A very Concise Introduction

НазваниеA very Concise Introduction
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stan pol, the city. The great Byzantine church Hagia Sophia became a mosque. A new palace, the Topkapi Palace, for the leaders of the Ottoman Empire, the sultans, was built on the ruins of the old palace of the Byzantine Emperors. Symbolic conquest.

The Ottoman Empire continued the trading relationships with the West that had developed during previous Muslim Empires. They also continued the cultural and intellectual traditions of earlier Muslim powers. Mehmet II, for instance, commissioned a copy of Homer’s Iliad for his own use. He hired an Italian to help create his grand new palace. He also had a tapestry made depicting the exploits of Alexander the Great.

Perhaps the best-known ruler of the Ottoman Empire was Suleyman the Magnificent. During the rule of Suleyman (r. 1520-1566) Istanbul became the centre of a Sunni Islamic culture and a monumental world capital. Suleyman gave the empire a law code. He established universities and colleges grounded in Sunni law. He created a theocratic Empire with a hierarchy of offices that included a Sunni official in every Ottoman city who ensured that a common religious and political message was disseminated in every part of the Empire.

The Ottomans like the Roman and Muslim powers before them tolerated diversity in their Empire as long as these diverse minorities were loyal to the Empire. This tolerance took different form depending upon what group was being tolerated. Suleyman tolerated Islamic religious mystics, the Sufis, as long they remained in remote areas. It was a different story for the Shi’a, however. The Shi’a, as a result of Suleyman’s reforms, were forced underground in the Empire. There they created secret societies to preserve the faith.

The Ottomans, like Muslims before them, taxed religious minorities like Shi’ites, Jews and Christians. The Ottomans also demanded other “tribute” from non-Muslims. Christians, for instance, were required to provide males to the Empire who were, in turn, turned, via a system of socialisation, into Muslim Janissaries, an elite that staffed the Ottoman military and administrative bureaucracy. The fact that most Janissaries were Serbs and that they periodically impaled “unruly subjects” would have an immense impact on Christian/Muslim and Serb/Croat relations in the Balkans for centuries.

The Ottomans were not the only Muslim power in the Middle East. To the east of the Ottoman Empire was the Safavid Empire. In 1501 Safavid ruler Ismail Safavi claimed to the true leader of the Muslim world as a result of his descent from the imams. This claim of divine mission would provide the army of the Shi’a Safavids with a sense of mission for centuries. In 1502 Ismail and his mercenary Turkish soldiers conquered the Persian capital of Tabriz and Ismail proclaimed himself the Shah of Iran. Eventually they would go on to conquer Afghanistan.

Though Ismail created, or attempted to create, a theocratic Shi’a empire that didn’t mean that there weren’t tensions between mosque and state. Mosque and state fought over jurisdiction. As I noted Ismail claimed to be a descendent of the imams. Shi’a legal scholars in Persia, the ayatollahs, didn’t necessarily believe that this gave Ismail authority in religious affairs, however. Conflict over imperial power over religion didn’t mean that state and mosque didn’t agree on other issues. Both state and mosque believed in one thing: that Shi’a Islam was the only correct form of Islam. As a result Shi’a Islam was the only form of Islam tolerated in the Safavid or Persian Empire.

Persia’s Shiite Islam was grounded in the notion that its authority came from those twelve caliphs who had succeeded Ali. In Shi’a ideology only these caliphs and their successors were the true successors of the prophet Mohammed and thus the sole “true” leaders of Islam.

Between the 10th and 12th century Sufism spread throughout the Muslim world and particularly in the Indian subcontinent. In the Indian subcontinent Sufi ideology, rituals, and practises were increasingly influenced by Hindu and Buddhist ideology, rituals, and practises, like the oneness of god and the possibility of the mystical merger of god and man. The 12th century saw the development of formal orders in Sufism centred around revered charismatic teachers. Each one of these spiritual masters, Sufi’s claimed, had a lineage that went back to Muhammad. These Sufi masters inculcated trust, repentance, patience, contentment, gratitude, poverty, love, sincerity, trust, modesty, hospitality, generosity, loyalty, and submission (islam) in their students. Each order developed its own rituals (repetition of phrases) and practises (vigils, fasting, the giving up of worldly possessions, simple living, dance, in some Sufi groups, the whirling dervishes) of annihilation of the lower self, the ego.

Islam and European Imperialism

There have, as I noted, long been tensions between Islam and the West. The rise of Christian Europe to power and Christian Europe’s colonialisation and imperialism heightened tensions between Christianity and Islam as Islam, a religion that itself had played a foundational role in legitimizing Islamic colonization and imperialism and had persecuted other religious groups like Hinduism and Buddhism when they conquered and colonized parts of Asia in the name of absolute truth, now experienced a similar form of colonization and imperialism and discrimination and persecution. Europeans took over the Asian trade from Muslim traders, pushed Muslims out of Spain and Eastern Europe, took parts of what is today India from the Muslims, took much of Asia from the Muslims, and took parts of North Africa from the Muslims.

