Islam: Its History, Values and Technology

Steven Dutch, Natural and Applied Sciences, University of Wisconsin - Green Bay
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The Islamic World is not at all a monolithic entity

Nationality Language Family
Arabs Semitic
Turks, Kazakhs, Uzbeks Altaic
Iranians, Kurds Indo-European
Indonesia Malayo-Polynesian
Sub-Saharan Africa Many Language Families

Americans tend to lump Arabs, Turks and Iranians together. Not only are they distinct languages and cultures, they belong to different language families. Iranian is closer in affinity to English than to Arabic, although it is written with Arabic script and has borrowed many Arabic words. The Kurds, also Indo-European speakers, are the original inhabitants of Kurdistan; the Turks and Arabs moved in around them much later.

The Islamic World

A Little About Arabic

Although Muslims speak many languages, Arabic speakers make up a large proportion of them and Arabic is the language of the Koran; Islamic schools teach the Koran in Arabic just as Jewish yeshivas teach the Talmud in Hebrew. Arabic is a literary language fully on a par with Latin or Greek, and Arabic scholars fully analyzed the structure of their own language, not always in the same way that Western grammarians analyze languages. Unfortunately, Westerners who become fluent in Arabic tend to be highly impressed with themselves, and want other readers to be equally impressed. The most user-friendly books on learning Arabic tend to be written by Arabs, who have the attitude that an imperfect but sincere attempt to communicate is far preferable to an aloof attempt to attain perfection first, or being so intimidated by complexity that one never tries at all.

Arabic belongs to the Afro-Asiatic (Semitic) family of languages along with Hebrew. These languages are characterized by the use of three-letter roots that are modified in many ways to form words. For example, the root k-t-b connotes writing; kitab means book, maktaba means library, and so on. The root s-l-m connotes wisdom and conformity with God; salaam means peace, Suliman is the equivalent of the name Solomon.

Most words in European languages change by adding suffixes to the end: write, written, writing, writes, writer. Arabic makes many words by adding prefixes. For example, adding a prefix to the s-l-m root gives us Islam, submission to God's will, and Muslim, one who practices Islam. The use of prefixes means that there are almost no alphabetical dictionaries of Arabic like those for most European languages; to look up a word in an Arabic dictionary, you have to identify the root, look it up, then locate the derivative word. An alphabetical dictionary of Arabic would have gigantic sections of words beginning with i-, b-, t- and m-, the most important prefix letters.

Arabic lacks common sounds found in English, like p and v, but also has many sounds not found in English. Arabic makes many sounds farther back in the mouth and throat than English does. For example, there are two versions of the sounds s, t, d, and z, characterized by one version being darker and heavier than the other. Arabic transcribes the word "tungsten" using the two t sounds, the heavier sound for the first t and the lighter (like English t) for the second. Some sounds do not exist even remotely in English at all. The "A" in "Arabic" is actually a sound called "ayn" and is considered a consonant in Arabic; it's formed by saying "a" far back in the throat. The sound usually written "gh" has no equivalent in English at all, yet curiously enough everybody can say it. Think of Peter Sellers as Inspector Clouseau with his grossly exaggerated French r's and you have it. The sound transcribed as "q" is about halfway between k and g and formed deeper in the throat than either.

Arabic does not distinguish clearly between the vowel sounds o and u or e and i, and does not indicate short vowels at all except in special cases. Rbs hv lttl trbl rdng txt wrttn ths wy bcs thy cn fgr mst wrds frm cntxt. But there is no single right way to transcribe Arabic to English or vice versa; thus we have Koran and Q'uran, Muslim and Moslem, Mohammed, Muhammad, and even Mahomet in older spellings.

Adding to the complexity is the fact that written Arabic is rarely spoken and spoken Arabic is rarely written, and the dialect variation from Morocco to Iraq is enormous. For example, mountain is jebel in Saudi Arabia but gebel in Egypt. The version of Arabic in the Koran is considered to be the definitive version and all Arabs insist they speak Arabic. 

