Seventh-century Middle East was dominated by two great empires; the Christian Byzantine Empire and the Zoroastrian Persian Empire. Between the two powers lay the Arabian Peninsula composed of weak and deeply divided tribal societies. Within a few decades, the Byzantine Empire would be reduced to Western Anatolia and the Persian Empire would totally collapse under the armies of Muslims as Muhammad and his successors united Arabia under the umbrella of Islam which provided the world with a new vision and the spiritual allure to effect lasting change in human history. In time, a vast empire and a commonwealth of Muslim states would come to dominate much of the known world. As Muhammad governed a trans-tribal state based on the egalitarian principles of Islam, so too the Muslim community established a universal and just government transcending race, culture and national boundaries. Early Muslims spread a way of life that not only affected individual spirituality, belief and worship but also the political and social order of the masses.
What is most striking and unique about the early expansion of Islam was its rapid pace and unparalleled success. In a few decades, Muslim forces overran attacking Byzantine and Persian armies and expanded a large empire from Morocco and Spain in the west to Central Asia and India in the east. United and inspired by their faith, Muslim armies proved to be remarkable conquerors and effective rulers, who developed rather than destroyed the new lands. They displaced the native rulers of the conquered countries but preserved much of their government, bureaucracy, culture and religion.
For the people, Muslims rule meant peace and tolerance and gave people breathing space from the pillage and heavy taxation of the previous regimes. Local populations found Muslim rule more flexible and tolerant than that of Byzantine and Persian rule to the point that some Jewish and Christian communities aided Muslims in their conquests regarding them as less domineering than their previous imperial masters. Contrary to common belief, the masses that converted to Islam did so of their own free will rather than being forced by 'the sword'. In later years, Islam grew into the depths of Africa, the Indian subcontinent and Southeast Asia through Muslim traders and Sufi missionaries, who won converts by their example and preaching.
The history of Islam and Muslims could be characterised into four periods starting with the advent of Islam to the present era.
The period of prophethood in the lifetime of the Prophet Muhammad - 610 to 632.
The Caliphate period - 632 to 1258. The caliphate period could be divided into three major phases.
Rightly Guided Caliphs (632-661)
The Umayyad empire (661-750)
The Abbasid empire (750-1258).
Sultanate period - 1258 to 1924.
Modern period - 1924 to the present.
The Caliphate Period
Immediately after the Prophet Muhammad, the successors were termed the 'caliph'. The first four caliphs were all companions of the Prophet, who saw the prophet and were mentored by him directly. They were Abu Bakr (632-634), Omar ibn al-Khattab (634-644), Uthman ibn Affan (644-656) and Ali ibn Abu Talib (656-661). Their rule is especially significant not only for what they actually did, but they are accepted by the majority of Muslims as the ideal rulers and the society they led was idealised as an excellent example of a Muslim society can look like. Many Muslims today look back into that era as an inspiration to emulate.
In 661, Muawiya claimed the caliphate and brought in the Umayyad era which came to be known as a dynastic empire dominated by the Arabic military aristocracy of Syria. Contrary to the previous practice of the Rightly-Guided Caliphs, hereditary succession instead of election or selection restricted the caliphate to the Umayyad clan. Under the Umayyad's the Muslim Empire grew into Europe through Spain until it was stopped in the heart of France by Charles Martel in the battle of Tours in 732 while in the east the borders were extended into the Indian subcontinent.
Omar ibn Abdul-Aziz shines as the outstanding Umayyad caliph. He is considered by many to be the fifth Rightly-Guided-Caliph by virtue of his just rule and simple personal life. In his two and a half years of tenure, the sayings of Prophet Muhammad were officially gathered in one collection and centre through a project that involved the renowned scholars of the time. Social justice and the sharing of wealth through zakat reached such a level that a large portion of the zakat funds could not be distributed in the vast Muslim world due to lack of poverty and excess funds were handed out to neighbouring Christian countries.
In 750, the Umayyad dynasty fell to the descendants of Prophet Muhammad's Uncle al-Abbas. Abbasid rule of the Muslim community brought in an era of centralised government, great economic prosperity and remarkable civilisation with magnificence that came to be immortalised in the West in the form of the Arabian Nights legends.
Abbasids took great care to align their activities and rule with Islam. The basis for success no longer relied on military success, but on trade, commerce, industry and agriculture. The wealth generated sponsored art, culture and science. Although Islam has no clergy, the ulema (learned intellectuals or scholars) had became a major source of influence and control within the society. Their reputation rested on their knowledge and expertise on religious and material sciences, which led them to be the leading scientists, jurists, theologians, educators and opposition to voice public interest.
The best works of literature, art, science and philosophy all around the world were collected and translated into Arabic in massive translation centres and libraries, which numbered hundreds in just Baghdad alone. Thus, the knowledge legacy of humanity was preserved and then developed further ushering in the progress of science by towering intellectual giants such as al-Razi (d. 925), al-Farabi (d. 950), Ibn-Sina (also known as Avicenna d. 1037), ibn-Rushd (aka Averroes d.1198), al-Biruni (d. 1048) and al-Ghazali (d. 1111).