Many Muslims reacted to Western European colonization and imperialism much as conquered peoples have always reacted to their colonization and imperialism, to being invaded. Islam experienced a religious revival or religious renewal. For many Muslims Islam became a major site of resistance to Western colonization and imperialism and those rulers in Islamic countries who allied with the West as it became clear that most Islamic countries were going to be unable to expel the Western colonizers and imperialist from their shores.

The Islamic revival movement shared, as we will see, similarities with Christian revival movements. Believing that European colonization and imperialism of the Islamic world was a sign of Allah’s displeasure with the state of contemporary Islam Islamic sectarians sought to purify Islam taking it back to what it was in the days of the prophet Muhammad when Islam was, they believed, something that governed all aspects of the lives of Muslims including the law and what woman should and could wear.

The Islamic revival movement has only been limitedly successful, however. It triumphed in Shi’a Iran in the 1970s. It triumphed in Afghanistan after the Soviets were driven from the nation in the 1980s and the Taliban took control. It has played an important role in motivating sectarian and militant Islamic groups like Al-Qaida who blame the West for what is happening in Israel and condemn Western influenced Islamic leaders and Western presence in the Islamic world including in the Islamic holy land of Saudi Arabia and for the situation in Palestine/Israel.

Today there are some 1.8 billion Muslims of the Sunni (by far the majority of Muslims), Shi’a, Sufi, and other varieties all across the globe and it is growing faster than any other major religion. There are liberal (for example, Sayyid al-Qimni, Nasr Abu Zayd, Abdolkarim Soroush, Mohammed Arkoun, Mohammed Shahrour, Ahmed Subhy Mansour, Edip Yuksel, Gamal al-Banna, Abdullahi Ahmed An-Na'im, Ahmed Al-Gubbanchi, Mahmoud Mohammed Taha, and Faraj Foda, the last two, by the way, were killed in the name of Islamic orthodoxy), conservative (the Wahhabi Sunni Islam of Saudi Arabia, for instance, with its theocratism, its emphasis on shari’a law, its emphasis on Islam as the only true religion on earth, and its strict definition of gender roles that arose in the 18th century), moderate (Sufis, the Islam that has dominated Bangladesh and Indonesia), secular (there has been a degree of separation of mosque and state in Tunisia, Algeria, Syria, and Egypt), and even feminist Muslims (Fatima Mernissi, Dr Asma Lamrabat, Malika Hamidi, and Irshad Manji, to name a few examples) today. There are theological, judicial, philosophical, mystical, popular, and political varieties of Islam today each with their own cultural style, a cultural style dependent on the culture in to which Islam was introduced. It is important to remember that there are differences within the various sects of Islam, Sunni (there are four major schools in Sunni Islam: Hanbali, Maliki, Hanafiand, and Shafi), Shi’a, and Sufi, as well. There are, for instance, multiple varieties of Sunni Islam, the sect to which around 80% of Muslims belong. Islam remains highly sectarian as new groups arise periodically claiming to have restored the one true brand of Islam, the Islam of Muhammad (such as the Muslim Brotherhood, al-Qaida, and Salafi Islam).


Zoroastrianism, the religion formulated and propagated by the prophet Zoroaster or Zarathustra (we don’t know when he lived or died with any precision), was the once “great” religion of the Persian Empire. Zoroastrianism was a theocratic religion like many religions before and after it. The emperor of Persia saw himself as the divine emissary of the all-good god of Zoroastrianism, Ahura Mazda, and the enemy of that evil other of Zoroastrian mythology, Ahriman. Zoroastrianism was thus a manichean and apocalyptic religion preaching that the cosmic battle between good and evil would end with the triumph of good sometime in the future. If all of this sounds a bit familiar it should. Zoroastrianism would have an immense influence on Judaism and Jewish apocalypticism during the sixth century when Persia conquered Judah and it would, of course, influence that sectarian movement within Judaism, Christianity particularly Christianity’s apocalypticism.

Today there are a few Zoroastrians left in Persia, Central Asia, the Indian subcontinent, Great Britain, Australia, Canada, and the US. They number around 220,000. Famous contemporary Zoroastrians include the famous conductor Zubin Mehta, who was born in India, and the now deceased lead singer of Queen, Freddie Mercury, the son of Indian parents who was born in Zanzibar.

The Eastern Great Religions


On the surface religion in India would appear to be as diverse as other aspects of Indian culture with its multitudes of regions, languages, and social and cultural forms. After all India is the home, the hearth, of Brahmanism or Hinduism, Upanishadism, Jainism, Buddhism, and Sikhism.

