An Introduction to Islam
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An Introduction to Islam

Frederick Denny

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eBook - ePub

An Introduction to Islam

Frederick Denny

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An Introduction to Islam, Fourth Edition, provides students with a thorough, unified and topical introduction to the global religious community of Islam. In addition, the author's extensive field work, experience, and scholarship combined with his engaging writing style and passion for the subject also sets his text apart. An Introduction to Islam places Islam within a cultural, political, social, and religious context, and examines its connections with Judeo-Christian morals. Its integration of the doctrinal and devotional elements of Islam enables readers to see how Muslims think and live, engendering understanding and breaking down stereotypes. This text also reviews pre-Islamic history, so readers can see how Islam developed historically.

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Part I Religion and Common Life in the Pre-Islamic Near East

1 Early Civilizations and the Origins of Judaism and Christianity

DOI: 10.4324/9781315663821-1

Key Terms

  • Old Kingdom
  • Osiris
  • Isis
  • Ma’at
  • topocosm
  • Mesopotamia
  • Gilgamesh
  • Hammurabi
  • Israelites
  • Allāh
  • ethical monotheism
  • prophet

Egypt the Land

Islam arose in the same part of the world that witnessed the rise of civilization, including writing, large-scale agriculture, long-distance trade both by sea and by land, and a number of great religious traditions. From their beginnings, the civilizations of both Egypt and Mesopotamia placed religious symbols, beliefs, and practices in prominent positions. The Egyptians believed their wonderful land and its ordered people to be a gift of the gods, who deserved in return continuous praise, thanksgiving, and service. The Mesopotamians considered themselves to be the stewards of their land, which was believed to be a vast estate ruled by the gods in heaven. At the center of both systems was a ruler who had sacral and priestly as well as political, economic, judicial, and military functions and qualities. In Egypt the pharaoh was believed to be a god as well as a human, and so he provided a link between the earthly and heavenly realms. Actually, there seems to have been no sharp distinction made between the two, for, as the great American Egyptologist John Wilson has put it, the Egyptians lived in a “con-substantial” universe in which humans, animals, gods, and inanimate nature were intimately and harmoniously interrelated.1 This helps explain the confidence that marked Egyptian religious, political, artistic, and social expression in its formative and classical periods, extending roughly from 3000 to 2200 b.c.e. and known as the Old Kingdom. This was the “pyramid” age, during which most of the characteristic institutions and concepts pertaining to Egyptian civilization were begun and perfected. For centuries, indeed millennia, afterward, Egyptians looked back to this period and drew from it inspiration for continuing tasks as well as comfort in periods of failure and disintegration. The great innovator Ikhnaton (d. ca. 1353 b.c.e.), who instituted a monotheistic cult nearly a thousand years after the fall of the Old Kingdom, clearly meant to return to the original pattern that exalted the pharaoh above all else on earth and worshiped him as the good god.
View of the medieval Cairo skyline, facing the pyramids. (Source: Frederick Mathewson Denny)
The Egyptians’ general optimism and confidence, reflected in their graceful and imaginative funeral art, for example—which both protected and provided for the dead—was at least partly a product of topography and climate. The Nile valley is a place greatly blessed by nature. The weather is generally mild most of the year, and the soil is rich and loamy, coming as it did until recent times in the annual inundation from central Africa. With irrigation, there is almost always sufficient and sometimes abundant water. Goods and people are easily and cheaply transported from one part of the narrow valley to another on the Nile, whose current flows north toward the sea, whereas the prevailing wind blows south, thus enabling propulsion either by wind or current in both directions. The land is both contained and guarded by steep walls in the valley and hostile deserts on both sides, and to the north the swampy delta and the Mediterranean Sea effectively check incursions from the outside, provided the minimal necessary defensive outposts are maintained, especially along the Gaza Strip between Palestine and Egypt. As Herodotus said, “Egypt is the gift of the Nile.”2 Throughout its ancient existence as a major Near Eastern power, Egypt capitalized on its unique endowments and its sense of miraculous emergence and continued maintenance from the interaction of sun, soil, and moisture.

