The Islamic Cultural Center of New York

Islamic Cultural Center of New York
Islamic Cultural Center of New York

Last Tuesday I had the opportunity to go to the Islamic Cultural Center of New York on a field trip for my summer anthropology course: “Islam in the West”.  If you don’t count my visit to the Islamic Center at NYU’s Spiritual Life Center, this was my first visit to a mosque.  I don’t suppose you can count that, though.  NYU’s Islamic Center had a prayer room, but this is the first full-on mosque I’ve visited.  Because of how much I’ve read about mosques and how often I’ve seen them in videos, and perhaps because of my trip to NYU’s Islamic Center, the setting felt familiar to me.  I didn’t see anything that I didn’t expect.  That’s not to say I wasn’t impressed.  I just wasn’t surprised.

Welcome Sign of the Islamic Cultural Center

The one thing that I did find a little unusual was the apparent lack of care for the exterior of the building.  The colors seemed a little drab, the doors were slightly rusted and the sign was (obviously) in need of a little help.  I also noticed that the trees have been allowed to grow on the front side of the building, obscuring the view from the street.  I can’t help but wonder if it was done intentionally to make the building appear non-threatening to the non-Muslim majority, especially in the wake of 9/11.

Back entrance to Islamic Cultural Center of New York
Back entrance to Islamic Cultural Center of New York (From ICC Website)

The main entrance (in the picture above) isn’t used often.  It’s only opened for Jumah, the Friday prayer that comes with a sermon, like Jewish and Christian Sabbath services.  The ‘daily entrance’ is around the corner on 97th Street.  It’s actually really nice, with wooden terracing for plants, but I didn’t get a photo of it (photo above is borrowed from their site).  I was running late because I was waiting at the main entrance for quite a while.  I forgot about having to use the other entrance.

When you enter the building through the daily entrance, you wind up on the bottom floor, which is below ground level.  There’s a shop that sells Islamic books, Qurans, dates (the fruit) and other related items.  I didn’t get to spend a lot of time browsing the store.  I’d like to go back and look around.  I have a feeling there’s stuff there that isn’t widely available in commercial bookstores.

Just past the gift shop on the right is a daily prayer room.  The daily prayer room was lit with soft light and was quiet.  A few people were praying.  I saw a man sleeping along the wall.  The carpet was very comfortable and the atmosphere was reverent.  I suppose the people in there at that time of day are the ones that are really looking for answers, since it wasn’t close to a normal prayer time yet.

A curtain divided the female prayer area from the male prayer area.  I found out that the reason for the division of genders is that when you’re in the mosque it’s to worship, not to be distracted by women’s back ends being up in the air around or in front of you.  The explanation is much more common-sense than what I’d assumed.

When I went in and sat down with a few guys from my class, we started talking about the use of misbaha/tasbih, which are prayer beads.  It’s sort of like a Catholic rosary, meant to help you keep track of prayers.  The guy I was talking to told me that after the salaat prayer (one of the five daily ritual prayers), some people use prayer beads to continue praying a while longer.  He said it’s strongly recommended, but not required.

Then my phone rang. Embarrassing.

Interior of the Dome at ICC New York
Interior of the Dome at ICC New York

About the time I came back, our tour of the building started, though it wasn’t so much a tour as an information and Q&A session with one of the assistant imams.  He took us up to the main prayer room, which is under the dome that can be seen from outside.  He told us about the basic tenets of Islam and then started answering questions from the class about women’s roles in Islam, how the authenticity of hadith are verified, polygamy, and other similar topics.

Interior of New York's Islamic Cultural Center
99 lights hang from the ceiling under the round dome, some say to symbolize the 99 names of God that are known. According to Islamic theology, God has an infinite number of names.
Prayer lines on the carpet of the mosque
Prayer lines on the carpet of the mosque.

He briefly mentioned the architectural design of the room we were in, the main prayer area.  He said the room was stripped of everything except the essentials and that the decoration was kept to a minimum, to prevent distracting people from the worship of God. He explained the use of the lines on the floor and how Muslims line up foot to foot and shoulder to shoulder to pray, which is done because of the story about how Muhammad, the Prophet, told people to stand close and not leave any room for Shaitan (Satan) to get between them and disturb their prayers.  Islam as a belief system places heavy emphasis on community, unity, and group actions that maintain proper behavior.  It’s harder to do something bad when you’re constantly engaging with your community.

Tapestry of the Kaaba in Mecca, donated by Iran
Tapestry of the Kaaba in Mecca, donated by Iran.

