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Spread of Islamic Culture

Learn more about the spread of Islamic culture.

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Video transcript

- [David] Hi Eman. - [Eman] Hi David. - [David] So what we're gonna do in this video is talk about the cultural spread of Islam. Where are we and when are we right now? - [Eman] So we are around the early seventh century, - [David] Okay - [Eman] And here we see the Byzantine empire, which, at the time was still a continuation of Rome, so this is like the eastern roman empire, - [David] Right. - [Eman] and it's an aging empire and we also have Sassanid Persia which started in the third century and is still continuing into this period. - [David] Right, so we've got on the timeline it's going beyond our start point here. - [Eman] Yep. So these are two very powerful empires who often are in tension with one another. As you can see they neighbor each other. And around this time they're involved in some pretty powerful struggles here. - [David] Right. So in 628 it leads to a lot of instability within Sassanid Persia. - [Eman] Certainly, and in some ways as well the Byzantines are weakened by how many resources they've exhausted in these tensions. So around this time, a new religion emerges. Muhammad is born in Arabia, and pretty soon during his lifetime and immediately after his lifetime, the religion of Islam spreads rapidly through Islamic conquests, which Saul talked about in an earlier video. - [David] I mean, just to give you an impression, Muhammad died in the year 633? - [Eman] Yes. - [David] So by 750, this is what the state of the Islamic world looked like. - [Eman] They took over most of Persia and a large part of the Byzantine empire, as we can see and then even beyond, it goes further east, further west, all the way over to Spain. And this happens really really quickly, but it's not the case that Islamic culture necessarily takes in all of these areas that quickly. So it takes a little bit longer for that to really take hold, and it also takes hold in areas far beyond this empire as well. So certainly the presence of Islamic or Muslim rulers in these areas certainly did affect the culture of these places. But what's more important is sort of the ways in which Islam slowly integrated with some of these cultures. And that happened through trade, through missionaries, and also through pilgramage routes that happened, emanating out from Mecca. And these religious ideas weren't static. As they moved through different areas and as they moved through different routes, they changed and they started to take the shape of the local culture and the local flavor as well. - [David] So let me pull up some trade routes. These were the active trade routes of the period. And you can see this is a continuation of the silk road. It goes all the way from Rome to China. This is Xian, which was then known as Chang'an. This is the imperial capital of at least ten different Chinese dynasties. There's also a very large mosque here. - [Eman] So here we have the great mosque at Xian, and what's really interesting about this mosque is that it really fuses a lot of Islamic and Chinese ideas. So for example, it still sort of has the structure of an imperial building, and the way that the courtyards are set up. - [David] Sure. - [Eman] But instead of following sort of the rules of Feng Shui, it is oriented towards Mecca, which is the direction in which Muslims look when they pray. But it still has a very Chinese character. - [David] Right. - [Eman] And this makes sense because these trade routes basically had to go through the Islamic empire. And so as people traveled, so did ideas. And those ideas transformed along the way. - [David] What's next on our whistle stop tour, Eman? - [Eman] Let's look at the mosque in Djenne. - [David] Okay. So Djenne is in what is today, Mali, just south of Timbuktu or Tombuktu as it's called today. So it was a great center of Islamic learning. And in Djenne is the site of the world's largest mud brick building, the grand mosque of Djenne. Let me pull it up. It's a really incredible building that gets a lot of elements of Malian culture. So this is the grand mosque of Djenne, this is a mud brick building. We have an article about this on Khan Academy in the art history section. What's really cool to me about the grand mosque of Djenne is the way that is incorporates Malian traditions into Islamic tradition. So you can see on top of these spires, some of these spires are minarets, from which issue the call to prayer. You can't see them as detailed, but there are little ostrich eggs on top of - [Eman] Ostrich eggs? - [David] Yeah, in Mali, ostrich eggs represent purity and fertility. And so even within the constraints of building a religious building, there's still expressions of local culture. - [Eman] Yeah, and it's really interesting how that spread through trade, but it also spread another way, which is through pilgramage, through missionaries, through preachers, and that also took on the local traditions in interesting ways. So let's go to southern, to South India. - [David] Okay. - [Eman] Near Kerala. - [David] So this is the Cheraman Juma mosque. This is supposed to be one of the earliest mosques in history. It's construction dates to about 630. - [Eman] Yep, 629 to be precise. - [David] Thank you. - [Eman] This was actually during the life of the prophet, and it's quite far from Mecca, so it's really fascinating how quickly it traveled there. But it traveled with a preacher and as you can see, this is a very distinctly Indian mosque. Another way that Islam traveled through preachers was through Sufis. So let's talk about Sufis for just a minute. - [David] Sure. - [Eman] Sufis were like a mystical devotional practice, and we see many iterations of Sufism in all different sects of Islam. But they were particularly successful at spreading Islam for a few reasons. One of them was that they adapted the teachings to local traditions. And another reason was that they built lodges and places of worship along the way. And these sometimes function like community centers and monasteries. So let's have a look at a couple of them. - [David] Sure. - [Eman] Let's look at some North African ones. - [David] So this is a Ribat in Tunisia. - [Eman] Yes, so a Ribat is kind of like a hostel, you have travelers staying there. Early on in their history, there were soldiers that stayed there. Over time, they sort of took on a monastery culture for Sufis. We also have something called a Zawiya. So here is an example of one. And similarly this was a place of learning, it was a place of worship. People often lived there for a long time, so they sort of have this monastic tradition that created a permanent presence for Islam along these routes. And this was really really integral in the spread of Islam. And it's not just in North Africa, but even farther east, you see different iterations of that. So once you get into former Persian territory and in Indian territory you have something called a Hanka. So here's an example from Kashmir. This is called the Shah Hamdan mosque. And it's a fourteenth century mosque. And this is a commemorative building, it commemorates an important Sufi leader. But again, you see some of the local flavor here. You see that there's some intricate wood carvings, which is really, - [David] Very Kashmir-y - [Eman] Very Kashmir-y, certainly. And similarly this was a place of worship but also a place where people passed through and interacted and learned. So it was a site of spreading Islamic tradition as well. - [David] So that was about, sorry I should have said, that was about here in Srinagar. - [Eman] Yes, about there. - [David] Yeah and so, in this way Islam was also spread. - [Eman] Certainly. Let's have a look at sort of the bounds of the Islamic empire. - [David] Sure. - [Eman] And where we see some of these instances of new Islamic traditions were no longer in the heart of the Islamic empire. We're beyond that. And that's because Islam was carried in many different ways. And as we can see it ended up with some really really diverse iterations of Islam.