Here is to celebrating, understanding, and appreciating the diversity of the Muslim world – through culture and travel!
Around the Muslim World in Cities and Cultures
There are around 1.8 billion Muslims around the world today – and as one of the fastest growing religions in the world, it is safe to say that the cultures, languages, histories, and foods of Muslim communities are one of the most diverse on earth today.
In the hopes of celebrating, appreciating, and understanding that the unique diversity of the Muslim ummah is what makes us stronger as a community and not weaker, here is a quick trip around parts of the Muslim world – in cities and cultures. Happy travels!
Islam has a long and colorful history in both Central Asia and what is now the country of Uzbekistan – and has given the Muslim world so much in terms of science, poetry, theology, and spirituality. First brought to Uzbekistan by Arabs around the 8th century, Islam grew in Central Asia from the spread of intellectuals, literature, trade, and the natural flow of peoples.
Intellectuals and notable leaders from the Samanid Empire in what is modern-day Iran were also heavily present in Uzbekistan, spreading the word of Islam through literature and the study of sciences. At the center of the ancient Silk Road, Uzbekistan has long been at the heart of the world’s most illustrious trading route – and the followers of Islam grew in abundance.
During what is commonly known as Islam’s “Golden Age” from the 8th to the 14th century, Uzbekistan produced intellectuals such as Imam Bukhari (whose collection of hadith is considered the most authentic by Sunni Muslims), Imam Tirmidhi, Abu Mansur Maturidi, and Ali Qushji, whose works in theoretical astronomy heavily influenced Europe’s later revival in the study of the universe. Later falling under Soviet-Russian rule, Uzbekistan came under the Moscow-governed rule of the Soviet Union – it was only until the early 1990s when Uzbekistan finally become fully independent. Today, almost 90% of Uzbeks identify as Muslim – and despite the heavy influence of Soviet-encouraged atheism and modern-day capitalism, Uzbekistan continues to stand proud of its illustrious past as the cradle of Islam’s Golden Age of science, literature, and intellectualism.
Located in the southeast of the country, the ancient city of Samarkand is a beautiful reminder of the historical and religious importance Uzbekistan played in the role of Islam in both Central Asia and the larger world. As one of the oldest continuously inhabited cities in Central Asia, Samarkand is said to have been inhabited since the 7th century BC. Ruled by Persian empires, taken by Alexander the Great in the 3rd century BC, and then later ruled by Turkic, Persian, and later Mongol rulers, the city has rightfully been called one of the greatest cities in the region.
As a prominent city on the ancient Silk Road, Samarkand today is remembered for being at the center of Islamic studies during the rule of Timur (Tamerlane) in the 14th to 16th centuries. A jewel of the region and a cradle for the blossoming of theological, scientific, poetic, and academic studies in Islam, the city today still boasts of ancient medieval squares, historical madrasas, and breathtaking mosques.
Officially known as the Republic of Dagestan, this region lies in southwest Russia along the northern coast of the Caspian Sea. Cradled by the North Caucasus Mountains, Dagestan easily boasts one of the most stunning landscapes of the region – lush green mountains, emerald-blue rivers, and ancient medieval villages make this region a hidden gem.
Ruled over by the Persian Parthian Empire at the beginning of the millennium, the region was later conquered and ruled by the Sassanids and Romans. By the 600s AD, Dagestan was heavily influenced by an influx of Arabs, who brought with them the religion of Islam. Although the region would see clashes and influence from Persians, Khazars (a semi-nomadic Turkic group), and Arabs, Islam was peacefully and deeply embedded in the region and peoples by the 8th and 9th centuries AD.
The region’s modern history with the Russian Empire influenced the course of history for Dagestan, and although numerous clashes between Russia and the Persians (under the Safavids) saw the region in turmoil with even Ottomans claiming rule in the early 1900s, the influence of the modern Russian state can still be felt today. Although the population of Dagestan today is made up of a vastly diverse array of ancient ethnic groups, more than 80% of the population identifies as Muslim – making this region a powerful reminder of the influence of Islam in so many beautiful parts of the world today.
An ancient city in southern Dagestan, Derbent claims to be the oldest inhabited city in Russia – records show the city being inhabited since the 8th century BC. With its strategic location as the gateway to the Caspian Sea and bordering the looming North Caucasus Mountains with the Iranian Plateau at its doorstep, the city of Derbent has been ruled and conquered by the Persians, Arabs, Timurids, Ottoman Turks, and the Russians to name just a few.