He also told us that this tapestry of the Kaaba, which is located in Mecca and the site of pilgrimage of millions of Muslims every year, was donated to the center by Iran.  The ICC is primarily maintained by monetary contributions from foreign governments, most notably Kuwait.  Not that that should be alarming to anyone.  There are lots of establishments in the US that receive funding from overseas.  Also, we have a pretty solid political relationship with Kuwait.  We have quite a few military bases there.  I spent a year living on one.

The Mihrab at the New York ICC
The mihrab, which indicates the direction of prayer. Muslims always pray facing Mecca.
Qu'rans on shelves in the main prayer area
Qu’rans on shelves in the main prayer area.
Donation boxes for zakat, sadaqat, mosque maintenance
Donation boxes for zakat, sadaqat, and mosque maintenance.

The Q&A session lasted up until it was time for the fourth prayer of the day, maghrib, the prayer that happens just after sunset.  This time of year, that’s at 8:30 PM.  I didn’t have to hang around for that, so I visited the restroom and then left.

Area for wudu in the male restroom at the New York ICC
Area for wudu in the male restroom at the New York ICC.

The restroom was the last place I expected to find something unusual, but I was surprised to notice that there were no urinals, just stalls.  I double checked to make sure I was in the correct restroom.  The other one had a picture of a woman in a hijab on the door and women were going into it, so I hadn’t accidentally gone into the women’s room.  Also, there was a bench set up inside where people could comfortably perform the ritual cleansing before prayer: wudu.

I don’t really know what sort of crowd visits this mosque on a Friday, but during the week we were told that it’s primarily cab drivers who stop to pray and then go back to work.  Either way, it seems to be a very nice, well maintained building and a great resource for people in Manhattan who need to pray, or for non-Muslims to stop in and ask a few questions.

Al-Andalus: From Convivencia to Limpieza de Sangre

The Rock of Gibraltar, the name of which is derived from
the Arabic Jabal Tariq, “Mount of Tariq,” in honor of
Tariq ibn Ziyad, the Berber Muslim conqueror
of ancient Iberia, and essentially the founder of al-Andalus.

In 711 CE, a force of Berber Muslims under the command of Tariq ibn Ziyad landed on the southern shores of the Iberian Peninsula and engaged in a campaign of rapid conquest that culminated in the displacement of Visigoth rule in all but the northernmost parts of Iberia.  The Visigoth controlled areas in the north later served as the launching point for the Reconquista, the ‘taking back’ of the Iberian peninsula from the Muslim invaders.  Muslim rule in Iberia officially ended with the surrender of the Emirate of Granada to King Ferdinand II of Aragon and Queen Isabella I of Castile in 1492, but for nearly eight-hundred years Muslims retained governance over at least a portion of the peninsula and created a glowing civilization that set an example that unfortunately would not be followed.

Ferdinand and Isabella; Image from:
Convent of the Augustinian Nuns, Avila

Under Islamic rule, the Iberian Peninsula was marked by a level of religious toleration that was unheard of at the time and Muslims, Jews and Christians lived together in relative peace.  There were tensions between the groups, and instances where violence seemed unavoidable, but by and large, the people of al-Andalus not only held their diverse nation together, they caused it to blossom into a society that still draws admiration today for its level of comparative advancement and toleration.  Toleration for ethnic diversity and religious differences were the keys to success for al-Andalus, but after Granada fell in 1492 and the Reconquista was complete, one of the first actions taken by the Christian monarchs, Ferdinand and Isabella, was to decree the expulsion of the Jews.  That was the same year the monarchs decided to fund Christopher Columbus’ voyage to what he hoped would be Asia.  Ferdinand and Isabella wasted no time in establishing themselves as a powerful monarchy, but the example of intolerance they set was in direct contradiction to the legacy that had been left to them by Islamic Spain.

The Muslim’s initial conquest of the peninsula met with little resistance, largely due to the fact that the Visigoth rulers had managed to alienate their supporters (Lowney 31 – 32).  The Iberians willingly submitted to the Muslims, since they were no harsher than the Visigoths had been.  In the case of the Jews, Muslim rule was a vast improvement (Lea 1).  The Jews were highly oppressed under the Visigoth rulers, who “forbade Jews from marrying Christians or owning Christian slaves, proscribed circumcision, outlawed observance of Jewish holy days, and ultimately offered Jews the stark choice of conversion, exile, or slavery” (Lowney 29).  It also helped that the Muslims offered their newly conquered subjects favorable surrender treaties, such as the treaty offered to the Christian Prince Theodomir of Murcia, which says:

The latter [Theodomir] receives peace and the promise, under the guarantee of Allah and of his Prophet, that there will not be any change in his situation nor in that of his people; that his right of sovereignty will not be contested; that his subjects will not be injured nor reduced to captivity; nor separated from their children nor their wives; that they will not be disturbed in the practice of their religion; that their churches will not be burned, nor despoiled of the objects of the cult found in them… (Lowney 38)

The tolerant treaties the Muslims offered their defeated opponents was in keeping with the traditions of the Qur’an and helped set the stage for later peaceful relations between the three faiths in Islamic Spain.