Egypt's Ancient Religion

The annual inundation of the Nile, bringing forth once again the life-giving green crops, symbolized as well as embodied the cycle of life, death, and resurrection that the Egyptians came to embrace through the cult of Osiris. Originally, Osiris was thought to have been the king of Egypt.3 His jealous and treacherous brother Seth, who is traditionally associated with the desert and its scorching winds, contrived to kill Osiris so as to ascend to the throne himself. The body of Osiris, trapped inside a beautiful box, floated out to sea and eventually washed up at Byblos, on the Phoenician coast. The devoted wife of Osiris, Isis, searched all over for her husband’s body, finally discovering it in a pillar of the palace of the king of Byblos. Returning with the body to Egypt, she hid it and herself in the delta marshes, where she succeeded in reviving Osiris enough to become impregnated. Seth, out hunting one night by the light of the moon, came upon the body of his brother, which he cut up into pieces and strewed all over Egypt. The penis was dropped into the Nile, where it was eaten by a fish. Isis, who from this time forward was often depicted as a grieving woman, flew in her form as a kite all over the land in order to find the parts of Osiris’s body. Wherever she found one, she dedicated a temple at the spot, burying the part there. (One version has her reassemble the body and then become impregnated by it, a mythological explanation of the widespread occurrence of Osiris worship.) After a while Isis gave birth to a son, Horus, who was always identified with the falcon. Later, when Horus grew up, he avenged his father’s murder through a tribunal of the gods, who found Seth guilty. Horus thus became the rightful ruler. Thereafter the living pharaoh was thought to be Horus, and the dead pharaoh, Osiris.4 Horus kept watch over Egypt as a just and mighty ruler, eventually adding to his falcon symbolism the powerful symbolism of the sun. Since the earliest of times birds of prey and the sun have been royal symbols, for who else can oversee vast regions at one glance, dive down swiftly to deal with disturbances, and make the soil fertile? In the person of the pharaoh, the forces of nature are harnessed to those of politics and justice by means of religious symbolism and ritual. In addition, Osiris continues to live and bring new life through the power of the Nile and the green vegetation associated with its annual floods after the dry season.
Religion and Afterlife. During the period of the Old Kingdom, as each pharaoh died, he became Osiris, and his successor became Horus. As Osiris, the pharaoh continued in an external life of happiness and pleasure. As the centuries went by, the nobles and then the common people came to share in this identification with Osiris, through elaborate rituals of burial and continued tomb maintenance. James Henry Breasted, the pioneering Egyptologist, named this phenomenon the “democratization of the Osirean afterlife.”5 It seems to be one of the first explicit doctrines of life beyond the grave to have appeared in world religious history. Significantly, such an afterlife was dependent on having lived a good life on earth. The supreme Egyptian virtue was Ma’at, “justice,” depicted in the form of a woman with weighing scales and a feather. At a postdeath trial, really a last judgment, the newly deceased was questioned and examined and his or her deeds were weighed on Ma’at’s scales of justice. If the verdict was damnation, a fearsome-looking crocodilelike monster was on hand to devour the victim. But if the verdict was innocence, then the happy soul was ushered into the Elysian Fields. There seems to have been much litigation in the afterlife on the part of deceased persons seeking a good outcome. And both the living and the dead continued to have relations with each other and could affect each other for good or ill.6
Ideas of justice, final judgment, and punishment or reward that have descended from ancient Egypt became central to the Abrahamic religions, of which Islam is the youngest. Although there are structural similarities in the ancient Egyptian and the Christian, Jewish, and Islamic doctrines of individual judgment and either punishment or blissful afterlife in a kind of heaven, the details are quite different. Christianity, Judaism, and Islam feature a resurrection of the body, whereas the ancient Egyptians embalmed the body for a postmortem existence based in the tomb. The Christian, Jewish, and Islamic forms of afterlife do not have any necessary connection with a specific geographic location, whereas Egyptians had always dreaded dying and being buried away from their sacred land. Ancient Egypt had multiple geographies of death, one of which was an idealized version of the land and the Nile in heaven.7 Whenever possible, the remains of Egyptians who died abroad were transported back to the Valley of the Nile for a proper funeral, which included the journey across the Nile to the land of the Westerners, where the sun sets each day over the cemeteries. Of course, other differences are connected with the diversity of gods in ancient Egypt and the roles they played in the funerary cult, as in many other dimensions of the cultural and religious system.
A deceased Pharoah appears before the goddess of justice, Ma'at (Valley of the Kings). (Source: Frederick Mathewson Denny)
Religion and “Topocosm.” Ancient Egypt, like other traditional agriculture-based civilizations in Mesopotamia, the Indus valley, and China, unified into a symbolic and ritual system the land, the people, and the founding myths. This complex but harmonious interrelationship of the individual, society, time, and location centered in the agricultural-seasonal cycle has been given by an American specialist in comparative religion, Theodor Gaster, the name of topocosm.8 It is a union between place (topos) and world structure (cosmos). Thus, the crops, their planting, and their harvesting are not subject merely to the vicissitudes of a particular territory. They also are connected to the universe through a cosmology and a pattern of seasonal ritual repetition that ensures regularity and harmony. All of the settled agricultural peoples with whom the ancient Hebrews and, later, the Arabs came into contact shared more or less in a topocosmic world view, whether in Babylon, Canaan, or Egypt.
Nomadic pastoralist peoples have tended to be ambivalent toward religious systems that are rooted in the intimate relationship between agriculture and a settled population. At the most superficial level, pastoralists have despised the peasants for their slavery to the soil. At a more profound level, the Hebrew of the Mosaic covenant, for example, has been at pains to resist the comforts and securities of fertility cults based on the relationship between the female earth and the male lords of the clouds and storms: Ashtoreth and the Baals. After Israel settled into an agricultural mode of existence, there was a considerable accretion of topocosmic elements in the religion that became Judaism. This can be seen most clearly in some of the seasonal festivals, such as Tabernacles (harvesttime) and Passover (springtime), as well as the holy geography of Eretz Yisrael, the “Land of Israel.” Although Islam, as we shall see, is relatively free from topocosmic dimensions, it places great emphasis on the sacred enclaves of Mecca and Medina. The specific symbolism and ritual practices connected with them will be considered later.

Mesopotamia the Land

In Mesopotamia the situation is strikingly different. There is no seasonal regularity, as in Egypt. Rather, one season of sufficient rain, mild winter, and bearable heat may be immediately followed by a period of scorching desert winds, with no moisture, to be capped off by a severe winter. The climate, in short, is capricious and damaging as often as it is nurturing.9 What is more, the topography is relatively open and vulnerable to outside and possibly aggressive populations. Mesopotamia has been ruled by many different groups over the millennia. The peasants, however, have remained the same, although new peoples have migrated and settled there from time to time. Abraham’s migration from Babylon would have been neither possible nor appealing to most people in Mesopotamia (see Gen. 11:31), but Abraham came from a seminomadic, pastoralist background, it seems.

Mesopotamia's Ancient Religion

Our records indicate that the Mesopotamians generally had a more pessimistic view of life than their Egyptian neighbors did. This life is full of toil and stress, and there is nothing to be expected after it. The ancient Babylonian story of Gilgamesh is a reminder that all humans have is their present life. When the hero Gilgamesh was ...

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