The Advent of Islam in West Asia and its Influence on the Political and Social Structures in the Region

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Muhammad Prophet learned the art of trading under the protective guidance of his uncle Abu-Taleb. Soon, the prophet was travelling to various places like Syria, parts of North Africa and Persia. He became well known in these quarters as an honest trader often referred to as Al-amin. Through the prophet’s travel we can understand that he was well versed in dealing with people and had already gained their trust. It wasn’t difficult for him to convince people to start abiding a new faith.

In 610 CE, the prophet experienced his first revelations about Islam, soon he started preaching the masses about this new religion. His wife, Khadija, was the first person to embrace Islam. The Quraysh tribe (coincidentally the prophet’s parent tribe) was very much against prophet’s preaching as they believed that he possessed a great threat to their local idols. The Quraysh tribe fought three battles against the prophet’s followers with the end result being the prophet reaching Mecca (the city from where he initially escaped) with 10,000 muslims in 630 CE, this was a very significant number by that time. Upon reaching Mecca, the prophet destroyed the idols in the Kaaba and lived for another 2 years till he established Mecca as the cultural capital of Islam. This event which happened in 630 CE laid the foundation of the spread of Islam which is the second largest religion in the 21st century.

By 632 CE Islam was already flourishing in pockets of Arabia, however with the Rashidun and Umayyad caliphates Islam had already spread all the way to India, Pakistan and Iran by 750 AD. Some important mosques were also established like the Djenne (Timbaktu), Xian (China) and Cheraman Juma (India) mosque. It is widely believed that such a massive spread of a religion in such low time happened through the result of trade routes that were established from an earlier period. One important strand for the spread of Islam in Persia and India, were through the Sufis. The Sufis adapted the teachings of Islam to the local tradition and brought them to the common people. They were successful in building religious centres across the world, this doubled up as community and cultural centres. Such centres created an optimistic sentiment about Islam by travellers and traders who used these buildings as hostels and places of worship. Some examples include Ribat in Tunisia and Zawiya in modern day Libya. It is at this juncture that we see Islam spreading beyond the realms of West Asia, all the way to Srinagar in India where the Shah Hamdan built a mosque to commemorate Sufi leaders and also acted as a cultural centre.

According to Ira Lapidus, A history of Islamic Societies, says that Islam in the initials stage spread through nomadic Arabs and Turkish rulers in North Africa and East of Persia, in the Indian Ocean region it spread through missionaries and locals as it appealed the urban class and many tribes. However, many European scholars believe that such widespread advent of Islam in such short time was done through the use of sword i.e. the locals were given two choices either they changed their faith or be sent to the Promised Land, it was likely that many people chose the former. This is where Lapidus draws a distinction and says that while Muslim rulers did capture far lands but their main aim was not conversion but domination and many Muslim empires had given dhimmi status to non-muslims but people of the book (this status was later given to hindus and buddhists), dhimmi status enabled people to adhere their religion but had placed them in separate tax slab compared to the muslims. This was done to avoid forced conversions as the Quran says that there shall be no force when it comes to acceptance of Islam. However, the dhimmi status offered an incentive to convert to Islam.

The coming of Abbasid caliphate (750–1258 AD) was seen as the golden period of Islam, this period saw the building of the city of Baghdad (754 AD) and shifted the main capital to this city. One of the main foundations during this period was the establishment of the Bayt al-Hikmah or House of Wisdom to create knowledge of mathematics, astronomy, physics etc. under the 7th Abbasid caliph Al-Mamun. During this period the Islamic empire heavily patronised scholars where huge money was invested to get different texts of Sanskrit, Greek and Chinese origin translated into Arabic for Muslim people to understand different cultures and civilizations. This period also saw the origins of algebra and trigonometry in the mathematical world. However, the decline of the golden period began with the conquest of Genghis Khan and the destruction of the House of Wisdom by Hulagu Khan in 1258 marked an end to the golden period.

One major dynasty that came in the middle period was the Safavid dynasty that consolidated the Shiite stronghold in Persia, this dynasty was spread across Persia and was established by Turkish rulers. This group of rulers turned out to be bitter rivals to the Sunni Ottoman Empire. The Safavid dynasty had modern day Armenia, Georgia, Mesopotamia, Syria, upper gulf Afghanistan, Turkmenistan and Anatolia (Turkey) under their comtrol. The founder Ismail Shah I created the Twelver Shiism, the largest branch of Shia Islam today, as the main religion of the empire. However, this didn’t go down well with the Ottoman Empire.

The Ottoman empire (1258–1918) ruled West Asia for around 700 years, the biggest feature of the Ottoman Empire was the capture of the city of Constantinople (modern day Istanbul) from the Byzantine empire. This overthrow of the Byzantine Empire was seen as a victory of Islam over Christianity, the Ottomans soon established Constantinople as their cultural capital. This period saw the Ottomans consolidating their positions in West Asia, many scholars believe that this also marked the start of the modern period of history. The Ottomans soon started spreading their territory in Hungary and other parts of Europe, the Ottomans were able to capture Mecca and Medina where they pronounced themselves as the new Caliphate. The crescent moon symbol which the Islamic world had adapted had originated from the Ottoman Empire. The loss in the battle of Lepanto (1571) against the Holy League marked the downfall of the Ottoman peak. The Empire began declining in the 18th Century and ended with the defeat of Turkey in World War 1. With the advent of British and French colonies creating international boundaries within the region, all the Gulf States declared independence during the 20th century and became major authoritarian regimes.

The political and social structure of West Asia in the 21st century has been influenced by historic events. The Sunni-Shia divide that began after the prophet’s death is still staring at us in the form of a New Cold War in West Asia between Iran and Saudi Arabia, both backed by major players of the old Cold War Russia and USA respectively. Another area of major contentious, influenced by historic event, is the presence of Israeli settlements in Palestine and continuance skirmishes between these two ideologically opposed States. The concept of Promised Land and the insecurity of losing that land (we have to remember that the jews were kept away from this land for 2000 years) is what makes Israel have a belligerent stand on the issue of Palestinian territories. The introduction of global jihad by the US in Afghanistan has come back to bite US back on its home turf through the 9/11 terror attacks. The rise of terrorism is something that has originated in West Asia and has affected the region as well as the globe.

Today, West Asia is in turmoil with Saudi Arabia’s crown prince facing implications of the Khashoggi murder, the Saudi- Iran divide is aggravating the already heightened sectarian divide, there is continuous conflict within the States of Yemen, Libya and Syria. Potential intergovernmental organization like the Arab League and the Gulf Cooperation Council have broken down. It seems like this region which has had a history of conflicts and struggle is undergoing another major change. It will take time for West Asia to achieve status quo.

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Soham Joshi

Soham Joshi

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