Egypt Table of Contents

In 610 Muhammad (later known as the Prophet), a merchant member of the Hashimite branch of the Quraysh clan that ruled the Arabian town of Mecca, began to preach the first of a series of revelations that Muslims believe were given him by God through the angel Gabriel. A fervent monotheist, Muhammad denounced the polytheism of his fellow Meccans. His vigorous and continuing censure earned him the bitter enmity of Mecca's leaders, who feared the impact of Muhammad's ideas on Mecca's thriving business based on pilgrimages to numerous pagan religious sites.

In 622 Muhammad and a group of followers left for the town of Yathrib, which became known as Medina (the city). Their move, or hijra (Hegira), marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar, which is based on the lunar year and is several days shorter than the solar year. Muhammad continued to preach in Medina, defeated his detractors in Mecca in battle, and consolidated both temporal and spiritual leadership of all Arabia by 632, the year of his death.

Muhammad's followers compiled the Quran (also seen as Koran), a book containing the words that had come directly to the prophet from God. The Quran serves as the holy scriptures of Islam. Muhammad's sayings and teachings were compiled separately and referred to as the hadith. The Quran and the hadith form the sunna, a comprehensive guide to the spiritual, ethical, and social life of the orthodox Sunni Muslim.

The shahada (profession of faith) succinctly states the central belief of Islam: "There is no god but God (Allah), and Muhammad is His Prophet." Muslims repeat this profession of faith during many rituals. Reciting the phrase with unquestioning sincerity designates one a Muslim. The God about whom Muhammad preached was known to Christians and Jews living in Arabia at the time. Most Arabs, however, worshipped many gods and spirits whose existence was denied by Muhammad. Muhammad urged the people to worship the monotheistic God as the omnipotent and unique creator. Muhammad explained that his God was omnipresent and invisible. Therefore, representing God through symbols would have been a sin. Muhammad said God determined world events, and resisting God would have been futile and sinful.

Islam means submission (to God). One who submits is a Muslim. Muslims believe that Muhammad is the "seal of the prophets" and that his revelations complete the series of biblical revelations received by Jews and Christians. They also believe that God is one and the same throughout time, but his true teachings had been forgotten until Muhammad arrived. Muslims recognized biblical prophets and sages such as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus (known in Arabic as Ibrahim, Musa, and Isa, respectively) as inspired vehicles of God's will. Islam, however, reveres only their messages as sacred. Islam rejects the Christian belief that Jesus is the son of God. Islam accepts the concepts of guardian angels, the Day of Judgment (or the last day), general resurrection, heaven and hell, and eternal life of the soul.

The duties of the Muslim form the five pillars of the faith. These are the recitation of the shahada; daily prayer (salat); almsgiving (zakat); fasting (sawm); and hajj, or pilgrimage. The believer prays 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 worshipper recites facing Mecca. Whenever possible men pray in congregation at the mosque with an imam, or prayer leader. On Fridays corporate prayer is obligatory. The Friday noon prayers provide the occasion for weekly sermons by religious leaders. Women may also attend public worship at the mosque, but they are segregated from the men. Most women who pray, however, do it at home. A special functionary, the muezzin, intones a call to prayer to the entire community at the appropriate hour; people in outlying areas determine the proper time from the sun. Public prayer is a conspicuous and widely practiced aspect of Islam in Egypt.

Early Islamic authorities imposed a tax on personal property proportionate to one's wealth and distributed the revenues to the mosques and to the needy. In addition, many believers made voluntary donations. Although almsgiving is still a duty of the believer, it is no longer enforced by the state and has become a more private matter. Many properties contributed by pious individuals to support religious and charitable activities or institutions were traditionally administered as inalienable waqfs.

Ramadan, the ninth month of the Muslim calendar, is a period of obligatory fasting in commemoration of Muhammad's receipt of God's revelation, the Quran. Throughout the month, everyone except the sick, the weak, pregnant or nursing women, soldiers on duty, travelers on necessary journeys, and young children are enjoined from eating and drinking during daylight hours. Adults excused from the fasting are obliged to observe an equivalent fast at their earliest opportunity. A meal breaks each daily fast and inaugurates a night of feasting and celebration. Wealthy individuals usually do little work for all or part of the day.

Because the months of the lunar calendar are shorter than the months of the solar year, Ramadan falls at different times each year. For example, when Ramadan occurs in summer, it imposes special hardship on farmers who do heavy physical labor in the fields in the daytime.

At least once in their lifetimes, all Muslims who are financially and physically capable are expected to make a pilgrimage to the holy city of 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 Allah and Abraham, whom Arabs believe founded monotheism and is the ancestor of Arabs through his son Ishmael (Ismail). More than 20,000 Egyptians made pilgrimages to Mecca each year in the late 1980s. Traditionally the departure of Egypt's pilgrims climaxed in the ceremony of mahmal, during which the national gift of carpets and shrouds for the Kaaba shrine and the tomb of Muhammad at Medina were presented. The pilgrims would later deliver the gifts.

