chapter  1
21 Pages

From the historical to the contemporary …

How did Islam begin? What are its origins? How have Muslims arrived in Western Europe, and how are relations between Muslims and nonMuslims shaped? What are the origins of ‘British Islam’? What are the implications for our present time? These are some of the many social, theological, cultural and political questions that need to be answered in any attempt to achieve an appreciation of the impact of Islam and Muslims on Western Europe and, specifically, on Britain in the current period. Without clear questions, it is not always possible to discern the nature of the contemporary experience. This opening discussion provides a broad introduction, not to explain the origins of the religion of Islam as merely a function of existing social, economic, political and cultural determinants but, rather, to elucidate its inception and to introduce current predicaments in the light of historical, theological, intellectual and political developments to the religion and its people since the seventh century. It also builds a foundation to better recognise the current issues of sectarianism, cultural relativism, the impact of colonialism and decolonisation, and the post-war immigration and settlement of a whole host of different Muslim ethnicities, nationalities and cultures across Britain. The current experience of violence, terror and radicalism is often presented as an association between Islam and Muslims, and this phenomenon is deconstructed through the lens of history, politics, economics and sociology. The Arabian Peninsula is the birthplace of Islam. To the north lies

Syria, and the land between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers is modern Iraq, formerly the ancient land of Mesopotamia (‘the cradle of civilisation’) and the birthplace of both Judaism and Christianity.1 To appreciate the nature of the lived experience that existed in Arabia before Islam, it is possible to take advantage of pre-Islamic history, as documented by Muslim and non-Muslim scholars, manuscripts from the Greeks and the Romans, and the discoveries of ancient relics and sites which have been

achieved through technologically advanced modern-day scientific excavations and observations.2 In the centuries leading up to the inception of Islam in Arabia, the Near East was in political and economic turmoil. Once profiting from the Roman Empire through trade in incense in the south, the Arabian economy began to suffer because of the fewer numbers of pagans who were now converting to Christianity, as well as the general weakening of the Roman economy (Christianity became the religion of Roman Empire in 313 when Emperor Constantine (272-337) issued the ‘Edict of Milan’, legislating worship).3 Because of ongoing conflicts strategic sea-trade routes were hard to find. Consequently, Arabian land routes became significant in the transport of vital goods and merchandise. They led to the development of the ‘caravan trade’ and, with it, contact and exchange with foreign cultures and beliefs. It created a settled, urbanised society with wealth, however, concentrated in the hands of the few. Social divisions, because of powerful tribalistic tendencies, led to particular forms of dissatisfaction in the region, raising questions about the underlying unequal social structures and the long-established religions and belief systems that seemingly justified them. Before the arrival of Islam in Arabia, it was regarded by Muslims as in a

state of jahiliyah (ignorance or barbarism). Arabian social life was based on a nomadic desert culture (bedouin), which relied on clan-kinship networks reinforced through patriarchy. It encouraged and facilitated values of tribal solidarity, and people generally believed in a primitive and fatalistic form of paganism. The region had a high level of cultural and social separation, but there was economic exchange and social contact with many civilisations, including Byzantium, Greece, Persia as well as Rome. Before the emergence of Islam in the seventh century, however, there was no political harmony in the Arabian Peninsula.4 The nomadic tribes of the region pledged allegiance to a primordial religion where spirits were attributed to inanimate objects such as stones or trees. The pagan Arabs had no prescribed religious hierarchy, but, when wanting guidance, people conferred with soothsayers who would reply with oracular utterances. In Mecca, a central Arabian city at the heart of trade routes, tribes worshipped idols placed around and over the Ka’bah.5 (According to Islamic tradition, Abraham and his eldest son, Ishmael, built the Ka’bah around 2000 BCE.) Many Islamic scholars have sought to explain the nature of this pre-Islamic period of idolatry and how it

impacted on the development of Islam. A renowned description is by Hisham ibn al-Kalbi (d. 819) in The Book of Idols, which makes reference to deities in pre-Islamic times that are also cited in the Qur’a-n.6