Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Brief history of Islam!

Islam is a religion that began in the 7th century in the Arabian Peninsula. In the Arabic language, islam means "submission," which in a religious context means submission to God. A person who submits is called a muslim, which is also the word for a follower of the religion of Islam. Western writers in the past have sometimes referred to Islam as "Mohammedism." This word can be offensive to many Muslims, because it insinuates the worship of the prophet Muhammad as a deity, which is not a component of Islam the way the worship of Christ is a component of Christianity.

In exploring the history of the Islamic World from its beginnings in the 7th century to the decline of the Great Islamic Empires around 1600, this tutorial aims to address some such western misconceptions of Islam, while also providing a comprehensive survey of political, military, and cultural events over the first thousand years of Islamic history. With approximately 1.2 billion Muslims in the world - 22 per cent of the world's population - Islam is the second largest religion after Christianity. In the recent past Christians have generally seen less population growth than Muslims, however, and some estimates show that the number of Muslims in the world is increasing at a faster rate than the world population as a whole. Understanding the origins and history of this major world religion is key to understanding its present and future role in the world.

The Islamic World to 1600

Roman Title

In the centuries before 600 CE, the Roman Empire was the most influential power in many regions that would later become Islamic. The Roman state developed from an early monarchy into a republic, established around 500 BCE. By the 3rd century BCE Rome had completed its conquest of the Italian Peninsula, and embarked on military campaigns against foreign powers. The first major conflict, known as the Punic Wars, involved Rome and Carthage, an empire in North Africa. Sparked by Carthaginian expansion into Greek settlements in Sicily, the Punic Wars ended with a Roman victory and subsequent control of all Carthaginian territory. Roman territory eventually came to include the region encircling the Mediterranean Sea, including Spain, North Africa, Greece, Asia Minor, and Egypt. More information on the expansion of the Roman Empire.

Beginning in the 3rd century CE, the Roman state underwent a prolonged series of crises. Regional disparities of long standing induced the Emperor Diocletian (r. 284-305) to officially split the empire. However, it was again briefly reunited by Constantine I (r. 306-337), who also became one of the Roman Empire's most significant rulers. He was the first Roman Emperor to convert to Christianity. Christianity had long been one of many religions present in the empire, and over its first three centuries it had evolved from a Jewish sect into a complex system of beliefs, though it continued to include a number of rival currents. Constantine's conversion and his subsequent actions to protect the Christians of the realm were instrumental to the religion's survival and expansion. In 313 he signed the Edict of Milan, establishing a policy of toleration for Christians in the Empire, and in 325 he organised the Council of Nicaea, which attempted to establish standard articles of faith to resolve doctrinal disputes among Christians. In 330 Constantine built the city of Constantinople on the site of the ancient Greek city, Byzantium, as the principal capital of the Roman Empire, whose power was slowly shifting east from Rome.

The reign of Theodosius I (r. 379-395) was also important for the Roman Empire, as he was the last to rule over a united empire. He entrenched the separation between the Eastern and Western Empires in 395 by assigning his son Arcadius to rule in the East, and his son Honorius to rule in the West. From that time until the fall of the Western Empire to Germanic invaders in the late 5th century CE, the empires were separate. Theodosius was also the first ruler to declare Christianity to be the official religion of the Roman Empire. In 451, the Council of Chalcedon divided the Christian world into five patriarchates, or regions to be overseen by a patriarch: Rome (whose patriarch later assumed the title of pope), Constantinople, Alexandria, Antioch, and Jerusalem. When the Islamic conquests of the 7th century brought the latter three patriarchates under Muslim rule, Constantinople became the leading city of Eastern Christianity. Eventually the division between the Western church, based in Rome, and the Eastern church, based in Constantinople, culminated in the Great Schism of 1054, when the Pope in Rome and the Patriarch of Constantinople excommunicated each other. The result was the formation of the Catholic Church in the west, and the Eastern Orthodox Church in the east.

In the 5th century the Western Empire progressively disintegrated, and in 476 Romulus Augustus, the last Roman Emperor in the west, was deposed by the German leader, Odovacer. The empire's eastern regions survived as a functional state. Though attempts to recapture large blocks of territory in the west were not successful, the emperors resident in Constantinople continued to rule over one of the most powerful empires in the region.

