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Islamic world

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The Islamic world is the world-wide community of all believers in Islam, who are known as Muslims, and who number approximately one-and-a-half billion people. Many Muslims live in:

The countries of Southwest Asia, and many in Northern Africa are considered part of the Middle East.

Also worthy of mention are provinces of Kurdistan, Kosovo and Chechnya, where Muslims are in the majority.

Some definitions would also include the sizable Muslim minorities in:

Muslims are not all connected ethnically, but like Christians or Buddhists, only by the common heritage of a religion.

When believers in Islam cooperate as Muslims, they are known as the "ummah", which means "all of the believers". The faith emphasizes unity and defense of fellow Muslims, so it should be common for Muslim nations to cooperate; however, Muslim politics, particularly Arab politics, has tended to divide rather than unite the Muslim world.



One quarter of the world population share Islam as an ethical tradition. Muslims are the majority in 52 nations. They speak about 60 languages and come from diverse ethnic backgrounds.

  • close to 1.5 billion in total

See: Islam by country


Islam spread rapidly into the regions where Muslims are now a majority, until 631 CE - see caliph for the politics that were partially to cease the rapid expansion of Islam at about this time.

Islam was also spread by war and colonialism, particularly of the powerful Ottoman Empire. Nations were conquered, and their inhabitants were given a choice to convert to Islam, or live as dhimmis, second class citizens.

The Ottoman Empire came to an end in 1918 when Turkey lost control of the bulk of the Arab World, which it had ruled for centuries and in which it had suppressed most of the traditional norms of Islam. The United Kingdom and the United States supported Arab independence, but France insisted on retaining control of Lebanon and ultimately Syria. This, plus the status of Kuwait and Palestine, and the later partition of India, remain major sources of global tension to this day. Islam allows oppressed Muslims to practice Jihad, struggle against aggressors.

The 20th century also saw a series of defeats for some Islamist movements, Iran and the now-defunct Taliban regime in Afghanistan being notable exceptions. Elsewhere the rule has been for military rulers, e.g. Suharto, Moammar Qaddafi, Zia , Saddam Hussein, to cynically exploit Islamic imagery and language without following the rules, sometimes implementing weak but spectacular forms of sharia in rural areas to appease peasant supporters.

In Turkey, Pakistan, Algeria and other nations with Islamist parties, these tend to have either no power or they substantially moderate these policies when they participate in government (as in Turkey in 2003 where the government approved a U.S. plan to invade Iraq via Turkey but was over-ruled by the parliament after public pressure from the 94% of Turks opposed to an invasion). Nationalism plays more of a role in decisions to go to war than religious similiarities or differences.

See also: History of Islam

Important organizations

The Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries includes many nations that are also in the Arab League. Although most oil sources on Earth are not in nations with Muslim majorities, the fully developed exporting regions are.

A politically motivated oil embargo in 1974 (to support Egypt and Syria in their 1973 war against Israel) had drastic economic and political consequences in the United States and Europe. Although such a move would have less impact today, it demonstrates the power of the Islamic world acting in concert, and the key role of religion and ethnicity in the politics of oil regions, with which the Islamic world intersects.

As oil sources in Indonesia, Central Asia and southern regions of Russia become more developed, oil politics may be less dependent on the Arab World but more dependent on the Islamic World as a whole. Activities of Islamists seem destined to play a larger role, as they seek unified policies and support for unified fronts against non-Muslim peoples who control Muslim oil resources.

The Organization of the Islamic Conference formed in 1969 lets the Muslim nations work as a group. Russia joined in 2003.

Main denominations of Islam

The two main denominations of Islam are the Sunni and Shia sects. The difference between them is primarily in terms of how the life of the ummah ("faithful") should be governed, and the role of the imam.

The overwhelming majority of Muslims in the world are Sunni.

The Shi'a are a majority in Iraq (60%) and in Iran (89%). A more strictly traditional Shia regime maintains power in Iran, although a nominally Sunni minority held political power in Iraq up until the 2003 invasion of Iraq.

There are other differences in Muslims practice their faith, notably there's the Islamists who are fundamentalist.

Islam in law and ethics

In some nations, Muslim ethnic groups enjoy considerable autonomy.

In some places, Muslims implement a form of Islamic law, called shariah in Arabic. The Islamic law exists in many variations, but the main forms are the five (four Sunni and one Shia) schools of jurisprudence (fiqh):

All five are centuries old and many Muslims feel a new fiqh must be created for modern society. Islam has a method for doing this, al-urf and ijtihad are the words to describe this method, but they have not been used in a long time, and few people are trusted enough to use them to make new laws.

