānic teaching, the being who became Satan (Shayṭān or Iblīs) had previously occupied a high station but fell from divine grace by his act of disobedience in refusing to honour Adam when he, along with other angels, was ordered to do so. Since then his work has been to beguile man into error and sin. Satan is, therefore, the contemporary of man, and Satan’s own act of disobedience is construed by the Qurʾān as the sin of pride. Satan’s machinations will cease only on the Last Day.

Judging from the accounts of the Qurʾān, the record of man’s accepting the prophets’ messages has been far from perfect. The whole universe is replete with signs of God. The human soul itself is viewed as a witness of the unity and grace of God. The messengers of God have, throughout history, been calling man back to God. Yet not all men have accepted the truth; many of them have rejected it and become disbelievers (kāfir, plural kuffār: literally “concealing”—i.e., the blessings of God), and, when man becomes so obdurate, his heart is sealed by God. Nevertheless, it is always possible for a sinner to repent (tawbah) and redeem himself by a genuine conversion to the truth. There is no point of no return, and God is forever merciful and always willing and ready to pardon. Genuine repentance has the effect of removing all sins and restoring a person to the state of sinlessness with which he started his life.

The foundations of Islām » Doctrines of the Qurʾān » Prophecy
Prophets are men specially elected by God to be his messengers. Prophethood is indivisible, and the Qurʾān requires recognition of all prophets as such without discrimination. Yet they are not all equal, some of them being particularly outstanding in qualities of steadfastness and patience under trial. Abraham, Noah, Moses, and Jesus were such great prophets. As vindication of the truth of their mission, God often vests them with miracles: Abraham was saved from fire, Noah from the Deluge, and Moses from the pharaoh. Not only was Jesus born from the Virgin Mary, but God also saved him from crucifixion at the hands of the Jews. The conviction that God’s messengers are ultimately vindicated and saved is an integral part of the Qurʾānic doctrine.

All prophets are human and never part of divinity: they are the most perfect of humans who are recipients of revelation from God. When God wishes to speak to a human, he sends an angel messenger to him or makes him hear a voice or inspires him. Muḥammad is accepted as the last prophet in this series and its greatest member, for in him all the messages of earlier prophets were consummated. The angel Gabriel brought the Qurʾān down to the Prophet’s “heart.” Gabriel is represented by the Qurʾān as a spirit whom the Prophet could sometimes see and hear. According to early traditions, the Prophet’s revelations occurred in a state of trance when his normal consciousness was transformed. This state was accompanied by heavy sweating. The Qurʾān itself makes it clear that the revelations brought with them a sense of extraordinary weight: “If we were to send this Qurʾān down on a mountain, you would see it split asunder out of fear of God.”

This phenomenon at the same time was accompanied by an unshakable conviction that the message was from God, and the Qurʾān describes itself as the transcript of a heavenly “Mother Book” written on a “Preserved Tablet.” The conviction was of such an intensity that the Qurʾān categorically denies that it is from any earthly source, for in that case it would be liable to “manifold doubts and oscillations.”

The foundations of Islām » Doctrines of the Qurʾān » Eschatology
In Islāmic doctrine, on the Last Day, when the world will come to an end, the dead will be resurrected and a judgment will be pronounced on every person in accordance with his deeds. Although the Qurʾān in the main speaks of a personal judgment, there are several verses that speak of the resurrection of distinct communities that will be judged according to “their own book.” In conformity with this, the Qurʾān also speaks in several passages of the “death of communities,” each one of which has a definite term of life. The actual evaluation, however, will be for every individual, whatever the terms of reference of his performance. In order to prove that the resurrection will occur, the Qurʾān uses a moral and a physical argument. Because not all requital is meted out in this life, a final judgment is necessary to bring it to completion. Physically, God, who is all-powerful, has the ability to destroy and bring back to life all creatures, who are limited and are, therefore, subject to God’s limitless power.

Some Islāmic schools deny the possibility of human intercession but most accept it, and in any case God himself, in his mercy, may forgive certain sinners. Those condemned will burn in hellfire, and those who are saved will enjoy the abiding joys of paradise. Hell and heaven are both spiritual and corporeal. Besides suffering in physical fire, the damned will also experience fire “in their hearts”; similarly, the blessed, besides corporeal enjoyment, will experience the greatest happiness of divine pleasure.

The foundations of Islām » Doctrines of the Qurʾān » Social service
Because the purpose of the existence of man, as of every other creature, is submission to the Divine Will, God’s role in relation to man is that of the commander. Whereas the rest of nature obeys God automatically, man alone possesses the choice to obey or disobey. With the deep-seated belief in Satan’s existence, man’s fundamental role becomes one of moral struggle, which constitutes the essence of human endeavour. Recognition of the unity of God does not simply rest in the intellect but entails consequences in terms of the moral struggle, which consists primarily in freeing oneself of narrowness of mind and smallness of heart. One must go out of oneself and expend one’s possessions for the sake of others.

The doctrine of social service, in terms of alleviating suffering and helping the needy, constitutes an integral part of Islāmic teaching. Praying to God and other religious acts are deemed to be incomplete in the absence of active service to the needy. In regard to this matter, the Qurʾānic criticisms of human nature become very sharp: “Man is by nature timid; when evil befalls him, he panics, but when good things come to him he prevents them from reaching others.” It is Satan who whispers into man’s ears that by spending for others he will become poor. God, on the contrary, promises prosperity in exchange for such expenditure, which constitutes a credit with God and grows much more than the money people invest in usury. Hoarding of wealth without recognizing the rights of the poor is threatened with the direst punishment in the hereafter and is declared to be one of the main causes of the decay of societies in this world. The practice of usury is forbidden.

With this socioeconomic doctrine cementing the bond of faith, there emerges the idea of a closely knit community of the faithful who are declared to be “brothers unto each other.” Muslims are described as “the middle community bearing witness on mankind,” “the best community produced for mankind,” whose function it is “to enjoin good and forbid evil” (Qurʾān). Cooperation and “good advice” within the community are emphasized, and a person who deliberately tries to harm the interests of the community is to be given exemplary punishment. Opponents from within the community are to be fought and reduced with armed force, if issues cannot be settled by persuasion and arbitration.

Because the mission of the community is to “enjoin good and forbid evil” so that “there is no mischief and corruption” on earth, the doctrine of jihād is the logical outcome. For the early community it was a basic religious concept. The lesser jihād, or holy striving, means an active struggle using armed force whenever necessary. The object of jihād is not the conversion of individuals to Islām but rather the gaining of political control over the collective affairs of societies to run them in accordance with the principles of Islām. Individual conversions occur as a by-product of this process when the power structure passes into the hands of the Muslim community. In fact, according to strict Muslim doctrine, conversions “by force” are forbidden, because after the revelation of the Qurʾān “good and evil have become distinct,” so that one may follow whichever one may prefer (Qurʾān), and it is also strictly prohibited to wage wars for the sake of acquiring worldly glory, power, and rule. With the establishment of the Muslim empire, however, the doctrine of the lesser jihād was modified by the leaders of the community. Their main concern had become the consolidation of the empire and its administration, and thus they interpreted the teaching in a defensive rather than in an expansive sense. The Khārijite sect, which held that “decision belongs to God alone,” insisted on continuous and relentless jihād, but its followers were virtually destroyed during the internecine wars in the 8th century.

Besides a measure of economic justice and the creation of a strong idea of community, the Prophet Muḥammad effected a general reform of Arab society, in particular protecting its weaker segments—the poor, the orphans, women, and slaves. Slavery was not legally abolished, but emancipation of slaves was religiously encouraged as an act of merit. Slaves were given legal rights, including the right of acquiring their freedom in return for payment, in installments, of a sum agreed upon by the slave and his master out of his earnings. A slave woman who bore a child by her master became automatically free after her master’s death. The infanticide of girls that was practiced among certain tribes in pre-Islāmic Arabia—out of fear of poverty or a sense of shame—was forbidden.

Distinction and privileges based on tribal rank or race were repudiated in the Qurʾān and in the celebrated “Farewell Pilgrimage Address” of the Prophet shortly before his death. All men are therein declared to be “equal children of Adam,” and the only distinction recognized in the sight of God is to be based on piety and good acts. The age-old Arab institution of intertribal revenge (called thaʾr)—whereby it was not necessarily the killer who was executed but a person equal in rank to the slain person—was abolished. The pre-Islāmic ethical ideal of manliness was modified and replaced by a more humane ideal of moral virtue and piety.

The foundations of Islām » Fundamental practices and institutions of Islām » The five pillars
During the earliest decades after the death of the Prophet, certain basic features of the religio-social organization of Islām were singled out to serve as anchoring points of the community’s life and formulated as the “Pillars of Islām.” To these five, the Khawārij sect added a sixth pillar, the jihād, which, however, was not accepted by the general community.

The foundations of Islām » Fundamental practices and institutions of Islām » The five pillars » The shahādah, or profession of faith
The first pillar is the profession of faith: “There is no deity but God, and Muḥammad is the messenger of God,” upon which depends membership in the community. The profession of faith must be recited at least once in one’s lifetime, aloud, correctly, and purposively, with an understanding of its meaning and with an assent from the heart. From this fundamental belief are derived beliefs in (1) angels (particularly Gabriel, the Angel of Revelation), (2) the revealed Books (the Qurʾān and the sacred books of Judaism and Christianity), (3) a series of prophets (among whom figures of the Judeo-Christian tradition are particularly eminent, although it is believed that God has sent messengers to every nation), and (4) the Last Day (Day of Judgment).

The foundations of Islām » Fundamental practices and institutions of Islām » The five pillars » Prayer
The second pillar consists of five daily canonical prayers. These prayers may be offered individually if one is unable to go to the mosque. The first prayer is performed before sunrise, the second just after noon, the third in the late afternoon, the fourth immediately after sunset, and the fifth before retiring to bed.

Before a prayer, ablutions, including the washing of hands, face, and feet, are performed. The muezzin (one who gives the call for prayer) chants aloud from a raised place (such as a tower) in the mosque. When prayer starts, the imām, or leader (of the prayer), stands in the front facing in the direction of Mecca, and the congregation stands behind him in rows, following him in various postures. Each prayer consists of two to four genuflection units (rakʿah); each unit consists of a standing posture (during which verses from the Qurʾān are recited—in certain prayers aloud, in others silently), as well as a genuflection and two prostrations. At every change in posture, “God is great” is recited. Tradition has fixed the materials to be recited in each posture.

Special congregational prayers are offered on Friday instead of the prayer just after noon. The Friday service consists of a sermon (khuṭbah), which partly consists of preaching in the local language and partly of recitation of certain formulas in Arabic. In the sermon, the preacher usually recites one or several verses of the Qurʾān and builds his address on it, which can have a moral, social, or political content. Friday sermons usually have considerable impact on public opinion regarding both moral and sociopolitical questions.

Although not ordained as an obligatory duty, nocturnal prayers (called tahajjud) are encouraged, particularly during the latter half of the night. During the month of Ramaḍān (see below Fasting), lengthy prayers, called tarāwīḥ, are offered congregationally before retiring.

In strict doctrine, the five daily prayers cannot be waived even for the sick, who may pray in bed and, if necessary, lying down. When on a journey, the two afternoon prayers may be followed one by the other; the sunset and late evening prayers may be combined as well. In practice, however, much laxity has occurred, particularly among the modernized classes, although Friday prayers are still very well attended.

The foundations of Islām » Fundamental practices and institutions of Islām » The five pillars » The zakāt
The third pillar is the obligatory tax called zakāt (“purification,” indicating that such a payment makes the rest of one’s wealth religiously and legally pure). This is the only permanent tax levied by the Qurʾān and is payable annually on food grains, cattle, and cash after one year’s possession. The amount varies for different categories. Thus, on grains and fruits it is 10 percent if land is watered by rain, 5 percent if land is watered artificially. On cash and precious metals it is 21/2 percent. Zakāt is collectable by the state and is to be used primarily for the poor, but the Qurʾān mentions other purposes: ransoming Muslim war captives, redeeming chronic debts, paying tax collectors’ fees, jihād (and by extension, according to Qurʾān commentators, education and health), and creating facilities for travellers.

After the breakup of Muslim religio-political power, payment of zakāt became a matter of voluntary charity dependent on individual conscience. In the modern Muslim world it has been left up to the individual, except in some countries (such as Saudi Arabia) where the Sharīʿah (Islāmic law) is strictly maintained.

The foundations of Islām » Fundamental practices and institutions of Islām » The five pillars » Fasting
Fasting during the month of Ramaḍān (ninth month of the Muslim lunar calendar), laid down in the Qurʾān (2:183–185), is the fourth pillar of the faith. Fasting begins at daybreak and ends at sunset, and during the day eating, drinking, and smoking are forbidden. The Qurʾān (2:185) states that it was in the month of Ramaḍān that the Qurʾān was revealed. Another verse of the Qurʾān (97:1) states that it was revealed “on the Night of Power,” which Muslims generally observe on the night of 26–27 Ramaḍān. For a person who is sick or on a journey, fasting may be postponed until “another equal number of days.” The elderly and the incurably sick are exempted through the daily feeding of one poor person if they have the means.

The foundations of Islām » Fundamental practices and institutions of Islām » The five pillars » The ḥajj
The fifth pillar is the annual pilgrimage (ḥajj) to Mecca prescribed for every Muslim once in a lifetime—“provided one can afford it” and provided a person has enough provisions to leave for his family in his absence. A special service is held in the Sacred Mosque on the 7th of the month of Dhū al-Ḥijjah (last in the Muslim year). Pilgrimage activities begin by the 8th and conclude on the 12th or 13th. All worshippers enter the state of iḥrām; they wear two seamless garments and avoid sexual intercourse, the cutting of hair and nails, and certain other activities. Pilgrims from outside Mecca assume iḥrām at specified points en route to the city. The principal activities consist of walking seven times around the Kaʿbah, a shrine within the mosque; the kissing and touching of the Black Stone (Ḥajar al-Aswad); and the ascent of and running between Mount Ṣafā and Mount Marwah (which are now, however, mere elevations) seven times. At the second stage of the ritual, the pilgrim proceeds from Mecca to Minā, a few miles away; from there he goes to ʿArafāt, where it is essential to hear a sermon and to spend one afternoon. The last rites consist of spending the night at Muzdalifah (between ʿArafāt and Minā) and offering sacrifice on the last day of iḥrām, which is the ʿīd (“festival”) of sacrifice.

Many countries have imposed restrictions on the number of outgoing pilgrims because of foreign-exchange difficulties. Because of the improvement of communications, however, the total number of visitors has greatly increased in recent years. By the early 1990s the number of visitors was estimated to be about two million, approximately half of them from non-Arab countries. All Muslim countries send official delegations on the occasion, which is being increasingly used for religio-political congresses. At other times in the year, it is considered meritorious to perform the lesser pilgrimage (ʿumrah), which is not, however, a substitute for the ḥajj pilgrimage.

The foundations of Islām » Fundamental practices and institutions of Islām » Sacred places and days
The most sacred place for Muslims is the Kaʿbah sanctuary at Mecca, the object of the annual pilgrimage. It is much more than a mosque; it is believed to be the place where the heavenly bliss and power touches the earth directly. According to Muslim tradition, the Kaʿbah was built by Abraham. The Prophet’s mosque in Medina is the next in sanctity. Jerusalem follows in third place in sanctity as the first qiblah (i.e., direction in which the Muslims offered prayers at first, before the qiblah was changed to the Kaʿbah) and as the place from where Muḥammad, according to tradition, made his ascent (miʿrāj) to heaven. For the Shīʿah, Karbalāʾ in Iraq (the place of martyrdom of ʿAlī’s son, Ḥusayn) and Meshed in Iran (where Imām ʿAlī ar-Riḍā is buried) constitute places of special veneration where the Shīʿah make pilgrimages.

The foundations of Islām » Fundamental practices and institutions of Islām » Sacred places and days » Shrines of Ṣūfī saints
For the Muslim masses in general, shrines of Ṣūfī saints are particular objects of reverence and even veneration. In Baghdad the tomb of the greatest saint of all, ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī, is visited every year by large numbers of pilgrims from all over the Muslim world.

By the late 20th century, the Ṣūfī shrines, which were managed privately in earlier periods, were almost entirely owned by governments and were managed by departments of awqāf (plural of waqf, a religious endowment). The official appointed to care for a shrine is usually called a mutawallī. In Turkey, where such endowments formerly constituted a very considerable portion of the national wealth, all endowments were confiscated by the regime of Atatürk (president 1928–38).

The foundations of Islām » Fundamental practices and institutions of Islām » Sacred places and days » The mosque
The general religious life of Muslims is centred around the mosque. In the days of the Prophet and early caliphs, the mosque was the centre of all community life, and it remains so in many parts of the Islāmic world to this day. Small mosques are usually supervised by the imām (one who administers the prayer service) himself, although sometimes also a muezzin is appointed. In larger mosques, where Friday prayers are offered, a khaṭīb (one who gives the khuṭbah, or sermon) is appointed for Friday service. Many large mosques also function as religious schools and colleges. In the early 21st century, mosque officials were appointed by the government in most countries. In some countries—e.g., Pakistan—most mosques are private and are run by the local community, although increasingly some of the larger ones have been taken over by the government departments of awqāf.