In Islam, Jews and Christians are known as ′Ahl al-Kitāb, People of the Book who are protected, albeit with a second-class status.  This protection, known as dhimmitude, is based on surah 29, aya 46 of the Qur’an, which says, “And dispute ye not with the People of the Book… but say, ‘We believe in the revelation which has come down to us and in that which came down to you; our God and your God is One’” (Lowney 38).  Non-Muslim subjects of Muslim regimes were considered to be autonomous but dependent groups who were responsible for organizing their own internal affairs, including social, religious and communal matters.  These minorities had leaders, appointed by the Muslim rulers, who were responsible for their group’s “ecclesiastical matters, internal disputes, and fines and taxes” (Lapidus 265).  The leaders of these minority groups had such a level of independence that in legal cases involving two members of the same faith, their judges could inflict the death penalty without consulting the Muslim rulers (Khadduri, Liebesny and Jackson 340).  So, Jews and Christians under Muslim rule had the ability to continue to practice and develop their faith, as well as practice their own legal system, within some limits.

The ability of subject faiths to practice their legal system had some restrictions.  When cases involved serious crimes that constituted a threat to public order, Islamic law always took precedence.  These included crimes such as murder, theft, or highway robbery (Khadduri et al., 340).  There were also problems with how non-Muslims and Muslims related to each other legally.  In legal cases that involved Muslims or a member of another subject faith, dhimmis were required to appear in Shari’ah courts, which took precedence over Christian or Jewish law.  Appearing in Muslim courts was likely problematic for dhimmis, since their testimony was considered invalid under Shari’ah law, though exceptions were probably made in cases involving two members of subject religions, as qadis(Islamic judges) would need some form of information to settle a lawsuit or legal case.  Another issue faced by dhimmis was that there were lesser penalties involved for a Muslim guilty of committing a crime against a dhimmi (Khadduri et al., 337).  Dhimmis also could not inherit from a Muslim, based on the Qur’anic rule which says, “God will by no means make a way for the unbelievers over the believers” and a hadith which says, “The Muslim will not inherit from the unbeliever nor the unbeliever from the Muslim” (Khadduri et al., 343).  So, a dhimmi was fully protected as a subject of the Muslim state, but suffered from certain drawbacks that relegated him to the status of a second-class citizen (Bennett 163).  However unbalanced, dhimmitude offered the Jews and Christians of al-Andalus legal recourse and protection under the law.  It gave them a legal place in the society, creating a state of convivencia, a coexistence where Muslims, Jews and Christians worked and lived together, if not as equals then at least as fellow citizens of the same nation (Rosser-Owen 77).

The status of dhimmis as being legal members of the state is part of Islamic religious law, but “there was no Scriptural basis for the legal status of Jews and Muslims under Christian rule; they were subject to the whims of rulers, the prejudices of the populace and the objections of the clergy” (Boase 22).  It stands to reason that there were Muslims among the early invaders who would have preferred cultural and religious homogeneity, as the later Reconquista Christian Spaniards would, but in the case of the Muslims, religious law dictated that they must respect dhimmis, at least insofar as the law dictated.  This religious legal requirement that offered Jews and Christians a place in Islamic society, which didn’t have a counterpart in their own societies, must have created a feeling of stability, safety and most importantly, belonging.

A sense of nationhood, of common standing with their fellow countrymen, could have inspired them to excel, and al-Andalus certainly excelled in many areas.  The mix of cultures stimulated the intellectual pursuits of academics that produced advanced knowledge of mathematics, medicine, spirituality, astronomy, philosophy, and theology, and gave birth to some of the greatest thinkers of the age, such as the Jewish kabbalist Moses de Leon, the Sufi mystic Ibn Arabi, the Jewish Moses Maimonides and the Muslim Averroes (Lowney 8 – 9).  The common thread that held the people of al-Andalus together and produced such remarkable figures as those mentioned above wasn’t ethnicity or religion; it was toleration for the beliefs of others and a commitment to Andalusian society as a whole, based on a sense of belonging and nationhood.

