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Cultural Elements that Unified the Islamic World

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Instructor: Kevin Newton

Kevin has edited encyclopedias, taught history, and has an MA in Islamic law/finance. He has since founded his own financial advice firm, Newton Analytical.

Throughout history, the Islamic world remained a unified force despite political splintering. In this lesson, examine the roles that culture, language, trade, and religion have played in connecting the wider Islamic world. Updated: 10/28/2021

Culture in the Islamic World

By 1100, from Java and Sumatra in the east to Marrakesh and Dakar in the west, the Islamic world was the largest collection of unified territories that the world had ever seen. There was just one minor problem: it wasn't so unified. Sure, Islam was practiced across this vast area, but there were huge gaps of political rule. African, Arab, Turkic, Persian, Indonesian, and even Chinese rulers claimed to have some political power in Islam, but the reality is that Islam as a worldwide political force had ceased to exist some time before.

However, Islam remained strong and unified as a cultural force. In this lesson, we will discuss three of the most unifying aspects of Islamic culture: language, trade, and religion.

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  • 0:02 Culture in the Islamic World
  • 0:56 Language
  • 2:39 Trade
  • 3:29 Religion
  • 5:13 Lesson Summary
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Language

First things first, not all Muslims spoke Arabic (not all Arabs were Muslim, either, but that's for a different lesson). Arabic was the language of the Qur'an, so that meant that in order to read the Qur'an, you had to know Arabic. As a result, many educated people throughout the Islamic world had at least a passing knowledge of the language. For the masses, however, Arabic managed to only spread throughout part of the conquests of Islam, mainly in the Middle East and North Africa.

Elsewhere, Arabic had absolutely no success. In Persia, people kept on speaking Persian as they had done for centuries, just as people in Southeast Asia kept on speaking Javanese and Malay. What would happen is that individual words, often related to religion, would find a way to sneak into those languages.

Arabic wasn't the only language finding itself being exported around the new Islamic world. While Arabic may have been the language of the Qur'an, Persian was the language that became popular in the eastern parts of the Islamic world. In modern-day Pakistan and Northern India, Persian was influential enough to change the language into the modern Urdu and Hindi of today. Also, Persian had a rich tradition of poetry that spread throughout the Islamic world, giving writers in Delhi and Jakarta new forms to try.

Of course, those writers would need an alphabet, and the Perso-Arabic alphabet was exported around the whole Islamic world, coming with the Arabic Qur'an and Persian poetry. The letters of the alphabet, originally Arab with additions from the Persians, soon gave languages from Nigeria to Malaysia the ability to be recorded in writing.

Trade

Writing became increasingly important, as with prohibitions on fighting fellow Muslims, the amount of people available for trade skyrocketed, and records had to be kept. Merchants who may have only journeyed a few hundred miles in their lives could now go to the edges of the known world in search for goods.

In fact, the whole Indian Ocean, along with the South China Sea, became a free trade zone for Muslims. Chinese silk and tea were traded for ivory from Kenya, which in turn was traded for spices from India, carpets from Persia, or incense or olive oil from Arabia. Local rulers recognized that it was in everybody's best interest to keep the trade flowing, so they worked to keep the region largely free of pirates. In fact, it wasn't until the arrival of the Europeans that ships felt any need to carry any sort of weapons.

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