The foundations of Islām » Fundamental practices and institutions of Islām » Sacred places and days » Holy days
The Muslim calendar (based on the lunar year) dates from the emigration (hijrah) of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina in ad 622. The two festive days in the year are the ʿīds, ʿĪd al-Fiṭr celebrating the end of the month of Ramaḍān and ʿĪd al-Aḍḥā (the feast of sacrifice) marking the end of the pilgrimage. Because of the crowds, ʿīd prayers are offered either in very large mosques or on specially consecrated grounds. Other sacred times include the “Night of Power” (believed to be the night in which God makes decisions about the destiny of individuals and the world as a whole) and the night of the ascension of the Prophet to heaven. The Shīʿah celebrate the 10th of Muḥarram (the first month of the Muslim year) to mark the day of the martyrdom of Ḥusayn. The Muslim masses also celebrate the death anniversaries of various saints in a ceremony called ʿurs (literally, “nuptial ceremony”). The saints, far from dying, are believed to reach the zenith of their spiritual life on this occasion.

Fazlur Rahman

Islāmic thought
Islāmic theology (kalām) and philosophy (falsafah) are two traditions of learning developed by Muslim thinkers who were engaged, on the one hand, in the rational clarification and defense of the principles of the Islāmic religion (mutakallimūn) and, on the other, in the pursuit of the ancient (Greek and Hellenistic, or Greco-Roman) sciences (falāsifah). These thinkers took a position that was intermediate between the traditionalists, who remained attached to the literal expressions of the primary sources of Islāmic doctrines (the Qurʾān, or the Islāmic scripture, and the Ḥadīth, or the sayings and traditions of Muḥammad) and who abhorred reasoning, and those whose reasoning led them to abandon the Islāmic community (the ummah) altogether. The status of the believer in Islām remained in practice a juridical question, not a matter for theologians or philosophers to decide. Except in regard to the fundamental questions of the existence of God, Islāmic revelation, and future reward and punishment, the juridical conditions for declaring someone an unbeliever or beyond the pale of Islām were so demanding as to make it almost impossible to make a valid declaration of this sort about a professing Muslim. In the course of events in Islāmic history, representatives of certain theological movements, who happened to be jurists and who succeeded in converting rulers to their cause, made those rulers declare in favour of their movements and even encouraged them to persecute their opponents. Thus there arose in some localities and periods a semblance of an official, or orthodox, doctrine.

Islāmic thought » Origins, nature, and significance of Islāmic theology » Early developments
The beginnings of theology in the Islāmic tradition in the second half of the 7th century are not easily distinguishable from the beginnings of a number of other disciplines—Arabic philology, Qurʾānic interpretation, the collection of the sayings and deeds of the prophet Muḥammad (Ḥadīth), jurisprudence, and historiography. Together with these other disciplines, Islāmic theology is concerned with ascertaining the facts and context of the Islāmic revelation and with understanding its meaning and implications as to what Muslims should believe and do after the revelation had ceased and the Islāmic community had to chart its own way. During the first half of the 8th century, a number of questions—which centred on God’s unity, justice, and other attributes and which were relevant to man’s freedom, actions, and fate in the hereafter—formed the core of a more specialized discipline, which was called kalām (“speech”). This term (kalām) was used to designate the more specialized discipline because of the rhetorical and dialectical “speech” used in formulating the principal matters of Islāmic belief, debating them, and defending them against Muslim and non-Muslim opponents. Gradually, kalām came to include all matters directly or indirectly relevant to the establishment and definition of religious beliefs, and it developed its own necessary or useful systematic rational arguments about human knowledge and the makeup of the world. Despite various efforts by later thinkers to fuse the problems of kalām with those of philosophy (and mysticism), theology preserved its relative independence from philosophy and other nonreligious sciences. It remained true to its original traditional and religious point of view, confined itself within the limits of the Islāmic revelation, and assumed that these limits as it understood them were identical with the limits of truth.

Islāmic thought » Origins, nature, and significance of Islāmic theology » The Hellenistic legacy
The pre-Islāmic and non-Islāmic legacy with which early Islāmic theology came into contact included almost all the religious thought that had survived and was being defended or disputed in Egypt, Syria, Iran, and India. It was transmitted by learned representatives of various Christian, Jewish, Manichaean (members of a dualistic religion founded by Mani, an Iranian prophet, in the 3rd century), Zoroastrian (members of a monotheistic, but later dualistic, religion founded by Zoroaster, a 7th-century-bc Iranian prophet), Indian (Hindu and Buddhist, primarily), and Ṣābian (star worshippers of Harran often confused with the Mandaeans) communities and by early converts to Islām conversant with the teachings, sacred writings, and doctrinal history of the religions of these areas. At first, access to this legacy was primarily through conversations and disputations with such men, rather than through full and accurate translations of sacred texts or theological and philosophic writings, although some translations from Pahlavi (a Middle Persian dialect), Syriac, and Greek must also have been available.

The characteristic approach of early Islāmic theology to non-Muslim literature was through oral disputations, the starting points of which were the statements presented or defended (orally) by the opponents. Oral disputation continued to be used in theology for centuries, and most theological writings reproduce or imitate that form. From such oral and written disputations, writers on religions and sects collected much of their information about non-Muslim sects. Much of Hellenistic (post-3rd century bc Greek cultural), Iranian, and Indian religious thought was thus encountered in an informal and indirect manner.

From the 9th century onward, theologians had access to an increasingly larger body of translated texts, but by then they had taken most of their basic positions. They made a selective use of the translation literature, ignoring most of what was not useful to them until the mystical theologian al-Ghazālī (flourished 11th–12th centuries) showed them the way to study it, distinguish between the harmless and harmful doctrines contained in it, and refute the latter. By this time Islāmic theology had coined a vast number of technical terms, and theologians (e.g., al-Jāḥiẓ) had forged Arabic into a versatile language of science; Arabic philology had matured; and the religious sciences (jurisprudence, the study of the Qurʾān, Ḥadīth, criticism, and history) had developed complex techniques of textual study and interpretation. The 9th-century translators availed themselves of these advances to meet the needs of patrons. Apart from demands for medical and mathematical works, the translation of Greek learning was fostered by the early ʿAbbāsid caliphs (8th–9th centuries) and their viziers as additional weapons (the primary weapon was theology itself) against the threat of Manichaeanism and other subversive ideas that went under the name zandaqah (“heresy” or “atheism”).

Muhsin S. Mahdi

Islāmic thought » Theology and sectarianism
Despite the notion of a unified and consolidated community, as taught by the Prophet, serious differences arose within the Muslim community immediately after his death. According to the Sunnah, or traditionalist faction—who now constitute the majority of Islām—the Prophet had designated no successor. Thus the Muslims at Medina decided to elect a separate chief. Because he would not have been accepted by the Quraysh, the ummah, or Muslim community, would have disintegrated. Therefore, two of Muḥammad’s fathers-in-law, who were highly respected early converts as well as trusted lieutenants, prevailed upon the Medinans to elect a single leader, and the choice fell upon Abū Bakr, father of the Prophet’s favoured wife, ʿĀʾishah. All of this occurred before the Prophet’s burial (under the floor of ʿĀʾishah’s hut, alongside the courtyard of the mosque).

According to the Shīʿah, or “Partisans” of ʿAlī, the Prophet had designated as his successor his son-in-law ʿAlī ibn Abī Ṭālib, husband of his daughter Fāṭimah and father of his only surviving grandsons, Ḥasan and Ḥusayn. His preference was general knowledge; yet, while ʿAlī and the Prophet’s closest kinsmen were preparing the body for burial, Abū Bakr, ʿUmar, and Abū ʿUbaydah from Muḥammad’s Companions in the Quraysh tribe, met with the leaders of the Medinans and agreed to elect the aging Abū Bakr as the successor (khalīfah, hence “caliph”) of the Prophet. ʿAlī and his kinsmen were dismayed but agreed for the sake of unity to accept the fait accompli because ʿAlī was still young

After the murder of ʿUthmān, the third caliph, ʿAlī was invited by the Muslims at Medina to accept the caliphate. Thus ʿAli became the fourth caliph (656–661), but the disagreement over his right of succession brought about a major schism in Islām, between the Shīʿah, or “legitimists”—those loyal to ʿAlī—and the Sunnah, or “traditionalists.” Athough their differences were in the first instance political, arising out of the question of leadership, theological differences developed over time.

Islāmic thought » Theology and sectarianism » The Khawārij
During the reign of the third caliph, ʿUthmān, certain rebellious groups accused the Caliph of nepotism and misrule, and the resulting discontent led to his assassination. The rebels then recognized the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law, ʿAlī, as ruler but later deserted him and fought against him, accusing him of having committed a grave sin in submitting his claim to the caliphate to arbitration. The word khāraju, from which khārijī is derived, means “to withdraw” and Khawārij were, therefore, seceders who believed in active dissent or rebellion against a state of affairs they considered to be gravely impious.

The basic doctrine of the Khawārij was that a person or a group who committed a grave error or sin and did not sincerely repent ceased to be Muslim. Mere profession of the faith—“there is no god but God; Muḥammad is the prophet of God”—did not make a person a Muslim unless this faith was accompanied by righteous deeds. In other words, good works were an integral part of faith and not extraneous to it. The second principle that flowed from their aggressive idealism was militancy, or jihād, which the Khawārij considered to be among the cardinal principles, or pillars, of Islām. Contrary to the orthodox view, they interpreted the Qurʾānic command about “enjoining good and forbidding evil” to mean the vindication of truth through the sword. The placing of these two principles together made the Khawārij highly inflammable fanatics, intolerant of almost any established political authority. They incessantly resorted to rebellion and as a result were virtually wiped out during the first two centuries of Islām.

Because the Khawārij believed that the basis of rule was righteous character and piety alone, any Muslim, irrespective of race, colour, and sex, could, in their view, become ruler—provided he or she satisfied the conditions of piety. This was in contrast to the claims of the Shīʿah (the party of Muḥammad’s son-in-law, ʿAlī) that the ruler must belong to the family of the Prophet and to the doctrine of the Sunnah (followers of the Prophet’s way) that the head of state must belong to the Prophet’s tribe, i.e., the Quraysh.

A moderate group of the Khawārij, the Ibāḍīs, avoided extinction, and its members are to be found today in North Africa and in Oman and other parts of East Africa, including Zanzibar Island. The Ibāḍīs do not believe in aggressive methods and, throughout medieval Islām, remained dormant. Because of the interest of 20th-century Western scholars in this sect, the Ibāḍīs have become active and have begun to publish their classical writings and their own journals.

Although Khārijism is now essentially a story of the past, it has left a permanent influence on Islām, because of reaction against it. It forced the religious leadership of the community to formulate a bulwark against religious intolerance and fanaticism. Positively, it has influenced the reform movements that have sprung up in Islām from time to time and that have treated spiritual and moral placidity and status quo with a quasi-Khawārij zeal and militancy.

Islāmic thought » Theology and sectarianism » The Muʿtazilah
The question of whether works are an integral part of faith or independent of it, as raised by the Khawārij, led to another important theological question: are human acts the result of a free human choice, or are they predetermined by God? This question brought with it a whole series of questions about the nature of God and of man. Although the initial impetus to theological thought, in the case of the Khawārij, had come from within Islām, full-scale religious speculation resulted from the contact and confrontation of Muslims with other cultures and systems of thought.

As a consequence of translations of Greek philosophical and scientific works into Arabic during the 8th and 9th centuries and the controversies of Muslims with Dualists (e.g., Gnostics and Manichaeans), Buddhists, and Christians, a more powerful movement of rational theology emerged; its representatives are called the Muʿtazilah (literally “those who stand apart,” a reference to the fact that they dissociated themselves from extreme views of faith and infidelity). On the question of the relationship of faith to works, the Muʿtazilah—who called themselves “champions of God’s unity and justice”—taught, like the Khawārij, that works were an essential part of faith but that a person guilty of a grave sin, unless he repented, was neither a Muslim nor yet a non-Muslim but occupied a “middle ground.” They further defended the position, as a central part of their doctrine, that man was free to choose and act and was, therefore, responsible for his actions. Divine predestination of human acts, they held, was incompatible with God’s justice and human responsibility. The Muʿtazilah, therefore, recognized two powers, or actors, in the universe—God in the realm of nature and man in the domain of moral human action. The Muʿtazilah explained away the apparently predeterministic verses of the Qurʾān as being metaphors and exhortations.

They claimed that human reason, independent of revelation, was capable of discovering what is good and what is evil, although revelation corroborated the findings of reason. Man is, therefore, under moral obligation to do the right even if there were no prophets and no divine revelation. Revelation has to be interpreted, therefore, in conformity with the dictates of rational ethics. Yet revelation is neither redundant nor passive. Its function is twofold. First, its aim is to aid man in choosing the right, because in the conflict between good and evil man often falters and makes the wrong choice against his rational judgment. God, therefore, must send prophets, for he must do the best for man; otherwise, the demands of divine grace and mercy cannot be fulfilled. Secondly, revelation is also necessary to communicate the positive obligations of religion—e.g., prayers and fasting—which cannot be known without revelation.

God is viewed by the Muʿtazilah as pure Essence, without eternal attributes, because they hold that the assumption of eternal attributes in conjunction with Essence will result in a belief in multiple coeternals and violate the pure, unadulterated unity of God. God knows, wills, and acts by virtue of his Essence and not through attributes of knowledge, will, and power. Nor does he have an eternal attribute of speech, of which the Qurʾān and other earlier revelations were effects; the Qurʾān was, therefore, created in time and was not eternal.

The promises of reward that God has made in the Qurʾān to righteous people and the threats of punishment he has issued to evildoers must be carried out by him on the Day of Judgment. For promises and threats are viewed as reports about the future, and if not fulfilled exactly those reports will turn into lies, which are inconceivable of God. Also, if God were to withhold punishment for evil and forgive it, this would be as unjust as withholding reward for righteousness. There can be neither undeserved punishment nor undeserved reward; otherwise, good may just as well turn into evil and evil into good. From this position it follows that there can be no intercession on behalf of sinners.

When, in the early 9th century, the ʿAbbāsid caliph al-Maʾmūn raised Muʿtazilism to the status of the state creed, the Muʿtazilite rationalists showed themselves to be illiberal and persecuted their opponents. Aḥmad ibn Ḥanbal (died 855), an eminent orthodox figure and founder of one of the four orthodox schools of Islāmic law, was subjected to flogging and imprisonment for his refusal to subscribe to the doctrine that the Qurʾān, the word of God, was created in time.

Islāmic thought » Theology and sectarianism » The Sunnah
In the 10th century a reaction began against the Muʿtazilah that culminated in the formulation and subsequent general acceptance of another set of theological propositions, which became Sunnī, or “orthodox” theology.

The issues raised by these early schisms and the positions adopted by them enabled the Sunnī orthodoxy to define its own doctrinal positions in turn. Much of the content of Sunnī theology was, therefore, supplied by its reactions to those schisms. The term sunnah, which means a “well-trodden path” and in the religious terminology of Islām normally signifies “the example set by the Prophet,” in the present context simply means the traditional and well-defined way. In this context, the term sunnah usually is accompanied by the appendage “the consolidated majority” (al-jamāʿah). The term clearly indicates that the traditional way is the way of the consolidated majority of the community as against peripheral or “wayward” positions of sectarians, who by definition must be erroneous.

Islāmic thought » Theology and sectarianism » The Sunnah » The way of the majority
With the rise of the orthodoxy, then, the foremost and elemental factor that came to be emphasized was the notion of the majority of the community. The concept of the community so vigorously pronounced by the earliest doctrine of the Qurʾān gained both a new emphasis and a fresh context with the rise of Sunnism. Whereas the Qurʾān had marked out the Muslim community from other communities, Sunnism now emphasized the views and customs of the majority of the community in contradistinction to peripheral groups. An abundance of tradition (Ḥadīth) came to be attributed to the Prophet to the effect that Muslims must follow the majority’s way, that minority groups are all doomed to hell, and that God’s protective hand is always on (the majority of) the community, which can never be in error. Under the impact of the new Ḥadīth, the community, which had been charged by the Qurʾān with a mission and commanded to accept a challenge, now became transformed into a privileged one that was endowed with infallibility.

Islāmic thought » Theology and sectarianism » The Sunnah » Tolerance of diversity
At the same time, while condemning schisms and branding dissent as heretical, Sunnism developed the opposite trend of accommodation, catholicity, and synthesis. A putative tradition of the Prophet that says “differences of opinion among my community are a blessing” was given wide currency. This principle of toleration ultimately made it possible for diverse sects and schools of thought—notwithstanding a wide range of difference in belief and practice—to recognize and coexist with each other. No group may be excluded from the community unless it itself formally renounces Islām. As for individuals, tests of heresy may be applied to their beliefs, but, unless a person is found to flagrantly violate or deny the unity of God or expressly negate the prophethood of Muḥammad, such tests usually have no serious consequences. Catholicity was orthodoxy’s answer to the intolerance and secessionism of the Khawārij and the severity of the Muʿtazilah. As a consequence, a formula was adopted in which good works were recognized as enhancing the quality of faith but not as entering into the definition and essential nature of faith. This broad formula saved the integrity of the community at the expense of moral strictness and doctrinal uniformity.