To consider an analogy, imagine starting at the northwest corner of Spain and walking south and east along the coast. The language would grade from Galician to Portuguese to Spanish to Catalan to French to Provencal to Franco-Italian to Italian to Sicilian. Now imagine all these people still using the Latin Bible, using that form of Latin in their newspapers, and insisting, as good Catholics, that they all spoke Latin, and you get a fair idea of the linguistic complexity of Arabic. Or imagine us using the language of the King James Bible in newspapers and all other correspondence, but contemporary English on the street. Arabic texts for non-natives tend to stress Saudi-Gulf Arabic (the homeland), Egyptian Arabic (the most speakers, and the most voluminous broadcasting) or some written standard form of Arabic.

By the way, with apologies to Paula, there is no such name in Arabic as Abdul. Kareem Abdul Jabbar is more properly written Kareem Abd al-Jabbar. Abd (beginning with ayn) means servant. Kareem Abd al-Jabbar means "generous servant of the Almighty." There is a name Abdullah (Abd-Allah), "servant of Allah", but Abdul, or Abd al-, is a partial nonsense name meaning "servant of the...."

The Nature of Islam

Arabia in Mohammed's time was a patchwork of various animistic tribal religions. Larger settlements usually had Jewish and Christian communities. The Christian communities were usually splinter sects that faced persecution in the Byzantine Empire and found life on the periphery of the Greco-Roman world more congenial. Mohammed was born about 570 in Mecca. He was a prosperous trader who certainly had contact with Jewish and Christian doctrines both in Arabia and on his travels to the frontiers of the Byzantine Empire. About 610 he began claiming to receive visions and messages from the angel Gabriel. These were written down about 650 as the Koran; Moslems believe they were transcribed from original sources written down personally by Mohammed. Mohammed began preaching a doctrine of monotheism and moral rectitude, and aroused enough opposition that he was forced to flee to Medina in 622. (Medina in Arabic simply means city; Medina al-Kuwait means Kuwait City, but Medina by itself always refers to the city in Arabia.) Medina and Mecca are the two holy cities of Islam and non-Moslems are not permitted in either. (I have a street map of Mecca. I have a better chance of going to Mars in my lifetime than going there.) The flight to Medina, the hegira, marks the start of the Moslem calendar.

In Medina, Mohammed continued to gather support. He was able to return to Mecca in triumph in 630 and had unified most of Arabia by the time of his death in 632

The Pillars of Islam

The basic tenets of Islam are summarized in the Pillars of Islam:

  1. The Creed: "There is no God but Allah and Mohammed is His Prophet." Conversion to Islam consists of reciting the Creed before witnesses.
  2. The five daily prayers: dawn, midmorning, noon, midafternoon, and dusk.
  3. Alms for the poor. In many Islamic nations this is now part of the normal taxation system.
  4. Fasting during Ramadan: no food, drink, tobacco or sex during daylight hours. Exceptions are made for pregnant women, travelers, and those doing heavy labor. Since believers are free to indulge at night, Ramadan has shifted away from its meaning of fasting and come to mean party time in some parts of the Moslem world, with believers simply inverting their schedules and doing little during the day. This trend troubles many Moslem religious leaders. Western guides to the Middle East advise travelers to simply forget about doing business during Ramadan.
  5. Pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj) in commemoration of Mohammed's flight and return. The title Haji denotes one who has made the Hajj. Thomas Abercrombie, an American convert to Islam, wrote of meeting a Nigerian who walked across Africa for two years to make the Hajj, and Indonesians who spent weeks in the holds of cramped ships. Strict Moslems believe the journey should involve hardship and look with some displeasure on the idea of flying in on an air-conditioned jetliner.
  6. Some authorities add a sixth pillar: Jihad or Holy War in defense of Islam. Although it might mean literally coming to the military defense of Islam, many authorities stress more the meaning of active opposition to evil and injustice, rather than literal warfare.

