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Aspects of Islamic History

M. A. Bari

Ever since the first man and woman stepped on the earth, the history of human
civilisation started rolling. In a broader sense that was also the beginning of the
"Islamic history". The first man Adam (alayhis salam) was a "Muslim", an obedient
servant of Allah who wholeheartedly submitted to the will of his Lord. The words
'Islam' and 'Muslim' originate from the same Arabic root which mean 'peace' and
'submission'. Adam was a Prophet too, who taught his progeny how to lead their life
as true servants of God. From Adam to Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon
them) all the Prophets of God were bestowed with the same message, the message
of teaching and leading humanity to live in the world according to the divine will. As
such they were all "Muslims".

Human being is the emissary or caliph (al-Qur'an, 2:30) of God on earth. Man is
created with the free will to choose between right and wrong. Two inherent but
contrasting nature is imbedded within him, the ability to do good or evil (al-Qur'an,
91:8). This is an immense test for him. But man is also born in nature (fitrah), the
nature of submission to the will of his Creator. According to a tradition from Prophet
Muhammad, "every child is a born Muslim…". This is a trust and a heavy burden on
every human being. Unfortunately, many have decided to follow their whims and
desires. God, out of His love and compassion, sent Prophets to warn and remind
these people of their responsibility. The Qur'an mentions twenty five of these envoys
to man. Out of them, Prophet Ibrahim (Abraham), Musa (Moses) and Isa (Jesus)
occupy special places in Islamic history.

The "Muslim history" begins with Prophet Muhammad who was a direct descendant
of Prophet Ibrahim through his eldest son Ismail (Ishmael). While the messages of
other Prophets were confined to time and space, Prophet Muhammad was sent for
the whole of humanity and for all time to come. He is a blessing for the universe (al-
Qur'an 21:107) and he started his mission by addressing, "O! mankind," rather than
"O! my people". Although he initiated his task from his own people of Arabia, Islam
transcended all boundaries of race, colour and land. Within a decade after his death
Islam spread like wildfire and engulfed the then Persian and Roman empires. Islam's
overwhelming message of love, justice and balance won the hearts and minds of the
'conquered' people. For those who know little about Islam it was a miracle that
elevated a barbaric people into the peak of human civility. In actual fact, the early
followers of Islam created a model society with their sacrifice against all possible

After Prophet Muhammad's death his mantle was carried forward by his blessed
companions. The four rightly guided Caliphs ruled the embryonic Muslim empire with
extreme simplicity and humility with, of course, utmost efficiency. The guidance of
the Qur'an and the teachings of the Prophet were at the core of their success. Their
thirty-year rule was followed by monarchy, first the Umayyads and then the
Abbasids. The Umayyads ruled for about one hundred years from Damascus and
expanded the frontiers of the Muslim empire from Spain in the West to China in the
East. When their rule ended the Muslim empire was, for the first time, divided into
two. The Abbasids took over the main flank and transferred their capital to Baghdad.
The Umayyads were left undisturbed with their sovereignty in Spain. The Muslim rule
in Spain continued for nearly eight hundred years.

During the 500-year Abbasid rule the Muslim empire was at the peak of glory and
prosperity. Creative knowledge and scholarship flourished across the Muslim world.
The scholars in the major cities opened up new frontiers of knowledge which later
directly influenced the European Renaissance. The treasures of Greek and Indian
knowledge were revived, digested and enhanced effectively by them. Unlike in the
then Christian Europe, the Muslim scholars were encouraged and patronised by the
ruling class in their challenging works of science and other creative subjects.
However, as time passed and the new lands and people were joining the fold of
Islam, the central authority was gradually diminishing. This had its long-term
disastrous effect in all spheres of Muslim life.

