THE HISTORICAL EVOLUTION OF ISLAM
Monotheistic Islam met with staunch opposition in 7th-century polytheist Arabia. In 622, Muhammed fled persecution in his native city of Mecca and escaped to nearby Medina, where he was welcomed as a mediator of a long-standing blood feud. This hijra (flight) marks the beginning of the Muslim community and of the Islamic (lunar) calendar. For the next eight year’s, Muhammed and his community’ defended themselves against raids, later battling the Meccans and neighboring nomadic tribes. In 630, Mecca surrendered to the Muslims, and numerous Meccans converted to the new faith. This experience established the pattern tor jihad (struggle). For Muslims, jihad has multiple meanings, referring first to the spiritual struggle against one’s own desires, second to the struggle to create a righteous Muslim community, and lastly to the struggle against outsiders who wish to harm this community. Sadly, most Westerners have heard only of this last aspect of jihad, often removing it from its larger context.
Islam continued to grow after Muhammed’s death. The stories and traditions surrounding the Prophet’s life have been passed on as sunna, and those who follow the sunna (from which the term “Sunni” is derived) in addition to the teachings of the Quran are considered especially devout. The primary source for sunna is the Hadith, a collection of sayings attributed to Muhammed. A hadith was rigorously investigated before it was accepted as true; the tale had to be verified (preferably by those who saw the action), and the greatest weight was given to testimony by Muhammed’s followers and relatives.
Of the four Rightly Guided Caliphs (Rashidun) who succeeded Muhammed, the fourth, Muhammed’s nephew and son-in-law Ali, who lost power and was murdered in 661, was the catalyst for the division between Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims that persists today. The Shi’at Ali (Party of Ali), or Shi’ites, believed that Ali was the only legitimate successor to Muhammed. Contrary to popular Western perception, Shi’ism is not a creed of fanaticism, but has a sharp focus on imams: mystical guides who are spiritual and sometimes blood descendants of the Prophet through Ali and his wife, Muhammed’s daughter Fatima. While most Turkish Muslims today are Sunni, the Shi’ite Alevi comprise a sizeable minority.