Tag Archives: middle east

World Religions: Islam – Lecture 3 – Muhammad as Prophet and Statesman

The following bits represent my notes and thoughts as I watch The Great Courses, “Great World Religions: Islam” by John L. Esposito.  A few things are worth noting:

  1. I encourage those with an interest to seek out the original source material.  You can do that on The Great Courses website.  My notes are just a pale shadow of the whole course but they might whet your proverbial whistle.
  2. These are just my notes and not an attempt to encapsulate the whole course.  As such, it should be painfully obvious that I’m no expert and at times prone to oversimplification and outright error.
  3. There is no third thing.  I just can’t stand having only two things in a list.

Lecture 3: Muhammad as Prophet and Statesman

Before Islam, the Middle East was a pretty rough place.  The Persians and the Byzantine Empire fought over the trade routes that crisscrossed the region while the locals formed tribes that raided each other for material wealth.  These raids avoided bloodshed if possible but still degenerated into open warfare from time to time.

Religion at the time was polytheistic centered on sacred objects and local Gods.  Even at this time, however, the tribes already had a yearly pilgrimage to Mecca to venerate the kaaba which contained 360 idols, one for each day of the year.  Even Allah was already installed as the head of the pantheon of Gods.  The Christian and Jewish faiths too existed in the region.

Muhammad lived from c570-632 and was an orphan who grew up to become a business manager for caravans.  It wasn’t until 610 that the angel Gabriel called to him in what has come to be known as the Night of Power.  Muhammad denied Gabriel twice but on the third time he understood and complied with Gabriel’s requests.  Afterwards he thought himself insane but his wife reassured him and believed him and she is said to be the first convert to Islam.

For 22 years Muhammad received the revelation of God and all that he said was first carried by oral history and then written down in the form of the Quran as we know it today.  At the time, what Muhammad had to say was distinctly unpopular.  He stood up against the polytheism and avarice of the times and advocated for a complete revolution of society.

In particular, he fell afoul of the Meccans themselves.  They profited greatly from the influx of pilgrims each year and Muhammad stated quite clearly that these people should not be used as a vehicle to line the city’s pockets.  As a consequence, the Meccans starved Muhammad out of town and bankrupted him but not before Gabriel came to Muhammad with a mystical steed.  Together they traveled to Jerusalem and then to heaven where the prophets and Allah himself instructed Muhammad on how the faithful should pray five times a day.  This event of revelation is known as the Night Journey and occurred in 621.

Bankrupt or not, in 622 Muhammad is invited to Medina to act as an arbiter in a dispute.  Muhammad and his people travel to Medina and there start the first Muslim community.  This event is known as the hijra or migration and marks the official beginning of the Muslim faith.

Having established himself in Medina, Muhammad begins to move militarily against Mecca.  In 624 the Battle of Badr occurs and the Muslims rout the Meccans but the victory is only temporarily as in 625 at the Battle of Uhud the Muslims are defeated and Muhammad is wounded.  Resolution is not reached until 627 at the Battle of the Ditch at which the Muslims fend off the Meccans and come to an uneasy truce.

During this time Jewish and Christian faiths are welcome in Medina and each person need only pay a small tax.  However at the Battle of the Ditch the Jewish population is seen to side with the Meccans and Muhammad has them slaughtered for their treason.

The truce between the two great cities carries on until 630 when some skirmishes between neighbors escalate and eventually Muhammad conquers Mecca entirely.  He is magnanimous in victory, however, and Mecca is incorporated into the Muslim community and Islamic law.  By 632 at Muhammad’s death, the entire Arabian peninsula is united under the Muslim faith.


jahiliyaa – Term for pre-Muslim society in the Middle East.  Also used to describe the decadence of the current age.

Series Guide

IslamView back-to-back on the YouTube Playlist
Lecture 1– Islam Yesterday, Today and Tomorrow
Lecture 2 – The Five Pillars of Islam
Lecture 3 – Muhammad-Prophet and Statesman
Lecture 4 – God’s Word-The Quranic Worldview
Lecture 5 – The Muslim Community-Faith and Politics
Lecture 6 – Paths to God-Islamic Law and Mysticism
Lecture 7 – Islamic Revivalism-Renewal and Reform
Lecture 8 – The Contemporary Resurgence of Islam
Lecture 9 – Islam at the Crossroads
Lecture 10 – Women and Change in Islam
Lecture 11 – Islam in the West
Lecture 12 – The Future of Islam


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From Muhammed to Burj Khalifa: A Crash Course in 2,000 Years of MIddle East History by Michael Rank

From Muhammed to Burj Khalifa: A Crash Course in 2,000 Years of MIddle East HistoryFrom Muhammed to Burj Khalifa: A Crash Course in 2,000 Years of MIddle East History by Michael Rank

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

First and as always, this arrived on my doorstep for free, this time courtesy of a GoodReads giveaway. Despite that very kind consideration, I will review it with absolute and dispassionate candor.

When I signed up for this book I didn’t read the description very closely and I expected a large, hardcover book that would take a few weeks to slog through. Honestly I was rather excited at the prospect so when this teeny thing showed up I was a bit put off. To its credit, it certainly is brief. No topic, no matter how complicated, takes more than 2-3 pages to be laid out in its entirety. It’s simple, readable and accessible to anyone over the age of 12.

On the negative side of things, I would have been horrified had I paid for this. While it is simple, it is also in need of some editing. At the beginning particularly there are several simple typos and at one point it seems that a page might be missing. Further, the text is SO boiled down that one begins to doubt the veracity and completeness of what is being presented. This is a great overview but a rather terrifying one. The back of the book says, “by end you’ll know as much as you would after a year-long college course.” I’d feel really bad if I took a two-semester course on Middle-Eastern history and this was all I got out of it.

In summary, this is about as much history as you could pack into an hour of reading. Informative to be sure, but disappointing to anyone wanting something with a bit more meat on it.

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The Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti

The Almond TreeThe Almond Tree by Michelle Cohen Corasanti

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As is the usual preamble, I received this book as part of a GoodReads giveaway like hundreds of other people. Never before have I seen a book promoted so profusely on GoodReads with a dozen giveaways of 100 books each. I’m relatively certain that anyone who wants a copy no doubt already has one.

To summarize the story, The Almond Tree is the story of one man’s life on the losing side of history. Our protagonist is a Palestinian in Israel who rises above his circumstances through education. As subject matter goes, this book hits the proverbial nail firmly and repeatedly on the head. The content is gripping, evocative and filled with local color and cultural references to things we just don’t have much awareness of in our American worldview. If even half the atrocities portrayed in this book are at all drawn from true events, then the world needs to really rethink its stance on this area of the world. I’m in no position to vouch for the veracity of any of the claims made in The Almond Tree but one tends to suspect that since the author is Jewish that there’s more than a grain of truth here.

Unfortunately, while the content is masterful, the writing is rather lackluster. The author skims over all the events portrayed with an inappropriate equanimity that is rather frustrating; this reader at least wishes more time was taken to provide more details. At 350 pages of large type the book covers a rather long and eventful life but fails at times to fully flesh out the situation. Editing too seems uneven as characters seem to appear and disappear without any real introduction or conclusion to their roles.

In summary, The Almond Tree is the seed of a great idea. I could imagine the novel doing much better at double its current size or even as a protracted series. The story is an important one that needs telling but with a bit more patience and care.

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