The Byzantine Empire

Although the rulers, inhabitants, and enemies of the Eastern Empire knew it as the Roman Empire, even after the collapse of the Western Empire in 476, it has acquired the name, Byzantine Empire, from later historians. The name is based on the ancient Greek city of Byzantium, which became the site for Constantinople in 330. Emperor Justinian (r. 527-565) reclaimed the Italian Peninsula from the Visigoths, bringing the Christians of the former Western Empire under Byzantine rule. He also conquered northwest Africa and coastal Spain, temporarily bringing most of the Mediterranean under Byzantine control. The Sassanid Empire in Persia, a historic enemy of the Roman Empire, began a new campaign into Byzantine territory in 610, the same year that Muslims believe Muhammad received his first revelation from God, in Mecca, that he was the prophet of Islam. Within 30 years these three civilisations - the Byzantine, Persian, and Arab - would collide in what was for some a very unexpected way, as the Muslim Arabs embarked on a rapid expansion campaign that brought down the Sassanid Empire and took a large swath of Byzantine territories in North Africa and Mesopotamia. As we shall see in the following chapters, the Islamic and Byzantine Empires were enemies for centuries. They constantly traded territory, particularly in the region of Asia Minor that surrounded Constantinople. In 1453, however, the Muslims would finally defeat the Byzantine Empire completely, with the sack of Constantinople.

The Iranian plateau, much of the territory of present-day Iran, was first populated in the 9th century BCE, when the Medes people migrated there from Central Asia. The Medes were followed by the Persians in the 8th century BCE, and these two groups laid the foundation for a series of empires that arose on the Iranian plateau over the next thousand years. Around 750 BCE the Medes people formed their own kingdom, called Media, in the northwest plateau, becoming powerful enough by 612 BCE to defeat the older Assyrian Empire to the west. In 550 BCE, however, the Persian leader Cyrus the Great led the Persians into battle against the ruling Medes people, resulting in the unification of the two groups under the name of the victor, the Persians. Cyrus also captured the city of Babylon on the Euphrates River and freed the Jewish captives there, earning himself a place in the Book of Isaiah. The first Persian Empire, the Achaemenid, emerged from Cyrus' victories, and lasted until the 2nd century BCE. The Achaemenid Empire was the largest empire yet seen in the ancient world, extending at its height as far east as the Hindu Kush mountains in present-day Afghanistan. Economically, the Achaemenids established an efficient trade system throughout their empire. Persian words for many commodities spread throughout the region as a result of this commercial activity, some of which are still used in English today. Examples include bazaar, shawl, sash, turquoise, tiara, orange, lemon, melon, peach, spinach, and asparagus.

The Greeks of the eastern Aegean coast were the first western subjects of the Achaemenid Empire, bringing the Greek and Persian cultures together for the first time. It was the start of a long relationship between the two, which would later result in frequent military conflict as their respective empires grew. Religiously, the Achaemenid Empire featured a variety of polytheistic religions, or those that worship more than one god. What its followers claimed was the world's first monotheistic religion developed on the Iranian plateau, though, based on the teachings of the prophet Zoroaster (also called Zarathustra). By the time of the Achaemenid Empire, Zoroastrianism - which most religious scholars now categorise as dualism, not monotheism - was gaining converts among the Persians.


By the 4th century BCE, Macedonia had become a strong force in the west, challenging first Greece, then lands further east. About 330 BCE, Alexander the Great of Macedonia invaded Persia and sacked the capital at Persepolis, ending the Achaemenid Empire. Although Alexander has achieved almost mythic status in western history, the Persian view of him is understandably quite different. Persia did not regain its Achaemenid-era power until the Sassanid Empire rose in the 3rd century CE. In the meantime, Persia was ruled by weaker dynasties, the Seleucid and the Parthian, a period sometimes called the Hellenistic period in Iran because of the Greek cultural influence. Greek statues and temples from this era have been found as far east as Punjab and the Persian Gulf region. Anti-Greek sentiment that began under the late Parthian Empire and continued under the Sassanids, however, has led to a poor memory of this period of Persian history. As we shall see, the influence was not only one way; Persian culture, and especially religion, would also have a great effect on many Judeo-Christian ideas.