There were people who rejected the idea of Islamic rule or any form of nationhood under the power of another religion.  A good example is that of Eulogius, a traveling cleric from Córdoba.  In approximately 850 CE, Eulogius discovered one of the earliest Latin copies of a version of the biography of the prophet Muhammad in the monastery of Leyre near Pamplona in northern Spain.  The biography is titled simply, Istoria de Mahomet and, unfortunately, is an example of “the repositories of misconceptions about Islam that would be drawn upon over and over again by Christians trying to explain, or more appropriately, explain away the success of Islam” (Wolf 89).  Eulogius didn’t use it just to explain away the success of Islam.  He used the text to create a political movement, an early form of peaceful disobedience, to challenge established Muslim rule through a series of martyrdoms in the hopes of inciting a popular Christian revolt.

Shortly after Eulogius returned to Córdoba, a steady procession of Christians approached Muslim qadis and denounced the prophet Muhammad, eager to become martyrs:  “Now hand down the sentence, multiply your cruelty, be kindled with complete fury in vengeance for your prophet.  We profess Christ to be truly God and your prophet to be a precursor of antichrist” (Lowney 58).  These denunciations resulted in the execution of the offenders.  Over the course of a decade, approximately fifty Christians were killed executed.  Shortly after Eulogius’ death, the number of offenses and executions petered out, which paints him as the likely ringleader (Lowney 59).

Eulogius, later canonized by the Catholic church, suffering execution for following in the footsteps of
the other Cordoban martyrs and being executed for intentionally blaspheming the Prophet Muhammad.

A notable point in the incidents of deliberate martyrdom was the lack of reaction from the public.  The executions failed to have the effect that Eulogius had hoped for.  The martyrs enjoyed support from distant monastic communities, where most of the martyrs were from, but in Córdoba itself, the opinion was little better than mixed.  According to Kenneth Wolf, the Christians who rejected the martyrs’ actions had assumed a new perspective of Islam as a different, but valid version of their own faith.  Wolf says that Christians adopted this idea from the Muslims, who in turn accepted the Christians as “monotheists and recipients of a revealed law” (Wolf 93).  In other words, they had assimilated the idea implied by dhimmitude, that all three religions worship the same God, with some differences.

Just 150 years into Islamic rule in Iberia, the people had come to accept and respect one another.  That may sound odd, considering the fact that Christians were being executed for blaspheming a religious figure, but consider the words of a Muslim court official who tried to persuade Eulogius into recanting his defamation of the prophet Muhammad:

If stupid and idiotic individuals have been carried away to such lamentable ruin, what is it that compels you…to commit yourself to this deadly ruin, suppressing the natural love of life?  Hear me, I beseech you, I beg you, lest you fall headlong to destruction.  Say something in this the hour of your need, so that afterward you may be able to practice your faith.” (Lowney 59)

The implication in this statement is that the court officials were following the letter of the law for the sake of maintaining the legal system, as well as for the sake of preserving the respectability of Islam, but even by the year 859, when Eulogius was executed, Andalusian Muslims in general had probably developed a strong sense of tolerance for the Christians and the Jews who worshipped the same God as them.  This sense of community may have been based on physical proximity and a sense of belonging to a certain physical location, rather than being drawn purely along theological lines.  The reality of people struggling to survive and coming to rely on the people around them sometimes gets lost in religious debate.

The medieval history of Spain shows little evidence of any conflicts being based solely on either race or religion (Lea 1).  Four-hundred and fifty years after Eulogius, as territory changed hands during the Reconquista, the people continued to coexist peacefully with their neighbors.  Rather than a stark black and white, the reality of conflict on the Iberian Peninsula was far more complex.  Alliances were often made between Christians and Muslims for the sake of pursuing similar goals, or for some gain.  For example, the thirteenth-century Christian king Alfonso X used religious rhetoric when it suited his self-interests and ignored it for the same reasons.  He was an avid supporter of Jewish translators in his court because of the wisdom they could make available to his subjects, but at the same time he mandated a death sentence for any Christian who was “so unfortunate as” to convert to Judaism (Lowney 10).  Additionally, he waged war against a Muslim kingdom only to later create an alliance with them for the purpose of waging war against a rebellious son.  His actions weren’t indicative of a monolithic Christianity versus a monolithic Islam; these were the actions of a man engaged in maintaining and building the prosperity of his own kingdom using whatever means he had available to him.  Race and religion were not factors in his decisions, which is a testament to the integration of Jews, Christians and Muslims into one cohesive Andalusian society.

