Maczycki looks at Muhammad, Islam through history's lens

Dr. Matt Macycki says Muslim countries vary greatly and the history of Islam includes many different strands.

Macycki was one of the speakers for the Newnan Carnegie Library Foundation's Lasting Legacies of the Past series. His lecture on Oct. 21 centered on Muhammad and Islam. He emphasized, however, that he was looking at the prophet through a historian's eyes and not making generalizations about the Muslim world today.

Macycki focused his comments on the 7th century, when Muhammad was alive - and the early days of the religion he founded.

He shared the basic outlines of Muhammad's life as understood through history and through the teachings of Islam. Muhammad was born on the fringes of the Christian world. His birthplace was the western Arabian city of Mecca, which sat astride ancient trade routes between Yemen and Syria.

Muhammad was born in 570 but was an orphan before age 8, growing up in the home of an uncle. He eventually became a caravan overseer and traveled from Yemen to Syria. He gained a reputation for hard work and honest business dealings.

At 40, he retired from business and spent part of his time in spiritual retreat in the hills outside of Mecca.

It was during one of these retreats that Muhammad received the first revelations from God. Together these revelations form the Quran, the sacred scripture of Islam.

God did not speak to Muhammad directly but through the angel Gabriel. The Quran was revealed to Muhammad bit by bit over the course of 22 years.

Revelation ceased with the Prophet's death in 632. Islamic tradition holds that Muhammad was illiterate and therefore could not have written the Quran.

The Quran as it exists today was first put in writing around 650. Inscriptions at the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem are the oldest definitely datable examples of Quranic text and show the Quran is unchanged since at least 692.

In addit ion to put t ing together the Quran, Muhammad united the Arabs, a people who had never before been united in anything. When the prophet died in 632, almost all of Arabia was Muslim. After he died, his successors spread Islam throughout the Middle East and North Africa.

Their conquests were quick and - in most places - permanent. By 638 the Muslims had taken Damascus and Jerusalem and had the Byzantines pushed back to the Taurus Mountains. By 642 the Muslims had invaded Egypt, dislodged the Byzantines and added the Nile Valley to their empire.

In 651, the last Sassanian shah, Yazdagird III, had been killed and all of Iraq and Iran were under Muslim authority. The conquests were temporarily halted by a civil war among the Muslims that lasted from 656-661. They re-grouped after the war, and by 732 they had invaded Pakistan in the East and France in the West.

'Muhammad was allegedly illiterate, but many of his followers could read and write,' Macycki said. 'The Muslims used Greek and Persian scribes not because the Muslims were illiterate, but because they had no experience at empire building.'

Macycki said that practice is similar to today's outsourcing or contracting.

Macycki said Christians generally found living under Muslim rule preferable to life under the Byzantine rulers. There was a 'head tax' on non-Muslims, but Islamic armies generally left non-Muslims in place in trade and government.

'It wasn't so much that early Muslims didn't understand Christianity as it was that they rejected the Trinity, which, from the point of view of most non-Christians, is polytheistic,' Macycki said.

Greek philosophy, for example, taught that it was impossible for three to equal one. 'It really takes a leap of faith to buy into the Trinity, and a lot of people just can't make that leap,' Macycki said.

Although early Muslims found Christians closest in faith to them among the conquered peoples, they were critical of Christians for ascribing divinity to Jesus and most adamantly for believing in the Holy Trinity, which Muslims saw as paganistic. They believed Jesus was a prophet and capable of miracles, but just human - not divine.

Macycki did talk a little about nations today where Islam is the dominant religious and social influence.

'Non-Muslims can travel to most Muslim countries. Saudi Arabia, however, is a special case. It is the birthplace of Islam, and, according to Saudi-Wahhabi interpretations of Sharia Law, non-Muslims should not be in Arabia,' he said.

'It is not that non-Muslims cannot visit the Islamic world. It's that the Saudis have their own interpretation of Sharia Law. It isn't the Quran that keeps non-Muslims out. It's one government's interpretation of the Quran,' Macycki said.

'It's all about the interpretation and application of Sharia Law,' Macycki said. 'There are many, many different interpretations.'

The scholar also warned his Newnan audience against making sweeping generalizations about those countries. 'Every Muslim country is different,' he said.

'It 's also impor tant to keep in mind that we're talking about 1,400-plus years of history,' Macycki said. 'The Christian world - and Christianity itself - is very different from the way it was 1,400 years ago.'

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