I had to review this book for a school project.
The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East, 600-1800 focuses on a variety of Islamic issues and, particularly, the development of the religion itself. Throughout the book, the author reaffirms his belief that Islam developed over time and shares several characteristics with other religions, mainly Judaism and Christianity. To articulate the link more clearly, the first several chapters detail the role these faiths played in establishing the religion. The latter chapters of the book focus on the internal traits of Islam: sects, leadership, politics, and struggles. Whereas the first part of the book focuses on the years of 600 – 1000, the latter half focuses on the medieval period, 1000-1500. The changes made during these times are similar in ways but unique in others, yet they are both significant, and as the author asserts, the religion becomes more defined as the years pass.
In addition, the geography of the Middle East is another important facet of Islam. Along the Arabian Peninsula, lies the city of Mecca. Most Muslims consider Mecca the holiest city in the world, which is the birthplace of the prophet Mohammed, and it is the place where he received the Koranic revelations. From there, the Muslim faith takes shape and develops throughout Arabia and the Middle East, eventually progressing into Africa and Europe. Yathrib, or the modern day city of Medina, also becomes a focal point of the religion.
Mr. Berkey describes the relationship between Islam and Judaism and Christianity as one of complexity. Islam is a religion of late antiquity, emerging in the beginning of the seventh century after the prophet Muhammad started receiving revelations. The revelations were then compiled into a holy book known as the Koran. However, before Muhammad’s birth in 570, Judaism and Christianity, by that time, had been around for centuries. The beliefs and practices of the Jews and Christians were unlike the polytheistic practices of the past, which was appealing for many people because of the simple belief in one god. As Jews and Christians believe in one God, this is the central theme to Islam and Muhammad’s teachings.
Furthermore, Mr. Berkey suggests that without the Jewish and Christian beliefs, Islam would not be what it is today. He writes, “Islam, in short, emerged from a religious matrix pregnant with ideas, stories and attitudes that also informed the religious expectations of contemporary Jews. . . . The origin of Islam, in other words, cannot be understood without taking into account a pattern of creative interaction with the other Near Eastern monotheistic faiths, especially Judaism.” ( I think the author assumes that the readers of his book have a basic knowledge of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam. After all, the three religions believe in the prophet and patriarch Abraham. The book, however, does not detail this, but I think it is a significant point. Even though the views and stories differ among the religions, they are still brought together by this belief.) Muhammad believed in many of the bible’s prophets, including the begotten Son of God, Jesus Christ. Certainly, the Muslim prophet did not see Christ as the Christians did in the early seventh century (or even as Christians view him today), but many verses and passages in the Koran refer to Jesus as a great prophet. For example, “His name is Messiah, Jesus, son of Mary, well-esteemed in this world and the next, and one of the nearest.” In fact, the author stresses throughout the book or rather implies that Muhammad could have been a Christian ,in ways, at one time or at least had a firm belief in the Jewish and Christian teachings.
The Jewish and Christian faiths around the seventh century were widespread throughout the country. Some of the most heavily populated Muslim cities today were, and still are, home to Jews and Christians. For instance, three Jewish tribes settled in the city of Medina, the second holiest city in Islam, where the prophet Muhammad is buried. (Many Muslims today stop by Medina on their pilgrimage to Mecca.) However, the Jews and Christians never recognized Muhammad as a prophet, so contention was certainly common in the community. Consequently, Muhammad created a constitution, known as the Constitution of Medina, which allowed non- Arabs and Jews the freedom to worship as they pleased, but the Jews still had to pay certain taxes and seek approval or permission in certain matters. Mr. Berkey points out that this constitution and Muhammad’s leadership, though, was “famously ambiguous – they were said to form one community with the believers, but on the other hand, they have their religion and the Muslims have theirs.” Therefore, the non-Arabs and Jews were still considered infidels to the Muslims.
Mr. Berkey also asserts that besides Judaism and Christianity, many other practices and beliefs contributed to the formation of Islam. Zoroastrianism, for instance, was the official religion of Persia (Iran) from 600 BCE to 650 CE. Zoroastrians were one of the first to believe in a monotheistic god, who they called Ahura Mazda. They prayed several times a day and even believed in a book of Holy Scripture called the Avesta, which was written by their prophet, Zoroaster. The scripture emphasizes the belief in one God and declares the existence of good and evil in the world. The Zoroastrians believed that good and evil were an ongoing battle, which they defined as dualism . This concept, right versus wrong or good versus evil, is the basis for most religions today, especially Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.