As Muslim control in al-Andalus came to its conclusion in 1492, they left behind a society of three fully integrated faiths that had developed a unique character unlike any other place in the world.  Tolerance for religious diversity in al-Andalus did not, of course, meet modern standards, but it was a major advancement for its day that would lead a Christian nun from Europe named Hroswitha of Gandersheim to call Córdoba, the capital of the Ummayad Islamic Caliphate of al-Andalus, the “Ornament of the World” (Shedinger 81).  From the initial conquest in 711 to the surrender of Granada, relations between the three monotheistic faiths continually developed until al-Andalus was transformed into an integrated society where religion stopped playing a major part in the average affairs of rulers, except as a political tool.

The Alhambra palace at Granada.

Despite the success of convivencia, a multicultural and integrated al-Andalus, the Catholic Monarchs King Ferdinand II and Queen Isabella I took a radically different approach to religion and society: limieza de sangre, purity of blood.  After they completed their conquest of the Iberian Peninsula, they undertook a program that would ensure the eventual religious homogeneity of the Iberian Peninsula.  In 1492, immediately after the fall of Granada, they decreed the conversion, expulsion or execution of the Jews.  In 1502, a similar proclamation was made regarding Muslims.  Out of necessity, many chose to be baptized.  These two groups, known respectively as conversosand moriscos, continued to secretly practice the rituals of their own faiths while maintaining the outward appearance of Catholic Christianity until they were eventually weeded out through the institution of the Inquisition and a final expulsion in 1609 by decree of King Philip III.

The Court of Lions at Alhambra palace.

In the face of a long history of a successful and integrated culture, what was the purpose of Ferdinand and Isabella’s deviation from a model that had proven to be successful?  It is possible that Ferdinand and Isabella’s decision to expel the Jews and Muslims was merely a continuation of the evolution of religion in the peninsula: they were using it as a political tool.  Ferdinand and Isabella may have felt that, as Christians, their loyalties lay firmly with Europe and the rest of Christendom.  As rulers of a territory that had been part of the Islamic world for centuries, they may have felt that drastic measures were necessary to change public opinion of Spain.  Even today, 500 years after the expulsion of the Muslims and Jews, Spain is an off-color patch in the greater European fabric, with obvious reminders of its Islamic past buried in the architecture, art, and even the language.  Given how firmly Islamic culture was entrenched in Iberia, Ferdinand and Isabella may have felt that it would take drastic actions to change public perception of Spain in Europe, hence the expulsions or forced conversions of the Jews and Muslims.  It would also explain their petition to the Pope for the title “Catholic Monarchs.”  The total effect of expulsions and the gaining of a title affirming the Catholicism of the monarchy would have firmly put Spain in the European camp.  The definite causes of Ferdinand and Isabella’s change in policy would be an interesting topic for further research, but the level of tolerance and cooperation between religious groups in al-Andalus is a lesson that many parts of the world could still learn from today.

Works Cited

<!–[if supportFields]> BIBLIOGRAPHY <![endif]–>Bennett, Clinton. Muslims and modernity: an introduction to the issues and debates. London: Continuum International Publishing Group, 2005.
Boase, Roger. “The Muslim Expulsion From Spain.” History Today 52.4 (2002): 21-28.
Khadduri, Majid, Herbert J. Liebesny and Robert H. Jackson. Origin and Development of Islamic Law. Clark: The Lawbook Exchange, Ltd., 2010.
Lapidus, Ira M. A History of Islamic Societies. 2nd. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002.
Lea, Henry Charles. The Moriscos of Spain: Their Conversion and Expulsion. Philadelphia: Lea Brothers & Co., 1901.
Lowney, Chris. A Vanished World: Muslims, Christians and Jews in Medieval Spain. New York: Oxford University Press, Inc., 2006.
Rosser-Owen, Mariam. Islamic Arts From Spain. London: V & A Publishing, 2010.
Shedinger, Robert F. Was Jesus a Muslim?: questioning categories in the study of religion. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2009.
Wolf, Kenneth B. “The Earliest Latin Lives of Muhammad.” Gervers, Michael, Ramzi Jibran Bikhazi and Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies. Conversion and continuity: indigenous Christian communities in Islamic lands eighth to eighteenth centuries. Vol. 9. Toronto: Pontifical Institute of Mediaeval Studies, 1990. 89 – 102.

