Today’s news covers what is happening in that area of the world where human beings first moved from being hunters and gathers. Many thousands of years ago humans moved to develop farming, and form agricultural communities that gradually became civilizations. All this happened in the area of the world which surrounds the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. We call this area The Middle East.
Not very long ago (18th and 19th centuries) European nations which had become more economically and militarily powerful invaded these ancient lands and established modern political units called nation states. People who endured that humiliation from foreign powers, are now in the middle of a war from within, and with one another. The formerly colonized middle eastern nation states, today are coming apart again.
After stealing American military weapons and Kurdish bank reserves, a group of fundamentalist Sunni Muslims started taking over parts of Iraq and Syria. ISIS, the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, views the majority of religious believers in the occupied territories as infidels. Shiites and Yazidis are given a choice; either convert to the invader’s version of Sunni fundamentalism or be killed.
Muhammad, the founder of Islam, himself engaged in similar military actions. Most people in the captured areas today are Muslims and have some familiarity with this history. What comes over as strange to Americans is not all that strange to Middle Eastern Islamic people. Islam is a monotheistic religion, like Judaism and Christianity. It moved from being the private religious experiences of Muhammad, into being a conquering military force during Muhammad’s lifetime, in the early 7th century.
Muhammad was born in Mecca (which is now in Saudi Arabia), in 570 A.D. and lived there for approximately 40 years. His religious experiences started there. He began to preach the content of his experiences and in about 610 he emigrated from Mecca to Medina. There he established Islam as a religion and a state. This is the history that helps to explain how and why ISIS today can use its military power to set up an Islamic state based in Iraq and Syria. What seems strange to westerners is very much a part of Islamic history. A new religious group today (ISIS) is exercising both political and military power, very much in a tradition that goes back centuries. What is happening today in 21st century Iraq and Syria is a version of what Muhammad himself did during his lifetime in the 7th century A.D..
Before his birth, Muhammad’s father died. He lost his mother when he was just 6 years old. His early life was spent with relatives and his family was poor. He engaged in commerce and trade as a young man. At age 25 he married a rich widow (Khadijah). He had seven children with her, and also married more than the limit of four other wives.
During his lifetime Muhammad had contact and communications with both Jews and Christians, and tried unsuccessfully to convert them to his religious beliefs. He was not literate and had to memorize the content of what he experienced as divine revelations. He considered himself a messenger and a prophet of the one God, and he formed his beliefs with some assistance from his first wife.
Muhammad identified the source of his revelations to be the God of both Jews and Christians. He understood himself as continuing Jewish and Christian monotheism. Islam means surrender and Muslim means one who surrenders and submits to the laws of God. The physical position taken by believers during prayer, head down on the floor, symbolizes this essential surrendering.
From its beginning, Islam was both a religion and a state. Muhammad was both a religious figure and a political/military leader. During his lifetime he ruled over Medina and waged war successfully against Mecca to force their conversion. Some converts he won over by his preaching, and others he made to convert by military force. Muhammad was a complex person, with religious experiences, political experiences and military experiences.
The idea of a group of religious people, militarily taking over a territory and forcing the conversion of all people to their beliefs, may seem strange to persons from Western culture who have been strongly influenced by an 18th century Enlightenment Movement which emphasized individual rights and freedom. It is however not at all foreign and strange to Middle Eastern Muslims, formed by 7th century experiences of The Prophet Muhammad, a powerful political and military figure and the source of their religious beliefs.
James F. Drane
James F. Drane Bioethics Institute
Edinboro University of PA
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