On the question of free will, Sunnī orthodoxy attempted a synthesis between man’s responsibility and God’s omnipotence. The champions of orthodoxy accused the Muʿtazilah of quasi-Magian Dualism (Zoroastrianism) insofar as the Muʿtazilah admitted two independent and original actors in the universe: God and man. To the orthodox it seemed blasphemous to hold that man could act wholly outside the sphere of divine omnipotence, which had been so vividly portrayed by the Qurʾān but which the Muʿtazilah had endeavoured to explain away in order to make room for man’s free and independent action.

Islāmic thought » Theology and sectarianism » The Sunnah » Influence of al-Ashʿarī and al-Māturīdī
The Sunnī formulation, however, as presented by al-Ashʿarī and al-Māturīdī, Sunnī’s two main representatives in the 10th century, shows palpable differences despite basic uniformity. Al-Ashʿarī taught that human acts were created by God and acquired by man and that human responsibility depended on this acquisition. He denied, however, that man could be described as an actor in a real sense. Al-Māturīdī, on the other hand, held that although God is the sole Creator of everything, including human acts, nevertheless, man is an actor in the real sense, for acting and creating were two different types of activity involving different aspects of the same human act.

In conformity with their positions, al-Ashʿarī believed that man did not have the power to act before he actually acted and that God created this power in him at the time of action; and al-Māturīdī taught that before the action man has a certain general power for action but that this power becomes specific to a particular action only when the action is performed, because, after full and specific power comes into existence, action cannot be delayed.

Al-Ashʿarī and his school also held that human reason was incapable of discovering good and evil and that acts became endowed with good or evil qualities through God’s declaring them to be such. Because man in his natural state regards his own self-interest as good and that which thwarts his interests as bad, natural human reason is unreliable. Independently of revelation, therefore, murder would not be bad nor the saving of life good. Furthermore, because God’s Will makes acts good or bad, one cannot ask for reasons behind the divine law, which must be simply accepted. Al-Māturīdī takes an opposite position, not materially different from that of the Muʿtazilah: human reason is capable of finding out good and evil, and revelation aids human reason against the sway of human passions.

Despite these important initial differences between the two main Sunnī schools of thought, the doctrines of al-Māturīdī became submerged in course of time under the expanding popularity of the Ashʿarite school, which gained wide currency particularly after the 11th century because of the influential activity of the Ṣūfī theologian al-Ghazālī. Because these later theologians placed increasing emphasis on divine omnipotence at the expense of the freedom and efficacy of the human will, a deterministic outlook on life became characteristic of Sunnī Islām—reinvigorated by the Ṣūfī world view, which taught that nothing exists except God, whose being is the only real being. This general deterministic outlook produced, in turn, a severe reformist reaction in the teachings of Ibn Taymīyah, a 14th-century theologian who sought to rehabilitate human freedom and responsibility and whose influence has been strongly felt through the reform movements in the Muslim world since the 18th century.

Islāmic thought » Theology and sectarianism » The Shīʿah
The Shīʿah are the only important surviving sect in Islām. As noted above, they owe their origin to the hostility between ʿAlī (the fourth caliph and son-in-law of the Prophet) and the Umayyad dynasty (661–750). After ʿAlī’s death, the Shīʿah (Party; i.e., of ʿAlī) demanded the restoration of rule to ʿAlī’s family, and from that demand developed the Shīʿite legitimism, or the divine right of the holy family to rule. In the early stages, the Shīʿah used this legitimism to cover the protest against the Arab hegemony under the Umayyads and to agitate for social reform.

Gradually, however, Shīʿism developed a theological content for its political stand. Probably under Gnostic (esoteric, dualistic, and speculative) and old Iranian (dualistic) influences, the figure of the political ruler, the imām (exemplary “leader”), was transformed into a metaphysical being, a manifestation of God and the primordial light that sustains the universe and bestows true knowledge on man. Through the imām alone the hidden and true meaning of the Qurʾānic revelation can be known, because the imām alone is infallible. The Shīʿah thus developed a doctrine of esoteric knowledge that was adopted also, in a modified form, by the Ṣūfīs, or Islāmic mystics (see Ṣūfism). The orthodox Shīʿah recognize 12 such imāms, the last (Muḥammad) having disappeared in the 9th century. Since that time, the mujtahids (i.e., the Shīʿī divines) have been able to interpret law and doctrine under the putative guidance of the imām, who will return toward the end of time to fill the world with truth and justice.

On the basis of their doctrine of imamology, the Shīʿah emphasize their idealism and transcendentalism in conscious contrast with Sunnī pragmatism. Thus, whereas the Sunnīs believe in the ijmāʿ (“consensus”) of the community as the source of decision making and workable knowledge, the Shīʿah believe that knowledge derived from fallible sources is useless and that sure and true knowledge can come only through a contact with the infallible imām. Again, in marked contrast to Sunnism, Shīʿism adopted the Muʿtazilite doctrine of the freedom of the human will and the capacity of human reason to know good and evil, although its position on the question of the relationship of faith to works is the same as that of the Sunnīs.

Parallel to the doctrine of an esoteric knowledge, Shīʿism, because of its early defeats and persecutions, also adopted the principle of taqīyah, or dissimulation of faith in a hostile environment. Introduced first as a practical principle, taqīyah, which is also attributed to ʿAlī and other imāms, became an important part of the Shīʿah religious teaching and practice. In the sphere of law, Shīʿism differs from Sunnī law mainly in allowing a temporary marriage, called mutʿah, which can be legally contracted for a fixed period of time on the stipulation of a fixed dower.

From a spiritual point of view, perhaps the greatest difference between Shīʿism and Sunnism is the former’s introduction into Islām of the passion motive, which is conspicuously absent from Sunnī Islām. The violent death (in 680) of ʿAlī’s son, Ḥusayn, at the hands of the Umayyad troops is celebrated with moving orations, passion plays, and processions in which the participants, in a state of emotional frenzy, beat their breasts with heavy chains and sharp instruments, inflicting wounds on their bodies. This passion motive has also influenced the Sunnī masses in Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent, who participate in passion plays called taʿziyahs. Such celebrations are, however, absent from Egypt and North Africa.

Although the Shīʿah number only about 40,000,000 (Shīʿism has been the official religion in Iran since the 16th century), Shīʿism has exerted a great influence on Sunnī Islām in several ways. The veneration in which all Muslims hold ʿAlī and his family and the respect shown to ʿAlī’s descendants (who are called sayyids in the East and sharīfs in North Africa) are obvious evidence of this influence.

Islāmic thought » Theology and sectarianism » The Shīʿah » Ismāʿīlīs
Besides the main body of Twelver (Ithnā ʿAsharīyah) Shīʿah, Shīʿism has produced a variety of more or less extremist sects, the most important of them being the Ismāʿīlī. Instead of recognizing Mūsā as the seventh imām, as did the main body of the Shīʿah, the Ismāʿīlīs upheld the claims of his elder brother Ismāʿīl. One group of Ismāʿīlīs, called Seveners (Sabʿīyah), considered Ismāʿīl the seventh and last of the imāms. The majority of Ismāʿīlīs, however, believed that the imamate continued in the line of Ismāʿīl’s descendants. The Ismāʿīlī teaching spread during the 9th century from North Africa to Sind, in India, and the Ismāʿīlī Fāṭimid dynasty succeeded in establishing a prosperous empire in Egypt. Ismāʿīlīs are subdivided into two groups—the Nizārīs, headed by the Aga Khan, and the Mustaʿlīs in Bombay, with their own spiritual head. The Ismāʿīlīs are to be found mainly in East Africa, Pakistan, India, and Yemen.

In their theology, the Ismāʿīlīs have absorbed the most extreme elements and heterodox ideas. The universe is viewed as a cyclic process, and the unfolding of each cycle is marked by the advent of seven “speakers”—messengers of God with Scriptures—each of whom is succeeded by seven “silents”—messengers without revealed scriptures; the last speaker (the Prophet Muḥammad) is followed by seven imāms who interpret the Will of God to man and are, in a sense, higher than the Prophet because they draw their knowledge directly from God and not from the Angel of Revelation. During the 10th century, certain Ismāʿīlī intellectuals formed a secret society called the Brethren of Purity, which issued a philosophical encyclopaedia, The Epistles of the Brethren of Purity, aiming at the liquidation of positive religions in favour of a universalist spirituality.

The late Aga Khan III (1887–1957) had taken several measures to bring his followers closer to the main body of the Muslims. The Ismāʿīlīs, however, still have not mosques but jamāʿat khānahs (“gathering houses”), and their mode of worship bears little resemblance to that of the Muslims generally.

Islāmic thought » Theology and sectarianism » The Shīʿah » Related sects
Several other sects arose out of the general Shīʿite movement—e.g., the Nuṣayrīs, the Yazīdīs, and the Druzes—which are sometimes considered as independent from Islām. The Druzes arose in the 11th century out of a cult of deification of the Fāṭimid caliph al-Ḥākim.

During a 19th-century anticlerical movement in Iran, a certain ʿAlī Moḥammad of Shīrāz appeared, declaring himself to be the Bāb (“Gate”; i.e., to God). At that time the climate in Iran was generally favourable to messianic ideas. He was, however, bitterly opposed by the Shīʿah ʿulamāʾ (council of learned men) and was executed in 1850. After his death, his two disciples, Ṣobḥ-e Azal and Bahāʾ UllāḤ, broke and went in different directions. Bahāʾ Ullāh eventually declared his religion—stressing a humanitarian pacificism and universalism—to be an independent religion outside Islām. The Bahāʾī faith won a considerable number of converts in North America during the early 20th century (see also Druze and Bahāʾī faith).

Islāmic thought » Theology and sectarianism » The Shīʿah » The ṢūfīĨ
Islāmic mysticism, or Ṣūfism, emerged out of early ascetic reactions on the part of certain religiously sensitive personalities against the general worldliness that had overtaken the Muslim community and the purely “externalist” expressions of Islām in law and theology. These persons stressed the Muslim qualities of moral motivation, contrition against overworldliness, and “the state of the heart” as opposed to the legalist formulations of Islām.

Islāmic thought » Theology and sectarianism » Other groups » The Aḥmadīyah
In the latter half of the 19th century in Punjab, India, Mirza Ghulam Ahmad claimed to be an inspired prophet. At first a defender of Islām against Christian missionaries, he then later adopted certain doctrines of the Indian Muslim modernist Sayyid Ahmad Khan—namely, that Jesus died a natural death and was not assumed into heaven as the Islāmic orthodoxy believed and that jihād “by the sword” had been abrogated and replaced with jihād “of the pen.” His aim appears to have been to synthesize all religions under Islām, for he declared himself to be not only the manifestation of the Prophet Muḥammad but also the Second Advent of Jesus, as well as Krishna for the Hindus, among other claims. He did not announce, however, any new revelation or new law.

In 1914 a schism over succession occurred among the Aḥmadīyah. One group that seceded from the main body, which was headed by a son of the founder, disowned the prophetic claims of Ghulam Ahmad and established its centre in Lahore (in modern Pakistan). The main body of the Aḥmadīyah (known as the Qadiani, after the village of Qadian, birthplace of the founder and the group’s first centre) evolved a separatist organization and, after the partition of India in 1947, moved their headquarters to Rabwah in what was then West Pakistan.

Both groups are noted for their missionary work, particularly in the West and in Africa. Within the Muslim countries, however, there is fierce opposition to the main group because of its claim that Ghulam Ahmad was a prophet (most Muslim sects believe in the finality of prophethood with Muḥammad) and because of its separatist organization. Restrictions were imposed on the Aḥmadīyah in 1974 and again in 1984 by the Pakistani government, which declared that the group was not Muslim and prohibited them from engaging in various Islāmic activities.

Islāmic thought » Theology and sectarianism » Other groups » The “Black Muslims”
After World War II an Islāmic movement arose among blacks in the United States; members called themselves the Nation of Islam, but they were popularly known as Black Muslims. Although they adopted some Islāmic social practices, the group was in large part a black separatist and social protest movement. Their leader, Elijah Muhammad, who claimed to be an inspired prophet, interpreted the doctrine of Resurrection in an unorthodox sense as the revival of oppressed (“dead”) peoples. The popular leader and spokesman Malcolm X (el-Hajj Malik el-Shabazz) broke with Elijah Muhammad and adopted more orthodox Islāmic views. He was assassinated in 1965. After the death of Elijah Muhammad in 1975, the group was renamed World Community of Islam in the West and officially abandoned its separatist aims. The name was again changed in the late 1970s, to American Muslim Mission.

Fazlur Rahman

Islāmic thought » Islāmic philosophy
The origin and inspiration of philosophy in Islām are quite different from those of Islāmic theology. Philosophy developed out of and around the nonreligious practical and theoretical sciences; it recognized no theoretical limits other than those of human reason itself; and it assumed that the truth found by unaided reason does not disagree with the truth of Islām when both are properly understood. Islāmic philosophy was not a handmaid of theology. The two disciplines were related, because both followed the path of rational inquiry and distinguished themselves from traditional religious disciplines and from mysticism, which sought knowledge through practical, spiritual purification. Islāmic theology was Islāmic in the strict sense: it confined itself within the Islāmic religious community, and it remained separate from the Christian and Jewish theologies that developed in the same cultural context and used Arabic as a linguistic medium. No such separation is observable in the philosophy developed in the Islāmic cultural context and written in Arabic: Muslims, Christians, and Jews participated in it and separated themselves according to the philosophic rather than the religious doctrines they held.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic philosophy » The Eastern philosophers » Background and scope of philosophical interest in Islām
The background of philosophic interest in Islām is found in the earlier phases of theology. But its origin is found in the translation of Greek philosophic works. By the middle of the 9th century, there were enough translations of scientific and philosophic works from Greek, Pahlavi, and Sanskrit to show those who read them with care that scientific and philosophic inquiry was something more than a series of disputations based on what the theologians had called sound reason. Moreover, it became evident that there existed a tradition of observation, calculation, and theoretical reflection that had been pursued systematically, refined, and modified for over a millennium.

The scope of this tradition was broad: it included the study of logic, the sciences of nature (including psychology and biology), the mathematical sciences (including music and astronomy), metaphysics, ethics, and politics. Each of these disciplines had a body of literature in which its principles and problems had been investigated by classical authors, whose positions had been, in turn, stated, discussed, criticized, or developed by various commentators. Islāmic philosophy emerged from its theological background when Muslim thinkers began to study this foreign tradition, became competent students of the ancient philosophers and scientists, criticized and developed their doctrines, clarified their relevance for the questions raised by the theologians, and showed what light they threw on the fundamental issues of revelation, prophecy, and the divine law.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic philosophy » The Eastern philosophers » Relation to the Muʿtazilah and interpretation of theological issues » The teachings of al-Kindī
Although the first Muslim philosopher, al-Kindī, who flourished in the first half of the 9th century, lived during the triumph of the Muʿtazilah of Baghdad and was connected with the ʿAbbāsid caliphs who championed the Muʿtazilah and patronized the Hellenistic sciences, there is no clear evidence that he belonged to a theological school. His writings show him to have been a diligent student of Greek and Hellenistic authors in philosophy and point to his familiarity with Indian arithmetic. His conscious, open, and unashamed acknowledgment of earlier contributions to scientific inquiry was foreign to the spirit, method, and purpose of the theologians of the time. His acquaintance with the writings of Plato and Aristotle was still incomplete and technically inadequate. He improved the Arabic translation of the “Theology of Aristotle” but made only a selective and circumspect use of it.

Devoting most of his writings to questions of natural philosophy and mathematics, al-Kindī was particularly concerned with the relation between corporeal things, which are changeable, in constant flux, infinite, and as such unknowable, on the one hand, and the permanent world of forms (spiritual or secondary substances), which are not subject to flux yet to which man has no access except through things of the senses. He insisted that a purely human knowledge of all things is possible, through the use of various scientific devices, learning such things as mathematics and logic, and assimilating the contributions of earlier thinkers. The existence of a “supernatural” way to this knowledge in which all these requirements can be dispensed with was acknowledged by al-Kindī: God may choose to impart it to his prophets by cleansing and illuminating their souls and by giving them his aid, right guidance, and inspiration; and they, in turn, communicate it to ordinary men in an admirably clear, concise, and comprehensible style. This is the prophets’ “divine” knowledge, characterized by a special mode of access and style of exposition. In principle, however, this very same knowledge is accessible to man without divine aid, even though “human” knowledge may lack the completeness and consummate logic of the prophets’ divine message.

