Islam claims perhaps as many as 825 million followers in the world, over 76 percent of which reside in the four Asian Muslim nations of Indonesia, Pakistan, India and Bangladesh.
Asia accounts for almost 90 percent of world’s entire Muslim population. It is a predominant faith in Southwest Asia where it is practiced by over 95 percent of the population and is a state religion of several nations.
Elsewhere in Asia, where Muslims are not in majority, they form significant minorities, with their share to the populations ranging from 2.4 percent in China to 12 percent in India. In India, a predominantly Hindu nation, Muslims number nearly 120 million, making it world’s third largest Muslim country. Israel, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines, Sri Lanka and Thailand contain sizable Muslim minorities.
Islam, the most recent of the great religions, like Christianity and Judaism, is a product of the Middle East. Muhammad, its founder, and prophet died in 632 in Medina (Saudi Arabia), and in less than a few years the Islamic armies were marching out of Arabia to both east and west, beginning campaigns of religious and military conquests, that for sheer speed remain unequaled in world history.
In rapid succession they conquered Syria, Iraq, Persia, and Egypt in the west and by 712 reached India’s borders m the east. The next few centuries saw the consolidation of gains made by Islam through trade, missionary activity, conquests and establishment of empires. By mid 9th century Muslim traders had reached the shores of China, and penetrated overland and deeper into Central Asia.
From Central Asia Islamic conquests to India had started and by the 12th century Muslim kingdoms had been established which they ruled for over 700 years. The most glorious period of Islamic history in India was that under the Mughal rulers in the 16th and 17th centuries. Islam’s penetration into Southeast Asia took place between 13th and 15th centuries when Arab and Indian Muslim traders began to dominate the maritime trade with the coastal peoples of Sumatra, Malacca, the Malay Peninsula, and many of the islands eastward to Mindanao (Philippines). By the 17th century missionaries had extended Islam’s sway to Indonesia, and southern Philippines.
The Islamic conquests have left deep and lasting imprints on the Asian landscapes. Every city of importance was required to have a mosque and a marketplace. In a typically Islamic tradition cities were generally demarcated into well-defined sections for the nobility containing palaces, gardens, marketplace and residential areas.
Mosques, mausoleums, gardens and palaces adorned most imperial cities. The Taj Mahal in India is one of the most magnificent examples of Muslim architecture. Numerous examples of architecturally beautiful buildings can be seen in cities like Constantinople in Turkey, Isfahan and Shiraz in Iran, Lahore in Pakistan and Delhi and Agra in India.
The Islamic rules transformed the urban landscapes by investing these with numerous universities and public-work institutions. The Islamic occupation in India laid the foundations for an administrative set-up which became the basis for the British administration later on.
Islam is a monotheistic faith, and one of the most cohesive of the religious orders. Its two major sects, Shia and Sunni have few credal differences. The Shias form only 14 percent of the world’s Muslims, and are localized in Iran, neighboring Iraq and Baharain. The major difference lies in the Shiite recognition of the succession to the Califate by the descendants of Muhammad’s daughter.
The Shiites reject western values and accept the fundamentalist principles of Shariat (legal mandates as prescribed by the Koran, Muslim’s Holy Scripture). Their religious leaders (mullah command enormous authority; because their judgments carry legal sanction of the Islamic law. The 1978-79 revolutionary movement in Iran demonstrated that Shiites have a great emotional and nationalist appeal among their followers.
Despite credal cohesion, the Islamic world contains a tremendous diversity of regional cultures. A good part of Islamic propagation was conducted not by the conquering armies or the Muslim administrations, but by the Sufi missionaries, who compromised with local customs and belief, leaving a great deal of pre-Islamic legacy in every region intact.
Thus, among the Central Asian Turks, Shamanistic practices were incorporated into the Islamic fold. In India, in areas distant from the Muslim politico-religious center of power, Muslim populations acquire several Hindu customs and practices. In Indonesia, the Hindu epics of the Ramayana and the Mahabharata are held in high position in national life.
The Islamic faith is now making great inroads into the West because of its simple, monotheistic beliefs and by its democratic principles of brotherhood. Historically, however, the Muslim rule was based on the use of strident emotional appeal and the sword. Spencer, the cultural geographer, ascribes the present-day political turmoil in the Muslim nations to Islam’s strident and emotional policies.
“In time, . . . therefore, the superficial acceptance of the Islamic faith often has become a full and ardent thing, with the result that wherever the Islamic faith is practiced today, latest political turbulence is found in which Moslems never have refrained from militant action when it seemed to promise result” (Spencer, 50).