About 224 CE, the Parthian governor of the province of Fars (which still exists as a province in present-day Iran), brought down the central government in Ctesiphon and established the Sassanid Empire, taking the throne as Ardashir I. The Sassanid Empire would last over 400 years, and would be the last Persian Empire before the Islamic conquest of Persia in the 7th century brought the region under Arab rule. For this reason the Sassanid Empire is important to our understanding of Islamic history, because it was instrumental in promoting Persian nationalism, and creating a Persian identity that remained strong even after the Islamic conquest and attempted Arabisation of the region.

The Sassanid Empire was almost constantly at war with the neighbouring Roman Empire to the west; Ardashir's son, Shapur I, even captured the Roman Emperor, Valerian, for a time in 260. The animosity between the two empires was exacerbated in the 4th century, when the Roman Emperor, Constantine I, converted to Christianity, and later, Theodosius I made Christianity the official state religion. After that, relations between the two empires took on an increased religious aspect, as the Roman Empire sought to protect all Christians outside its borders, including those under Sassanid rule. The Christians in the Sassanid Empire had not previously faced persecution for their religion, since they were mostly Nestorian Christians, a different branch of Christianity than that practiced in the Roman Empire. For that reason the Sassanids viewed their Christians not as following the religion of the enemy, but rather another Persian religion. Still, the Sassanid Christians were the first to be suspected of political disloyalty whenever the empire came into conflict with the Romans after Constantine's time.

While Christianity had become the state religion of the Roman Empire, Zoroastrianism had been the official religion of the Sassanids since the beginning of their empire in the 3rd century. The Zoroastrian church became very powerful, and its head, the mobadan mobad, joined the military and bureaucratic leaders as one of the most important men in the empire. Zoroastrianism is also said to have influenced Judeo-Christian theology, such as that pertaining to the dualism between good and evil, or light and darkness; the belief in angels and archangels; Satan as the epitome of evil and the adversary of God; the idea of paradise and hell; the idea of the continued existence of the soul past that of the body; reward and punishment by divine justice; the resurrection of the dead; the Last Judgement; beliefs in millennial periods and the end of the world; and the coming of a Saviour at the end of the world. Many of these ideas would also appear in Islamic theology. Zoroastrianism, which itself might have absorbed some of these ideas from Buddhism and Hinduism, was thus an important influence on several religions that followed it.

Politically, Khusrau I (r. 531-579) is considered the most influential Sassanid ruler. He has been compared to the 16th century Safavid ruler Shah Abbas I for instituting reforms that changed the empire. He reformed the army by providing soldiers with salaries and equipment, thus earning their loyalty and decreasing the power of nobles with private armies. He also improved efficiency in the tax system, by changing the method of assessment and collection. This was perhaps his most significant reform, because the Sassanid tax system later became a model for tax collection in the Islamic caliphate. The Muslims were also influenced by the office of the Sassanid prime minister, which became a prototype for the Islamic grand vizier.

After 50 years of peace, Khusrau II (r. 590-628) resumed hostilities with the neighbouring Byzantine Empire, the successor to the Roman. He rapidly expanded into Byzantine lands, capturing Jerusalem in 612 and Alexandria in 619, while placing Constantinople, the Byzantine capital, under siege. The Byzantines responded by staging a surprise attack through the Caucasus into the northern Sassanid Empire. They sacked Ctesiphon in 627, and Khusrau II was killed while fleeing the city. There were 11 more rulers in the following 10 last years of the Empire, but after Khusrau II the Sassanids grew weaker and more inefficient. The Empire collapsed under a rapid military assault by the invading Arabs between 636 and 642. Although the Arabs, seeking to spread their new religion, Islam, had fewer numbers and a simpler military structure than the Persians, the Sassanid Empire was weak from fighting the Byzantines. By remaining highly mobile and not relying on long supply lines, the Arabs rode in on horses and camels and defeated the Persians first at the Battle of Qadisiyya in 636. By 638 they had occupied the Sassanid palace in Ctesiphon, forcing the young king, Yazdegard III, to flee. Continuing through the Zagros Mountains, the Arabs won two more decisive battles, at Jalula and Nihavand in 642, to take over the entire Iranian plateau.

