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HISTORY OF RELIGION
 
 


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Islam: from the 7th century

With the rise of Islam, dating from the Hegira in622, the world's third great monotheistic religion becomes established. It follows in the tradition of Judaism and Christianity. Muslims believe that Islam completes the revelation from God to man which has been partially begun in the Old and New Testaments.

This is recognized in the Qur'an, where the three religions are classed together as 'people of the book' and where Muhammad is presented as the last in a line of messengers from God. This succession of prophets includes Abraham, Moses and Jesus Christ.
 










Islam is unique in the history of religion in that it spreads with irresistible energy within the first few decades of its existence, carried by a powerful blend of passionate faith and force of arms. It is also unusual in that it remains, through all subsequent centuries, the accepted religion of virtually the whole vast region so rapidly converted to the new creed.

Early schisms result in two major sects of Islam. But a continuous swathe of land from northwest Africa to the Indus remains today, as it has been for 1300 years, fervently Muslim. The Muslim regions of India and southeast Asia have an almost equally long history.
 







Islam and other religions: from the 7th century

Muslims are instructed in the Qur'an to be tolerant of the two older and closely related religions, Judaism and Christianity, which share with Islam the essential characteristics of monotheism and a sacred book; they are all linked in the phrase 'people of the book'. Jews and Christians have therefore, through most of history, fared better under Islam than has been the fate of Jews or Muslims in Christian countries.

Zoroastrianism does not feature in the Qur'an. But it also has one god and a sacred book. The Muslim conquerors of Persia therefore show a degree of tolerance to the state religion of the previous dynasty.
 








Zoroastrians and Parsees: from the 7th century

For three centuries after the Muslim conquest of Persia, Zoroastrianism remains of importance in the region. But gradually the majority of Persians convert to the religion of the new ruling caste, whether for reasons of conviction or convenience. A minority of Zoroastrians seek greater liberty elsewhere. They move to India, where they establish themselves in Gujarat as the Parsees (the Persian word for 'Persians').

A few Zoroastrians remain in Iran, to be found even today in the remote desert cities of Yazd and Kerman. They have been known to Muslims until recently as gabar, probably a version of the Arabic kafir ('infidel').
 








The religions of America: to the 15th century

As recently as the 15th century, religion of a primitive kind, with roots in the earliest traditions of human worship, survives in a developed form in the state cults of two highly organized societies. Both involve the worship of the sun. Both are in America. Both, in a very short space of time, are discovered, described and suppressed by Europeans.

There the similarity between the two cults ends. The Incas, destroyed by European intruders in the 1530s, sacrifice to the sun the traditional gifts of an agricultural community - crops and lifestock, meaning in their case maize and llamas. The Aztecs, discovered by the Spanish slightly earlier, worship a blazing god who has an almost insatiable appetite for human blood.
 








Aztec sun rituals: 15th - 16th century

The patron deity of the Aztecs is Huitzilopochtli, god of war and symbol of the sun. This is a lethal combination. Every day the young warrior uses the weapon of sunlight to drive from the sky the creatures of darkness - the stars and the moon. Every evening he dies and they return. For the next day's fight he needs strength. His diet is human blood.

The need of the Aztecs to supply Huitzilopochtli chimes well with their own imperial ambitions. As they extend their empire, they gather in more captives for the sacrifice. As the sacrifices become more numerous and more frequent, there is an ever-growing need for war. And reports of the blood-drenched ceremonies strike terror into the enemy hearts required for sacrifice.
 









A temple at the top of a great pyramid at Tenochtitlan (now an archaeological site in Mexico City) is the location for the sacrifices. When the pyramid is enlarged in 1487, the ceremony of re-dedication involves so much bloodshed that the line of victims stretches far out of the city and the slaughter lasts four days. The god favours the hearts, which are torn from the bodies as his offering.

Festivals and sacrifice are almost continuous in the Aztec ceremonial year. Many other gods, in addition to Huitzilopochtli, have their share of the victims.
 







Each February children are sacrificed to maize gods on the mountain tops. In March prisoners fight to the death in gladiatorial contests, after which priests dress up in their skins. In April a maize goddess receives her share of children. In June there are sacrifices to the salt goddess. And so it goes on. It has been calculated that the annual harvest of victims, mainly to Huitzilopochtli, rises from about 10,000 a year to a figure closer to 50,000 shortly before the arrival of the Spaniards.

The most important gods, apart from Huitzilopochtli, are the rain god Tlaloc (who has a temple beside Huitzilopochtli's on top of the great pyramid in Tenochtitlan) and Quetzalcoatl, god of fertility and the arts.
 






Inca sun rituals: 15th - 16th century

Like some of the Roman emperors, the Incas identify themselves with the sun. And like the Japanese royal house, they even persuade their people that they are the living descendants of the monarch of the heavens.

The most sacred idol in the Inca pantheon is a great golden disc representing the sun. It is known as Punchao, which means daylight or dawn. Great religious ceremonies, sometimes lasting several days, are based upon the pattern of dawn and dusk, day and night. The Inca, as the sun's representative on earth, presides over the rituals.
 









One of the most important festivals in the Inca year is the eight-day feast which celebrates the harvesting of the maize crop. Each day a ritual chanting begins with the rising of the sun, grows to a crescendo at noon, and diminishes to silence again by dusk. Burnt offerings of llamas and libations of maize beer are made to the sun god. The Inca and his court are in their most splendid robes, encrusted in gold and silver. The effigies of the Inca's ancestors are also present - with retinues of female attendants.

One of the last enactments of this Colourful festival, so much more gentle than the contemporary Aztec sun rituals, is witnessed and described in 1535 by a young Spanish priest.
 






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