World History 2 49 - 4.1.1 Politics and Religion in the Ummah

In the sixteenth century, the ummah was composed of a number of large and small Islamic empires and states. Among the large empires were the Mughal Empire of India (discussed in India and International Connections), the Safavid Empire of Iran, and the Ottoman Empire of the Mediterranean. There were many more small kingdoms in places like Morocco, Indonesia, the Swahili Coast, and parts of central Asia. However, despite this political fragmentation, the various parts of the larger Islamic world maintained an element of cohesiveness derived largely from their religion. Rival Islamic kingdoms might disagree with each other on issues of official doctrine or politics, but members of the ulama, a class of religious clerics and scholars who act as the primary interpreters of Islamic law, engaged in scholarly debates and collaborated with each other through correspondence. Shared basic beliefs and a reverence for the teachings of Muhammad united all Muslims. Religious and political institutions tended to maintain a similar structure and function in different locations: judges oversaw legal and religious disputes, and the ulama advised political rulers and ordinary citizens alike on policy by issuing nonbinding legal opinions called fatwas. In this way, the ulama helped unify the increasingly diverse Islamic world.

Also helping to expand and unify Islam were communities of Islamic mystics called Sufis. Like mystics in other religions, Sufis engaged in ascetic practices, meditation, and ritual prayer in order to have a personal experience with God and directly gain access to divine love and wisdom. Often they used music, poetry, and dancing to transcend their connection to the world and enter a trance-like state in which they could experience the divine presence. Sufism began in the seventh century, during the Umayyad Caliphate. By the sixteenth century, Sufi orders had been established throughout the Islamic world. These orders, often described as “brotherhoods” even though some admitted women, formed around a leader who also served as the group’s religious teacher. Sufis who achieved a special closeness with God were revered as saints, and their graves became sites of pilgrimage. Because Sufi practices often attracted the attention of ordinary people for whom complex theological treatises and abstruse legal debates held little interest, Sufis helped introduce Islam to places as far-flung as North and West Africa, central Asia, and India and served as missionaries of the expanding religion.

Through a combination of imperial conquest, trade, Sufi missionary work, and migration, by 1500 the religion of Islam had expanded far and wide. As Muslims migrated to other lands, they usually established familiar Islamic religious institutions in their new communities. This provided a level of consistency for local people as well as for travelers, traders, and visitors. It also facilitated movement and exchange within the Islamic world and helped to unify Muslims as individual polities rose, fell, and were replaced. The result was a great geographic and ethnic diversity of the faith, and in places like India and Indonesia, new converts blended Islamic practices with indigenous traditions (Figure 4.4). Throughout the Islamic world, Arabic script was also adapted to write the local languages, such as Kurdish, Pashto, Urdu, and Punjabi.

An image of two buildings is shown. The building on the left is a square, tall tower, made from red brick, with a clock near the top. There are minimal decorative carvings on the front and circular and square decorations along the bottom. The building on the right has a large, silver dome with a short spire and two smaller dome striped and decorated towers at the front. Green scalloped trim runs along the edges of the roof and pointed windows run along the bottom of the building.
Figure 4.4 Islamic architecture in Southeast Asia blended earlier religious architectural traditions with those of Islam. For example, at the Menara Kudus Mosque in Java, the red brick of this minaret (the tower from which the call to prayer is made) reflects the local Hindu-Buddhist architectural style. (credit: “Masjid Menara Kudus” by “PL09Puryono”/Wikimedia Commons, CC0 1.0)

Not everyone exposed to Islam or incorporated into the Islamic world adopted Islam. Many Christians in southeastern Europe and southwest Asia continued to practice their religion within the larger Islamic environment. The expansion of Islam into India occasionally invigorated Hinduism and other religions there. While allowed to practice their religions, people in these non-Muslim communities granted protection by Muslim rulers, called dhimmis, were required to acknowledge the sovereignty of Muslim leadership. The dhimmi system was intended to provide religious minorities with official standing within the Muslim community and grant them legal protection, but it usually also included some restrictions on their public lives, such as their clothing choices, and it limited the jobs they could hold and thus their social mobility. The most common hardship was the jizya, or poll tax (Figure 4.5).

A brown fragment of a ripped and aged thin piece of paper with rows of writing in Muslim script is shown. There is a purple oval stamp with letters on the edges in the bottom right corner of the paper.
Figure 4.5 This receipt issued in 1615 confirms that the inhabitants of an Ottoman village in Bulgaria have paid the jizya tax. (credit: “Jizya document Chokmanovo 1615” by Unknown/Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain)

Life was often harder for dhimmis than for Muslims of the same social class, and non-Muslims in many places converted to improve their social standing and chances for upward mobility. Merchants often converted to Islam to gain access to Islamic trading networks and potential business partners. Non-Muslim men seeking to marry Muslim women, whether for love or to gain connections to a prominent family, were required to convert. Christian and Jewish women could marry Muslim men without converting, but a Muslim woman could marry only a Muslim man.

This lesson has no exercises.

The content of this course has been taken from the free World History, Volume 2: from 1400 textbook by Openstax