After 400 years, the quick collapse of the Sassanid Empire was a bit of a surprise. There are several possible reasons behind it, however. Not only had the Persians and Byzantines mutually wearied each other, but each regarded themselves as superior to the rest of the world, which was seen as somewhat barbarian. They therefore focussed their energies on fighting each other, while virtually ignoring other threats. The Arabs were particularly underestimated; the Persians gave more credence to the threat from raiding groups from the east than to the Arabs, possibly due to the Persian victory in southern Arabia that helped the Sassanids maintain control of the Red Sea trading route in the early 6th century. By the time of the invasion, however, the Arabs were able to take advantage of Persian weaknesses, such as disunity among the provinces and a lack of allegiance among the people to the Sassanid central administration. Many Persians submitted to the invaders when the Arabs demanded less taxes than the Sassanids had, and did not force conversion to Islam. Later, Islam did spread to non-Arab groups, most notably the Persians, who began to convert in significant numbers as Islamic rule over Persia strengthened in the centuries after the initial conquest. However, the Sassanid Empire played a major role in developing a distinct Persian nationalism, which survived the Islamic conquest and mass conversion of Persians to Islam. The Persians and the Arabs would become the leading ethnic groups in the Islamic world, and each soon realised that their cooperation was fundamental to the survival of the empire.

The Arabian Peninsula - or, simply, Arabia - is a rectangular piece of land surrounded by the Red Sea on the west, the Persian Gulf on the east, and the Arabian Sea to the south. To the north lie Syria and Mesopotamia, lands which saw the birth of both Judaism and Christianity. Many Jewish and Christian influences had penetrated Arabia before the coming of Islam in the 7th century, but the inhabitants of the Peninsula - the Arabs - did not follow either of those religions. Islam, as taught by the Prophet Muhammad, himself an Arab, was the religion that would convert the Arabs en masse to monotheism, or the belief in only one God.

A Note on Muhammad's Name

The people who inhabited the Arabian Peninsula - which they called Jazirat al-Arab, or "Island of the Arabs" - were nomads, who survived the harsh desert environment by adhering to a seasonal migration cycle. For four months from June to September, the Arabs waited out the summer heat, until the rains came in October. The eight months until the following summer were then spent travelling between grazing grounds on the desert's fringes. Their travel was eased by the domestication of the camel, which allowed the Arabs access to the harsh Arabian desert.


By about the 5th century, some Arabs (a word which seems to mean "desert dweller") established settlements in the desert and abandoned their nomadic ways. After that, the remaining Arab nomads became known as the Bedouins, while settled Arabs assumed a different identity and refused to acknowledge their shared ancestry with the Bedouins. One settlement that grew in Arabia was Mecca, which later became the birth place of Muhammad, and later still, the holiest city of the Islamic faith.


The nomadic Bedouin population would prove difficult to convert to Islam in the 7th century, not only under Muhammad, but under his successors as well. Much of the Bedouins' reluctance to embrace Islam as quickly as the settled Arabs was due to their strong adherence to traditional religions. The Arabs were polytheistic, meaning they believed in and worshipped more than one god. Different regions of the Arabian Peninsula often had their own patron deity, which usually had its own shrine. Arabs often embarked on pilgrimages to different shrines throughout Arabia. Above their various gods, however, the Arabs also believed in a supreme God, who they called al-ilah, or "the God." The word, contracted as Allah, was later used in Islam as the name of the one and only God. In pre-Islamic Arabia, however, Allah was believed to be not the only God, but simply the highest among many gods.

The Arabs, like the ancient Greeks, were not only polytheists, but they were also humanists. They valued human life for the duration of its time on earth, and they did not subscribe to a belief in any sort of afterlife. Many Arabs rejected Christianity for that reason - the belief in Christ's resurrection was inconceivable, even ridiculous. They believed only in the human world, and the prayers they offered to their gods pertained to that world, not to salvation or redemption in heaven.

Monotheistic religions - those that accept and worship only one God - were present in the Arabian Peninsula before Islam. Judaism and Christianity existed among the populations of southern Arabia, and Judaism was particularly influential in the city of Yathrib, which became known as Medina in Islamic times. Nestorian Christians, driven from the Byzantine Empire in the 5th century over differing opinions of doctrine, settled in Persia and in the northern Arabian Peninsula and converted some Arabs there. Zoroastrian traders from Persia passed through Mecca and other trading centres often enough to exert a small religious influence. Trade also linked the Arab world with Christian Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia) across the Red Sea, which intermittently controlled parts of Yemen and southern Arabia. For the most part, however, the Arabs retained their traditional faith until the emergence of Islam in the 7th century CE.

