Iraq and Islam

by Alex Carpenter

Islam has had a long history in Iraq. Formerly part of Mesopotamia, Iraq was Islamized in the early decades of the Muslim conquests. Although it is a place marked by sometimes violent sectarian tensions and divisions, it remains an important part of both the history of Islam and of the modern Islamic world.

Iraq Before Islam

Iraq was originally known as Mesopotamia and for thousands of years before the Common Era was the seat of human civilization, giving rise, as globalEDGE notes, "to Sumerian, Babylonian and Parthian cultures." Mesopotamia included what is today Iraq, but also parts of modern Iran, Syria and Turkey. Unlike other contemporaneous ancient civilizations -- such as Greece -- Mesopotamia was not culturally homogeneous, and was bound together primarily by a shared collection of gods and by common script. Mesopotamia is regarded as the "cradle of civilization" because it was there that writing and the earliest cities began to first develop.

The Abbassid Caliphate and Ottoman Rule

Mesopotamia was invaded and Islamized in the seventh century A.D., shortly after the death of the prophet Muhammad, unifying the law, language, religion and culture of the area under Islam. Iraq is particularly important to Shiite Muslims, because their first imam, Ali, was assassinated in central Iraq in 661. In the eighth century, during the Abbasid Caliphate, the capital of the Muslim empire was moved from Damascus to what is now Iraq, with the city of Baghdad being built in 762 to serve as the capital. Iraq became a center for Islamic learning and culture, with the Abbasids ruling for hundreds of years. During this period, Islamic science, literature and philosophy flourished, but at the same time the caliphate's control over the Islamic world began to weaken. The Abbasids were Sunnis and struggled continuously with the region's Shiites; moreover, the incorporation of non-Muslims and non-Muslim culture -- Persian, Berber, Mamluk -- gradually weakened the political integrity of the caliphate. The Abbasid dynasty ended with the Mongol invasion of the mid-13th century.

Islam in Ottoman Iraq

From the mid-17th century to the end of the First World War, Iraq was ruled by the Ottoman Empire, but the region was politically and cultural unstable through most of that period due to fighting between rival regional factions. Increasing Western involvement in Iraq in the 19th century, moreover, weakened the influence of Islam in the region.

Islam in Modern Iraq

The modern state of Iraq was founded by the British in 1920, in the aftermath of the First World War. In the decades since Iraq gained its independence from Britain, the country has faced difficult sectarian strife along religious lines. Islam has long been a contentious issue in Iraq. The population of Iraq is divided between a Shiite majority and a Sunni minority, the two main sects of Islam. Sunnis have traditionally ruled the country. Saddam Hussein's Ba'athist Party, which ruled Iraq from the late 1960s until the early 21st century, was Sunni-dominated, though the Ba'athists aggressively suppressed sectarian tensions in the country. Post-war Iraq now has a Shiite-led government.

About the Author

Alex Carpenter has worked as a music, history and culture writer since 1998. He has contributed to a range of scholarly journals, online databases, websites, newspapers and encyclopedias, including the "All Music Guide" and the "Charlottetown Guardian." Carpenter holds master's degree and Ph.D. in music.

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