Once in Mecca, pilgrims, dressed in the white, seamless ihram, refrain from activities considered unclean. Highlights of the pilgrimage include kissing the sacred black stone; circumambulating the Kaaba, the sacred structure reputedly built by Abraham that houses the stone; running seven times between the hills of As Safa and Al Marwa in reenactment of Hagar's desperate search for water after Abraham had cast her and her son Ismail out into the desert; and standing in prayer on Mount Arafat. Id al Adha, a major Islamic festival celebrated worldwide, marks the end of the hajj. Each family, if it has the financial means, slaughters a lamb on Id al Adha to commemorate an ancient Arab sacrificial custom. The returning pilgrim is accorded the honorific hajj or hajji before his or her name.

Early Developments

During his lifetime, Muhammad was the spiritual and temporal leader of the Muslim community. He established the concept of Islam as a complete, all-encompassing way of life for individuals and society. Islam teaches that Allah revealed to Muhammad the immutable principles of correct behavior. Islam therefore obliged Muslims to live according to these principles. It also obliged the community to perfect human society on earth according to holy injunctions. Islam generally made no distinction between religion and state; it merged religious and secular life, as well as religious and secular law. Muslims have traditionally been subject to the sharia (Islamic jurisprudence, but in a larger sense meaning the Islamic way). A comprehensive legal system, the sharia developed gradually during 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 hardened into authoritative doctrine, and the figurative bab al ijtihad (gate of interpretation) gradually closed. Thereafter, Islamic law has tended to follow precedent rather than to interpret law according to circumstances.

In 632, 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 people favored Ali, the Prophet's cousin and husband of his favorite daughter Fatima, but Ali and his supporters (the Shiat Ali, or party of Ali, commonly known as Shia) eventually accepted the community's choice. The next two caliphs (from khalifa, literally successor)--Umar, who succeeded in 634, and Uthman, who took power in 644--enjoyed the recognition of the entire community. When Ali finally succeeded to the caliphate in 656, Muawiyah, governor of Syria, rebelled in the name of his murdered kinsman, Uthman. After the ensuing civil war, Ali moved his capital to Mesopotamia (present-day Iraq), where in a short time he, too, was murdered.

Ali was the last of the so-called four orthodox caliphs. His death marked the end of the period in which all Muslims recognized a single caliph. Muawiyah then proclaimed himself caliph from Damascus. The Shia, however, refusing to recognize Muawiyah or his line of Umayyad caliphs, withdrew, causing Islam's first great schism. The Shia supported the claims of Ali's sons and grandsons to a presumptive right to the caliphate based on descent from the Prophet through Fatima and Ali. The larger faction of Islam, the Sunni, claimed to follow the orthodox teaching and example of the Prophet as embodied in the sunna.

Early Islam was intensely expansionist. Fervor for the new religion, as well as economic and social factors, fueled this expansionism. Conquering armies and migrating tribes swept out of Arabia and spread Islam. By the end of Islam's first century, Islamic armies had reached far into North Africa and eastward and northward into Asia. Among the first countries to come under their control was Egypt, which Arab forces invaded in 640. The following year, Amr ibn al As conquered Cairo (then known as Babylon) and renamed the city Al Fustat. By 647, after the surrender of Alexandria, the whole country was under Muslim rule. Amr, Egypt's first Muslim ruler, was influenced by the Prophet's advice that Muslims should be kind to the Egyptians because of their kinship ties to Arabs. According to Islamic tradition, Ismail's mother, Hagar, was of Egyptian origin.

Amr allowed the Copts to choose between converting to Islam or retaining their beliefs as a protected people. Amr gave them this choice because the Prophet had recognized the special status of the "People of the Book" (Jews and Christians), whose scriptures he considered perversions of God's true word but nevertheless contributory to Islam. Amr believed that Jews and Christians were people who had approached but not yet achieved the perfection of Islam, so he did not treat them like pagans who would be forced into choosing between Islam and death. Jews and Christians in Muslim territories could live according to their own religious laws and in their own communities if they accepted the position of dhimmis, or tolerated subject peoples. Dhimmis were required to recognize Muslim authority, pay additional taxes, avoid proselytism among Muslims, and give up certain political rights. By the ninth century A.D., most Egyptians had converted to Islam.

Amr had chosen Al Fustat as the capital of Islamic Egypt because a canal connected the city to the Red Sea, which provided easy access to the Muslim heartland in the Arabian Peninsula. He initiated construction of Cairo's oldest extant mosque, the Amr ibn al As Mosque, which was completed in 711, several years after his death. Successive rulers also built mosques and other religious buildings as monuments to their faith and accomplishments. Egypt's first Turkish ruler, Ahmad ibn Tulun, built one of Cairo's most renowned mosques, the Ibn Tulun Mosque, in 876.

A Shia dynasty, the Fatimids, conquered Egypt in 969 and ruled the country for 200 years. Although the Fatimids endowed numerous mosques, shrines, and theological schools, they did not firmly establish their faith (known today as Ismaili Shia Islam) in Egypt. Numerous sectarian conflicts among Fatimid Ismailis after 1050 may have been a factor in Egyptian Muslim acceptance of Saladin's (Salah ad Din ibn Ayyub) reestablishment of Sunni Islam as the state religion in 1171. Al Azhar theological school, endowed by the Fatimids, changed quickly from a center of Shia learning to a bastion of Sunni orthodoxy. There were virtually no Ismailis in Egypt in 1990, although large numbers lived in India and Pakistan and smaller communities were in Afghanistan, Iran, Syria, and several countries in East Africa.

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Source: U.S. Library of Congress