Iraq Table of Contents
Great Mosque in the Shia holy city of An Najaf
Courtesy Matson Collection
Islam is a system of religious beliefs and an allencompassing way of life. Muslims believe that God (Allah) revealed to the Prophet Muhammad the rules governing society and the proper conduct of society's members. It is incumbent on the individual therefore to live in a manner prescribed by the revealed law and on the community to build the perfect human society on earth according to holy injunctions. Islam recognizes no distinctions between church and state. The distinction between religious and secular law is a recent development that reflects the more pronounced role of the state in society, and Western economic and cultural penetration. The impact of religion on daily life in Muslim countries is far greater than that found in the West since the Middle Ages.
The Ottoman Empire organized society around the concept of the millet, or autonomous religious community. The nonMuslim "People of the Book" (Christians and Jews) owed taxes to the government; in return they were permitted to govern themselves according to their own religious law in matters that did not concern Muslims. The religious communities were thus able to preserve a large measure of identity and autonomy.
The Iraqi Baath Party has been a proponent of secularism. This attitude has been maintained despite the fact that the mass of Iraqis are deeply religious. At the same time, the Baathists have not hesitated to exploit religion as a mobilizing agent; and from the first months of the war with Iran, prominent Baathists have made a public show of attending religious observances. Iraq's President Saddam Husayn is depicted in prayer in posters displayed throughout the country. Moreover, the Baath has provided large sums of money to refurbish important mosques; this has proved a useful tactic in encouraging support from the Shias.
Islam came to Iraq by way of the Arabian Peninsula, where in A.D.610, Muhammad--a merchant of the Hashimite branch of the ruling Quraysh tribe in the Arabian town of Mecca--began to preach the first of a series of revelations granted him by God through the angel Gabriel. A fervent monotheist, Muhammad denounced the polytheism of his fellow Meccans. Because the town's economy was based in part on a thriving pilgrimage business to the shrine called the Kaaba and numerous other pagan religious sites in the area, his censure earned him the enmity of the town's leaders. In A.D.622 he and a group of followers accepted an invitation to settle in the town of Yathrib, later known as Medina (the city), because it was the center of Muhammad's activities. The move, or hijra, known in the West as the hegira, marks the beginning of the Islamic era and of Islam as a force in history; the Muslim calendar begins in A.D.622. In Medina Muhammad continued to preach and eventually defeated his detractors in battle. He consolidated the temporal and the spiritual leadership in his person before his death in A.D.632. After Muhammad's death, his followers compiled those of his words regarded as coming directly from God into the Quran, the holy scriptures of Islam. Others of his sayings and teachings, recalled by those who had known him, became the hadith. The precedent of Muhammad's personal behavior is called the sunna. Together they form a comprehensive guide to the spiritual, ethical, and social life of the orthodox Sunni Muslim.
The duties of Muslims form the five pillars of Islam, which set forth the acts necessary to demonstrate and reinforce the faith. These are the recitation of the shahada ("There is no God but God [Allah], and Muhammad is his prophet"), daily prayer (salat), almsgiving (zakat), fasting (sawm), and pilgrimage (hajj). The believer is to pray in a prescribed manner after purification through ritual ablutions each day at dawn, midday, midafternoon, sunset, and nightfall. Prescribed genuflections and prostrations accompany the prayers, which the worshiper recites facing toward Mecca. Whenever possible men pray in congregation at the mosque with an imam, and on Fridays make a special effort to do so. The Friday noon prayers provide the occasion for weekly sermons by religious leaders. Women may also attend public worship at the mosque, where they are segregated from the men, although most frequently women pray at home. A special functionary, the muezzin, intones a call to prayer to the entire community at the appropriate hour. Those out of earshot determine the time by the sun.
The ninth month of the Muslim calendar is Ramadan, a period of obligatory fasting in commemoration of Muhammad's receipt of God's revelation. Throughout the month all but the sick and weak, pregnant or lactating women, soldiers on duty, travelers on necessary journeys, and young children are enjoined from eating, drinking, smoking, or sexual intercourse during the daylight hours. Those adults excused are obliged to endure an equivalent fast at their earliest opportunity. A festive meal breaks the daily fast and inaugurates a night of feasting and celebration. The pious well-to-do usually do little or no work during this period, and some businesses close for all or part of the day. Since the months of the lunar year revolve through the solar year, Ramadan falls at various seasons in different years. A considerable test of discipline at any time of the year, a fast that falls in summertime imposes severe hardship on those who must do physical work.
All Muslims, at least once in their lifetime, should make the hajj to Mecca to participate in special rites held there during the twelfth month of the lunar calendar. Muhammad instituted this requirement, modifying pre-Islamic custom, to emphasize sites associated with God and Abraham (Ibrahim), founder of monotheism and father of the Arabs through his son Ismail.
The lesser pillars of the faith, which all Muslims share, are jihad, or the crusade to protect Islamic lands, beliefs, and institutions; and the requirement to do good works and to avoid all evil thoughts, words, and deeds. In addition, Muslims agree on certain basic principles of faith based on the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad: there is one God, who is a unitary divine being in contrast to the trinitarian belief of Christians; Muhammad, the last of a line of prophets beginning with Abraham and including Moses and Jesus, was chosen by God to present His message to humanity; and there is a general resurrection on the last or judgment day.
During his lifetime, Muhammad held both spiritual and temporal leadership of the Muslim community. Religious and secular law merged, and all Muslims have traditionally been subject to sharia, or religious law. A comprehensive legal system, sharia developed gradually through the first four centuries of Islam, primarily through the accretion of precedent and interpretation by various judges and scholars. During the tenth century, legal opinion began to harden into authoritative rulings, and the figurative bab al ijtihad (gate of interpretation) closed. Thereafter, rather than encouraging flexibility, Islamic law emphasized maintenance of the status quo.
After Muhammad's death the leaders of the Muslim community consensually chose Abu Bakr, the Prophet's father-in-law and one of his earliest followers, to succeed him. At that time some persons favored Ali, Muhammad's cousin and the husband of his daughter Fatima, but Ali and his supporters (the Shiat Ali, or Party of Ali) eventually recognized the community's choice. The next two caliphs (successors)--Umar, who succeeded in A.D.634, and Uthman, who took power in A.D.644--enjoyed the recognition of the entire community. When Ali finally succeeded to the caliphate in A.D.656, Muawiyah, governor of Syria, rebelled in the name of his murdered kinsman Uthman. After the ensuing civil war, Ali moved his capital to Iraq, where he was murdered shortly there after.
Ali's death ended the last of the so-called four orthodox caliphates and the period in which the entire community of Islam recognized a single caliph. Muawiyah proclaimed himself caliph from Damascus. The Shiat Ali refused to recognize him or his line, the Umayyad caliphs, and withdrew in the first great schism to establish the dissident sect, known as the Shias, supporting the claims of Ali's line to the caliphate based on descent from the Prophet. The larger faction, the Sunnis, adhered to the position that the caliph must be elected, and over the centuries they have represented themselves as the orthodox branch.
Data as of May 1988
Iraq Table of Contents