Muhammad, whose name means "worthy of praise," was born about 570 in Mecca. His father, Abdullah, died before Muhammad was born, and his mother, Amina, died when he was six years old. His paternal grandfather, Abdul Muttalib, then cared for him until his own death two years later, after which time Muhammad spent the rest of his childhood in the care of his uncle, Abu Talib. Little is known about his early life, but he was not wealthy, and it is believed he was a shepherd. When he was 25 he married Khadija, a wealthy widow about 15 years his senior. Despite her age, Khadija would bear Muhammad six children, four of whom survived to adulthood - daughters Zaynab, Ruqayya, Fatima, and Umm Kulthum. Ruqayya later married Uthman, and Fatima married Ali, men who became the third and fourth caliphs, respectively, of the Islamic world after Muhammad's death. It is said that Khadija and Muhammad were truly in love, and that although polygamy was common in Arabia, she was his only wife until her death in 619.

Muhammad frequently retreated to Mount Hira, a place of privacy and contemplation near Mecca, to meditate and consider his spirituality. Islamic tradition relates that it was during one such trip, in 610, when he was 40 years old, that Muhammad first heard the voice of the angel Gabriel, who recited to him the word of God, today written down in the Muslim holy book, the Qur'an, meaning "recitation."

The Qur'an

It is significant that Muslims believe that what Gabriel told Muhammad came directly from God, and that Muhammad was simply God's messenger. Muslims do not believe that Muhammad himself was divine in any way, an important distinction that sets Islam apart from Christianity, which does believe in the divinity of Jesus. Muslims believe that Gabriel continued to send Muhammad messages from God until the prophet's death. Muhammad immediately began preaching the message he had received; his wife, Khadija, was his first convert, soon followed by his cousin and future successor, Ali. Islam says that the message was similar to those received by the early Hebrew prophets: that God is one, he is all-powerful, he is the creator of the universe, and that there will be a Judgement Day when those who have carried out God's commands will enjoy paradise in heaven, and those who have not will be condemned to hell. As we have seen, these ideas were also part of the Zoroastrian religion.

By 615, Muhammad had gained several converts. These early Muslims were persecuted in Mecca, mainly by wealthy merchants who controlled the city and feared that the new faith would challenge their economic monopoly. That year, about 80 Muslims fled from Mecca to Abyssinia (present-day Ethiopia) to take refuge with Christians there, who were enemies of the polytheistic Meccans. Muhammad's daughter, Ruqayya, and her husband, Uthman, were among those who fled, although Muhammad himself stayed in Mecca. The Abyssinian Christians treated the Muslims well, helping to form Muhammad's positive view of Christians. He labelled both Jews and Christians "People of the Book," because their religion had a holy scripture. For this reason, Muhammad considered Judaism and Christianity to be superior to the polytheistic, humanist Arab religions. Islam also had several beliefs in common with the two older religions, and today calls itself the third "Abrahamic" religion because of what it sees as common roots between the three.

The Abrahamic Religions

Before Muhammad's wife, Khadija, and his uncle, Abu Talib, both died in 619, Muhammad experienced his famous "Night Journey." Although there are several versions of what occurred that night, Islam holds that the angel Gabriel came to Muhammad while he was sleeping near the Ka'ba one night, and escorted him first to Jerusalem, then through seven heavens - where he met Abraham, Moses, and Jesus - to the presence of God. This event later helped establish Jerusalem as the third holiest city in Islam, after Mecca and Medina. During his journey, Muslims believe that Muhammad was told of several tenets of Islam that became some of the most basic acts of the religion, such as praying five times daily.

In 620, Muhammad married A'isha, whose father, Muhammad's friend Abu Bakr, would become the first caliph after Muhammad's death 12 years later. In 622, at age 52, Muhammad finally fled persecution in Mecca, taking his followers north to the city of Yathrib. After his arrival, the name of the city was changed to Medinat un-Nabi, the City of the Prophet, or Medina. Muhammad's journey to Mecca is known as the Hijra, or emigration, and marks the beginning of the Islamic calendar.

The Islamic Calendar

Medina was much more tolerant of Islam than Mecca had been, and the religion flourished among the community there. Muhammad expanded his role as a religious leader into more of a community leader in general, marking the initial partnering of religious and administrative affairs, which would become a standard practice in the future Islamic empires. He built a house there that became the model for the mosque later built on the site, the Prophet's Mosque, which has since become the second holiest shrine in Islam, after the Ka'ba in Mecca.

