|Arab Culture and Civilization: A collaborative web project created by NITLE and sponsored by MEPC|
|Main Menu Introduction Readings Audio/Video Links Bibliography|
Islam is, far and away, the most important religion in the Arab World. Though there are important minority communities such as the Copts and the Maronites (see the unit on ethnicity and identity), the vast majority of citizens of Arab countries are Muslim. Moreover, most Arab governments lay some sort of claim to legitimacy on Islamic grounds, regardless of whether or not such claims are justified.
From a handful of followers accepting the teachings of a prophet on the Arabian Peninsula, Islam has grown to become a truly global religion. Today there are nations with Muslim majorities not only in the Middle East, but in Africa, Asia, and Eastern Europe. Furthermore, sizable Muslim communities can be found in virtually every corner of the world, including the United States (See The Dynamics of Islamic Identity in North America, by Yvonne Haddad). In fact, it is documented that Islam is well on its way to becoming the second largest religion in the United States, if it isn't already.
The first group of resources in this unit will provide you with a basic understanding of Islam and its social system. The ten questions taken from What Everyone Needs to Know About Islam by John Esposito, as well as the interviews with Sherman Jackson and Walid Saleh will provide a basic introduction to the faith and its practices. "The Rise of Islam in the World" by Patricia Crone, and the presentation on "The Emergence of Sunni and Shia Islam" by Devin Stewart will give you a historical account of the life of the Prophet and of the Islamic community in the centuries after his death. A parallel between that period and the growth of the Muslim community in the United States is drawn in the film Muhammad: Legacy of a Prophet. The essay by David Waines surveys the history of Sufi movements in the Islamic world, and Mohammad Hashim Kamali gives a detailed history of Islamic law and the major schools within it.
The second set of resources focuses on how Islam has manifested itself in the politics of the modern era. Articles by Khaled Abou El Fadl, Salwa Ismail, and John L. Esposito address contemporary developments in the Islamic world, including the rise of Islamism (also referred to as Political Islam) and so-called “fundamentalist” tendencies as a way of responding to the modern world. (For an essay on the manner in which US policy has engaged these movements, see the essay by Fawaz Gerges in the History unit.) Finally, you will find an article on The Spiritual Significance of Jihad in which one prominent scholar gives his view of what this term implies for Muslims, as well as short videos that will show you aspects of the ritual life of Muslims.
Also addressed in many of these materials is the too often expressed idea that the Islamic world is destined for confrontation with the West and that the Islamic belief system is somehow antithetical to Western ideas. John L. Esposito and Sherman Jackson address this question most directly, but nearly all the material in this unit responds in some degree to this concern. Clearly it is not possible for us to adequately cover all aspects of such a rich and complex belief system that has been developing for more than 1300 years, but you will find ample resources in our links list and supplemental bibliography to explore these questions even further.
Finally, however, it is important to note that the impact of Islam on nearly every aspect of life in the Arab World has been great. If you wish to get some sense of this impact, you may wish to explore resources throughout this site. In the Geography, Demographics and Resources unit Karen Pfeifer explores the idea of an Islamic economic systems, images of illuminated Qur'anic manuscripts can be found in the Art and Archiecture unit, the relationship between Islam and the Arabic language is a theme in the unit on language, and what is increasingly becoming known as "Cyber Islam" is explored in many of the materials in the New Media unit. To find thse and other resources, see the Main Menu of the site.