Reflection on the two kinds of knowledge—the human knowledge bequeathed by the ancients and the revealed knowledge expressed in the Qurʾān—led al-Kindī to pose a number of themes that became central to Islāmic philosophy: the rational–metaphorical exegesis of the Qurʾān and the Ḥadīth; the identification of God with the first being and the first cause; creation as the giving of being and as a kind of causation distinct from natural causation and Neoplatonic emanation; and the immortality of the individual soul.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic philosophy » The Eastern philosophers » Relation to the Muʿtazilah and interpretation of theological issues » The teachings of Abū Bakr ar-Rāzī
The philosopher whose principal concerns, method, and opposition to authority were inspired by the extreme Muʿtazilah was the physician Abū Bakr ar-Rāzī (flourished 9th–10th centuries). He adopted the Muʿtazilah’s atomism and was intent on developing a rationally defensible theory of creation that would not require any change in God or attribute to him responsibility for the imperfection and evil prevalent in the created world. To this end, he expounded the view that there are five eternal principles—God, Soul, prime matter, infinite, or absolute, space, and unlimited, or absolute, time—and explained creation as the result of the unexpected and sudden turn of events (faltah). Faltah occurred when Soul, in her ignorance, desired matter and the good God eased her misery by allowing her to satisfy her desire and to experience the suffering of the material world, and then gave her reason to make her realize her mistake and deliver her from her union with matter, the cause of her suffering and of all evil. Ar-Rāzī claimed that he was a Platonist, that he disagreed with Aristotle, and that his views were those of the Ṣābians of Harran and the Brahmins (Hindu teachers).

Ismāʿīlī theologians became aware of the kinship between certain elements of his cosmology and their own. They disputed with him during his lifetime and continued afterward to refute his doctrines in their writings. According to their account of his doctrines, he was totally opposed to authority in matters of knowledge, believed in the progress of the arts and sciences, and held that all reasonable men are equally able to look after their own affairs, equally inspired and able to know the truth of what earlier men had taught, and equally able to improve upon it. Ismāʿīlī theologians were incensed, in particular, by his wholesale rejection of prophecy, particular revelation, and divine laws. They were likewise opposed to his criticisms of religion in general as a device employed by evil men and a kind of tyranny over men that exploits their innocence and credulity, perpetuates ignorance, and leads to conflicts and wars.

Although the fragmentary character of al-Kindī’s and ar-Rāzī’s surviving philosophic writings does not permit passing firm and independent judgment on their accomplishments, they tend to bear out the view of later Muslim students of philosophy that both lacked competence in the logical foundation of philosophy, were knowledgeable in some of the natural sciences but not in metaphysics, and were unable to narrow the gap that separated philosophy from the new religion, Islām.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic philosophy » The Eastern philosophers » The teachings of al-Fārābī » Political philosophy and the study of religion
The first philosopher to meet this challenge was al-Fārābī (flourished 9th–10th centuries). He saw that theology and the juridical study of the law were derivative phenomena that function within a framework set by the prophet as lawgiver and founder of a human community. In this community, revelation defines the opinions the members of the community must hold and the actions they must perform if they are to attain the earthly happiness of this world and the supreme happiness of the other world. Philosophy could not understand this framework of religion as long as it concerned itself almost exclusively with its truth content and confined the study of practical science to individualistic ethics and personal salvation.

In contrast to al-Kindī and ar-Rāzī, al-Fārābī recast philosophy in a new framework analogous to that of the Islāmic religion. The sciences were organized within this philosophic framework so that logic, physics, mathematics, and metaphysics culminated in a political science whose subject matter is the investigation of happiness and how it can be realized in cities and nations. The central theme of this political science is the founder of a virtuous or excellent community. Included in this theme are views concerning the supreme rulers who follow the founder, their qualifications, and how the community must be ordered so that its members attain happiness as citizens rather than isolated human beings. Once this new philosophical framework was established, it became possible to conduct a philosophical investigation of all the elements that constituted the Islāmic community: the prophet-lawgiver, the aims of the divine laws, the legislation of beliefs as well as actions, the role of the successors to the founding legislator, the grounds of the interpretation or reform of the law, the classification of human communities according to their doctrines in addition to their size, and the critique of “ignorant” (pagan), “transgressing,” “falsifying,” and “erring” communities. Philosophical cosmology, psychology, and politics were blended by al-Fārābī into a political theology whose aim was to clarify the foundations of the Islāmic community and defend its reform in a direction that would promote scientific inquiry and encourage philosophers to play an active role in practical affairs.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic philosophy » The Eastern philosophers » The teachings of al-Fārābī » Interpretation of Plato and Aristotle
Behind this public, or exoteric, aspect of al-Fārābī’s work stood a massive body of more properly philosophic or scientific inquiries, which established his reputation among Muslims as the greatest philosophical authority after Aristotle, a great interpreter of the thought of Plato and Aristotle and their commentators, and a master to whom almost all major Muslim as well as a number of Jewish and Christian philosophers turned for a fuller understanding of the controversial, troublesome, and intricate questions of philosophy. Continuing the tradition of the Hellenistic masters of the Athenian and Alexandrian philosophical schools, al-Fārābī broadened the range of philosophical inquiry and fixed its form. He paid special attention to the study of language and its relation to logic. In his numerous commentaries on Aristotle’s logical works, he expounded for the first time in Arabic the entire range of the scientific and nonscientific forms of argument and established the place of logic as an indispensable prerequisite for philosophic inquiry. His writings on natural science exposed the foundation and assumptions of Aristotle’s physics and dealt with the arguments of Aristotle’s opponents, both philosophers and scientists, pagan, Christian, and Muslim.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic philosophy » The Eastern philosophers » The teachings of al-Fārābī » The analogy of religion and philosophy
Al-Fārābī’s theological and political writings showed later Muslim philosophers the way to deal with the question of the relation between philosophy and religion and presented them with a complex set of problems that they continued to elaborate, modify, and develop in different directions. Starting with the view that religion is analogous or similar to philosophy, al-Fārābī argued that the idea of the true prophet-lawgiver ought to be the same as that of the true philosopher-king. Thus, he challenged both al-Kindī’s view that prophets and philosophers have different and independent ways to the highest truth available to man and ar-Rāzī’s view that philosophy is the only way to that knowledge. That a man could combine the functions of prophecy, lawgiving, philosophy, and kingship did not necessarily mean that these functions were identical; it did mean, however, that they all are legitimate subjects of philosophic inquiry. Philosophy must account for the powers, knowledge, and activities of the prophet, lawgiver, and king, which it must distinguish from and relate to those of the philosopher. The public, or political, function of philosophy was emphasized. Unlike Neoplatonism, which had for long limited itself to the Platonic teaching that the function of philosophy is to liberate the soul from the shadowy existence of the cave—in which knowledge can only be imperfectly comprehended as shadows reflecting the light of the truth beyond the cave (the world of senses)—al-Fārābī insisted with Plato that the philosopher must be forced to return to the cave, learn to talk to its inhabitants in a manner they can comprehend, and engage in actions that may improve their lot.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic philosophy » The Eastern philosophers » The teachings of al-Fārābī » Impact on Ismāʿīlī theology
Although it is not always easy to know the immediate practical intentions of a philosopher, it must be remembered that in al-Fārābī’s lifetime the fate of the Islāmic world was in the balance. The Sunnī caliphate’s power hardly extended beyond Baghdad, and it appeared quite likely that the various Shīʿī sects, especially the Ismāʿīlīs, would finally overpower it and establish a new political order. Of all the movements in Islāmic theology, Ismāʿīlī theology was the one that was most clearly and massively penetrated by philosophy. Yet, its Neoplatonic cosmology, revolutionary background, antinomianism (antilegalism), and general expectation that divine laws were about to become superfluous with the appearance of the qāʾim (the imam of the “resurrection”) all militated against the development of a coherent political theory to meet the practical demands of political life and present a viable practical alternative to the Sunnī caliphate. Al-Fāİābī’s theologico-political writings helped point out this basic defect of Ismāʿīlī theology. Under the Fāṭimids in Egypt (969–1171), Ismāʿīlī theology modified its cosmology in the direction suggested by al-Fārābī, returned to the view that the community must continue to live under the divine law, and postponed the prospect of the abolition of divine laws and the appearance of the qāʾim to an indefinite point in the future.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic philosophy » The Eastern philosophers » The teachings of Avicenna » The “Oriental Philosophy”
Even more indicative of al-Fārābī’s success is the fact that his writings helped produce a philosopher of the stature of Avicenna (flourished 10th–11th centuries), whose versatility, imagination, inventiveness, and prudence shaped philosophy into a powerful force that gradually penetrated Islāmic theology and mysticism and Persian poetry in eastern Islām and gave them universality and theoretical depth. His own personal philosophic views, he said, were those of the ancient sages of Greece (including the genuine views of Plato and Aristotle), which he had set forth in the “Oriental Philosophy,” a book that has not survived and probably was not written or meant to be written. They were not identical with the common Peripatetic (Aristotelian) doctrines and were to be distinguished from the learning of his contemporaries, the Christian “Aristotelians” of Baghdad, which he attacked as vulgar, distorted, and falsified. His most voluminous writing, Kitāb ash-shifāʾ (“The Book of Healing”), was meant to accommodate the doctrines of other philosophers as well as hint at his own personal views, which are elaborated elsewhere in more imaginative and allegorical forms.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic philosophy » The Eastern philosophers » The teachings of Avicenna » Distinction between essence and existence and the doctrine of creation
Avicenna had learned from certain hints in al-Fārābī that the exoteric teachings of Plato regarding “forms,” “creation,” and the immortality of individual souls were closer to revealed doctrines than the genuine views of Aristotle, that the doctrines of Plotinus and later Neoplatonic commentators were useful in harmonizing Aristotle’s views with revealed doctrines, and that philosophy must accommodate itself to the divine law on the issue of creation and of reward and punishment in the hereafter, which presupposes some form of individual immortality. Following al-Fārābī’s lead, Avicenna initiated a full-fledged inquiry into the question of being, in which he distinguished between essence and existence. He argued that the fact of existence cannot be inferred from or accounted for by the essence of existing things and that form and matter by themselves cannot interact and originate the movement of the universe or the progressive actualization of existing things. Existence must, therefore, be due to an agent-cause that necessitates, imparts, gives, or adds existence to an essence. To do so, the cause must be an existing thing and coexist with its effect. The universe consists of a chain of actual beings, each giving existence to the one below it and responsible for the existence of the rest of the chain below. Because an actual infinite is deemed impossible by Avicenna, this chain as a whole must terminate in a being that is wholly simple and one, whose essence is its very existence, and therefore is self-sufficient and not in need of something else to give it existence. Because its existence is not contingent on or necessitated by something else but is necessary and eternal in itself, it satisfies the condition of being the necessitating cause of the entire chain that constitutes the eternal world of contingent existing things.

All creation is necessarily and eternally dependent upon God. It consists of the intelligences, souls, and bodies of the heavenly spheres, each of which is eternal, and the sublunary sphere, which is also eternal, undergoing a perpetual process of generation and corruption, of the succession of form over matter, very much in the manner described by Aristotle.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic philosophy » The Eastern philosophers » The teachings of Avicenna » The immortality of individual souls
There is, however, a significant exception to this general rule: the human rational soul. Man can affirm the existence of his soul from direct consciousness of his self (what he means when he says “I”); and he can imagine this happening even in the absence of external objects and bodily organs. This proves, according to Avicenna, that the soul is indivisible, immaterial, and incorruptible substance, not imprinted in matter, but created with the body, which it uses as an instrument. Unlike other immaterial substances (the intelligences and souls of the spheres), it is not pre-eternal but is generated, or made to exist, at the same time as the individual body, which can receive it, is formed. The composition, shape, and disposition of its body and the soul’s success or failure in managing and controlling it, the formation of moral habits, and the acquisition of knowledge all contribute to its individuality and difference from other souls. Though the body is not resurrected after its corruption, the soul survives and retains all the individual characteristics, perfections or imperfections, that it achieved in its earthly existence and in this sense is rewarded or punished for its past deeds. Avicenna’s claim that he has presented a philosophic proof for the immortality of generated (“created”) individual souls no doubt constitutes the high point of his effort to harmonize philosophy and religious beliefs.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic philosophy » The Eastern philosophers » The teachings of Avicenna » Philosophy, religion, and mysticism
Having accounted for the more difficult issues of creation and the immortality of individual souls, Avicenna proceeded to explain the faculty of prophetic knowledge (the “sacred” intellect), revelation (imaginative representation meant to convince the multitude and improve their earthly life), miracles, and the legal and institutional arrangements (acts of worship and the regulation of personal and public life) through which the divine law achieves its end. Avicenna’s explanation of almost every aspect of Islām is pursued on the basis of extensive exegesis of the Qurʾān and the Ḥadīth. The primary function of religion is to assure the happiness of the many. This practical aim of religion (which Avicenna saw in the perspective of Aristotle’s practical science) enabled him to appreciate the political and moral functions of divine revelation and account for its form and content. Revealed religion, however, has a subsidiary function also—that of indicating to the few the need to pursue the kind of life and knowledge appropriate to rare individuals endowed with special gifts. These men must be dominated by the love of God to facilitate the achievement of the highest knowledge. In many places Avicenna appears to identify these men with the mystics. The identification of the philosopher as a kind of mystic conveyed a new image of the philosopher as a member of the religious community who is distinguished from his coreligionists by his otherworldliness, dedicated to the inner truth of religion, and consumed by the love of God.