In 624, Muhammad decided the Medinans should intercept a camel caravan on its way from Syria to Mecca, for the purpose of disrupting Meccan economic activity and obtaining the cargo for his followers. In the resulting Battle of Badr, the Medinans won a decisive victory despite being outnumbered by the Meccans. The event served to unify the Medinans and weaken the Meccans. It was also the first significant victory in battle for a people who would soon grow into the formidable military force that would defeat long-standing empires from Persia to Egypt.

Also in 624, Muhammad decided that the qibla, or direction of prayer, should be the Ka'ba in Mecca. This strengthened Muhammad's resolve to bring Mecca under Muslim control, and several more battles were fought between the two cities. Mecca was progressively weakened by the continued Muslim tactic of interrupting caravan traffic, and by 630, the city fell to the Muslims with little resistance. Muhammad ordered a general amnesty, thus winning over Meccans who feared retaliation for past persecution of Muslims, and the faith began spreading in the city. Muhammad destroyed the polytheistic idols in the Ka'ba, and dedicated the monument to Islam. It became, and today remains, the spiritual centre of the Islamic faith.

In 631 Muhammad reached peace settlements with the leaders of local Christian and Jewish communities, thus bringing those groups under Muslim protection, as long as they paid the jizya tax demanded of all non-Muslims. In 632 he led a pilgrimage to Mecca for the first time, but 3 months later, at age 62, Muhammad unexpectedly became ill and died in Medina. He was survived by 10 wives but only one child - daughter Fatima, who would later become Ali's wife, and would also lend her name to a 10th century Islamic dynasty in Egypt.

Thus ended the life of the man Muslims believe to be the last prophet God sent to earth. Today, his influence can be gauged by the fact that more male children in the world have the name Muhammad than any other.

Islamic theology is a large field, requiring detailed study to fully understand. There are several basic beliefs and practices, however, that can be outlined here. Central to Islamic belief is the absolute power of God. Islam is strictly monotheistic, believing that there is only one God, omnipotent and merciful, and that associating any human being or image with God is an unforgivable sin. We have already seen how this view translates into the Muslim rejection of the Christian belief in Jesus' divinity, as well as in the Trinity, and it also means that Muslims do not accept idolatry, or shirk.

As we have also seen, Muslims believe that Muhammad was the last of a series of prophets that God sent to earth. While respecting the teachings of all earlier prophets, Muslims believe that Allah sent his final message to Muhammad in order to correct the corruption of the previous messages. As with the other Abrahamic religions, Satan also exists in Islamic theology, but Islam's strict monotheism maintains that God is the most important figure. Satan is not nearly as important in Islam as he is in Christianity, for example. Also unlike Christianity, Muslims do not believe in original sin. They believe that God pardoned Adam's sin in order for human beings to begin life without sin. Muslims who have sinned in their lives, and who sincerely repent and submit to God, can be forgiven for their sins. Muslims also believe in a Judgement Day, when the world will end and the dead will rise to be judged.

There are Five Pillars of Islam, which are the most important practices for a Muslim to observe:

1. Creed (Shahada): The statement of Shahada in Arabic is: "Ashhadu al-la ilaha illa-llah wa ashhadu anna Muhammadar rasulu-llah." An English translation would be: "I bear witness that there is no God but Allah and I bear witness that Muhammad is His Messenger." This declaration of the faith must be uttered publicly at least once in a Muslim's lifetime, although most Muslims recite it daily.

2. Prayers (Salate): The Muslim holy day is Friday, when congregations gather just past noon in a masjid, or mosque in English, the Muslim place of worship. The three holiest places of worship in the Islamic world are the Mosque of the Ka'ba in Mecca, the Mosque of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina, and the Masjid Aqsa, adjacent to the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. An Imam, or religious leader, gives a sermon and leads the congregation in prayer. Muslims do not need to be in a mosque in order to pray, however; they may do it anywhere - a house, office, school, or even outside. They must observe the qibla in all cases though, by facing towards the Ka'ba in Mecca when praying. Prayers must be performed five times daily - at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, sunset, and nightfall. The prayers always contain verses from the Qur'an, and must be said in Arabic. Muslims believe that prayer provides a direct link between the worshipper and God.