The Koran

The Koran is about as long as the New Testament, but consists mostly of moral teachings rather than historical accounts. It is much like the Old Testament books of Proverbs or the prophets in tone. It is composed of 114 chapters or Suras, with a short opening chapter, then arranged from longest to shortest. Each is identified by some unusual word within the chapter: The Cow, The Bee, The Table, and so on, as well as an indication whether the chapter was written at Mecca or Medina. Many Muslims have committed the entire Koran to memory. The Arabic of the Koran is considered the definitive version of Arabic. Since the Koran is considered to define the Arabic language, Arabs everywhere insist they speak Arabic despite the great variations in the language (which are at least as great as the differences between Spanish and Italian). Also, strictly speaking, there cannot be a true translation of the Koran; translations are considered paraphrases.

The Spread of Islam

The spread of Islam was due to many factors, but its inherent appeal must be ranked high among the reasons for its acceptance. It offered simplicity. Just as early Christianity cleared away a baffling fog of competing deities for first-century Romans, so did Islam for many of its converts from polytheism. To many seventh-century Christians, puzzled by some of the intricacies of a then overly-complicated theology, it must have had a similar appeal. If some Islamic societies are conservative, often oppressive by Western standards today, Islam was revolutionary in its time. It stressed equality and offered rights for women. And it held high moral teachings; integrity, honesty, fairness and justice are always powerful selling points.

The Western stereotype of Islamic expansion is the jihad or holy war, and to be sure, the explosive growth of Islam and its sweep from Arabia to Spain and central Asia in less than a century was an expression of consummate military skill. But conquest does not always equal conversion. In the wake of their conquests, the Arabs offered good government and tolerance. Also, there were incentives to conversion. Recognizing his intellectual kinship with Christians and Jews, Mohammed referred to them as "People of the Book"; people with their own sacred Scriptures. "People of the Book" were allowed to retain their own religions, however, they were assessed a nominal tax. The result was probably as unhealthy for Islam as superficial conversions have been for Christianity; someone who was a nominal Christian could easily become a nominal Muslim and save the tax. Originally there was forced conversion of pagans, and as recently as the 19th century pockets of pre-Islamic religions were forcibly converted in Iran and Afghanistan. But when the Arabs invaded Persia and encountered adherents of Zoroastrianism, and later encountered Hinduism in India, they recognized the impossibility of forcibly converting all these nonbelievers and eventually extended them the status of "People of the Book" as well.

The Later History of Islam

Once the initial military impulse of the Arabs was spent, Islam continued to diffuse by trade, penetrating Central Asia and China, converting Indonesia and part of the Philippines, and penetrating far down the east coast of Africa and into sub-Saharan West Africa. Some of these West African Islamic states were flourishing. Timbuktu is symbolic in English of remoteness, but in its prime about 1000 A.D. it was a center of wealth and scholarship.

Islam lacks the formal heirarchies and rituals that characterize Christianity, although there are officially recognized teachers and leaders in Islam. Although there are many sects within Islam, they are not as sharply or formally defined as within Christianity. The most serious split in Islam began about 700 A.D., over the succession to the Caliphate and the more fundamental issue of mixing other ideas in with the core teachings of Islam. The more orthodox group, the Shiites, live mostly in and around Iran and make up about ten per cent of the world's Muslims; the remaining 90 per cent are termed Sunnites.

The difference between Shiites and Sunnites defies Western categories. The Shiites separated from the main mass of Islam because of dissatisfaction over the admixture of traditions into Islam and the increasing worldliness of the leadership of Islam. In that respect we might - very loosely - compare Shiites to Protestants. However, Shiites place an emphasis on veneration of holy men and pilgrimages to their tombs that is more reminiscent of Catholic practice, whereas Sunnites reject these practices and thus seem more like Protestants. However, any comparison between Islamic and Christian groups must be taken with the greatest caution.

Although Shiites have come to be considered the more conservative group in recent years, not all conservative Muslims are Shiites. In Saudi Arabia, a puritanical Sunni sect called the Wahhabi (named for its founder, Muhammed Wahhab, who was born about 1700) became allied with the Saud family during its rise to power. The Sauds still rely heavily on the political support of the Wahhabi and allow them to dictate many internal policies related to religion and morals within Saudi Arabia.