Note: This was a research paper turned in for a 100-level college course.  It received an A+, and the note: “A lively and interesting paper.”  I imagine it was checked more for consistency, style and obvious errors rather than having any deep fact checking done.  I would have liked a few more weeks to research and fine tune it, but I think it turned out well enough for the time I put into it, considering it’s a paper for an entry level course.

Faith and Unity: The ‘Ummah’ as the New Kinship Group

The Quran and prayer beads.

In approximately 610 CE, a man named Muhammad ibn Abdallah went to a cave in the hills above Mecca to meditate, as he was accustomed to do. There, he had a powerful religious experience and began reciting verses of what would become known as the Quran, the holy book of Islam. While reciting the surahs of the Quran in Mecca, the Prophet Muhammad would find both converts and enemies. His message would inspire both devotion and enmity. The Quran appealed to people for its beauty and its insistence on returning to principles of equity, but this would place the Prophet in confrontation with his tribe and create tension between converts and their families. The conflict between the new Muslims and the Meccan community escalated to a point that it caused the Prophet to commit the Muslim community to something unthinkable by contemporary standards: an emigration based not on blood ties, but on communal faith and unity. This event was so significant that it would become known as the Hijra and set the date for the first year of the Islamic calendar in 622 CE.

In pre-Islamic Arabian society, status, position and even personal well-being were all based on membership in kinship groups. Society was divided into a series of (usually[1]) blood-related groups organized in a hierarchical structure. The family group was the smallest organizational unit and was subordinate to a clan, which in turn was subordinate to a tribe. In these kinship groups, there was essentially no individual identity.[2] A man was a member of his family, clan and tribe. All acts between individual members of tribes assumed collective responsibility, sometimes leading to vendettas where the victim’s tribe would seek redress against any member of the offending party’s tribe.[3] This created situations in which a person was victimized based on the actions of another member of the tribe, though it wasn’t seen as wrong, because honor and responsibility were attributed to the group, rather than the individual. The more powerful the tribe one belonged to, the surer one could be that their family would be safe and prosperous.

In Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time, Karen Armstrong details the loyalty of a man to his tribe using a quote from a Ghazziyya poet: “I am of Ghazziyya. If she be in error, I will be in error; and if Ghazziya be guided right, I will go with her.”[4] Tribal loyalties were so important that even if a man’s tribesman was in the wrong, he was obliged to help him for the sake of tribal solidarity. The concept of tribal solidarity would be both a boon and a problem for the Prophet Muhammad. Religion was not unknown to pre-Islamic Arab society, but it was tied to individual kinship groups. Each tribe had a deity, represented by an idol in the Ka’aba at Mecca, which was already an established pilgrimage site. Loyalty to the tribe also included loyalty to the tribal deity. This presented two problems to the success of the Prophet’s message. Converting to Islam meant forsaking the tribal deity and betraying the tribe, a violation of the tribal solidarity that is evidenced by the quote from the Ghazziya poet. More practically, the Prophet Muhammad’s message was an attack on the economic structure of Mecca, which relied on annual pilgrimages to the Ka’aba to remain viable. If people stopped worshipping the idols then they would no longer have a reason to visit Mecca. The Quraysh, the Prophet’s own tribe, would lose their source of income. In one stroke, the Prophet was insulting the tribe’s sense of community and attacking the economic foundation its prosperity depended on. The Quraysh were obligated to persecute the fledgling Muslim community.

The Prophet Muhammad’s attack on Meccan social norms was met first with resistance and then with violence, including a narrowly avoided assassination attempt. The Muslims initially benefited from the protection of the Prophet Muhammad’s uncle, Abu Talib, who was the head of the Banu Hashim, a respected clan in the Quraysh tribe. However, after his uncle died, the Prophet and his followers were left to fend for themselves, leaving them in a difficult position where they were open to violent retaliation from the Qurayshi families who felt both threatened and insulted by a perceived theft of family member loyalties.

This dilemma was resolved by a revolutionary idea, built on the foundation of the message that the Prophet preached in Mecca. The Muslims abandoned the idea of kinship groups based on blood and instead formed a new ‘tribe’ based on faith, known as the ummah. Membership in the ummah (as well as being a Muslim) required no family relation, no social status, and no prerequisite level of income; it only required acceptance of Allah as the one true God and of Muhammad as his Messenger. The ummah was a new community that offered the Muslims the protection and security they had previously received from their kinship groups.[5] The moment that defined the creation of this community is the Hijra, the emigration of Muslims to Yathrib. Prior to this, the Muslims had still considered themselves to be members of their own families, just with a different set of beliefs. Breaking away from their families and creating a new community based on faith rather than blood was an incredible social innovation, and clearly marks the birth of the Muslim community as an independent and functional social system, as well as a system of belief.