During the last decades of Abbasid khilafah the ruling class became engrossed with
the pleasure of life. With the material ascendancy and intellectual supremacy entered
the flood of social and moral diseases, reminiscent of all the collapsing empires. As a
result, the central authority started to crumble by the intrigue of the people in the
upper echelon of the ruling elites. This invited, in 1258, the unprecedented
destruction of Baghdad and the end of Abbasid rule by the barbaric Tatar hoards.
Countless Muslim scholars, ulema and people in authority were butchered by the
them. Libraries and seminaries were decimated. For some time, the rest of the
empire was at the mercy of the Tatar military machine. The Muslim world could
never regain from this catastrophe. It was a dark episode leading to serious internal
convulsion within the Muslim nation. At that juncture of history the Ottoman Turks
came forward and upheld the mantle of the Muslim empire. On another front, a
mysterious event was unfolding. The descendants of the Tatar victors converted
themselves to Islam and later on established the Muslim rule in India.

However, the downward spiral of the Muslim power continued unabated. The Muslim
nation lost its central mooring and became too fragmented. While the Ottoman
conquest was gaining land and people in Eastern Europe, Muslims elsewhere were
gradually giving in to the emerging European powers. The fall of Granada in 1492
sealed the fate of Islam in the new world of European expansion. The expulsion and
forced conversion of Muslims by a new Spain could not be countered even by the
military might of the Turks.

While Europe was reinvigorated by their new-found intellectual freedom the

intellectual stagnation and blind following (taqlid) of the Muslim scholars weakened
them further. This put a lid on Muslim creativity. They failed to maintain pace with
the European progress which was moving fast. The post-Renaissance Europe
harnessed its potential and started expanding their sphere of influence across the
world. The Muslim land became vulnerable to the their expansionist expeditions and,
like a house of cards, they were falling apart. Although there were stiff and heroic
resistances from some religious leaders in many places they were not match to the
European technological and military superiority. After some humiliating defeats in the
Balkans the Ottoman Turks lost its stomach to fight back. The last nail in their coffin
came when, in 1924, the already weak Ottoman khilafah was abolished. The new
Turkish leaders declared war against their historical past by attempting to sever its
link with the khilafah.
Apart from a few nominally independent Muslim territories, colonisation of Muslim
land was total. This brought havoc in the Muslim world. The unparalleled physical,
intellectual and cultural trauma created countless problems - intellectual, moral,
theological, social and cultural. The legacy of these still continues today. Challenges
to the Muslim people were enormous. De-colonisation and rebuilding of the Muslim
nation were extremely difficult. Even when the Muslim lands were granted
independence they were systematically truncated and arbitrarily divided, only to be
governed by the tyrants and despots, the brain-children of the colonial era. The
legacy today is division, disharmony, distrust and fear. The Muslim world is yet to
cope with these.

The Muslim world now consists of more than fifty independent nation states with
enormous resources and human potential. But most of them are run by the
autocratic regimes with no accountability to anyone except their whims. Many of
them are, in fact, at war with their own people. Their glorious past and present geo-
political importance have made them the victim of the global media onslaught. They
are the underdogs in the world community. In spite of unparalleled atrocities and
injustices done to them in many places, e.g., Palestine and Kashmir, they have a
very bad image in the world. Often they are presented as uncivilised and barbaric.

The world today is more divided than ever before. Economic disparity, political
strangulation, cultural hegemony and military superiority by some over the rest of
the humanity is leading mankind toward disintegration. Religious, moral and ethical
values are being trampled upon in the name of modernity and liberalisation.
Societies are losing their age-old fabric and giving in to permissiveness. The situation
is grim indeed. How can mankind save themselves from the dilemma between
modernity and divine values?

Fourteen hundred years ago Islam challenged the world full of oppression, injustice
and perversion. It liberated human being from the slavery of its own creation. It built
a society on the basis of love, compassion, equality and freedom. Can the same
Islam, with its unadulterated message and uncompromising principles, withstand the
acid test of modern challenge? It all depends on the conviction and commitment of
its adherents. As no nation or community has monopoly over the divine messages
brought by the Prophets, it remains to be seen who can rise up to the demand of