Category: islam

Nation of Islam Meeting, Washington, D.C. 1961. Photographed by Eve Arnold.

If you count references, such as “son of X,” the most-mentioned person in the Quran is Jesus.

Emperor Akbar ruled the Mughal Empire from 1556 to 1605. When he came to the throne, he confronted a problem that had plagued his predecessors: how to be a Muslim ruler over a majority-Hindu nation, that also had substantial numbers of various other religions including Buddhism and Jainism. He eventually came to believe that no religion could have pre-eminence. In fact, he was not even sure that any religion was “the truth” but were all humanity’s imperfect interpretations. The logical conclusion is that all subjects of his empire should be free to practice whatever religion they wished.

Akbar began to hold conferences weekly, with wise men from all faiths (no known women, though). He would apply their wisdom to questions of state. He slowly took over spiritual leadership, even getting the Muslim clergy to pronounce a fatwa (judgement) that as emperor, Akbar could adjudicate any dispute between religious authorities – even overruling the Qur’an if necessary for the public interest.

Legally, Akbar made two big changes. He abolished the hated tax levied on the Hindu majority, the jizya, the “contribution for not being put to death”. He also created a private faith for the elite. It was not a new religion, per se. It was a kind of Sufi system for the rulers, with 10 cardinal virtues, the essence of which was promoting tolerance. Akbar combined aspects of different faiths, borrowing from all the religions of his empire, to create an ethical code that he wished his inner circle to follow. He called this the Din i-Ilahi, or “Worship of God.” While it has been accused of being a pick-and-mix religion, Akbar did not proclaim it a religion, and he remained a Muslim all his life.

The Din i-Ilahi died with Akbar in 1605, and the jizya was reintroduced by Akbar’s great-grandson Aurangzeb in 1679.

Prayers and verses from the Qur’an have been used as amulets throughout the Islamic world for centuries. This hexagonal, silver amulet case still contains its original prayer scroll – rather a miracle.

On the scroll are written prayers in a beautiful black calligraphic hand. Names of God are in larger script, in blue and red, around the edges. The scroll was not meant to be read, however, but used as a talisman. Three small loops suggest that the case was meant to be worn as a horizontal pendant. When worn, it was believed such amulets both protected the wearer from harm, and cured them if they were already hurt.

Based on the style of the calligraphy, this amulet and scroll likely come from Iran around 1800.

Yes, what you’re thinking is true, an Islamic ruler once ruled France?!?!

At the greatest extent of Al-Andalus, a province of the Umayyad Caliphate, it controlled a piece of southern France. As well as most of modern Spain and all of modern Portugal. From 719 to 759 – that’s a full forty years – Muslim rulers controlled the port city of Narbonne. Depending on the year, they also controlled various nearby cities including  Nîmes, Béziers, and Avignon.

The Islamic rulers weren’t entirely unpopular, either. Narbonne was satisfied enough with Umayyad rule that it successfully defended itself, twice, from Frankish attempts to retake the city.

The two main branches of Islam, the Sunnis and Shiites, break their Ramadan fasts differently. Sunnis typically break their fast when the sun is no longer on the horizon, but the sky is still light. Shiites break their fast when the last ray of light has gone.

There are a number of other differences. For instance, some Shias have traditionally started Ramadan fasting a day after Sunnis. And Sunnis have an extra, optional prayer called taraweeh that they only say during Ramadan; Shias do not say taraweeh.

The Qur’an wasn’t officially formed until 20 years after the death of Muhammad. When the Qur’an was first printed, the first caliph Abu Bakr gathered a committee to decide on the final form. The committee included Muslims who had memorized the entire Qur’an during the prophet’s lifetime, so they could compare what was collected with what they had memorized.

You may be surprised to learn that this terracotta vase is from the Umayyad or Abbasid Caliphates, between 700 and 900 CE!

Its style is distinctly Islamic in nature, with incised lines and an elegant shape. What I noticed first, though, was the odd glazing which leaves the bottom looking unfinished and looks very modern. Known as “two-thirds” glaze, this is actually typical of early Islamic art.

The Qur’an consists of 114 chapters called surats. The chapters are not arranged in the order in which they were first recited by Muhammad, over a period of 23 years. Instead, the Qur’an’s surats are in the re-arranged order that Muhammad placed them in after they were all revealed to Muhammad.

A jug with an inscription around its middle, covered in gold and silver inlay, with a dragon for a handle. The inscription invokes the name of ‘Ali, the son-in-law of the prophet Muhammad. The writing itself is special: it is an example of Naskh, a specialized style of the Arabic alphabet, which allows for faster writing. Although that’s not something to be concerned about on a jug, one would think, since inlay is going to take a long time no matter the style.

Safavid Dynasty, Iran, circa late 1400s to early 1500s CE. Courtesy of the Met Museum.