Eventually, the ummah would encompass all of Arabia, creating a new problem that challenged the traditional means of supplementing tribal income: raiding, which was known as ghazu. In times of scarcity, tribes would launch raids against each other to capture camels, cattle or slaves. Raids were carried out with precision and care, to prevent injuries or deaths that might result in blood fueds. These raids were an accepted fact of life and were not in any way morally reprehensible. They were instead a necessary means of redistributing wealth in an area of the world where there was often not enough to go around.[6] Unfortunately, this tradition conflicted with the new Muslim morality as defined by the Quran and the Prophet. Surah 3, ayah 103 of the Quran says, “Hold fast to God’s rope all together; do not split into factions. Remember God’s favour to you: you were enemies and then He brought your hearts together and you became brothers by His grace: you were about to fall into a pit of Fire and He saved you from it…”[7] Also, in his book, A History of the Arab Peoples, Hourani says that when the Prophet Muhammad made his last visit to Mecca in 632, he gave a speech and said, “…know that every Muslim is a Muslim’s brother, and that the Muslims are brethren.” He said that violence between Muslims should be avoided and old blood debts should be forgotten.[8]

As essentially members of one tribe, the ummah would have to reassess their society and find a new means of supporting themselves. Internal conflicts were no longer permitted under Islam, so the Arabs instead spread outward, taking their culture and religion with them. The outward spread of Arabs into the Middle East began as raiding parties in Syria and Palestine in the 630s,[9] but soon developed into full scale battle with the Byzantine and Sassanian Empires. The conquering Arabs would be victorious, creating a vast Islamic empire. The leap from pre-Islamic Bedouin society to Islamic Imperialism would again fundamentally alter Arab society.

Because of the principles of unity found in the Quran, the nomadic peoples of Arabia created a new social identity that revolved around faith. This was a clear break from the past and returned a sense of equity to the Muslim community. However, this new unity came with new problems. The Arabs had to find a new economic model to sustain their society. The Arabs solved this problem using traditional tactics. Since the tribe was replaced by the ummah, the push outward into the Middle East was a continuation of the tradition of ghazu, simply on a larger scale. Intentionally or not, a relatively simple people from the Arabian Peninsula quickly became a world power that would greatly influence world history, and continues to influence world history.

[1] On page 38 of The Great Arab Conquests, Kennedy states that membership in a tribe might increase or decrease based on the tribe’s level of success. New arrivals would claim that they “must have been in some way part of that kin all along,” maintaining the façade of biological kinship groups.
[2] Lapidus, page 13.
[3] Lapidus, pages 12.
[4] Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time, pages 12 – 14.
[5] Kennedy, page 38.
[6] Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time, page 11.
[7] The Qur’an; M.A.S. Abdel Haleem translation; Oxford World’s Classics version.
[8] Hourani, page 19.
[9] Kennedy, page 70.


Armstrong, K. (2007). Muhammad: A Prophet For Our Time. New York: HarperCollins.
Armstrong, K. (2009). Islam: A Short History. London: Phoenix Press.
The Qur’an. (2010). (M. A. Haleem, Trans.) New York: Oxford University Press.
Hourani, A. (1991). A History Of The Arab Peoples. Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press.
Kennedy, H. (2008). The Great Arab Conquests: How The Spread of Islam Changed The World We Live In. Philadelphia: Ca Capo Press.
Lapidus, I. M. (2002). A History of Islamic Societies (2nd ed.). New York: Cambridge University Press.
This was a paper written for a college course titled “Middle East Under Islam.”  The final grade was 15/15, 100%.

Egyptian-American Muslim Girl Gets Grilled on Polygamy By Hispanic Woman

“Hey, are you Egyptian?”  I was standing at a table on the side of the post office, filling out a shipping label, when a Hispanic woman walked up and asked the girl next to me that question.  I glanced over at the girl and saw she had Middle Eastern features and she was wearing a hijab (the head scarf, if you’re not familiar with the word).  Oddly enough, the woman had guessed right.  The girl replied that she was half Egyptian and was born in the US.

“You’re a Muslim right?”  At this point, I was considering moving to another part of the post office, because I was expecting this Hispanic woman to go nuts and start haranguing this girl for being a Muslim, which she obviously was, since she was wearing a hijab.  New York City has a reputation for being filled with lunatics and you really never know if you’re talking to one until it’s too late.  The girl looked a little hesitant, but again she answered yes.

