By Naseer Ahmed, New Age Islam
Muhammad (pbuh), was born in the year 570, in the city of Mecca, in southern Arabia which was at that time backward and not a centre of art, architecture, science, learning, affluence or influence. His noble character had earned him the title of Al Amin or the trustworthy and except for this and a few stories of his wisdom and qualities of leadership in maintaining peace between the tribes, he had an uneventful life. There was little indication of the remarkable transformation that he was destined to bring about in his last 23 years. He was in the habit of retiring to a cave on a mountain to meditate and while he was thus meditating the first of the revelations came to him through the archangel Gabriel in 610. For the first three years, he preached within his family and to close friends and later he began to preach openly. At first, his preaching did not attract adverse attention, but soon the Meccan’s realized the full import of his revolutionary message and they began to persecute and torture his followers and after the death of his influential wife Khadija (RA) and his powerful Uncle Abu Talib in 622, Muhammad migrated to Medina or Yathrib, a city some 200 miles north of Mecca. In Medina he was welcomed by the people and he soon gained many converts and soon rose to a position of considerable political power and became virtually a ruler. He consolidated his political power through treaties and military victories. The Meccans fought a series of battles to defeat the Muslims but although they enjoyed considerable numerical superiority and were better equipped with arms and cavalry, they were defeated each time. In 630 Muhammad (pbuh) made an unopposed and triumphant return to Mecca as conqueror. The remaining two and one-half years of his life witnessed the rapid conversion of the Arab tribes to the new religion.
When Muhammad died, in 632, he was the undisputed ruler of all of southern Arabia. Islam united the Bedouin tribesmen who were earlier divided and weakened by internecine warfare. The Quran refers to this phenomenon as follows:
3:103. And hold fast, all together, by the rope which Allah (stretches out for you), and be not divided among yourselves; and remember with gratitude Allah’s favour on you; for ye were enemies and He joined your hearts in love, so that by His Grace, ye became brethren; and ye were on the brink of the pit of Fire, and He saved you from it. Thus doth Allah make His Signs clear to you: That ye may be guided.
Thus when Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) began preaching the word of Islam, Durant notes, Arabia was a desert flotsam of idolatrous tribes; when he died, it was a nation. The Bedouin tribesmen fought wars under the leadership of Muhammad (PBUH) for the survival of Islam against heavy numerical odds and won decisively which made them feel invincible as long as they were fighting in the way of Allah or for God’s cause. They were still a very small army when they embarked upon one of the most astonishing series of conquests in human history. To the northeast of Arabia they conquered the Persian Empire of the Sassanid by crushing the Persian armies in the battles of Qadisiyah in 637 and Nehavend in 642. Numerically, the Arabs were no match for their opponents and were often outnumbered 1:6. On the field of battle, though, the inspired Arabs rapidly conquered all of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine. By 642, Egypt was taken from the Byzantine Empire. By 711, the Arab armies had swept completely across North Africa to the Atlantic Ocean. There they turned north and, crossing the Strait of Gibraltar, overwhelmed the Visigothic kingdom in Spain.
“Muslim expansion into Spain was Islam’s most dramatic move westward. The speed of the victory reflected the ill will of the native Spanish for their Visigoth rulers. Spanish Jews who had been continuously persecuted and subjected to forced Christian conversions by the previous regime also welcomed the Arabs. Then from their new forward base in Spain, Muslim horsemen raided north across the Pyrenees into modern France. The Arabs captured Narbonne and Toulouse in 718 CE, but their excursions were stopped by the Frankish General Martel at the battle of Poitiers (732 CE). Muslim historians maintain that the dark ages of Europe date from the Muslim defeat: lost centuries that would have been avoided had the light of Islam been permitted to shine”. Paul Grieves book – Islam (History, Faith and Politics: the complete introduction)
In just about eighty years, these Arabs, had conquered many lands and built an empire starting from the borders of India and Afghanistan in the east to the Atlantic Ocean. It was larger than the Roman Empire at its peak which had taken the Romans a thousand years to build.
“The character of this new Muslim Empire was entirely different from what had gone before. There was no wholesale plunder of the conquered lands by the new rulers. Instead, the Arab armies were contained in disciplined garrison towns, Fustat in Egypt, for example, or Kufah in Iraq. Religious persecution of minorities by the Greek Orthodox Church came to an immediate end and tolerance was declared following the injunctions of the Quran. Muslims had no preference between the intricate factions that had formed among both Christians and Jews, ironically respecting both as `people of the Book’, despite their military defeat. The occupied non-Muslims were, however, required to pay the Jiziyah, a tax levied on income in return for protection. But the levy was generally less than the previous fiscal impositions of the departing Persians and Byzantines, and non-Muslims were exempted from paying Zakat. Islam was not forced upon the population, rather the early conversions were as a result of the personal and community examples set by the Muslims and the ease with which this powerful new religion could be understood. Even converts, however, were not exempted from the protection tax which was needed to fund the operation of the new empire.” Robert Grieve
“In art and architecture, in philosophy, in medicine, science and literature, in government, the original Arabians had nothing to teach and everything to learn … these Muslim Arabians in collaboration with and by the help of their subject peoples began to assimilate (and) adapt …” (Hitti, Philip K. History of the Arabs).