Avicenna’s allegorical and mystical writings are usually called “esoteric” in the sense that they contain his personal views cast in an imaginative, symbolic form. The esoteric works must, then, be interpreted. Their interpretation must move away from the explicit doctrines contained in “exoteric” works such as the Shifāʾ and recover “the unmixed and uncorrupted truth” set forth in the “Oriental Philosophy.” The “Oriental Philosophy,” however, has never been available to anyone, and it is doubtful that it was written at all. This dilemma has made interpretation both difficult and rewarding for Muslim philosophers and modern scholars alike.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic philosophy » The Western philosophers » Background and characteristics of the Western Muslim philosophical tradition
Andalusia (in Spain) and western North Africa contributed little of substance to Islāmic theology and philosophy until the 12th century. Legal strictures against the study of philosophy were more effective than in the east. Scientific interest was channelled into medicine, pharmacology, mathematics, astronomy, and logic. More general questions of physics and metaphysics were treated sparingly and in symbols, hints, and allegories. By the 12th century, however, the writings of al-Fārābī, Avicenna, and al-Ghazālī had found their way to the west. A philosophical tradition emerged, based primarily on the study of al-Fārābī. It was critical of Avicenna’s philosophic innovations and not convinced that al-Ghazālī’s critique of Avicenna touched philosophy as such, and it refused to acknowledge the position assigned by both to mysticism. The survival of philosophy in the west required extreme prudence, emphasis on its scientific character, abstention from meddling in political or religious matters, and abandonment of the hope of effecting extensive doctrinal or institutional reform.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic philosophy » The Western philosophers » The teachings of Ibn Bājjah » Theoretical science and intuitive knowledge
Ibn Bājjah (died 1138) initiated this tradition with a radical interpretation of al-Fārābī’s political philosophy that emphasized the virtues of the perfect but nonexistent city and the vices prevalent in all existing cities. He concluded that the philosopher must order his own life as a solitary individual, shun the company of nonphilosophers, reject their opinions and ways of life, and concentrate on reaching his own final goal by pursuing the theoretical sciences and achieving intuitive knowledge through contact with the Active Intelligence. The multitude live in a dark cave and see only dim shadows. Their ways of life and their imaginings and beliefs consist of layers of darkness that cannot be known through reason alone. Therefore, the divine law has been revealed to enable man to know this dark region. The philosopher’s duty is to seek the light of the sun (the intellect). To do so, he must leave the cave, see all colours as they truly are and see light itself, and finally become transformed into that light. The end, then, is contact with Intelligence, not with something that transcends Intelligence (as in Plotinus, Ismāʿīlism, and mysticism), a doctrine criticized by Ibn Bājjah as the way of imagination, motivated by desire, and aiming at pleasure. Philosophy, he claimed, is the only way to the truly blessed state, which can be achieved only by going through theoretical science, even though it is higher than theoretical science.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic philosophy » The Western philosophers » The teachings of Ibn Bājjah » Unconcern of philosophy with reform
Ibn Bājjah’s cryptic style and the unfinished form in which he left most of his writings tend to highlight his departures from al-Fārābī and Avicenna. Unlike al-Fārābī, he is silent about the philosopher’s duty to return to the cave and partake of the life of the city. He appears to argue that the aim of philosophy is attainable independently from the philosopher’s concern with the best city and is to be achieved in solitude or, at most, in comradeship with philosophic souls. Unlike Avicenna, who prepared the way for him by clearly distinguishing between theoretical and practical science, Ibn Bājjah is concerned with practical science only insofar as it is relevant to the life of the philosopher. He is contemptuous of allegories and imaginative representations of philosophic knowledge, silent about theology, and shows no concern with improving the multitude’s opinions and way of life.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic philosophy » The Western philosophers » The teachings of Ibn Ṭufayl » The philosopher as a solitary individual
In his philosophic story Ḥayy ibn Yaqẓān (“Alive Son of Awake”), the philosopher Ibn Ṭufayl (died 1185) fills gaps in the work of his predecessor Ibn Bājjah. The story communicates the secrets of Avicenna’s “Oriental Philosophy” as experienced by a solitary hero, who grows up on a deserted island, learns about the things around him, acquires knowledge of the natural universe (including the heavenly bodies), and achieves the state of “annihilation” (fanāʾ) of the self in the divine reality. This is the apparent and traditional secret of the “Oriental Philosophy.” But the hero’s wisdom is still incomplete, for he knows nothing about other human beings, their way of life, or their laws. When he chances to meet one of them—a member of a religious community inhabiting a neighbouring island, who is inclined to reflect on the divine law and seek its inner, spiritual meanings and who has abandoned the society of his fellow men to devote himself to solitary meditation and worship—he does not at first recognize that he is a human being like himself, cannot communicate with him, and frightens him by his wild aspect. After learning about the doctrines and acts of worship of the religious community, he understands them as alluding to and agreeing with the truth that he had learned by his own unaided effort, and he goes as far as admitting the validity of the religion and the truthfulness of the prophet who gave it. He cannot understand, however, why the prophet communicated the truth by way of allusions, examples, and corporeal representations or why religion permits men to devote much time and effort to practical, worldly things.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic philosophy » The Western philosophers » The teachings of Ibn Ṭufayl » Concern for reform
His ignorance of the nature of most men and his compassion for them make the solitary hero insist on becoming their saviour. He persuades his companion to take him to his coreligionists and help him convert them to the naked truth by propagating among them “the secrets of wisdom.” His education is completed when he fails in his endeavour. He learns the limits beyond which the multitude cannot ascend without becoming confused and unhappy. He also learns the wisdom of the divine lawgiver in addressing them in the way they can understand, enabling them to achieve limited ends through doctrines and actions suited to their abilities. The story ends with the hero taking leave of these people after apologizing to them for what he did and confessing that he is now fully convinced that they should not change their ways but remain attached to the literal sense of the divine law and obey its demands. He returns to his own island to continue his former solitary existence.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic philosophy » The Western philosophers » The teachings of Ibn Ṭufayl » The hidden secret of Avicenna’s “Oriental Philosophy”
The hidden secret of Avicenna’s “Oriental Philosophy” appears, then, to be that the philosopher must return to the cave, educate himself in the ways of nonphilosophers, and understand the incompatibility between philosophical life and the life of the multitude, which must be governed by religion and divine laws. Otherwise, his ignorance will lead him to actions dangerous to the well-being of both the community and philosophy. Because Ibn Ṭufayl’s hero had grown up as a solitary human being, he lacks the kind of wisdom that could have enabled him to pursue philosophy in a religious community and be useful to such a community. Neither the conversion of the community to philosophy nor the philosopher’s solitary life is a viable alternative.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic philosophy » The Western philosophers » The teachings of Averroës » Philosophy
To Ibn Ṭufayl’s younger friend Averroës (Ibn Rushd, flourished 12th century) belongs the distinction of presenting a solution to the problem of the relation between philosophy and the Islāmic community in the west, a solution meant to be legally valid, theologically sound, and philosophically satisfactory. Here was a philosopher fully at home in what Ibn Bājjah had called the many layers of darkness. His legal training (he was a judge by profession) and his extensive knowledge of the history of the religious sciences (including theology) enabled him to speak with authority about the principles of Islāmic law and their application to theological and philosophic issues and to question the authority of al-Ghazālī and the Ashʿarīs to determine correct beliefs and right practices. He was able to examine in detail from the point of view of the divine law the respective claims of theology and philosophy to possess the best and surest way to human knowledge, to be competent to interpret the ambiguous expressions of the divine law, and to have presented convincing arguments that are theoretically tenable and practically salutary.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic philosophy » The Western philosophers » The teachings of Averroës » The divine law
The intention of the divine law, he argued, is to assure the happiness of all members of the community. This requires everyone to profess belief in the basic principles of religion as enunciated in the Qurʾān, the Ḥādith, and the ijmāʿ (consensus) of the learned and to perform all obligatory acts of worship. Beyond this, the only just requirement is to demand that each pursue knowledge as far as his natural capacity and makeup permit. The few who are endowed with the capacity for the highest, demonstrative knowledge are under a divine legal obligation to pursue the highest wisdom, which is philosophy, and they need not constantly adjust its certain conclusions to what theologians claim to be the correct interpretation of the divine law. Being dialecticians and rhetoricians, theologians are not in a position to determine what is and is not correct interpretation of the divine law so far as philosophers are concerned. The divine law directly authorizes philosophers to pursue its interpretation according to the best—i.e., demonstrative or scientific—method, and theologians have no authority to interfere with the conduct of this activity or judge its conclusions.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic philosophy » The Western philosophers » The teachings of Averroës » Theology
On the basis of this legal doctrine, Averroës judged the theologian al-Ghazālī’s refutation of the philosophers ineffective and inappropriate because al-Ghazālī did not understand and even misrepresented the philosophers’ positions and used arguments that only demonstrate his incompetence in the art of demonstration. He criticized al-Fārābī and Avicenna also for accommodating the theologians of their time and for departing from the path of the ancient philosophers merely to please the theologians. At the other extreme are the multitude for whom there are no more convincing arguments than those found in the divine law itself. Neither philosophers nor theologians are permitted to disclose to the multitude interpretations of the ambiguous verses of the Qurʾān or to confuse them with their own doubts or arguments. Finally, there are those who belong to neither the philosophers nor the multitude, either because they are naturally superior to the multitude but not endowed with the gift for philosophy or else are students in initial stages of philosophic training. For this intermediate group theology is necessary. It is an intermediate discipline that is neither strictly legal nor philosophic. It lacks their certain principles and sure methods. Therefore, theology must remain under the constant control of philosophy and the supervision of the divine law so as not to drift into taking positions that cannot be demonstrated philosophically or that are contrary to the intention of the divine law. Averroës himself composed a work on theology to show how these requirements can be met: Kitāb al-kashf ʿan manāhij al-adillah (“Exposition of the Methods of Proofs”). In the Latin West he was best known for his philosophical answer to al-Ghazālī, Tahāfut at-tahāfut (“Incoherence of the Incoherence”), and for his extensive commentaries on Aristotle, works that left their impact on medieval and renaissance European thought.

Islāmic thought » The new wisdom: synthesis of philosophy and mysticism » Philosophy, traditionalism, and the new wisdom » Philosophy
The western tradition in Islāmic philosophy formed part of the Arabic philosophic literature that was translated into Hebrew and Latin and that played a significant role in the development of medieval philosophy in the Latin West and the emergence of modern European philosophy. Its impact on the development of philosophy in eastern Islām was not as dramatic, but was important nevertheless. Students of this tradition—e.g., the prominent Jewish philosopher Maimonides (flourished 12th century) and the historian Ibn Khaldūn (flourished 14th century)—moved to Egypt, where they taught and had numerous disciples. Most of the writings of Ibn Bājjah, Ibn Ṭufayl, and Averroës found their way to the east also, where they were studied alongside the writings of their eastern predecessors. In both regions thinkers who held to the idea of philosophy as formulated by the eastern and western philosophers thus far discussed continued to teach. They became isolated and overwhelmed, however, by the resurgence of traditionalism and the emergence of a new kind of philosophy whose champions looked on the earlier masters as men who had made significant contributions to the progress of knowledge but whose overall view was defective and had now become outdated.

Islāmic thought » The new wisdom: synthesis of philosophy and mysticism » Philosophy, traditionalism, and the new wisdom » Traditionalism and the new wisdom
Resurgent traditionalism found effective defenders in men such as Ibn Taymīyah (13th–14th centuries) who employed a massive battery of philosophic, theological, and legal arguments against every shade of innovation and called for a return to the beliefs and practices of the pious ancestors. These attacks, however, did not deal a decisive blow to philosophy as such. It rather drove philosophy underground for a period, only to re-emerge in a new garb. A more important reason for the decline of the earlier philosophic tradition, however, was the renewed vitality and success of the program formulated by al-Ghazālī for the integration of theology, philosophy, and mysticism into a new kind of philosophy called wisdom (ḥikmah). It consisted of a critical review of the philosophy of Avicenna, preserving its main external features (its logical, physical, and, in part, metaphysical structure, and its terminology) and introducing principles of explanation for the universe and its relation to God based on personal experience and direct vision.

Islāmic thought » The new wisdom: synthesis of philosophy and mysticism » Philosophy, traditionalism, and the new wisdom » Characteristic features of the new wisdom
If the popular theology preached by the philosophers from al-Fārābī to Averroës is disregarded, it is evident that philosophy proper meant to them what al-Fārābī called a state of mind dedicated to the quest and the love for the highest wisdom. None of them claimed, however, that he had achieved this highest wisdom. In contrast, every leading exponent of the new wisdom stated that he had achieved or received it through a private illumination, dream (at times inspired by the Prophet), or vision and on this basis proceeded to give an explanation of the inner structure of natural and divine things. In every case, this explanation incorporated Platonic or Aristotelian elements but was more akin to some version of a later Hellenistic philosophy, which had found its way earlier into one or another of the schools of Islāmic theology, though, because of the absence of an adequate philosophic education on the part of earlier theologians, it had not been either elaborated or integrated into a comprehensive view. Like their late-Hellenistic counterparts, exponents of the new wisdom proceeded through an examination of the positions of Plato, Aristotle, and Plotinus. They also gave special attention to the insights of the pre-Socratic philosophers of ancient Greece and the myths and revelations of the ancient Near East, and they offered to resolve the fundamental questions that had puzzled earlier philosophers. In its basic movement and general direction, therefore, Islāmic philosophy between the 9th and the 19th centuries followed a course parallel to that of Greek philosophy from the 5th century bc to the 6th century ad.

Islāmic thought » The new wisdom: synthesis of philosophy and mysticism » Philosophy, traditionalism, and the new wisdom » Critiques of Aristotle in Islāmic theology
The critique of Aristotle that had begun in Muʿtazilī circles and had found a prominent champion in Abū Bakr ar-Rāzī was provided with a more solid foundation in the 10th and 11th centuries by the Christian theologians and philosophers of Baghdad, who translated the writings of the Hellenistic critics of Aristotle (e.g., John Philoponus) and made use of their arguments in commenting on Aristotle and in independent theological and philosophic works. Avicenna’s attack on these so-called Aristotelians and their Hellenistic predecessors (an attack that had been initiated by al-Fārābī and was to be continued by Averroës) did not prevent the spread of their theologically based anti-Aristotelianism among Jewish and Muslim students of philosophy in the 12th century, such as Abū al-Barakāt al-Baghdādī (died c. 1175) and Fakhr ad-Dīn ar-Rāzī. These theologians continued and intensified al-Ghazālī’s attacks on Avicenna and Aristotle (especially their views on time, movement, matter, and form, the nature of the heavenly bodies, and the relation between the intelligible and sensible worlds). They suggested that a thorough examination of Aristotle had revealed to them, on philosophic grounds, that the fundamental disagreements between him and the theologies based on the revealed religions represented open options and that Aristotle’s view of the universe was in need of explanatory principles that could very well be supplied by theology. This critique provided the framework for the integration of philosophy into theology from the 13th century onward.

Islāmic thought » The new wisdom: synthesis of philosophy and mysticism » Philosophy, traditionalism, and the new wisdom » Synthesis of philosophy and mysticism
Although it made use of such theological criticisms of philosophy, the new wisdom took the position that theology did not offer a positive substitute for and was incapable of solving the difficulties of “Aristotelian” philosophy. It did not question the need to have recourse to the Qurʾān and the Ḥadīth to find the right answers. It insisted (on the authority of a long-standing mystical tradition), however, that theology concerns itself only with the external expressions of this divine source of knowledge. The inner core was reserved for the adepts of the mystic path whose journey leads to the experience of the highest reality in dreams and visions. Only the mystical adepts are in possession of the one true wisdom, the ground of both the external expressions of the divine law and the phenomenal world of human experience and thought.

Islāmic thought » The new wisdom: synthesis of philosophy and mysticism » Primary teachers of the new wisdom » The teachings of as-Suhrawardī
The first master of the new wisdom, as-Suhrawardī (12th century), called it the “Wisdom of Illumination.” He rejected Avicenna’s distinction between essence and existence and Aristotle’s distinction between substance and accidents, possibility and actuality, and matter and form, on the ground that they are mere distinctions of reason. Instead, he concentrated on the notion of being and its negation, which he called “light” and “darkness,” and explained the gradation of beings as gradation of their mixture according to the degree of “strength,” or “perfection,” of their light. This gradation forms a single continuum that culminates in pure light, self-luminosity, self-awareness, self-manifestation, or self-knowledge, which is God, the light of lights, the true One. The stability and eternity of this single continuum result from every higher light overpowering and subjugating the lower, and movement and change in it result from each of the lower lights desiring and loving the higher.

As-Suhrawardī’s “pan-lightism” is not particularly close to traditional Islāmic views concerning the creation of the world and God’s knowledge of particulars. The structure of his universe remains largely that of the Platonists and the Aristotelians. And his account of the emanation process avoids the many difficulties that had puzzled Neoplatonists as they tried to understand how the second hypostasis (reality) proceeds from the One. He asserted that it proceeds without in any way affecting the One and that the One’s self-sufficiency is enough to explain the giving out that seems to be both spontaneous and necessary. His doctrine is presented in a way that suggests that it is the inner truth behind the exoteric (external) teachings of Islām as well as Zoroastrianism, indeed the wisdom of all ancient sages, especially Iranians and Greeks, and the revealed religions as well. This neutral yet positive attitude toward the diversity of religions, which was not absent among Muslim philosophers and mystics, was to become one of the hallmarks of the new wisdom. Different religions were seen as different manifestations of the same truth, their essential agreement was emphasized, and various attempts were made to combine them into a single harmonious religion meant for all of mankind.

As-Suhrawardī takes an important step in this direction through his doctrine of imaginative-bodily “resurrection.” After their departure from the prison of the body, souls that are fully purified ascend directly to the world of separate lights. The ones that are only partially purified or are evil souls escape to a “world of images” suspended below the higher lights and above the corporeal world. In this world of images, or forms (not to be confused with the Platonic forms, which as-Suhrawardī identifies with higher and permanent intelligible lights), partially purified souls remain suspended and are able to create for themselves and by their own power of imagination pleasing figures and desirable objects in forms more excellent than their earthly counterparts and are able to enjoy them forever. Evil souls become dark shadows, suffer (presumably because their corrupt and inefficient power of imagination can create only ugly and frightening forms), and wander about as ghosts, demons, and devils. The creative power of the imagination, which as a human psychological phenomenon was already used by the philosophers to explain prophetic powers, was seized upon by the new wisdom as “divine magic.” It was used to construct an eschatology, to explain miracles, dreams, and other saintly theurgic (healing) practices, to facilitate the movement between various orders of being, and for literary purposes.

Islāmic thought » The new wisdom: synthesis of philosophy and mysticism » Primary teachers of the new wisdom » The teachings of Ibn al-ʿArabī
The account of the doctrines of Ibn al-ʿArabī (12th–13th centuries) belongs properly to the history of Islāmic mysticism. Yet his impact on the subsequent development of the new wisdom was in many ways far greater than was that of as-Suhrawardī. This is true especially of his central doctrine of the “unity of being” and his sharp distinction between the absolute One, which is undefinable Truth (ḥaqq), and his self-manifestation (ẓuhūİ), or creation (khalq), which is ever new (jadīd) and in perpetual movement, a movement that unites the whole of creation in a process of constant renewal. At the very core of this dynamic edifice stands nature, the “dark cloud” (ʿamāʾ) or “mist” (bukhār), as the ultimate principle of things and forms: intelligence, heavenly bodies, and elements and their mixtures that culminate in the “perfect man.” This primordial nature is the “breath” of the Merciful God in his aspect as Lord. It “flows” throughout the universe and manifests Truth in all its parts. It is the first mother through which Truth manifests itself to itself and generates the universe. And it is the universal natural body that gives birth to the translucent bodies of the spheres, to the elements, and to their mixtures, all of which are related to that primary source as daughters to their mother.

Ibn al-ʿArabī attempted to explain how Intelligence proceeds from the absolute One by inserting between them a primordial feminine principle, which is all things in potentiality but which also possesses the capacity, readiness, and desire to manifest or generate them first as archetypes in Intelligence and then as actually existing things in the universe below. Ibn al-ʿArabī gave this principle numerous names, including prime “matter” (ʿunṣur), and characterized it as the principle “whose existence makes manifest the essences of the potential worlds.” The doctrine that the first simple originated thing is not Intelligence but “indefinite matter” and that Intelligence was originated through the mediation of this matter was attributed to Empedocles, a 5th-century-bc Greek philosopher, in doxographies (compilations of extracts from the Greek philosophers) translated into Arabic. It represented an attempt to bridge the gulf between the absolute One and the multiplicity of forms in Intelligence. The Andalusian mystic Ibn Masarrah (9th–10th centuries) is reported to have championed pseudo-Empedoclean doctrines, and Ibn al-ʿArabī (who studied under some of his followers) quotes Ibn Masarrah on a number of occasions. This philosophic tradition is distinct from the one followed by the Ismāʿīlī theologians, who explained the origination of Intelligence by the mediation of God’s will.

