Mohammad, Islam and the Islamic Empires

Picture by author

In our story of Abraham and his two sons, we talked about the origin of the Arabs and their holy pilgrimage site – Mecca. In this article, we continue our journey of human history through the Arabian peninsula.

The people of the Arabian Peninsula were mostly Nomads (known as Bedouin) at the time and were fragmented into many tribal groups. Although the Arabs regarded Kaaba, the temple created by their originator Abraham and his son Ismael, as their holy temple, Arabian Peninsula those days still followed polytheism. So different tribes would follow their own gods, and most of the gods were animistic in nature –  like the Sun God, Moon God, Earth God, and so on. And Mecca was a city replete with idol markets, as different tribes followed idolatry. Kaaba, their holy temple, alone housed more than 300 of these idols. 

Amidst this culture of polytheism would rise a person that would shape the course of the Arabian Peninsula and the entire world. 

Mohammad was born into a family of a powerful tribe in Mecca, known as the Quraysh tribe. But Mohammad himself was not lucky as a child, as he had lost his father even before he was born and his mother at the age of six. He was raised first by his grandfather and then his uncle. Many of the tribes living in the Arabian Peninsula at the time were nomadic, trading goods as they ventured about the desert. It was under his Uncle he learnt the art of trade, and it was because of his diligence and ingenuity in a trade that he was offered marriage by the powerful merchant known as Khadijah, who herself was a widow and under whom Mohammad actually worked for. So, in 595 AD, at the age of 25, Mohammad married the merchant Khadijah who was 40. 

Despite belonging to a dominant tribe in Mecca and doing well as a merchant, Mohammad was not fully satisfied with the materialistic life alone. Add to this the fact that he was very religious, he decided to meditate inside a cave in a hill in Mecca, Mount Jabal al-Nour. And it was during this meditation that he got his first revelation, the first of the series of revelations he would get continuously throughout his life. 

While initially unsure about the revelation and disturbed about it, Mohammad gradually became comfortable with the revelations from Angel Gabriel (Jibril) and deeply inspired by them decided to share his experience among other believers. Initially, his wife Khadijah and his close friend Abu Bakr were the only ones to believe him, with a small number of followers later on. The revelations would eventually become the holy book of Islam known as the Quran. Literally meaning “the recitation”, Quran is the central religious text of Islam, which Muslims believe to be a revelation from God, passed through the Angel Gabriel (Jibril).

However, Mecca during those days was a rich flourishing market because of the money generated by the idol-worshipping culture of the poly Gods. Therefore, when Mohammad’s message condemned idol worship and polytheism, many of Mecca’s tribal leaders began to see Mohammad and his message as a threat. Eventually, the people who had converted to Islam started facing persecution from polytheism and idolatry following tribes. This led to Mohammad and his followers leaving Mecca for a city known as Yathrib, building his Muslim community there and gradually gathering acceptance and more followers. The city was later renamed as Medina. 

After a series of battles with the tribes of Mecca, Mohammad and his followers finally won over the city of Mecca in 630 AD. Mohammad destroyed the idols in and around Kaaba and formally started the era of Islam in Mecca. 

Although Mohammad passed away in 632 AD, the religion that he had founded would flourish in almost no time. In the form of Caliphates –  political-religious unit consisting of Islamic Unit, and Caliphs – the head of the Caliphates, both the Islamic religion and Islamic empires thrived.

There rose one problem right after the passing away of Mohammad though, and it was regarding his successor. One set of people believed the successor (who would be known as the Caliph) should be selected on the basis of collective decision, and the other group would believe that the successor should be decided on the basis of blood lineage or relation. Although it seemed sorted at first with Abu Bakr becoming the first Caliph and Ali becoming the fourth Caliph, the initial disagreement would go on to become bigger in the future and create the great divide in Islam known as the Shia-Sunni Schism. The ones who believed in Abu Bakr being the rightful heir are the Sunni followers and the ones who believed in Ali are the Shia followers. The Shia-Sunni schism to an extent exists even to this day.

But despite the Shia-Sunni schism and battle of authority between different Islamic powers, the Islamic Empires under the subsequent caliphates flourished over three continents (Africa, Europe, and Asia) in almost no time, in a region spanning from India in the east to Spain in the west. 