‘Here it comes,’ I thought.  But, instead of what I was expecting, the Hispanic woman asked, “What do you think about marrying more than one woman?  If you were married to a man, would you be ok with him marrying a woman in another country?”

“No, I wouldn’t be ok with that.”

“Ok, because I know Muslims believe in marrying more than one wife.”

“Well, not all Muslims do that,” the girl replied.  “That’s mostly something that happened a long time ago, because it’s too hard to handle more than one wife, since the guy has to take care of them equally.  It’s a lot of trouble, but I wouldn’t do it myself.”

“Oh, well you’re mostly American since you were born here, but do you know if Egyptians do that?”  I imagine she was trying to fish for another answer, perhaps to justify the problem she was about to lay out to this girl.

“Well, yes, but I just don’t think it’s ok and I don’t think many people would do that.”

“My husband was here, and he married me, but then he went back to Egypt and he married another woman.  If you were the other woman and you knew the man was married, would you do that?  Would you marry a man that was already married?  What kind of woman does such a thing?”

The above conversation is paraphrased, of course.  I don’t remember exactly what they said to each other, but it went along those lines.  At that point, I stopped following the conversation completely because I was just about done with filling out my shipping label and sealing the envelope, but the Hispanic woman kept pressing this girl about why her husband, who had been deported, would find a new wife in Egypt instead of being faithful to her.  The girl told her it sounds like a personal problem.  She was probably trying to separate the issue from religion, before it devolved into something ugly.  She told the woman that if she wasn’t satisfied with the situation she should divorce her husband, but the Hispanic woman told her something about losing benefits.

Then I walked away to get my postage for my envelope.

I wonder if that happens often?  I doubt that girl expected to have a conversation quite as bizarre as that when she put on her hijab that morning and left her house.

Broadway Street Fair, 14th Street to 8th Street

A street fair on Broadway near Union Square Park.

Today, Broadway was closed down from 14th Street, where Union Square is, down to 8th Street for a street fair.  The road was lined on both sides with stalls selling everything from costume jewelry to barbecue pulled pork.  There were even stalls set up by The New York Times, trying to get people to buy subscriptions, and a booth promoting Islam.  This is a story best told with pictures:

Costume jewelry for sale at a street fair in New York City.

This costume jewelry was laid out in a huge pile across a few tables.  It was on sale.  A closeout sale in fact.  Only $3.00 apiece.  Doesn’t seem like much of a sale to me.  I’m sure if you looked hard enough you could find this stuff for a dollar apiece.  It’s pretty to look at though, especially when it’s laid out together like it was.

Kettle Corn NYC.

Some $9.00 bags of kettle corn.  If you’ve never had kettle corn, it’s sweet.  It tastes awesome and smells great.

Shirts for sale at a street fair on Broadway in New York City.

Japanese balls.  Yum!

I stopped by this booth to look at what they had to offer.  The sign on the front of the table says that everything on the table is free.  The guy in the blue jacket on the right spoke fluent English and Spanish, and the Korans he’s putting down are translated into Spanish.  The Lower East Side has a lot of Hispanic families, so maybe that’s the demographic they were mostly prepared for.  I took a few of the flyers.  I’m sure they’ll make great reading material for the train.  The guy in the blue jacket seemed encouraged by my interest in the flyers and asked me what I know about Islam, so I started talking about dates, like Mohammad’s birth, death, the first revelation, etc.  I know these things, since I just learned about it in an Art History course and I’m taking a test over it tomorrow.  He asked me if I wanted to spend a few minutes learning about the basics of the Islamic faith.  I thanked him, but said no.  It’s not that it wouldn’t be interesting, but given recent events, I don’t want to hang around anything promoting Islam.  Some nutball might show up and do something violent.  Besides, I have a feeling he was going to tell me about the 5 pillars of the Islamic faith: Attestation (“There is no god but God, and Mohammad is his prophet.”), Alms, Prayer (5 times a day), the Hajj (pilgrimage to Mecca), and fasting during Ramadan.

Marrakesh: Moroccan Bazaar and Decor booth at a street fair on Broadway.

There were even Moroccan rugs!

Funnel cake stand.

And funnel cakes!  I love funnel cakes.  I didn’t get one though, because I was on my way to meet my mom for lunch.  It was Mother’s Day, and I didn’t want to spoil my appetite.

I saw a LOT more than just this street fair today, including some Asian cultural festivities, but I’ll save that for a post tomorrow, or the day after.  I hope you enjoyed the photos!