Islāmic thought » The new wisdom: synthesis of philosophy and mysticism » Primary teachers of the new wisdom » The teachings of Twelver Shīʿism and the school of Eṣfahān
After Ibn al-ʿArabī, the new wisdom developed rapidly in intellectual circles in eastern Islām. Commentators on the works of Avicenna, as-Suhrawardī, and Ibn al-ʿArabī began the process of harmonizing and integrating the views of the masters. Great poets made them part of every educated man’s literary culture. Mystical fraternities became the custodians of such works, spreading them into Central Asia and the Indian subcontinent and transmitting them from one generation to another. Following the Mongol khan Hülagü’s entry into Baghdad (1258), the Twelver Shīʿah were encouraged by the Il Khanid Tatars and Naṣīr ad-Dīn aṭ-Ṭūsī (the philosopher and theologian who accompanied Hülagü as his vizier) to abandon their hostility to mysticism. Muʿtazilī doctrines were retained in their theology. Theology, however, was downgraded to “formal” learning that must be supplemented by higher things, the latter including philosophy and mysticism, both of earlier Shīʿī (including Ismāʿīlī) origin and of later Sunnī provenance. Al-Ghazālī, as-Suhrawardī, Ibn al-ʿArabī, and Avicenna were then eagerly studied and (except for their doctrine of the imamate) embraced with little or no reservation. This movement in Shīʿī thought gathered momentum when the leaders of a mystical fraternity established themselves as the Ṣafavid dynasty (1501–1732) in Iran, where they championed Twelver Shīʿism as the official doctrine of the new monarchy. During the 17th century, Iran experienced a cultural and scientific renaissance that included a revival of philosophic studies. There, Islāmic philosophy found its last creative exponents. The new wisdom as expounded by the masters of the school of Eṣfahān radiated throughout eastern Islām and continued as a vital tradition until modern times.

The major figures of the school of Eṣfahān were Mīr Dāmād (Muḥammad Bāqir ibn ad-Dāmād, died 1631/32) and his great disciple Mullā Ṣadrā (Ṣadr ad-Dīn ash-Shīrāzī, c. 1571–1640). Both were men of wide culture and prolific writers with a sharp sense for the history and development of philosophic ideas.

Islāmic thought » The new wisdom: synthesis of philosophy and mysticism » Primary teachers of the new wisdom » The teachings of Twelver Shīʿism and the school of Eṣfahān » The teachings of Mīr Dāmāẖ
Mīr Dāmād was the first to expound the notion of “eternal origination” (ḥudūth dahrī) as an explanation for the creation of the world. Muslim philosophers and their critics had recognized the crucial role played by the question of time in the discussion of the eternity of the world. The proposition that time is the measure of movement was criticized by Abū al-Barakāt al-Baghdādī, who argued that time is prior to movement and rest, indeed to everything except being. Time is the measure or concomitant of being, lasting and transient, enduring and in movement or rest. It characterizes or qualifies all being, including God. God works in time, incessantly willing and directly creating everything in the world: his persistent will creates the eternal beings of the world, and his ever-renewed will creates the transient beings. The notion of a God who works in time was of course objectionable to theology, and Fakhr ad-Dīn ar-Rāzī refused to accept this solution despite its attractions. Ar-Rāzī also saw that it leads to the notion (attributed to Plato) that time is a self-subsistent substance, whose relation to God would further compromise his unity. Finally, ar-Rāzī explained that this self-subsistent substance will have to be related to different beings in different ways. It is called “everlastingness” (sarmad) when related to God and the Intelligences (angels) that are permanent and do not move or change in any way, “eternity” (dahr) when related to the totality of the world of movement and change, and “time” (zamān) when related to corporeal beings that make up the world of movement and change.

Mīr Dāmād returned to Avicenna and sought to harmonize his views with those of as-Suhrawardī on the assumption that what Avicenna meant by his “Oriental” (mashriqīyah) philosophy was identical with as-Suhrawardī’s wisdom of “illumination” (ishrāĪ), which he interpreted as a Platonic doctrine that asserted the priority of essence (form) over being (existence). Time, for Mīr Dāmād, was neither a mere being of reason nor an accident of existing things. It belongs to the essence of things and describes their mode and rank of being. It is a “relation” that beings have to each other because of their essential nature. There must, therefore, be three ranks of order of time corresponding to the three ranks of order of being. Considered as the relation of God to the divine names and attributes (Intelligences or archetypes), the relation is “everlastingness.” Considered as the relation between the Intelligences, or archetypes, and their reflections in the mutable things of the world below, the relation is “eternity.” And considered as the relation between these mutable things, the relation is “time.” Creation, or origination, is this very relation. Thus, the origination of the immutable Intelligences, or archetypes, is called “everlasting creation,” the origination of the world of mutable beings as a whole is called “eternal creation,” and the generation of mutable things within the world is called “temporal creation.”

Islāmic thought » The new wisdom: synthesis of philosophy and mysticism » Primary teachers of the new wisdom » The teachings of Twelver Shīʿism and the school of Eṣfahān » The teachings of Mullā Ṣadrā
Mullā Ṣadrā superimposed Ibn al-ʿArabī’s mystical thought (whose philosophic implications had already been exposed by a number of commentators) on the “Aristotelian”–Illuminationist synthesis developed by Mīr Dāmāad. Against his master, he argued with the Aristotelians for the priority of being (existence) over essence (form), which he called an abstraction; and, with Ibn al-ʿArabī, he argued for the “unity of being” within which beings differ only according to “priority and posteriority,” “perfection and imperfection,” and “strength and weakness.” All being is thus viewed as a graded manifestation, or determination, of absolute, or pure, Being, and every level of being possesses all the attributes of pure Being, but with varying degrees of intensity or perfection.

Mullā Ṣadrā considered his unique contribution to Islāmic philosophy to be his doctrine of nature, which enabled him to assert that everything other than God and his knowledge—i.e., the entire corporeal world, including the heavenly bodies—is originated “eternally” as well as “temporally.” This doctrine of nature is an elaboration of the last manifestation of Ibn al-ʿArabī’Ĩ “nature” or prime “matter,” articulated on philosophic grounds and within the general framework of Aristotelian natural science and defended against every possible philosophic and theological objection.

Nature for Mullā Ṣadrā is the “substance” and “power” of all corporeal beings and the direct cause of their movement. Movement (and time, which measures it) is therefore not an accident of substance or an accompaniment of some of its accidents. It signifies the very change, renewal, and passing of being—itself being in constant “flow,” or flux. The entire corporeal world, both the celestial spheres and the world of the elements, constantly renews itself. The “matter” of corporeal things has the power to become a new form at every instant; and the resulting matter–form complex is at every instant a new matter ready for, desiring, and moving toward another form. Men fail to observe this constant flux and movement in simple bodies not because of the endurance of the same form in them but because of the close similarity between their ever-new forms. What the philosophers call “movement” and “time” are not, as they believed, anchored in anything permanent—e.g., in what they call “nature,” “substance,” or “essence”; essence is permanent only in the mind, and nature and substance are permanent activity. Nature as permanent activity is the very being of natural things and identical with their substance. Because nature is “permanent” in this sense, it is connected to a permanent principle that manifests activity in it permanently. Because nature constantly renews itself, all renewed and emergent things are connected to it. Thus, nature is the link between what is eternal and what is originated, and the world of nature is originated both eternally and temporarily.

Mullā Ṣadrā distinguishes this primary “movement-in-substance” (al-ḥarakah fī al-jawhar) from haphazard, compulsory, and other accidental movements that lack proper direction, impede the natural movement of substance, or reverse it. Movement-in-substance is not universal change or flux without direction, the product of conflict between two equally powerful principles, or a reflection of the nonbeing of the world of nature when measured against the world of permanent forms. It is, rather, the natural beings’ innate desire to become more perfect, which directs this ceaseless self-renewal, self-origination, or self-emergence into a perpetual and irreversible flow upward in the scale of being—from the simplest elements to the human body–soul complex and the heavenly body–soul complex (both of which participate in the general instability, origination, and passing of being that characterizes the entire corporeal world). This flow upward, however, is by no means the end. For the indefinite “matter” (Ibn al-ʿArabī’s “cloud” and the mystics’ “created Truth”) is the “substratum” of everything other than its Creator, the mysterious pure Truth. It “extends” beyond the body–soul complex to the Intelligences (divine names) that are Being’s first, highest, and purest actualization or activity. This “extension” unites everything other than the Creator into a single continuum. The human body–soul complex and the heavenly body–soul complex are not moved externally by the Intelligences. Their movement is an extension of the process of self-perfection. Having reached the highest rank of order of substance in the corporeal world, they are now prepared, and still moved by their innate desire, to flow upward and transform themselves into pure intelligence.

Islāmic thought » The new wisdom: synthesis of philosophy and mysticism » Impact of modernism
The new wisdom lived on during the 18th and 19th centuries, conserving much of its vitality and strength but not cultivating new ground. It attracted able thinkers such as Shāh Walī Allāh of Delhi and Hādī Sabzevārī and became a regular part of the program of higher education in the cultural centres of the Ottoman Empire, Iran, and the Indian subcontinent, a status never achieved by the earlier tradition of Islāmic philosophy. In collaboration with its close ally Persian mystical poetry, the new wisdom determined the intellectual outlook and spiritual mood of educated Muslims in the regions where Persian had become the dominant literary language.

The wholesale rejection of the new wisdom in the name of simple, robust, and more practical piety (which had been initiated by Ibn Taymīyah and which continued to find exponents among jurists) made little impression on its devotees. To be taken seriously, reform had to come from their own ranks and be espoused by such thinkers as the eminent theologian and mystic of Muslim India Aḥmad Sirhindī (flourished 16th–17th centuries)—a reformer who spoke their language and attacked Ibn al-ʿArabī’s “unity of being” only to defend an older, presumably more orthodox form of mysticism. Despite some impact, however, attempts of this kind remained isolated and were either ignored or reintegrated into the mainstream, until the coming of the modern reformers. The 19th- and 20th-century reformers Jamāl ad-Dīn al-Afghānī, Muḥammad ʿAbduh, and Muḥammad Iqbāl were initially educated in this tradition, but they rebelled against it and advocated radical reforms.

The modernists attacked the new wisdom at its weakest point; that is, its social and political norms, its individualistic ethics, and its inability to speak intelligently about social, cultural, and political problems generated by a long period of intellectual isolation that was further complicated by the domination of the European powers. Unlike the earlier tradition of Islāmic philosophy from al-Fārābī to Averroës, which had consciously cultivated political science and investigated the political dimension of philosophy and religion and the relation between philosophy and the community at large, the new wisdom from its inception lacked genuine interest in these questions, had no appreciation for political philosophy, and had only a benign toleration for the affairs of the world.

None of the reformers was a great political philosopher. They were concerned with reviving their nations’ latent energies, urging them to free themselves from foreign domination, and impressing on them the need to reform their social and educational institutions. They also saw that all this required a total reorientation, which could not take place so long as the new wisdom remained not only the highest aim of a few solitary individuals but also a social and popular ideal as well. Yet, as late as 1917, Iqbāl found that “the present-day Muslim prefers to roam about aimlessly in the valley of Hellenic-Persian mysticism, which teaches us to shut our eyes to the hard reality around, and to fix our gaze on what is described as ‘illumination.’ ” His reaction was harsh: “To me this self-mystification, this nihilism, i.e., seeking reality where it does not exist, is a physiological symptom, giving me a clue to the decadence of the Muslim world.”

To arrest the decadence and infuse new vitality in a society in which they were convinced religion must remain the focal point, the modern reformers advocated a return to the movements and masters of Islāmic theology and philosophy antedating the new wisdom. They argued that these, rather than the “Persian incrustation of Islām,” represented Islām’s original and creative impulse. The modernists were attracted, in particular, to the views of the Muʿtazilah: affirmation of God’s unity and denial of all similarity between him and created things; reliance on human reason; emphasis on man’s freedom; faith in man’s ability to distinguish between good and bad; and insistence on man’s responsibility to do good and fight against evil in private and public places. They were also impressed by the traditionalists’ devotion to the original, uncomplicated forms of Islām and by their fighting spirit, and by the Ashʿarīs’ view of faith as an affair of the heart and their spirited defense of the Muslim community. In viewing the scientific and philosophic tradition of eastern and western Islām prior to the Tatar and Mongol invasions, they saw an irrefutable proof that true Islām stands for the liberation of man’s spirit, promotes critical thought, and provides both the impetus to grapple with the temporal and the demonstration of how to set it in order. These ideas initiated what was to become a vast effort to recover, edit, and translate into the Muslim national languages works of earlier theologians and philosophers, which had been long neglected or known only indirectly through later accounts.

The modern reformers insisted, finally, that Muslims must be taught to understand the real meaning of what has happened in Europe, which in effect means the understanding of modern science and philosophy, including modern social and political philosophies. Initially, this challenge became the task of the new universities in the Muslim world. In the latter part of the 20th century, however, the originally wide gap between the various programs of theological and philosophic studies in religious colleges and in modern universities narrowed considerably.

Muhsin S. Mahdi

Islāmic thought » Social and ethical principles » Family life
A basic social teaching of Islām is the encouragement of marriage, and the Qurʾān regards celibacy definitely as something exceptional—to be resorted to only under economic stringency. Thus, monasticism as a way of life was severely criticized by the Qurʾān. With the appearance of Ṣūfism, however, many Ṣūfīs preferred celibacy, and some even regarded women as an evil distraction from piety, although marriage remained the normal practice also with Ṣūfīs.

Polygamy, which was practiced in pre-Islāmic Arabia, was permitted by the Qurʾān, which, however, limited the number of simultaneous wives to four, and this permission was made dependent upon the condition that justice be done among co-wives. The Qurʾān even suggests that “You shall never be able to do justice among women, no matter how much you desire.” Medieval law and society, however, regarded this “justice” to be primarily a private matter between a husband and his wives, although the law did provide redress in cases of gross neglect of a wife. Right of divorce was also vested basically in the husband, who could unilaterally repudiate his wife, although the woman could also sue her husband for divorce before a court on certain grounds.

The virtue of chastity is regarded as of prime importance by Islām. The Qurʾān advanced its universal recommendation of marriage as a means to ensure a state of chastity (iḥṣān), which is held to be induced by a single free wife. The Qurʾān states that those guilty of adultery are to be severely punished with 100 lashes. Tradition has intensified this injunction and has prescribed this punishment for unmarried persons, but married adulterers are to be stoned to death. A false accusation of adultery is punishable by 80 lashes.

The general ethic of the Qurʾān considers the marital bond to rest on “mutual love and mercy,” and the spouses are said to be “each other’s garments.” The detailed laws of inheritance prescribed by the Qurʾān also tend to confirm the idea of a central family—husband, wife, and children, along with the husband’s parents. Easy access to polygamy (although the normal practice in Islāmic society has always been that of monogamy) and easy divorce on the part of the husband led, however, to frequent abuses in the family. In recent times, most Muslim countries have enacted legislation to tighten up marital relationships.

Rights of parents in terms of good treatment are stressed in Islām, and the Qurʾān extols filial piety, particularly tenderness to the mother, as an important virtue. A murderer of his father is automatically disinherited. The tendency of the Islāmic ethic to strengthen the immediate family on the one hand and the community on the other at the expense of the extended family or tribe did not succeed, however. Muslim society, until the encroachments upon it of modernizing influences, has remained basically one composed of tribes or quasi-tribes. Despite urbanization, tribal affiliations offer the greatest resistance to change and development of a modern polity. So strong, indeed, has been the tribal ethos that, in most Muslim societies, daughters are not given their inheritance share prescribed by the sacred law in order to prevent disintegration of the joint family’s patrimony.

Islāmic thought » Social and ethical principles » The state
Because Islām draws no distinction between the religious and the temporal spheres of life, the Muslim state is by definition religious. The main differences between the Sunnī, Khawārij, and Shīʿī concepts of rulership have already been pointed out above. It should be noted that, although the office of the Sunnī caliph (khalīfah, one who is successor to the Prophet in rulership) is religious, this does not imply any functions comparable to those of the pope. The caliph has no authority either to define dogma or, indeed, even to legislate. He is the chief executive of a religious community, and his primary function is to implement the sacred law and work in the general interests of the community. He himself is not above the law and if necessary can even be deposed, at least in theory.

Sunnī political theory is essentially a product of circumstance—an after-the-fact rationalization of historical developments. Thus, between the Shīʿah legitimism that restricts rule to ʿAlī’s family and the Khawārij democratism that allowed rulership to anyone, even to “an Ethiopian slave,” Sunnism held the position that “rule belonged to the Quraysh” (the Prophet’s tribe)—the condition that actually existed. Again, in view of the extremes represented by the Khawārij, who demanded rebellion against what they considered to be unjust or impious rule, and Shīʿites, who raised the imām to a metaphysical plane of infallibility, Sunnites took the position that a ruler has to satisfy certain qualifications but that rule cannot be upset on small issues. Indeed, under the impact of civil wars started by the Khawārij, Sunnism drifted to more and more conformism and actual toleration of injustice.

The first step taken in this direction by the Sunnites was the enunciation that “one day of lawlessness is worse than 30 years of tyranny.” This was followed by the principle that “Muslims must obey even a tyrannical ruler.” Soon, however, the sultan (ruler) was declared to be “shadow of God on earth.” No doubt, the principle was also adopted—and insisted upon—that “there can be no obedience to the ruler in disobedience of God”; but there is no denying the fact that the Sunnī doctrine came more and more to be heavily weighted on the side of political conformism. This change is also reflected in the principles of legitimacy. Whereas early Islām had confirmed the pre-Islāmic democratic Arab principle of rule by consultation (shūrā) and some form of democratic election of the leader, those practices soon gave way to dynastic rule with the advent of the Umayyads. The shūrā was not developed into any institutionalized form and was, indeed, soon discarded. Soon the principle of “might is right” came into being, and later theorists frankly acknowledged that actual possession of effective power is one method of the legitimization of power.