The Arabs were quick learners. They displayed an attitude of respect towards the conquered for their learning and achievements. The conquered found the new system of control under the Arabs fairer than the oppression they had been living under. The Arabs built upon what they learnt. The Belgian-born American historian of science George Sarton (1884-1956) who founded the history of science in America, in "The Incubation of Western Culture in the Middle East: a George C. Keiser Foundation Lecture", March 29, 1950, Washington DCSarton says “The achievements of the Arabic speaking peoples between the ninth and the twelfth centuries are so great as to baffle our understanding”
In the first half of the tenth century, the Muslims were at the peak of their achievements.
“The main task of mankind was accomplished by Muslims. The greatest philosopher, Al Farabi was a Muslim; the greatest mathematicians, Abu Kamil and Ibrahim Ibn Sinan were Muslims; the greatest geographer and encyclopaedist, Al_masudi was a Muslim; the great historian, Al-Tabari was still a Muslim.
The other notables of the period were Al-Ashari, Al Hamdani, Abu Dulaf, Abu Al-Faraj Al-Isfahani, Ibn Duraid, Ibn Rusta, ibn Al-Faqih, Abu Zaid, Abu Bakr Al-Razi, Al-Balkhi, Al-Jaihani, Al_farabi, Ibn-Amajur and many others.
Thus was Muslim culture highest of those days stretching from Central Asia to the Western end of the world” (Sarton)
“The rapid and almost miraculous development of the human mind was the inevitable consequence of a policy based on those principles whose application had promoted the wonderful progress of every nation ruled by the enlightened successors of Muhammad.” (Scott)
Let us examine what “those principles whose application had promoted the wonderful progress of every nation ruled by the enlightened successors of Muhammad” were.
Human Rights in Islam
1. Slavery is not categorically prohibited by the Quran, for seventh century economic, moral and humanitarian reasons, but slavery is judged to be against God’s will and freeing a slave is extolled as a charity and a virtue. Without prisons and slavery, war prisoners would have been put to death. Slavery was therefore a necessity. A slave was however treated as a member of the family. Ill treatment by slapping for example required the slave to be freed in expiation of the ‘sin’. They had the right to `earn’ or `buy out’ their freedom. There was therefore, great incentive for them to give off their best and not merely be a provider of cheap muscle power. Slaves also rose to occupy important administrative positions and they also became rulers.
2. The right to life and property was made sacrosanct. This right is recognized as a very important right which incentivizes man to develop his land and create wealth for self and posterity. It encourages entrepreneurship. The positive difference that this right has made under the ‘capitalist’ system and the negative influence from a lack of these rights in communist systems is well known.
3. The right to take part in government was instituted by the Shura. The Shura or the advisory council consisted of tribal leaders who were true representatives of their people in every sense of the term. Representative democracy was thus the form of government until the fourth Caliph after which it became dynastic.
4. The right to freedom of religion and conscience is specifically set out in the Quran:
Let there be no compulsion in religion, Truth stands out clear from error 2:256
Muslims were freed from the tyranny of priests and enjoy individual liberty in the matter of their religion. “The Quran is God's legacy to man, unreservedly available to all. For a Muslim therefore, the central act of devotion is not to be found in following any supervised rite or sacrament, but by reading and contemplating God's direct word to man, set out in a book which he can open, read and interpret for himself” (Robert Grieve).
5. The concept of fundamental human equality is repeated many times in both the Quran and the Sunna, specifically summarized one again in the Prophet’s farewell address. ‘No Arab has superiority over a non-Arab, neither does a man of brown colour enjoy superiority over a man of black colour, nor does a black man enjoy superiority over a man of white colour except by piety.’
‘Verily, the most honoured of you in the sight of Allah is he who is most righteous of you’ 49:13
6. In law, non-Muslims had equal rights and there is a famous case in which Hazrat Ali (RA) who was the Caliph at the time, lost a case to a Jew in an Islamic court. The allegation against the Jew was that he had stolen Ali’s shield and since the Jew had possession of the shield, possession was taken as 50% proof of ownership and Ali’s word against the Jew’s word was given equal importance. The Jew therefore had 50% proof of ownership and Hazrat Ali just had his word and that of his son against the Jew. The son was not treated as an independent witness and his word therefore did not count.
7. Islam was the first to give women rights as an individual to own and inherit property and to give testimony, right to choose husband, right to divorce, right to remarry, right to support by members of her family.
8. Killing by burning is banned in Islam. In medieval Europe killing by burning as part of their `judicial process’ was common till the eighteenth century. Killing by torture including emasculation was also common for male prisoners in Europe.
