The Islam Religion Across Asia

In 622 AD, the prophet Muhammad fled from his hometown of Mecca to Medina, a town 200 miles to the north. Before his death ten years later, Muhammad had returned to Mecca a triumphant conqueror. He had established himself as the supreme political and religious leader in the Arab world. Islam, the religion he founded, would swiftly spread across much of the world, reaching as far as to the west and to the East within one hundred years of Muhammad’s death. The prophecies that Muhammad claimed to receive from the Muslim god, Allah, were recorded in the Qur’an, held by all Muslims to be the culmination of the divine revelations given to the ancient Hebrew prophets, including Jesus Christ. Muhammad’s life was set up as an example of how a Muslim should live, and strict Shari’ah law was established throughout the Muslim world to enforce conformity to this example.

Muhammad’s successors, the Caliphs, were reluctant to claim the same level of spiritual authority as the prophet, but spiritual and secular authority both were held by the Caliph. When a dispute arose concerning the succession of rule, it led to the breakup between the Shi’a and Sunni branches of Islam. The Shi’ites, largely located in , believed that the leadership of Islam should be wielded by a direct descendant of Muhammad. Shi’ites eventually came to revere their first leader, the Imam Husayn, Muhammad’s grandson, as being near the level of the prophet himself. Sunni Muslims saw this as a form of idolatry.

By the eighth century AD, Muslim conquerors had reached the Western borders of , imposing Islamic law and converting the occupants of conquered lands as they went. In order to gain favor with Arab traders, many Indian merchants converted to Islam; they would be the instruments that spread the new religion deep into Asia. By the eleventh century, Mahmud of Ghazni was leading raids into northern , where Hindu temples were destroyed, and the inhabitants forced to become Muslim or be slaughtered for being infidels. Mahmud’s successors would eventually establish Islamic kingdoms centered in itself, culminating with the Mughal Empire that lasted until the eighteenth century.

Islam spread from into Southeast Asia and , where merchants and rulers seeking preferential treatment from Arab and Indian Muslim traders converted. When a local ruler converted, the inhabitants of his lands were compelled to accept the religion themselves. Islam eventually became a prominent religion in Southeast Asia; Muslims make up a majority of the population in , now the largest Islamic country in the world, and have sizeable presences in and the . also has a significant Muslim population, but it pales in comparison to the country’s huge number of people.

Beginning with the original Islamic Empire founded by Muhammad and lead by his immediate successors, the Rashidun Caliphs, the religion of Islam was inseperable from the territory controlled by Islamic leaders. Islamic law, or Shari’ah, with its foundation in the Qur’an and the life of Muhammad, outlined in the Had’ith, was strictly enforced by rulers who used Islam to legitimatize their power. Without fail, Islamic states imposed handicaps on non-Muslims; Christians and Jews tended to be more tolerated, seen as “people of the book” who worshipped the same god as the Muslims, albeit incompletely. Under Islamic rule in , Hindus were more persecuted, with problems ranging from severe economic penalties to periods when Hindus were killed because they were seen as being polytheists, who were disdained by the Qur’an.

Islamic military expansion largely came to a halt after it had reached , but the religion continued to grow, mostly due to Muslim control of trade. By the fourteenth century, Muslims had taken control of the Strait of Malacca, easily the fastest and safest water route around Southeast Asia. Soon, both and were under the control of Muslim rulers.

In Arabia and , the misogyny inherent in the Qur’an forced Muslim women to remain largely at home. They were only allowed to go out only when completely covered. The pillars of Islamic faith dictate a strict regimen of prayer five times daily and fasting a month out of each year. As Islam spread farther from its birthplace of Arabia, it evolved farther from the religion defined by Muhammad, and in much of Southeast Asia, the harsh rules of Islam were loosened, notably the restrictions on women and the rules dictating the daily life of Muslims. Ramadan, the month of fasting, is also enforced much more loosely in much of Islamic Southeast Asia.

Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, became popular among Asian Muslims. The religion of a mystic becomes completely internalized, allowing Sufis to combine Islam with other Asian religions, a practice common throughout Asia – the coexistence of religious Taoism and Chinese folk religion is one example; that of Buddhism and Shinto is another. Even the Asian Muslim elite were interested in Sufism. The Mughal emperor Akbar became a Sufi during the sixteenth century. His empire was largely tolerant of all religions. Akbar went so far as to outlaw the slaughtering of cattle, and invited philosophers and theologians from all traditions to his Hall of Worship. His life came to an unfortunate end when his eldest son had him poisoned in order to usurp his throne. By the seventeenth century, however, Aurangzeb, who had followed recent Mughal tradition by imprisoning his father and murdering his brother, ascended to the throne. Aurangzeb returned the empire to its orthodox Sunni Islam roots. Aurangzeb’s rule saw the return of strict Islamic law and the oppression of Hindus. Aurangzeb committed such atrocities as having his political enemies trampled to death by elephants. He led casualty-filled military excursions to extend his empire further south into . At his death, the Mughal Empire collapsed, sending the discontented he had terrorized into a long period of civil war.

In its first millennium of existence, Islam had expanded from a persecuted minority forced to flee from the city where it was conceived to a huge force capable of terrorizing entire kingdoms. Although leaders like Mahmud of Ghazni and Aurangzeb ruthlessly bullied non-Muslims in Asia, the rise of Islam was not without its benefits, opening wider trade routes to East Asia and leading to the rise of several civilized Muslim governments.

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