3. Purifying Tax (Zakat): Muslims believe that all things belong to God, and that humans hold wealth in trust for him. For that reason, it is believed that wealth should be distributed throughout the community of believers, or umma, through a purifying tax. The usual payment is 2.5 per cent of a person's wealth every year, the proceeds of which are distributed to the less fortunate. Additional charity work is also encouraged.

4. Fasting (Sawm): During the month of Ramadan, the ninth month in the Islamic calendar, Muslims fast between dawn and dusk. They must abstain from food, liquid, and intimate contact during those hours of the day, in order to commemorate the Muslim belief that Ramadan was the month in which the Qur'an descended from the highest heaven to the lowest, from which it was then revealed to Muhammad in pieces over 22 years. Fasting is seen as a method of self-purification, by cutting oneself off from worldly comforts. The sick, elderly, travellers, and nursing or pregnant women are permitted to break the fast during Ramadan, provided they make up for it during an equal number of days later in the year. Children begin the ritual at puberty. The end of Ramadan is celebrated by the Eid al-Fitr, one of the major festivals on the Muslim calendar.

5. Pilgrimage (Hajj): All Muslims are required to make one pilgrimage to Mecca in their lifetimes, provided they are physically and financially able to do so. The Hajj begins in the 12th month of the Islamic lunar calendar which means, like Ramadan, it does not correspond to a specific month in the solar calendar. Modern transportation methods, particularly the airplane, have made it possible for many more Muslims to make the Hajj today than 1400 years ago. Like Ramadan, the end of the Hajj is also celebrated with a festival, the Eid al-Adha, which is celebrated by all Muslims, whether or not they made the pilgrimage. These two festivals are the highlight of the Islamic year.

Gender Roles

The roles assigned to men and women in Islamic theology have often come under fire in the Judeo-Christian world, mostly due to misunderstandings of Islam's position on gender roles, or the corruption of Qur'anic doctrine by present-day political leaders in Muslim countries. The Qur'an says that men and women are created equally before God, and that while they have different attributes, neither gender is superior. Both men and women have souls and can go to Heaven if they lead a life without sin, contradicting early Christian doctrine that women do not possess souls and are inherently evil, because of Eve's original sin. Islam does not blame Eve for what it believes happened in the Garden of Eden; it maintains that both Adam and Eve were responsible, but they repented before God and were forgiven. Believing women descended from the sinful Eve colored Christian ideas of women's character for centuries - as untrustworthy, morally inferior, wicked beings - with menstruation, pregnancy, and childbirth believed to be punishment for all women after Eve. The Qur'an has no such images of women, who are not put on earth solely to bear children, but also to do good deeds the same as men.

The Qur'an states that women are not possessions of men. They are free to choose their own husbands and maintain their own names after marriage. Divorce is permitted, though discouraged. Polygamy, or the practice of a man having more than one wife, is also permitted - to a maximum of four wives - with the stipulation that the man must have means to care for all of his wives. Both women and men are encouraged to seek knowledge, and to manage their own financial assets. A wife has the right to claim financial support from her husband, but a husband is not entitled to his wife's earnings, inheritance, or property. Women can own their own property, enter into legal contracts themselves, and give testimony in legal proceedings. A wife has the right to receive a mahr, or dowry, from her husband upon marriage, which cannot be returned under any circumstances. She also has the right to kind treatment from her husband.

Still, one should not assume from the rights listed here that medieval Islamic society featured perfectly balanced gender roles. Women were still considered fertile fields to which men should go, menstruation was treated as an illness, two women were required in order to testify in legal proceedings in the place of one man, and a woman's inheritance was generally half of her brother's. Both men and women are required by the Qur'an to dress modestly, in order to be judged on the basis of character rather than appearance, and they must dress differently from unbelievers. For women, this includes the Hijab, which for some Muslim women covers the head and body except for eyes and hands, while for others covers only the hair. It seeks to ensure that a woman is not viewed as a sexual being by those other than her husband.

These basic tenets of gender roles are set out in the Qur'an, but as with many religions, the word of the holy scripture has not always been followed by those with political power. Women, for example, have not always been permitted their Qur'anic rights by Islamic regimes throughout history, just as gender roles in Christian, Jewish, Hindu, or other religions are not always carried out in everyday life.