In spite of this development, the ruler could not become absolute because a basic restraint was placed upon him by the Sharīʿah law under which he held his authority and which he dutifully was bound to execute and defend. When, in the latter half of the 16th century, the Mughal emperor Akbar in India wanted to arrogate to himself the right of administrative–legal absolutism, the strong reaction of the orthodox thwarted his attempt. In general, the ʿulamāʾ (religious scholars) jealously upheld the sovereign position of the Sharīʿah against the political authority.

The effective shift of power from the caliph to the sultan was, again, reflected in the redefinition of the functions of the caliph. It was conceded that, if the caliph administered through wazīrs (viziers or ministers) or subordinate rulers (amīrs), it was not necessary for him to embody all the physical, moral, and intellectual virtues theoretically insisted upon earlier. In practice, however, the caliph was no more than a titular head from the middle of the 10th century onward, when real power passed to self-made and adventurous amīrs and sultans, who merely used the caliph’s name for legitimacy.

Islāmic thought » Social and ethical principles » Education
Muslim educational activity began in the 8th century, primarily in order to disseminate the teaching of the Qurʾān and the sunnah of the Prophet. The first task in this endeavor was to record the oral traditions and collect the written manuscripts. This information was systematically organized in the 2nd century ah, and in the following century a sound corpus was agreed upon. This vast activity of “seeking knowledge” (ṭalab al-ʿilm) resulted in the creation of specifically Arab sciences of tradition, history, and literature.

When the introduction of the Greek sciences—philosophy, medicine, and mathematics—created a formidable body of lay knowledge, a creative reaction on the traditional religious base resulted in the rationalist theological movement of the Muʿtazilah. Based on that Greek legacy, from the 9th to the 12th century ad a brilliant philosophical movement flowered and presented a challenge to orthodoxy on the issues of the eternity of the world, the doctrine of revelation, and the status of the Sharīʿah.

The orthodox met the challenges positively by formulating the religious dogma. At the same time, however, for fear of heresies, they began to draw a sharp distinction between religious and secular sciences. The custodians of the Sharīʿah developed an unsympathetic attitude toward the secular disciplines and excluded them from the curriculum of the madrasah (college) system.

Their exclusion from the Sunnī system of education proved fatal, not only for those disciplines but, in the long run, for religious thought in general because of the lack of intellectual challenge and stimulation. A typical madrasah curriculum included logic (which was considered necessary as an “instrumental” science for the formal correctness of thinking procedure), Arabic literature, law, Ḥadīth, Qurʾān commentary, and theology. Despite sporadic criticism from certain quarters, the madrasah system remained impervious to change.

One important feature of Muslim education was that primary education (which consisted of Qurʾān reading, writing, and rudimentary arithmetic) did not feed candidates to institutions of higher education, and the two remained separate. In higher education, emphasis was on books rather than on subjects and on commentaries rather than on original works. This, coupled with the habit of learning by rote (which was developed from the basically traditional character of knowledge that encouraged learning more than thinking), impoverished intellectual creativity still further.

Despite these grave shortcomings, however, the madrasah produced one important advantage. Through the uniformity of its religio-legal content, it gave the ʿulamāʾ the opportunity to effect that overall cohesiveness and unity of thought and purpose that, despite great variations in local Muslim cultures, has become a palpable feature of the world Muslim community. This uniformity has withstood even the serious tension created against the seats of formal learning by Ṣūfism through its peculiar discipline and its own centres.

In contrast to the Sunnī attitude toward it, philosophy continued to be seriously cultivated among the Shīʿah, even though it developed a strong religious character. Indeed, philosophy has enjoyed an unbroken tradition in Persia down to the present and has produced some highly original thinkers. Both the Sunnī and the Shīʿah medieval systems of learning, however, have come face to face with the greatest challenge of all—the impact of modern education and thought.

Organization of education developed naturally in the course of time. Evidence exists of small schools already established in the first century of Islām that were devoted to reading, writing, and instruction in the Qurʾān. These schools of “primary” education were called kuttābs. The well-known governor of Iraq at the beginning of the 8th century, the ruthless al-Ḥajjāj, had been a schoolteacher in his early career. When higher learning in the form of tradition grew in the 8th and 9th centuries, it was centred around learned men to whom students travelled from far and near and from whom they obtained a certificate (ijāzah) to teach what they had learned. Through the munificence of rulers and princes, large private and public libraries were built, and schools and colleges arose. In the early 9th century a significant incentive to learning came from the translations made of scientific and philosophical works from the Greek (and partly Sanskrit) at the famous bayt al-ḥikmah (“house of wisdom”) at Baghdad, which was officially sponsored by the caliph al-Maʾmūn. The Fāṭimid caliph al-Ḥākim set up a dār alḥikmah (“hall of wisdom”) in Cairo in the 10th–11th centuries. With the advent of the Seljuq Turks, the famous vizier Niẓām al-Mulk created an important college at Baghdad, devoted to Sunnī learning, in the latter half of the 11th century. One of the world’s oldest surviving universities, al-Azhar at Cairo, was originally established by the Fāṭimids, but Saladin (Ṣalāḥ ad-Dīn al-Ayyūbī), after ousting the Fāṭimids, consecrated it to Sunnī learning in the 12th century. Throughout subsequent centuries, colleges and quasi-universities (called madrasah or dār al-ʿulūm) arose throughout the Muslim world from Spain (whence philosophy and science were transmitted to the Latin West) across Central Asia to India.

In Turkey a new style of madrasah came into existence; it had four wings, for the teaching of the four schools of Sunnī law. Professorial chairs were endowed in large colleges by princes and governments, and residential students were supported by college endowment funds. A myriad of smaller centres of learning were endowed by private donations.

Islāmic thought » Social and ethical principles » Cultural diversity
Underneath the legal and creedal unity, the world of Islām harbours a tremendous diversity of cultures, particularly in the outlying regions. The expansion of Islām can be divided into two broad periods. In the first period of the Arab conquests, the assimilative activity of the conquering religion was far-reaching. Although Persia resurrected its own language and a measure of its national culture after the first three centuries of Islām, its culture and language had come under heavy Arab influence. Only after Ṣafavid rule installed Shīʿism as a distinctive creed in the 16th century did Persia regain a kind of religious autonomy. The language of religion and thought, however, continued to be Arabic.

In the second period, the spread of Islām was not conducted by the state with ʿulamāʾ influence but was largely the work of Ṣūfī missionaries. The Ṣūfīs, because of their latitudinarianism, compromised with local customs and beliefs and left a great deal of the pre-Islāmic legacy in every region intact. Thus, among the Central Asian Turks, shamanistic practices were absorbed, while in Africa the holy man and his barakah (an influence supposedly causing material and spiritual well-being) are survivors from the older cults. In India there are large areas geographically distant from the Muslim religio-political centre of power in which customs are still Hindu and even pre-Hindu and in which people worship a motley of saints and deities in common with the Hindus. The custom of satī, under which a widow burned herself alive along with her dead husband, persisted in India even among some Muslims until late into the Mughal period. The 18th- and 19th-century reform movements exerted themselves to “purify” Islām of these accretions and superstitions.

Indonesia affords a striking example of this phenomenon. Because Islām reached there late and soon thereafter came under European colonialism, the Indonesian society has retained its pre-Islāmic world view beneath an overlay of Islāmic practices. It keeps its customary law (called adat) at the expense of the Sharīʿah; many of its tribes are still matriarchal; and culturally the Hindu epics Rāmāyaṇa and Mahābhārata hold a high position in national life. Since the 19th century, however, orthodox Islām has gained steadily in strength because of fresh contacts with the Middle East.

Apart from regional diversity, the main internal division within Islāmic society is brought about by urban and village life. Islām originally grew up in the two cities of Mecca and Medina, and as it expanded, its peculiar ethos appears to have developed in urban areas. Culturally, it came under a heavy Persian influence in Iraq, where the Arabs learned the ways and style of life of their conquered people, who were culturally superior to them. The custom of veiling women (which originally arose as a sign of aristocracy but later served the purpose of segregating women from men—the pardah), for example, was acquired in Iraq.

Another social trait derived from outside cultures was the disdain for agriculture and manual labour in general. Because the people of the town of Medina were mainly agriculturists, this disdain could not have been initially present. In general, Islām came to appropriate a strong feudal ethic from the peoples it conquered. Also, because the Muslims generally represented the administrative and military aristocracy and because the learned class (the ʿulamāʾ) was an essential arm of the state, the higher culture of Islām became urban based.

This city orientation explains and also underlines the traditional cleavage between the orthodox Islām of the ʿulamāʾ and the folk Islām espoused by the Ṣūfī orders of the countryside. In the modern period, the advent of education and rapid industrialization threatened to make this cleavage still wider. With the rise of a strong and widespread fundamentalist movement in the second half of the 20th century, this dichotomy has decreased.

Islāmic thought » Religion and the arts » The visual arts
The Arabs before Islām had hardly any art except poetry, which had been developed to full maturity and in which they took great pride. As with other forms of culture, the Muslim Arabs borrowed their art from Persia and Byzantium. Whatever elements the Arabs borrowed, however, they Islāmized in a manner that fused them into a homogeneous spiritual-aesthetic complex. The most important principle governing art was aniconism; i.e., the religious prohibition of figurization and representation of living creatures. Underlying this prohibition is the assumption that God is the sole author of life and that a person who produces a likeness of a living being seeks to rival God. The tradition ascribed to the Prophet that a person who makes a picture of a living thing will be asked on the Day of Judgment to infuse life into it, whether historically genuine or not, doubtless represents the original attitude of Islām. In the Qurʾān (3:49, 5:113), reflecting an account in a New Testament apocryphal work, it is counted among the miracles of Jesus that he made likenesses of birds from clay “by God’s order,” and, when he breathed into them, they became real birds, again, “by God’s order.”

Hence, in Islāmic aniconism two considerations are fused together: (1) rejection of such images that might become idols (these may be images of anything) and (2) rejection of figures of living things. Plato and Plotinus, Greek philosophers, had also dismissed representative art as an “imitation of nature”; i.e., as something removed from reality. The Islāmic attitude is more or less the same, with the added element of attributing to the artist a violation of the sanctity of the principle of life. The same explanation holds for the Qurʾānic criticism of a certain kind of poetry, namely, free indulgence in extravagant image mongering: “They [poets] recklessly wander in every valley” (26:225).

This basic principle has, however, undergone modifications. First, pictures were tolerated if they were confined to private apartments and harems of palaces. This was the case with some members of the Umayyad and ʿAbbāsid dynasties, Turks, and Persians—in particular with the Shīʿah, who have produced an abundance of pictorial representations of the holy family and of the Prophet himself. Second, in the field of pictorial representation, animal and human figures are combined with other ornamental designs such as fillets and arabesques—stressing their ornamental nature rather than representative function. Third, for the same reason, in plastic art they appear in low relief. In other regions of the Muslim world—in North Africa, Egypt, and India (except for Mughal palaces)—representational art was strictly forbidden. Even in paintings, the figures have little representational value and are mostly decorative and sometimes symbolic. This explains why plastic art is one of the most limited areas of Islāmic art. The only full-fledged plastic figures are those of animals and a few human figures that the Seljuqs brought from eastern Turkistan.

Much more important than plastic art were paintings, particularly frescoes and later Persian and Perso-Indian miniatures. Frescoes are found in the Umayyad and ʿAbbāsid palaces and in Spain, Iran, and in the harem quarters of the Mughal palaces in India. Miniature paintings, introduced in Persia, assumed much greater importance in the later period in Mughal India and Turkey. Miniature painting was closely associated with the art of book illumination, and this technique of decorating the pages of the books was patronized by princes and other patrons from the upper classes. (Miniature painting is also discussed below; see Illustration of myth and legend.)

Islāmic thought » Religion and the arts » Music
Instrumental music was forbidden by the orthodox in the formative stages of Islām. As for vocal music, its place was largely taken by a sophisticated and artistic form of the recitation of the Qurʾān known as tajwīd. Nevertheless, the Muslim princely courts generously patronized and cultivated music. Arab music was influenced by Persian and Greek music. Al-Fārābī, a 10th-century philosopher, is credited with having constructed a musical instrument called the arghanūn (organ). In India, Amīr Khosrow, a 14th-century poet and mystic, produced a synthesis of Indian and Persian music and influenced the development of later Indian music.

Among the religious circles, the Ṣūfīs introduced both vocal and instrumental music as part of their spiritual practices. The samāʿ, as this music was called, was opposed by the orthodox at the beginning, but the Ṣūfīs persisted in this practice, which slowly won general recognition. The great Ṣūfī poet Jalāl ad-Dīn ar-Rūmī (died 1273)—revered equally by the orthodox and the Ṣūfīs—heard the divine voice in his stringed musical instrument when he said “Its head, its veins (strings) and its skin are all dry and dead; whence comes to me the voice of the Friend?”

Islāmic thought » Religion and the arts » Literature
In literature, drama and pure fiction were not allowed—drama because it was a representational art and fiction because it was akin to lying. Similar constraints operated against the elaboration of mythology (see below Islāmic myth and legend). Story literature was tolerated, and the great story works of Indian origin—The Thousand and One Nights and Kalīlah wa Dimnah—were translated from the Persian, introducing secular prose into Arabic. Didactic and pious stories were used and even invented by popular preachers. Much of this folklore found its way back into enlarged editions of The Thousand and One Nights and, through it, has even influenced later history writing. Because of the ban on fictional literature, there grew a strong tendency in later literary compositions—in both poetry and prose—toward hyperbole (mubālaghah), a literary device to satisfy the need of getting away from what is starkly real without committing literal falsehood, thus often resulting in the caricature and the grotesque. Poetry lent itself particularly well to this device, which was freely used in panegyrics, satires, and lyrics. As a form of effective expression, poetry is eminently characteristic of the East. The Arab genius is almost natively poetical with its strong and vivid imagination not easily amenable to the rigorous order that reason imposes upon the mind. This borderline attitude between the real and the unreal was particularly favourable to the development, in all medieval Islāmic literatures of the Middle East, of the lyric and panegyric forms of poetry wherein every line is a self-contained unit. Much more importantly, it afforded a specially suitable vehicle for a type of mystic poetry in which it is sometimes impossible to determine whether the poet is talking of earthly love or spiritual love. For the same reason, poetry proved an effective haven for thinly veiled deviations from and even attacks on the literalist religion of the orthodox.

Islāmic thought » Religion and the arts » Architecture
Architecture is by far the most important expression of Islāmic art, particularly the architecture of mosques. It illustrates both the diversity of cultures that participated in the Islāmic civilization and the unifying force of Islāmic monotheism represented by the spacious expanse of the mosque—a veritable externalization of the all-enveloping divine unity, heightened by the sense of infinity of the arabesque design. The arabesque, though ornately decorative, spiritually represents the infinite vastness of God.

Among the earliest monuments are the mosque of ʿAmr built in Egypt in 641–642 and the famous Dome of the Rock of Jerusalem (finished in 691), which, however, is not a mosque but a monument, a concentric-circular structure consisting of a wooden dome set on a high drum and resting on four tiers and 12 columns. The Umayyad ruler al-Walīd (died 715) built the great mosque at Damascus and al-Aqṣā Mosque at Jerusalem with two tiers of arcades in order to heighten the ceiling. The early Syro-Egyptian mosque is a heavily columned structure with a prayer niche (miḥrāb) oriented toward the Kaʿbah sanctuary at Mecca.

In Spanish and North African architecture these features are combined with Roman-Byzantine characteristics, the masterpieces of Spanish architecture being the famous Alhambra Palace at Granada and the Great Mosque of Córdoba. In the famous Persian mosques, the characteristic Persian elements are the tapered brick pillars, the arches (each supported by several pillars), the huge arcades, and the four sides called eyvāns. With the advent of the Seljuqs in the 11th century, faience decoration (glazed earthenware) of an exquisite beauty was introduced, and it gained further prominence under the Timurids (14th–16th centuries).

In the number and greatness of mosques, Turkey has the pride of first place in the Muslim world. Turkey began with a Persian influence and then later Syrian in the 13th and 14th centuries, but Turkey developed its own cupola domes and monumental entrances. The Turkish architects accomplished symmetry by means of one large dome, four semidomes, and four small domes among them. In the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent, Muslim architecture first employed Hindu architectural features (e.g., horizontal rather than arcuate, or bowlike, arches and Hindu ornamentation), but later the Persian style predominated.

Fazlur Rahman

Islāmic thought » Islāmic myth and legend
The strict monotheism of Islām does not allow for much mythological embellishment, and only reluctantly were the scriptural revelations of the Qurʾan elaborated and enlarged by commentators and popular preachers. Thus, in the first three centuries, a number of ideas from the ancient Near East, from Hellenistic and especially from Judeo-Christian traditions were absorbed into Islām and given at least partial sanction by the theologians. At the same time, legends were woven around the Prophet Muḥammad and the members of his family. Though inconsistent with historical reality, these legends formed for the masses the main sources of inspiration about the famous figures of the past.