Famed for its Gates of Alexander, a barrier said to be built by Alexander the Great himself, the city was named after the Persian name of Darband, meaning barred gate. Today, marked as a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the city’s ancient fortress built by the Sassanian Empire in the 6th century AD stands as a testament to the legendary and almost mythical history of the city – the peoples, religion, cultures, and history of a time long gone are still steeped into the very fabric of this truly ancient city.
Located in the South China Sea and surrounded by Malaysia in Southeast Asia, the country of Brunei lies on the northern coast of the island of Borneo. Currently ruled by a Sultan under a monarchy, more than 80% of the population identifies as Muslim with a little-known but grand history of empires and a vast and wealthy trading culture.
The Bruneian Empire at its peak in the 15th and 16th centuries established Brunei as a Muslim state when the Bruneian rulers converted to Islam (mostly likely introduced to Islam from Indian Muslims on trading routes). And although there remain very few written records of this grand empire, there are a few sources from Chinese and Javanese manuscripts that wrote of the grand trading fleets and vast reach of this empire over what is now modern-day Malaysia and the Philippines. The first Sultan, Muhammad Shah, is said to have established this Islamic empire and ruled in the 1400s – and trade in the region flourished with the Portuguese even trading with merchants from this empire.
As the empire declined in the 18th century, however, Brunei eventually became a British protectorate in the late 1800s – it was only until 1984 when Brunei finally became an independent nation, with Islam as the official religion of the country. Today Brunei remains steeped in Islamic architecture and culture, heavily influenced by surrounding Malaysia – as a beautiful testament to the reach and importance of Islam in the peoples and cultures that make up this vasty diverse region of Southeast Asia.
Bandar Seri Begawan
The capital and the largest city of Brunei, Bandar Seri Begawan was named after Sultan Omar Ali Saifuddien III, the previous Sultan of the country (the city was previously called Bandar Brunei, or Brunei Town). The establishment of the city can be traced back to as early as the 6th century AD, when Malay traders began settling the area. During the peak of the Bruneian Empire in the 15th to 17th centuries, the city became the hub for trade, commerce, and administration – remaining as the capital for modern-day Brunei as well.
Today Bandar Seri Begawan is famed for its exquisite mosques adorned by lush greenery, fountains, and the surrounding sea. In contrast to this, the capital remains bustling with markets, water taxis, and business – once the seat of trade for a vast empire of the southeast Asian seas, the capital remains at the heart of Muslim influence and culture in this region of the world.
Pakistan, officially known as the Islamic Republic of Pakistan, lies at the heart of some of the most ancient civilizations the world has seen. Today bordered by the countries of India, Afghanistan, China, and Iran, the modern country of Pakistan has a long history of empires and the spread of peoples, cultures, and religions.
Evidence of Islam emerged first in the southeastern region of Sindh, where merchants, scholars, and missionaries from the early Arab Rashudun Caliphate in the 600s AD came into contact with those living in what is now modern-day Pakistan. Shortly after with the conquest of Sindh by the Ummayad general Muhammad bin Qasim in 711 AD, many point towards this moment as being when the foundations for Pakistan’s ties to an Islamic land were laid.
After a series of rules from empires such as the Ghaznavids, Ghorids, the Delhi Sultanate, and the Mughals, the region of Pakistan most recently became a fully independent nation-state with a vision of becoming an Islamic state after its independence from Britain and separation from India in 1947. With a population where an estimated 97% adhere to the religion of Islam, Pakistan continues to bask in an illustrious history of trade, culture, literature, and language that so greatly influenced the history of Islam.
This historical town, formally known as Baltit, is located in the Hunza Valley in the northern province of Gilgit-Baltistan (part of Pakistan-administered Kashmir). Overlooking majestic views of the Karakoram Mountain range and the snow-capped peaks of the Rakaposhi, the town served as a caravan resting hub for centuries for those traveling through the Hindu Kush Mountains.
Originally ruled by the Mir of Hunza, the now famous Baltit Fort (now a UNESCO World Heritage Site) was built in the 8th century AD, with the city of what was then known as Baltit serving as the capital of the Hunza Valley for over 700 years. The modern city of Karimabad has expanded slightly lower down the valley from the ancient Baltit Fort, but still serves as a gateway into the extraordinary views and trekking of the Hindu Kush and Karakoram Mountain Range. With deep valleys and crystal clear rivers nestled beneath the grand and snowy mountain ranges of old, Karimabad continues to awe those who pass through its ancient gateway.