Hinduism itself is incredibly diverse in its beliefs, its ideologies, and its practises. Hinduism is polytheistic with many gods some who are personifications of nature. And it is pluralistic in its forms which include guru Hinduism, yoga Hinduism, temple Hinduism, and popular Hinduism

Brahmanism was the one of the earliest “religions” that developed in the Indian subcontinent. Local Brahman priests could be found across Ancient India. It was with the Vedas (1500 BCE-500 BCE), the Rig Veda, Sama Veda, Yajur Veda, and Atharva Veda, compilations of epic poems myths, sacrificial practises, and rituals, and the epic poems the Ramayana and the Mahabharata, that Brahmanism, the earliest form of Indian religion, was codified. Brahmanism takes its name from Brahma, the cosmic force regarded as the ultimate reality at the heart of all diverse existence. Brahma was regarded as creator and creation. Time, space, and reason was thought of as maya, as illusion keeping humans from recognizing the unity of all existence.

Brahma was also regarded as the primal man. Brahma’s head was thought to represent the Brahman priests, his shoulders and arms kings and warriors (Kshatriyas), his trunk, merchants, farmers, and artisans (Vaisyas), his feet day labourers (Sudras or Shudras), and his unnamed profanity, the untouchables (Dalits), India’s polluted outcasts. Brahma’s body, then, reflected the hierarchical structure of Indian society. One’s position in the hierarchy was thought to be the product of one’s karma (karman) and reincarnation (samsara). Every human reaction, positive or negative, had an impact on one’s karma. Those at the bottom of the caste hierarchy thus were believed to have, to use a popular turn of phrase, accumulated bad karma. The more karma you accumulated that was good the more you moved up the caste system.

The myth of Brahma the primal man, of course, became the transcendental and ideological justification for India’s caste system, a stratification system that provided an ideological and cultural unity in India over the course of its history. Some scholars have argued that there is an ethnic aspect to the caste system. The Dalits, they claim, are Dravidians, the populace of India before the Indo-European invasion.

The second great religious tradition in India is that represented in the Upanishads. Upanishadism represented both an expansion of and a critique of Brahmanism. In the Upanishads life was conceived of as suffering and the purpose of life to end suffering. Yoga was believed to be a means to end human suffering and cleanse one’s soul.

Two traditions that developed into new religions, Jainism and Buddhism, have much of Upanishadism in them. Like Upanishadism Jainism (8th and 7th centuries BCE), which originated in the Ganges River Basin, attempted to provide an answer as to how humans could cleanse their souls and escape the wheel of rebirth. Jains believed that souls could throw off the material (non jiva) and return the soul to its state of total knowledge, energy, and bliss (jiva).

Upanshadism thought of life as suffering and the purpose of life to put an end to this suffering. So did The Buddha. The Buddha, Siddhartha Gautama (566 BCE-486 BCE), thought of life as suffering and the purpose of life to put an end to suffering. The Buddha enunciated the core of his thought in his Four Noble Truths—life is suffering, suffering is caused by craving, suffering can have an end, there is a path—dharma—which leads to the end of suffering, and his Eightfold Path to end human suffering and achieve nirvana—wisdom, right understanding and right resolve, morality, right speech, right action, and right livelihood, and meditation, right effort, right and right mindfulness.

Both Jainism and Buddhism, while they believed that gods existed, argued that the gods had no influence on human affairs. The Hinduism that was developing around the same time had a different view of the gods. For the Hinduism that was developing out of Brahmanism during these years the gods, in the form, for some, of avatars or incarnations like Shiva and Vishnu, did intervene in human affairs in order to help humans escape the wheel of rebirth.

The rise of official religions like Hinduism, Jainism, and Buddhism, did not mean that popular religion disappeared. Popular Indian religion with its pantheon of gods, cultic rituals, and cultic sacrifices continued to be important among the masses.

300 years after the fall of the Gupta dynasty (320 to 550 CE) India was raided and eventually invaded by Turkish and Afghani Muslim groups. The Muslim attack on India, of course, was just one prong of Muslim expansion into North Africa, Europe, and Asia. In the 1200s the Muslim invaders expanded and consolidated their rule in the Indian subcontinent.

Islam was, like Christianity and to a somewhat lesser extent Judaism, a faith that believed that it was singularly true. While Islam regarded Judaism and Christianity as kindred spirits, as “people of the Book”, it did not regard either Hinduism or Buddhism as religious cousins. Islam regarded both as pagan religions whose ignorant followers worshipped false pagan gods. Buddhism as a northern Indian religion and urban religion in particularly faced the wrath of this intolerant brand of Islam. Muslims attacked Buddhist intellectual centres and Buddhists themselves. Buddhists fled to Nepal and Tibet. Hinduism and Hindus were attacked as well as for the first time in Indian history religious intolerance entered Indian life. It was only during the rule of the Sultanate of Delhi (1206-1526) that the conquering Muslims made peace with Indian Hinduism. During the Sultanate Hindus were made
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