At one time Islam had a supreme head, the Caliph (from Kalifa, successor). Unlike the Pope, the Caliph could marry and the title could be inherited. Since the Caliph was head of a powerful nation, political marriages with the Caliph's family were common, and as a result of one, the Caliphate merged with the Ottoman sultanate. When the last Ottoman sultan was deposed in 1922, there was no alternative mechanism for naming a successor and since that time, the Caliphate has been vacant. In the present climate of Islamic revival, we should not be surprised if attempts are made to restore the title.

Beginning in the 1960's, Islam began to burgeon in popularity among American blacks. Islam was seen as more authentically African than the Christianity that was frequently inherited from slave days, and the militant aspects of Islam appealed to blacks who saw themselves locked in a struggle with white society.

Effects of Islam

When the Arabs conquered Persia, they soon found a monastery in the western mountain fringes of Iran called Jundi Shapur, where scholars for years had been preserving and elaborating on classical Greco-Roman learning. Dazzled by what they found here and at other sanctuaries, they launched on a campaign of intellectual expansion as energetic as their military expansion had been. The achievements of Baghdad, Cairo, Cordoba and Samarkand at their height can be likened only to those of ancient Greece.

Arabic scholars did not merely admire and copy classical learning, but went beyond it to create their own innovations in astronomy and mathematics. The range of their contributions is suggested by Arabic technical terms still in use; if a technical term begins with "al-" there is a very strong likelihood it's from Arabic. Alchemy, alcohol, algebra, algorithm, alizarin, alkali, almanac, amber, azimuth, and azure all come from Arabic. So do a large fraction of our star names, some with amusing twists. A bright star in Orion was called yad-al-jawza in Arabic. Unfortunately, the letters y and b are very similar in Arabic; b has one dot beneath the letter and y has two. To further confuse matters, Arabs often draw a short line instead of making two dots. A 13th century European scholar whose Arabic was perhaps a bit shaky misread the y as b, and to this day the star name is written Betelgeuse (pronounced "Beetlejuice") - an 800-year old typographical error. The Arabs rediscovered the ancient Greek astrolabe and refined it into a highly sophisticated computing device as well as a work of art. There are perhaps1500 medieval astrolabes still in existence; prices begin at $100,000.

For centuries, the Islamic world was a pivotal link between East and West. In addition to innovations from the Islamic world itself, so-called "Arabic" numbers were transmitted from India, as were the foundations of trigonometry. Innovations like paper, the compass and gunpowder diffused to Europe from China along the trade routes through the Islamic world. And paradoxically, given the present tensions with Israel, for centuries the Islamic World provided a sanctuary for Judaism. Jews enjoyed far greater freedom and safety in the Islamic world than in most parts of Europe.

The Islamic World Today

Secularism and Orthodoxy

The conflict between sunnite and shiite Muslims is part of a larger struggle between secularism and religious orthodoxy. One additional aspect of this struggle is the struggle to deal with technology without losing Islamic identity and becoming submerged in the general stream of Western culture.


Until the 1920's, Saudi Arabia was scarcely changed from Mohammed's day. During World War I, the British had successfully mobilized Arab rebellions to overthrow the stagnant Ottoman rule over the Middle East. The resulting patchwork of countries was an attempt to pay off obligations to Arab leaders and maintain a balance of power between various Western interests. The Saud family conquered most of Arabia during the 1920's, creating the present Saudi Arabia. None of the boundaries in the region are of much historical significance.

The discovery of oil in the Persian Gulf brought Arabia's isolation to an abrupt end and created powerful tensions that endure to the present. On the one hand the Arabs wanted the oil wealth and needed Western experts to extract it. On the other hand, many Arabs resented the fact that Westerners had the expertise, seeing it as a threat to their own status. Nobody visits Saudi Arabia as a tourist; all persons entering the country must be sponsored by an Arab. Saudi Arabia officially has no freedom of religion. As the homeland of the sacred cities of Mecca and Medina, only Islam can be officially tolerated in Saudi Arabia. This policy created problems for Western oil field workers, especially when they began bringing their families in.