The Abbasid Caliph in particular is considered the Golden Era of Islam. Traditionally dated from 750 to 1258 A.D., it was during the Abbasid era when science, economy, art and culture flourished profusely. The major Islamic cities of the time like Bagdad, Damascus, and Cairo in the middle-east and Cordoba in Andalusia, Spain were considered as the major intellectual centers for Science, Philosophy, Medicine and Education. Baghdad in particular, which was declared as the new capital by the Abbasids, was considered as the World Capital of Knowledge, as it housed the famous “House of Wisdom”. The House of Wisdom functioned as the center for research, scientific study, academic exchange, and translation. Scholars from mostly India, China, Iran and Europe would come to the House of Wisdom and translate the famous works and knowledge from Sanskrit, Chinese, Farsi and Greek to Arabic. It was because of these scholars and their translations that most of the important works of the ancient era exist even today. 

No other scholar epitomizes the contribution of the Islamic empire to the field of science and mathematics than the great Al-Khwarizmi, one of the greatest polymaths in history. Born in 780, Al-Khwarizmi was chiefly a mathematician, who also contributed massively in fields as diverse as Geography, Astronomy and Engineering. He revised and corrected the works of earlier greater astronomers of history like Ptolemy in creating the best-known world map of his time. 

But the most pressing and everlasting contribution of Al-Kharzimi was in the field of Mathematics.  It was his seminal book on Mathematics known as Kitâb al-Mukhtasar fî Hisâb al-Jabr wa’l-Muqâbala(all Arabic names) that pioneered the field of modern Algebra. The word Al-Jabr from the book title in Arabic means restoration by transporting negative quantities to the other side of the equation to make them positive, and the world Al-Muqabala means the elimination of identical quantities from the two sides of the equation –  basically two building blocks of solving an equation in Algebra. In fact, the world Algebra is derived from the word Al-Jabr, and Al-Khwarizmi in that sense is rightly considered as the father of Algebra. In an act that would immortalize his name even further, the word Algorithm, which basically means a procedure or set of rules involved in mathematical calculation, is derived from the Latinized name of Al-Khwarizmi spelled as Algorithmi. 

One of the biggest and notable contributions of Al-Kharzimi was also his advocacy of the Hindu numeric system. Having studied the work of important Indian mathematicians like Brahmagupta, Al-Khwarizmi knew the power and potential of Hindu numerals 0-9 (especially the important concept of 0 which was not used in any other system of the time) and thus drafted his work in mathematics using these Hindu numerals. It was through the translated work of Al-Kharzimi that mathematicians like Fibonacci could later take this number system to Europe, which was otherwise still stuck with the clumsy system of Roman Numeral System which was just too inefficient for mathematical operations. Therefore, although the number system was originally created in India, it became known as the Arabic Numerals in Europe, and now known as Hindu-Arabic numerals. 

Al-Khwarizmi was just one of the many scholars and artists from the Islamic Golden era to contribute in the development of these various sectors. It was not just a few scholars and their work but the overall culture of the region that left its mark on history, making the world richer than before, not just in terms of wealth, but also art, culture and knowledge. Baghdad, in particular, was not just brimmed with wealth and grandeur but was also the capital of the world in terms of knowledge, research and innovation – a far cry from a very different image of Bagdad that we have today. Therefore, history can act as a reminder of the contributions of many forgotten heroes and many historically influential and rich cities. In that sense, history helps us to acknowledge and appreciate the contributions of different regions and cultures. 

Remember, the era that we are talking about is often referred to as the Dark Ages in history, mostly because it was a dark age in Europe. But as we can see, it was anything but dark in other parts of the world. Especially in the Islamic Empires, it was an era of unprecedented growth and development. The Islamic Empire at the time excelled in sciences, mathematics, governance, and arts – much before and way before than the Europeans who would begin to develop truly great art and architecture only during a phase which is now known as the Renaissance. 

In that sense, history also teaches us to see the past from different perspectives and lenses, and not just the typical Euro-centric and West-tinted lenses. 

While the influence of Islamic empires would last forever in history, and future empires based on Islam would flourish and last longer in other parts of the world, the end of the Golden Era of the Islamic Empire is usually considered around 1258, when their capital Bagdad was sacked in a war, by another influential empire.

For an empire that was able to leave its indelible mark on history in no time, it would take something remarkable to mark its end. Therefore, it was an empire that would span its territory on earth in never seen before speed and never seen before ferocity that would mark the end to the Islamic Golden Era. It was time for the greatest warrior on earth and his descendants – namely Genghis Khan and his Mongol Armies – to leave their mark on human history. 

But unlike Constantine and the Caliphs who shaped the world of religion along with making other significant contributions, the Mongols contributed more in the monetary aspect of history. So, it is at this juncture we introduce our other central character – Money.  Next up, we will look at the Origin of Money and trace history through the lens of money.

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