Since early times Islāmic theologians have sought to disregard the Qurʾānic interpretation of both storytellers and mystics. The quṣṣāṣ, or storytellers, made the Qurʾānic revelation more understandable to the masses by filling in the short texts with detailed descriptions that were not found in scripture. Though the mystics tried to maintain the purity of the divine word, they also attempted a spiritualization of both the Qurʾān and the popular legends that developed around it. Their way of giving to the Qurʾānic words a deeper meaning, however, and discovering layer after layer of meaning in them, sometimes led to new quasi-mythological forms. Later Islāmic mystical thinkers built up closed systems that can be called almost mythological (e.g., the angelology—theory of angels—of Suhrawardī al-Maqtūl, executed 1191). An interesting development is visible in poetry, especially in the Persian-speaking areas, where mythological figures and pious legend often were turned into secular images that might awaken in the reader a reminiscence of their religious origin. Such images contribute to the iridescent and ambiguous character of Persian poetry.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic myth and legend » Sources and variations » The Qurʾān and non-Islāmic influences
The sources of Islāmic mythology are first of all the Qurʾānic revelations. Since, for the Muslims, the Qurʾān is the uncreated word of God (the text revealed to Muḥammad considered an earthly manifestation of the eternal and uncreated original in heaven), it contains every truth, and whatever is said in it has been the object of meditation and explanation through the centuries. Thus, since the 9th century, commentators on the Qurʾān have been by far the most important witnesses for Islāmic “mythology.” They wove into their explanations various strands of Persian and ancient oriental lore and relied heavily on Jewish tradition. For example, the Jewish convert, Kaʿb al-Aḥbār brought much of the Isrāʾīliyāt (things Jewish) into Islāmic tradition. Later on, the mystics’ commentaries expressed some gnostic (a dualistic viewpoint in which spirit is viewed as good and matter as evil) and Hellenistic concepts, of which the Hellenistic idea of the Perfect Man—personified in Muḥammad—was to gain greatest prominence. Commentaries written in the border areas of Islāmic countries now and then accepted a few popular traditions from their respective areas; however, the formative period was finished quite early. Traditions about the life and sayings of the Prophet grew larger and larger and are interesting for the study of the adoption of foreign mythological material. A valuable source for Islāmic legends are the qiṣaṣ al-anbiyāʾ—stories of the prophets, such as those by Thaʿālibī (born 1035) and Kisāʾī (11th century)—traditions concerning the prophets of yore in which a large number of pre-Islāmic and non-Islāmic ideas were incorporated.

While the classical mythology of Islām, as far as it can be properly called so, is spread over the whole area of Islām, the miracles and legends around a particular Muslim saint are found chiefly in the area of his special influence (especially where his order is most popular). Even if the names of the saints differ, the legends woven around them are very similar to each other and almost interchangeable. In the area where Persian was read—from Ottoman Turkey to India—the mythological concepts of Ferdowsī’s Shāh-nāmeh are found side by side with the legends taken from ʿAṭṭār’s and Rūmī’s works.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic myth and legend » Sources and variations » The mystics
From the 11th century onward, the biographies of the mystics often show interesting migrations of legendary motifs from one culture to another. For the Persian-speaking countries the Taẓkerat ol-Owlīyāʾ (“Memoirs of the Saints”) of Farīd od-Dīn ʿAṭṭār (died c. 1220) has become the storehouse of legendary material about the early Ṣūfī mystics. ʿAṭṭār’s Persian epics (especially his Manṭeq ot-ṭḥyr, the “Birds’ Conversation”) also contain much material that was used by almost every writer after him. The Mas̄navī (a sort of poetic encyclopaedia of mystical thought in 26,000 couplets) of Jalāl od-Dīn Rūmī (died 1273) is another important source for legends of saints and prophets. For the Iranian world view, Ferdowsī’s (died c. 1020) Shāh-nāmeh (“Book of Kings”) gave a poetical account of the mythology of old Iran, and its heroes became models for many poets and writers. The whole mythological and legendary heritage is condensed in allusions found in lyrical and panegyrical poetry. The Persian poet Ebrāhim ebn ʿAlī Khāqānī’s (c. 1121–c. 1199) works, qaṣīdahs (“Odes”), are typical. The close connection of the Ṣūfī orders with the artisans’ lodges and guilds was instrumental in the dissemination of legendary material, especially about the alleged founder, or patron, of the guild (such as Ḥallāj as patron of cottoncarders and Idrīs as patron of the tailors).

Muslim historians interested in world history often began their works with mythological tales; central Asian traditions were added in Iran during the Il-Khanid period (ad 1256–1335). Folk poetry, in the different languages spoken by Muslims, provides a popular representation of traditional material, be it in Arabic, Persian, Turkish, the Indian and Pakistani languages (Urdu, Bengali, Sindhi, Panjabi, Baluchi, etc.), or the African languages; in all of them allusions to myth and legend are found down to the level of riddles and lullabies. Typical of the legendary tradition of the Shīʿah are the taʿziyas (“passion-plays”) in Iran, commemorating the death of Husayn ibn ʿAlī in Karbalāʾ (680) and the mars̄īyehs (threnodies or elegies for the dead), which form an important branch of the Urdu poetry of India and Pakistan. A proper study of the distribution of most aspects of mythology in the various Muslim areas has not been undertaken, since much of the popular material is rarely available in print or is written in less-known languages—a good example is the extremely rich collections of legends and popular pious works in the Pakistani language, Sindhi.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic myth and legend » Types of myth and legend » Cosmogony and eschatology
The world was created by God’s word kun (“Be”) out of nothing; after the creation of the angelic beings from light, Adam was formed from clay and destined to be God’s vicegerent, khalīfah. All of the angels obeyed God’s order to prostrate themselves before Adam, except Iblīs (Satan), who refused and was cursed; due to Iblīs’ instigation Adam ate the forbidden fruit (or grain) and was driven out of paradise. Questions of original sin or of Eve’s role do not arise in the Muslim version of creation. Satan’s disobedience has been explained by the mystics as actually an expression of his obedience to the divine will that does not allow worship of any but the Lord and that conflicted with the order that Satan prostrate himself before Adam.

Before the creation, God addressed the posterity of Adam: “Am I not your Lord,” alastu birabbikum, and they answered “Yes” (Qurʾān, sūrah 7:172). This pre-eternal covenant is the favourite topic of mystical poetry, especially in the Persian-speaking areas for expressing pre-eternal love between God and man, or the unchangeable fate that was accepted that very day, the Yesterday as contrasted to the Tomorrow of resurrection. Angels and jinns (genies) are living powers that become visible in human life; they are accepted as fully real.

Every destiny is written on the “well-preserved tablet,” and now “the pen has dried up”—a change in destiny is not possible. Later mystics have relied on an extra-Qurʾānic revelation in which God attests: “I was a hidden treasure” and have seen the reason for creation in God’s yearning to be known and loved. For them, creation is the projection of divine names and qualities onto the world of matter.

The central event of Islām is death and resurrection. The dead will be questioned by two terrible angels (that is why the profession of faith is recited to the dying); only the souls of martyrs go straight to heaven where they remain in the crops of green birds around the divine throne (green is always connected with heavenly bliss). The end of the world will be announced by the coming of the mahdī (literally, “the directed or guided one”)—a messianic figure who will appear in the last days and is not found in the Qurʾān but developed out of Shīʿah speculations and sometimes identified with Jesus. The mahdī will slay the Dajjāl, the one-eyed evil spirit, and combat the dangerous enemies, Yājūj and Mājūj, who will come from the north of the earth. The trumpet of Isrāfīl, one of the four archangels, will awaken the dead for the day of resurrection, which is many thousands of years long and the name of which has come to designate a state of complete confusion and turmoil.

The eschatological inventory as described in the Qurʾān was elaborated by the commentators: the scales on which the books or deeds are weighed (an old Egyptian idea), the book in which the two recording angels have noted down man’s deeds, and the narrow bridge that is said to be sharper than a sword and thinner than a hair and leads over hell (an Iranian idea). The dreadful angels of hell and the horrors of that place are as thoroughly described by theologians as the pleasures of paradise, with its waters and gardens and the houris who are permanent virgins. Pious tradition promises space in heavenly mansions, filled with everything beautiful, to those who repeat certain prayer formulas a certain number of times, or for similar rewarding deeds, whereas the mystic longs not “for houris some thousand years old” but for the vision of God, who will be visible like the full moon. In the concept of the sidrah tree as the noblest place in paradise a remnant may be found of the old tree of life. God’s throne is on the waters (Qurʾān, sūrah 11:9) in the highest world, surrounded by worshipping angels. The created world, the earth, is surrounded by the mountain Qāf and enclosed by two oceans that are separated by a barrier. Mecca is the navel of the earth, created 2,000 years before everything else, and the deluge did not reach to proto-Kaʿbah. Often the world is conceived as a succession of seven heavens and seven earths, and a popular tradition says that the earth is on water, on a rock, on the back of a bull, on a kamkam (meaning unknown), on a fish, on water, on wind, on the veil of darkness—hence the Persian expression az māh tā māhī, from the moon to the fish; i.e., throughout the whole world.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic myth and legend » Types of myth and legend » Tales and legends concerning religious figures
The majority of popular legends concern the leading personalities of Islām.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic myth and legend » Types of myth and legend » Tales and legends concerning religious figures » Muḥammad
Muḥammad, whose only miracle, according to his own words, was the bringing of the Qurʾān, is credited with innumerable miracles and associated with a variety of miraculous occurrences: his finger split the moon, the cooked poisoned meat warned him not to touch it, the palm trunk sighed, the gazelle spoke for him; he cast no shadow; from his perspiration the rose was created, etc. His ascension to heaven (miʿrāj) is still celebrated: he rode the winged horse Burāq in the company of the angel Gabriel through the seven spheres, meeting the other prophets there, until he reached the divine presence, alone, even without the angel of inspiration. Muḥammad-mysticism proper was developed in the late 9th century; he is shown as the one who precedes creation, his light is pre-eternal, and he is the reason for and goal of creation. He becomes the perfect man, uniting the divine and the human sphere as dawn is between night and day. His birth was surrounded by miracles, and his birthday (12. Rabīʾ I) became a popular holiday on which numerous poems were written to praise his achievements. The hope for him who has been sent as “mercy for the worlds” and will intercede for his community on Doomsday is extremely strong, especially among the masses, where these legends have completely overshadowed his historical figure.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic myth and legend » Types of myth and legend » Tales and legends concerning religious figures » Other Qurʾānic figures
In addition to Muḥammad himself, his cousin and son-in-law ʿAlī, the Shīʿah hero, has been surrounded by legends concerning his bravery, his miraculous sword, Dhūaʾl-fiqār, and his wisdom. ʿAlī’s son, Ḥusayn, is the subject of innumerable poems that concern the day of his final fight in Karbalāʾ.

Almost every figure mentioned in the Qurʾān has become the centre of a circle of legends, be it Yūsuf, the symbol of overwhelming beauty, or Jesus with the life-giving breath, the model of poverty and asceticism. Of special interest is Khiḍr, identified with the unnamed companion of Moses (Qurʾān, sūrah 20). He is the patron saint of the wayfarers, connected with green, the colour of heavenly bliss, appearing whenever a pious person is in need, and immortal since he drank from the fountain of life, which is hidden in the darkness. In many respects, he is the Islāmic counterpart of Elijah. Strong influences of the Alexander romances (a widely distributed literary genre dealing with the adventures of Alexander the Great) are visible in his figure.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic myth and legend » Types of myth and legend » Tales and legends concerning religious figures » Mystics and other later figures
The great religious personalities have become legendary, especially the martyr-mystic Ḥallāj (executed in Bagdad, 922). His word anā al-Ḥaqq, “I am the Creative Truth,” became the motto of many later mystics. His death on the gallows is the model for the suffering of lovers, and allusions to his fate are frequent in Islāmic literature. An earlier mystic, Abū Yazīd al-Bisṭāmī (died 874), was the first to speak about the ascension of the mystic to heaven, which is a metaphor for higher unitive, mystical experience. A variation of the Buddha legend has been transferred onto the person of the first Ṣūfī (mystic) who practiced absolute poverty and trust in God, the Central Asian Ibrāhīm ibn Adham (died c. 780). The founders of mystical orders were credited by their followers with a variety of miracles, such as riding on lions, healing the sick, walking on water, being present at two places at the same time, and cardiognosia (which is the knowledge of what is in another’s heart, or thought reading). ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Jīlānī (died 1166), the founder of the widespread Qādirīyah order of mystics, and many others have attracted upon themselves a large number of popular stories that formerly had been told about pre-Islāmic saints or about some divinities, and these motifs can easily be transferred from one person to the other. In this sphere the survival of pre-Islāmic customs and legends is most visible. The idea of the hierarchy of saints, culminating in the quṭb, the pole or axis, thanks to whose activities the world keeps going, belongs to the mythology of Ṣūfism (Islāmic mysticism).

Islāmic thought » Islāmic myth and legend » Types of myth and legend » Mythologization of secular tales
A feature of Islāmic mythology is the transformation of unreligious stories into vehicles of religious experience. The old hero of romantic love in Arabic literature, Majnūn, “the demented one,” became a symbol of the soul longing for identification with God, and in the Indus Valley the tales of Sassui or Sohnī, the girls who perish for their love, and other romantic figures, have been understood as symbols of the soul longing for union with God through suffering and death.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic myth and legend » Types of myth and legend » Tales and beliefs about numbers and letters
Many Muslim tales, legends, and traditional sayings are built upon the mystical value of numbers, such as the threefold or sevenfold repetition of a certain rite. This is largely explained by examples from the life of a saintly or pious person, often the Prophet himself, who used to repeat this or that formula so and so many times. The number 40, found in the Qurʾān (as also in the Bible) as the length of a period of repentance, suffering, preparation, and steadfastness, plays the same role in Islām where it is connected, for example, with the 40 days’ preparation and meditation, or fasting, of the novice in the mystical brotherhood. To each number, as well as to each day of the week, special qualities are attributed through the authority of both actual and alleged statements of the Prophet. Many pre-Islāmic customs were thus justified. The importance given to the letters of the Arabic alphabet is peculiar to Muslim pious thought. Letters of the alphabet were assigned numerical values: the straight alif (numerical value one), the first letter of the alphabet, becomes a symbol of the uniqueness and unity of Allāh; the b (numerical value two), the first letter of the Qurʾān, represents to many mystics the creative power by which everything came into existence; the h (numerical value five) is the symbol of huwa, He, the formula for God’s absolute transcendence; the m (numerical value 40) is the “shawl of humanity” by which God, the One (al-Aḥad), is separated from Aḥmad (Muḥammad). M is the letter of human nature and hints at the 40 degrees between man and God. The sect of the Ḥurūfīs developed these cabalistic interpretations of letters, but they are quite common in the whole Islāmic world and form almost a substitute for mythology.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic myth and legend » Illustration of myth and legend
Since the art of representation is opposed in Islām, illustrations of mythological and legendary subjects are rarely found. Miniature painting developed only in the Persian and, later on, in the Turkish and Indo-Muslim areas. Books such as Zakarīyāʾ ebn Moḥammad al-Qazvīnī’s Cosmography contain in some manuscripts a few pictures of angels, like Isrāfīl with the trumpet, and histories of the world or histories of the prophets, written in Iran or Turkey, also contain in rare manuscripts representations of angels or of scenes as told in the Qurʾān, especially the story of Yūsuf and Zalīkhā, which inspired many poems. The Shāh-nāmeh has been fairly frequently illustrated. When the Prophet of Islām is shown at all, his face is usually covered and in several cases his companions or his family members are also shown with veiled faces.

The only subject from the legends surrounding Muḥammad that has been treated by miniaturists several times is his ascension to heaven. There are a number of splendid Persian miniatures depicting this. In poetical manuscripts that contain allusions to legends of the saints, these topics were also sometimes illustrated (e.g., Jonah and the great fish or scenes from the wanderings of Khiḍr). Several miniatures deal with the execution of the mystic al-Ḥallāj. Mythological themes proper are found almost exclusively in the paintings of Mughal India; especially in the period of Jahāngīr, in which the eschatological peace of lion and lamb lying together is illustrated as well as the myth of the earth resting on the bull, on the fish, etc. But by that time European influence was also already visible in Mughal art.

Islāmic thought » Islāmic myth and legend » Significance and modern interpretations
Mythology proper has only a very small place in official Islām and is mostly an expression of popular traditions through which pre-Islāmic influences seeped into Islām. Reformers tried to purge Islām of all non-Qurʾānic ideas and picturesque elaborations of the texts, whereas the mystics tried to spiritualize them as far as possible. Modern Muslim exegesis attempts to interpret many of the mythological strands of the Qurʾān in the light of modern science, as psychological factors, like Muḥammad’s ascension to heaven, and especially deprives the eschatological parts of the Qurʾān of their religious significance. Cosmic events are interpreted as predictions of modern scientific research. To some interpreters, jinns and angels are spiritual forces; to others, jinns are microbes or the like. Thus the religious text is confused with a textbook of science. Popular legends surrounding the Prophet and the saints are still found among the masses but are tending to disappear under the influence of historical research, though many of them have formed models for the behaviour and spiritual life of the Muslim believer.

Encyclopaedia Britannica



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