Manichaeism, another religion of late antiquity, also shares similarities and certain beliefs with the three main religions. Mani, the founder and prophet of Manichaeism, claimed he received a series of revelations from a celestial being. He then went about preaching a new religion called his “hope.” Mr. Berkey writes, “His doctrine [Mani’s] bore a superficial resemblance to Christianity – Jesus, for example, plays a prominent role in the Manichaean myth. . . .” Furthermore, it is interesting that Mani and the Manchurian doctrine testified of many other prophets and religions, claiming, ‘“Wisdom and deeds have always from time to time been brought to mankind by the messengers of God.”’ He then goes on to say, ‘“So in one age they [the messages] have been brought by . . . Buddha to India, in another by Zoroaster to Persia, in another by Jesus to the West . . .”’
Mani believed that he was a true prophet of God and that he was only adding to (or correcting) the doctrine of the past. In ways, this reminds me of Muhammad’s beliefs towards other prophets and prominent figures, such as Jesus and Abraham. Eventually, though, the religion failed, as Berkey describes, “Because it never permanently attached itself to any of the principle empires which dominated the Near East from late antiquity into the modern period.”
The book also reveals that a fundamental problem for Muslims and their newfound religion was the role of leadership. After the prophet Muhammad died in 632, confusion took place among the different tribes, sects, and followers. The question was who would be the new leader, so this, in ways, was a turning point for the religion. Some believed the leadership position should be given to those most capable within the prophet’s tribe, but others believed the role of leader should stay within the prophet’s family.
According to the Sunni account, “Muhammad’s friend and father -in-law Abu Bakr . . . was elected [by consensus] as the first caliph, or successor, of the prophet.” The Shias, on the other hand, believed that the prophet before his death identified his cousin and son-in-law Ali as successor. Berkey suggests, though, that, “it is virtually certain that Muhammad had not made arrangements for the organization and leadership of his community before his death.” Undoubtedly, this was (and is) a point of contention among the Muslims. Today there are over eight or nine times as many Sunni than Shia practicing the religion. This does not, however, change their fundamental belief in the Koran; both sects affirm that the Koran is true but strongly disagree about the role of leadership.
Berkey believes the distinctions between the two groups formed over the eighth, ninth, and tenth centuries. Because both groups share different memories of what occurred during the first years of Islam, their histories are incompatible. The Sunnis and Shias both had similar but sometimes distinctive celebrations and religious ceremonies, yet because of the disagreement on leadership, they could not get along, and some of their beliefs remain unique from one another. For example, the day of Ashura honors Hussein, the younger son of Ali, who was martyred near the town of Karbala by Sunni forces in 680. Christopher Blanchard, an analyst of the Congressional Research Service, suggests, “As a minority persecuted by Sunnis, Shiites found solace in the Ashura ritual, the telling of the martyrdom of Hussein and the moral lessons to be learned from it, which reinforced Shiite religious traditions and practices.” Today both sects celebrate Ashura, but obviously, the commemoration is more central and significant for Shias.
Furthermore, to the Shias, “God provides each generation of Muslims with an Imam or spiritual leader, who is the rightful leader of the community,” but as the rightful leader, he must be a descendant (descendant is somewhat ambiguous) from the prophet and receive his appointment by designation. That designation, which comes from an appointed predecessor, allows the Imam to speak in God’s name and guide the collective.
To the Sunnis, however, the community as a whole would make the right decisions, so the true designation of a leader would have the consensus of the community, which the Shias failed to recognize. Mr. Berkey points out a famous quote attributed to the prophet Muhammad which states this fact, ‘“My community [or ummah, which is interpreted as the community of Muslims] will never agree upon an error,’” so each sect, but particularity the Sunnis, could interpret this passage to mean they are right and the others are wrong.
Protests and violent uprisings by both groups have made national headlines, and it is hard to believe that these two sects are still fighting over the role of leadership. The book clearly demonstrates, though, how and why this is happening. However, the Sunni population is much larger than the Shias, and today Shias are predominantly located in areas such as Iraq, Iran, and Syria. One would think they might put aside their differences and get along, but I guess the real issue comes back to control. In the beginning, as the book points out, the role of leadership was one of the most controversial issues for Islam and the Muslim faith.
The Formation of Islam is a comprehensive guide to early Islamic issues and shares an interesting perspective of how the religion developed. I don’t believe it is a book for those who have a lay understanding of the Muslim faith, but the book is certainly filled with valuable information. At the front of the book is a glossary that shares a detailed explanation of the commonly used Arabic words and phrases. I found this helpful as read and studied, but I was still confused because of the Arabic names.
From the beginning, Berkey points out that the development of Islam is attributed to many other religions, mainly Judaism and Christianity, but he does mention a few others, including paganism. (I also think he should have included a brief history of Abraham and his two sons, Ishmael and Isaac. This would create another aspect to the book and how the wo religions are related.) Overall, the book was well written. I would recommend the book to anyone who wants to further his or her understanding of Islam. Mr Berkey is extremely knowledgeable on the subject.