9. The government’s rights to raise revenue (zakat and Jizya) and manner of spending is prescribed in the Quran. The Hadiths are very specific in forbidding high taxes. According to M Asad, “in the Islamic Empire there was no privileged nation, nor a centre of power enriching itself at the cost of acquired territories. All this forces upon us the conclusion that the inner strength and social soundness of the Islamic world were superior to anything mankind had hitherto experienced by way of social organization. “There was therefore every incentive for the people to work for improving their own environment. The revenues from the people belonging to one administrative block were spent on the people from the same block.
10. Rudimentary social security was introduced by Umar bin Khattab (RA). He supported the old including non-Muslims by granting pension from the state treasury.
The advance made by the Quran in creating personal rights under the conditions of the seventh century can be readily appreciated, coming a thousand years before similar measures were even considered in Europe. The thread that runs through all the 10 major points is freedom – of which each is an aspect or facet. These freedoms were a great improvement in the life of the people (the conquerors as well as the conquered) releasing enormous creative energies that were responsible for “the achievements so great that baffle our understanding.” The integrated society comprising the conquerors and the conquered was in perfect equilibrium being more prosperous, more advanced in every respect and enjoying greater freedoms than any other people in other parts of the world.
Islam took the Arabs and the Islamic world to pre-eminence in science, scholarship, medicine, universal education through its system of madrasas, law and jurisprudence and in wealth creation due to trade which was helped in no small measure by the fact that the caravans of trade could travel in utmost safety throughout the length of the vast empire. This gain in pre-eminence went on during the ninth, tenth and eleventh centuries. What the Arabs had done was far more than to revive ancient Greek science. They had created an entirely new scientific world of their own and developed hitherto unknown avenues of research and philosophy.
Comparison with Modern Western Civilization
Compare the above with what Niall Fergusson has to say in his book ‘Civilization’. Ferguson’s attributes the ascendancy of the West to "six killer applications":
1. Competition in politics and economics among Europe's countries;
2. The Scientific temper;
3. Protection of private property through the rule of law enforced by a representative government;
4. Modern Medicine or improvements in health and life expectancy;
5. Consumerism or a culture that encouraged consumption;
6. Work ethic
. If the western civilization has made unprecedented progress in the last 400 years, it is based on reason applied to Islam. If Islam benefited by doing away with the priestly class, the western countries went a step further and distanced the church from all affairs of the state. If Muslim society was ahead on account of its enlightened human rights, the west took these measures a step further. They banned slavery, became secular giving unfettered rights to follow any religion, the women have made steady progress in winning more and more rights and are now almost at par with men, capitalism grants rights of property and to enjoy the fruits of one’s labour. Greater individual freedom was the hallmark of Islam’s revolutionary charter of human Rights in the seventh century and the West has benefited by taking these further.
Reasons For The Fall
The major reason for the fall was that democracy did not last beyond the fourth Caliph and the Caliphate became a dynasty from the fifth Caliph. This did not pose a serious problem as long as the Caliphate was in good hands. In dynasties however, one bad ruler can in the space of a generation or over two decades, undo the good work of several centuries. This invariably proves to be the undoing of all dynasties. Prodigal luxury and boundless wealth soon corrupt those with absolute power. The competition that is inherent in a democracy is absent in dynastic rules. Lack of democracy and a few bad rulers, weakened the empire and form the 13th century onwards it was subject to the most savage attacks against which the weakened rulers found themselves helpless.
From 1220 onwards, the eastern parts of the Muslim Empire were ravaged by the Mongols. The devastation caused by them was enormous with millions slaughtered and infrastructure destroyed. Then the Muslims lost important centers such as: Cordova 1236, Valencia 1238, Seville 1249, and the rest of Spain. Without the basic physical security which the political leadership was now unable to provide, all other freedoms become meaningless.
The world of Islam lapsed into a stupor. Nations like Pakistan, Iraq, Iran and Jordan were doing reasonably well until the 1980s but have been destroyed by war and other political problems. Their downfall can be seen to be a result of regressing from their revolutionary charter for individual freedoms and can only be arrested and reversed by once again treading a path of greater freedoms for the individual including women. It is a society which is in disequilibrium today as the freedoms in Islamic countries are far lesser than the freedoms enjoyed by people in other countries. This state of disequilibrium has created conditions of very great internal strife. The position very clearly is the opposite of what took Islamic society to its zenith in the 10th century and kept them ahead upto the beginning of the 13th century. The Muslim society will have to find ways by which women can become as independent as Hazrat Khadija (RA) without turning into a licentious and adulterous society. Their education system needs to be revamped and modernized without the anti religious slant in western education which takes the educated away from religion. The Muslim intelligentsia needs to step forward and lead the masses and not be satisfied with living comfortable lives in the western world leaving the responsibility for leadership in the hands of the bigoted Mullahs and Muftis. The religious scholar enjoys no formal position of power in Islam. It is time the leadership was claimed by the enlightened intelligentsia.
Naseer Ahmed is an Engineering graduate from IIT Kanpur and is an independent IT consultant after having served in both the Public and Private sector in responsible positions for over three decades. He is a frequent contributor to NewAgeIslam.com.