As a religious, political, and economic entity, Islam was unique in being spawned by a single man who was not first and foremost a military leader.
The most excellent jihad is that for the conquest of self. Learn to know thyself. ~ Muhammad
Muhammad (570–632), born in Mecca, Arabia, was orphaned at an early age. His formative years were spent in his uncle’s household. Muhammad’s uncle was a merchant, which became Muhammad’s first occupation. He later worked as a shepherd for a time.
God enjoins you to treat women well, for they are your mothers, daughters, aunts. ~ Muhammad
Muhammad married at 25. This proved no obstacle to his habit of periodically retreating to a cave in the nearby mountains to meditate and pray.
Much silence and a good disposition, there are no two works better than those. ~ Muhammad
At the age of 40 Muhammad received his first revelation from the angel Gabriel. 3 years later, Muhammad began preaching his message, much in the same vein of other Islamic prophets at the time.
Riches are not from an abundance of worldly goods, but from a contented mind. It is difficult for a man laden with riches to climb the steep path which leads to bliss. ~ Muhammad
Muhammad met early resistance from Meccan tribes, but that did not last long. Muhammad was a persistent and particularly persuasive speaker. His blend of pithy practicality, compassion, and vigorous spirit went over well.
Feed the hungry and visit a sick person, and free the captive, if he be unjustly confined. Assist any person oppressed, whether Muslim or non-Muslim. ~ Muhammad
By 630 Muhammad had 10,000 adherents. They took over Mecca in a largely peaceful conquest.
It is your own conduct which will lead you to reward or punishment, as if you had been destined therefor. ~ Muhammad
Pagan temples were destroyed, first in Mecca, and then throughout eastern Arabia. By the time of his death, Muhammad had converted most of the Arabian peninsula to Islam. Arabia became united as a religious polity.
The love of the world is the root of all evil. ~ Muhammad
Shortly after Muhammad’s death, Muslims lashed out in a sustained campaign of conquest. Within a hundred years, the Islamic empire stretched from Central Asia, across the Middle East and North Africa, all the way to Spain.
In Muhammad’s time, Arabs were primarily nomadic, though some practiced oasis agriculture. There were only a few urban centers, such as Mecca.
Then the Arabs cottoned to conquest. The conquered lands were only slightly less arid than Arabia, but which included 2 cradles of early civilization: the Tigris-Euphrates and Nile valleys. Great cities were brought into the fold, including Alexandria and Cairo. This infused Islam with cultural, scientific, and commercial knowledge, but not political sagacity.
After the flush of Muslim conquest in the 7th century, Islamic governance descended into warlordism. A coherent Islamic state did not recur until the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottoman Turks in 1453.
In the meantime, Muslim agriculture reached a high level of sophistication and productivity. Although many retained their nomadic lifestyle, Islam developed to be a predominantly urban culture.
The great opportunity of trade was handed to the Muslims by their fortuitous location. The Islamic heartland lay between the Mediterranean Sea and the Persian Gulf, and as well access to the Indian Ocean. Caravan routes connected China to Europe.
Wealth, properly employed, is a blessing, and a man may lawfully endeavor to increase it by honest means. ~ Muhammad
Because Muhammad had himself been a merchant, Muslims accorded mercantile activity esteem, in stark contrast to Christian convention. Although usury was forbidden, Muslim merchants invented numerous financial instruments to facilitate trade, including letters of credit and bills of exchange.
For hundreds of years, Arabs and other Muslims were the principal intermediaries in trade, by land and sea, between Europe and Asia. They were agents in diffusing technology, especially from China to Europe, as well as introducing new crops, from fruits and vegetables to grains, including rice, sugarcane, citrus, cotton, and watermelon.
Islamic conquest of the erstwhile eastern Greek-speaking Roman empire made them the inheritors of that culture. Coupled with knowledge from China, Muslims became world leaders in philosophy and science while much of Europe wallowed in the Dark Ages.
Ancient Greek authors are known today only through Arabic translations. Modern mathematics is based upon Arabic notation. Algebra is an Arab invention.
The intellectual revival of western Europe owed to Christian scholars’ studies in Muslim lands. Christian merchants learned Islamic commercial practices. Though the Pope forbade trade with Muslims, that was heeded in the breach.
After a roaring start, the Ottoman Empire suffered a long decline, which owed to being left behind technologically. But the root of its rot lay in religion.
In the late 15th century, Muslim scholars froze interpretation of the Koran. This quiet catastrophe – the conservative doctrine known as taqlid – crippled Islam as a dynamic social and economic force. Taqlid stifled curiosity, and its enforcement brought intellectual progress to halt.
In 1577, the construction of a great, state-of-the-art observatory near Istanbul was completed, replete with a knowledgeable staff to run it. Almost immediately upon the observatory’s completion, the sultan had it destroyed on the recommendation of his religious advisors. This vignette illustrates the cultural disease that the Islamic clergy infected Muslims with.
Islamic spiritual sense of superiority spelled its economic downfall. The Muslim world recovered economically only by the happy coincidence of sitting on an ocean of petroleum that came into increasing demand from developed countries as the 20th century wore on.