So, in most of the Muslim world, people are socially conservative.

Muslim women often dress extremely modestly, and many do so by choice. Thus, in some countries an interpretation of the islamic law requires women to cover either just legs, shoulders and head or the whole body apart from the face. In strictest forms, the face as well must be covered leaving just a mesh to see through. These rules for dressing are one of the things that cause tension between the Western World and that of Muslims, concerning particularly muslims living in western countries.

Islamic economics bans interest but in most Muslim countries Western banking is allowed. This is another issue that many Muslims have with the Western world.

Islam in politics

Many people in Islamic countries also see Islam as a political movement. In democratic countries there is usually at least one Islamic party.

Political Islam is powerful in all Muslim-majority countries. Islamic parties in Turkey, Pakistan and Algeria have taken power.

Many in these movements call themselves Islamists, which also sometimes describes more militant Islamic groups. The relationships between these groups and their views of democracy are complex.

Some of these groups practice terrorism.

Conflicts with Israel and the US

Israel is very unpopular in the Muslim world, because of the Israeli-Palestinian conflict and the way that the state of Israel came into being in 1948 which many Arabs thought was unfair.

Some Muslims see this as a fight against Judaism or Jews, but not all. In Morocco for instance, the Islamists recently invited Jews to join the party. Jewish groups also cooperate with Arabs in the West Bank, where Neturei Karta (anti-Zionist orthodox Jewish) leader Rabbi Mosche Hirsch served as the Minister for Jewish Affairs in the Fatah before there was a Palestinian Authority. Like the Arabs, this small group of Jews thought the way Israel was created was not right.

In 1979 there was a big shift in the way the Muslim world dealt with the rest of the world. In that year, Egypt made peace with Israel, Iran became an Islamic state after a revolution, and there was an invasion of Afghanistan by the Soviet Union. A lot of things changed in that year. By 2001 the Soviet Union was gone, Jordan had also made peace with Israel, and on September 11, 2001 there were major attacks on the U.S. - which most people believe were made to drive the United States out of the Muslim world, especially Saudi Arabia. In many ways the events of 1979 led to the events of 2001.

The 2001 invasion of Afghanistan and 2003 invasion of Iraq are called part of a "War on Terrorism" by the United States. Many or most Muslims see it as a War on Islam. After the invasion, the Islamic parties won more seats, and a majority of Muslims polled in many nations expressed support for Osama bin Laden and said he would "do the right thing". Olivier Roy is a French scholar who thinks that this does not express support for Al Qaeda or militant Islam but opposing colonialism and what many Muslims call racism - favourable treatment for Jews especially those living in West Bank settlements, many of whom have American or British passport, and which the United Nations says have no right to live there.

The situation is very complicated and there are many different views of it.

Growing polarization

In Pakistan, nominally a US ally, virulently anti-American Islamist won local elections in two out of four of the country's provinces and became in mid-2003 the third largest party in the national parliament, their best showing ever. For the first time, their support comes not just from the areas bordering Afghanistan, but even from urban areas.

In Kuwait, elections in July returned Islamic traditionalists and supporters of the royal family, while liberals suffered a severe defeat.

In Indonesia, the growth of various groups allied to those seemingly responsible for the Bali bombing most of which have been invisible, has been marked. It is expected that executions of perpetrators of that attack, which hit mostly citizens of Australia, will polarize that nation further.


The Al-Jazeera satellite TV network in the Arabic language is a news source many Arabs watch.

In most Muslim nations, the government is the main source of news. This sometimes makes it very difficult or dangerous to make anti-government statements.


Some believe that the Islamic World is fated to democratize and replace constitutional monarchy and military dictatorship with representative democracy. G. E. Jansen in 1979, in his book "Militant Islam", proposed that Islamist movements were themselves the most likely path to democratization.

Iran, Turkey, Pakistan, Indonesia and Algeria may represent the examples of a movement towards democracy. They enjoy substantial local democracy and have active political life.

Many believe that the Islamic World is fated to come into deeper conflict with the western world. At least one Islamic nation, Pakistan, has developed nuclear weapons, and others, e.g. Iraq, have attempted it. Weapons of mass destruction are likely to become easier to construct given the modernizing economies of the Islamic World.

See also

External links

  • The Islamic World to 1600 an online tutorial at the University of Calgary, Canada.
  • MSNBC report citing Wesley Clark that the US planned to invade Iraq, then Syria, Lebanon, Libya, Iran, Somalia, and Sudan - also his own views on Egypt, Pakistan and Saudi Arabia
  • Al-Jazeera report saying the same thing

Last updated: 02-09-2005 09:07:32
Last updated: 04-25-2005 03:06:01