The impasse was resolved by one U.S. Ambassador. A Southern "good ole boy", his appointment caused some professionals in the State Department to cringe, but he understood how to play religion and politics. He pointed out to the King that Saudi Arabia wanted only people of good character in the country, and many of the most desirable candidates would not come if they could not worship as they chose. What evolved was a sort of "don't ask, don't tell" policy in which the government would not search too aggressively for clandestine religious activities among foreigners, although attempts to proselytize Arabs would be swiftly and harshly curtailed. There is, however, a semi-official religious police that does keep an eye out for non-Islamic activities, so Western non-Moslems keep their activities under fairly deep cover.

Turkey and Moslems in Europe

Islam tried to penetrate Europe via three routes. The earliest and most successful was via Spain, portions of which they occupied for over 750 years. The least successful was via Sicily, which was held for a time by the Arabs. The last was via the Balkans. The Turks invaded the Balkans in 1395 and hold a remnant to this day.

The Ottoman Empire picked the wrong side in World War I and as a result lost its holdings in the Middle East. The victorious Western powers had grandiose plans for carving up the rest: Greece would get the Aegean coast, France and Italy segments along the Mediterranean, Russia control of the Bosporus and Dardanelles, and Armenia would become independent. The Turks fought off the Greeks in a bloody conflict, sufficiently intimidated the major powers, already exhausted by World War I, so that they did not intervene, and held on to Armenia.

Having secured Anatolia, the Turks under Mustafa Kemal launched a vigorous Westernization campaign. They abandoned the Arabic script that had been used for writing Turkish and adopted a Roman alphabet. (It is a myth that the Roman alphabet is better suited to writing the sounds of Turkish; Persian and Urdu still use modified Arabic scripts to represent Indo-European sounds not found in Arabic.) They also purged the language of an enormous number of borrowed Arabic and Persian words. In recognition of his accomplishments, Kemal was given the title "Ataturk", or "father of the Turks." He is almost fanatically revered in Turkey.

One commentator observed "If you're looking for a Muslim country that is moderate, democratic, and pro-Western, Turkey isn't the best game in town, it's the only game in town." Without in any way minimizing the violence of Turkey's past or its present spotty human-rights record, the Turks have come light-years in a short time. The Turks regard themselves as European and want to be regarded as European. When National Geographic recently published a new map of Europe, they held to the traditional custom of regarding Turkey as part of Asia. In response to a protest from the Turkish Embassy, National Geographic lamely cited tradition as an excuse. Turkey is under serious pressure from militant Islamic movements. Given the stakes, the time has come to scrap outmoded traditions and regard Turkey as part of Europe before we lose them.

The Turks brought Islam to Europe, where sizable Muslim populations still exist in the Balkans. Balkan Muslims desperately want to be considered Europeans; they're just Europeans who happen to be Muslims. Militant Islamic movements are seeking to radicalize European Muslims; ethnic violence against Muslims plays right into their hands.

Russian Southward Expansion

Central Asian politics throughout the 19th century was dominated by the "Great Game", a sparring match between Russia and Britain for control of the frontiers of India. At that time, Russia was rapidly expanding southward into the Islamic lands of central Asia. Russian southward expansionism has been a major historical trend, and although the growth of the Russian Empire has been reversed with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, a future resurgence is not out of the question.


Terrorism seems new only because Europe is nearing the end of an unusual period marked by the dominance of large powers and generally accepted rules of warfare, largely dictated by Europeans. Attacks on civilians, reprisals, private and non-state military organizations, and hostage-taking have been part of warfare since earliest times. "Muslim" and "Shiite" are not synonyms for "terrorist" or "extremist".

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Created 27 August 1998, Last Update 14 December 2009

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