5 Minutes of History with your Morning Coffee - An Incomplete Education: Islam

Source:  An Incomplete Education - A coffee table style book with a little of everything and just enough of almost anything, to teach you what you probably didn't learn (or weren't paying attention to) in high school and college.  First published in 1987, it was an instant best seller and has been revised and updated many times since as it continues to sell copies.  Our world has changed quite a bit since 1987 (and this version released in 1995) but it's still good at giving you a quick and basic overview of many topics within about 5 minutes with your morning coffee.

Islam:  The youngest of the monotheistic megafaiths.  In A.D. 622, it's official birth year, Islam was little more than a gleam in the prophet Muhammad's eye.  Less than 200 years later, it was the power behind an empire that stretched from Spain to India.  Of course, Muhammad didn't really start from scratch;  as a Bedouin trader living on the outskirts of Mecca, he'd already picked up a lot of gossip about Judaism and Christianity by the time he was ready to start having divine revelations of his own.  As a result, Islam bears an uncanny likeness to its two predecessors, though with variations that, from the beginning, made it highly appealing to the common man (and we do mean man) as well to certain fierce desert tribes prepared to appreciate Muhammad's policy of winning through decapitation.

The main attraction of Islam (Arabic for 'submission to the will of God') is its utter simplicity.  Your average Muslim (Arabic for "one who submits") can get to Heaven not by striving for some quasi-mystical and pretty much unobtainable state of grace but simply by honoring the Five Pillars of Islam.  First and most important of these is the affirmation of faith, in the words "There is no God but Allah and Muhammad is his prophet."   Say this with real feeling just once in your life and no one can accuse you of not being a true Muslim (although only you and Allah know for sure).  Two:  Pray five times a day, turning towards Mecca (no need to check your watch; just listen for the call of the muezzin and hit the ground when everyone else does).  Three:  Fast from sunup to sundown throughout the entire month of Ramadan (and if you're a well-to-do twentieth-century Muslim, binge-eat into the wee-hours).  Four:  Make the hajj the pilgrimage to Mecca, at least once if you can afford it (luckily you no longer have to travel on foot or by camel;  flights leave daily from most major cities).  Five:  Give alms, unless you're so poor you have to beg them.  And if you want to earn bonus points to ensure a smooth entry into Heaven, simply contrive to die while fighting a Holy War.

In case you get confused, you can look up the essentials in the Koran, the one and only sacred text of Islam, which contains the words of Allah as revealed to Muhammad.  You may find the going a bit tricky, however, since Muhammad wrote in a rhythmic Arabic that's completely untranslatable.  Join the club;  three quarters of the Muslim world is now composed of non-Arabs and none of them can read their own Scriptures, either.  Anyway, most of the Koran is devoted to retelling  the stories of the Old and New Testaments from the Muslim - that is, the correct and uncorrupted - point of view.  (For instance, the five great early prophets were really Adam, Noah, Abraham - the first Muslim - Moses, and Jesus.  Alexander the Great was a prophet too, and Muhammad was the last to carry Allah's divine word to man; and that's Allah, by the way, not Yahweh, which, must have been some sort of typo.)  The Koran won't give you much detail about ethical behavior or daily ritual; for that you'll have to turn to the Hadith, the collected sayings of Muhammad, which, almost everyone acknowledges, are probably not authentic.

The Muslim world is meant to be a theocracy, and it's in the who's-running-the-show department that Islam splits into its only two major sects, Sunni and Shi'ah.  The Sunnis, who comprise about 90 percent of all Muslims today, are the ones you don't hear much about;  staid and relatively tolerant, they are determinists who believe in rule by tradition and consensus.  The Shiites, who live mostly in Iran and Iraq, believe in free will; they are, most often, the radical reformers, who, like fundamentalist Christians, are convinced the world is going to hell in a hand-basket.  They are given to dire proclamations, strict proscriptions, and the cutting off of hands in public square.  The Shiites believe in rule by twelve imams, or perfect leaders, under whom the ayatollahs compose a sort of middle management cadre.

From its inception, Islam has had great success in winning converts in hot, arid, impoverished countries where the locals are susceptible to a lot of shouting and sword-brandishing, and to the promise of a Heaven that, unlike home, consists of green meadows and babbling brooks.  Another lure:  Traditional Islam is basically egalitarian and flexible;  follow the simple rules and nobody is going to torture you for heresy or shun you because of the color of your skin.  Feminists, pacifists, and drunk drivers, however, need not apply.


An Incomplete Education When it was originally published in 1987, An Incomplete Education became a surprise bestseller. Now this instant classic has been completely updated, outfitted with a whole new arsenal of indispensable knowledge. Here's your chance to fill in the gaps left by your school years, reacquire all the facts you once knew then promptly forgot, and become the Renaissance man or woman you always suspected you could be!


An Incomplete Education: 3,684 Things You Should Have Learned but Probably Didn't