During the Abbasid period, Muslims and Islam were not only changing the world politically, but also in the fields of art, science and culture. Muslim scientists added great new developments to the knowledge base in the fields of art, literature, mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, geography and medicine. All importantly, inspired by the Qur'an, they developed modern scientific methodology and deductive reasoning more than a thousand years ago. European students studied in vast universities of Spain, Egypt and other Muslim lands and carried this heritage into Europe later to fuel the European Renaissance. As a result, Islam in its grandeur and comprehensiveness manifested in all aspects of human life and endeavour in a civilisation that shined for centuries.
Encounters of Europe with Islam - The Crusades
Even though Islam and Christianity represented by Europe have many areas of commonality and a shared monotheistic origin, their relationship has been marred by confrontation rather than understanding and dialogue.
From the earliest decades of Islamic history, Christianity and Islam have been locked in a political and theological struggle, because Islam, unlike other world religions, has threatened the political and religious ascendancy of Christianity.
Islam's fast growth including substantial conversions of Christians in 11th century, the grandeur of its power and civilisation in comparison to a stagnated Christian Europe struggling through its Dark Ages triggered a hostile response towards Islam. While Dante's Divine Comedy sent off Muhammad to the lowest level of hell, Islam was depicted as a religion spread by the sword and Muhammad was vilified as an 'infidel imposter', who was the 'anti-Christ'.
The turning point was the victory of the Seljuq Turkish army over the Byzantine army in 1071 that resulted in the loss of Asia Minor (where present-day Turkey is situated). This led a call to Christian Europe to unite under the flag of Christianity and liberate the holy city of Jerusalem, triggering a series of Crusades that lasted till 1453.
The contrast between the behaviour of the Christian and Muslim armies in the first crusade has been etched deeply in the collective memory of Muslims. In 1099, the Crusaders stormed Jerusalem and established Christian sovereignty over the Holy Land. They left no Muslim survivors; women and children were massacred. The Noble Sanctuary, the Haram al-Sharif, was desecrated as the Dome of the Rock was converted into a church and the al-Aqsa mosque, renamed the Temple of Solomon, became a residence for the king … In 1187, Salah al-Din (Saladin) … led his army in a fierce battle and recaptured Jerusalem. The Muslim army was as magnanimous in victory, as it had been tenacious in battle. Civilians were spared while churches and shrines were generally left untouched. The striking difference in military conduct were epitomised by the two dominant figures of the Crusades: Saladin and Richard the Lion-Hearted. The chivalrous Saladin was faithful to his word and compassionate towards non-combatants. Richard accepted the surrender of Acre and then proceeded to massacre all its inhabitants including women and children despite promises to the contrary.
Contrary to myths in Western perceptions, the Crusades did not achieve their goal of uniting Christian Europe and liberating Jerusalem. It certainly did not halt Islam's growth. On the contrary, Middle Eastern minority populations converted to Islam under the poor governance of Christian rulers. Jerusalem was under Muslim rule majority of the time, while the Ottomans carried Islam to mainland Europe. The fall of Constantinople (Istanbul) to Ottomans in 1453 brought an end to the Crusades leaving in its midst a deeply divided Europe.
The Sultanate Period
About six centuries after the Prophet Muhammad first started to preach Islam, the Abbasid caliphate started to weaken with underlying states becoming almost independent. In 1258, the first great catastrophe, the Mongol invasion, struck the Muslim world. Wreaking havoc in Asia, Mongols turned to the Muslim world when Hulagu Khan, Genghis Khan's grandson, completely destroyed the capital Baghdad. It took Mongols forty days just to slaughter more than eight hundred thousand civilians including the caliph and his family. It is said that the Euphrates and Tigris rivers flew with ink for days when millions of books were thrown into it. Islam has a habit of conquering its conquerors. Although most of Mongols became Muslim, the damage was done. The Arabic world has never fully recovered from the disaster.
Dynamic independent states replaced the commonwealth of the Abbasid Caliphate. Rulers carried the title of 'sultan' meaning the one who possesses power and authority. In time, three great empires emerged from the ashes regaining the magnificence of the past. The West of the vast Muslim world was dominated by the Ottoman Empire, which covered North Africa, Eastern Europe and the Arab World. In the centre, the Safavid Empire covered present day Iran and Caspian regions while the Mughal Empire ruled over the Indian subcontinent.
Starting as a small Turkish state at the fringe of Asia Minor in 1299, the Ottoman Empire reached its zenith with Suleyman the Magnificent (1520-1566). The Ottoman expansion in Europe was only stopped by the failed siege of Vienna in 1683. Ottoman sultans revived the institution of caliphate from 1517 and used it very effectively to give the Muslims a sense of unity. One of the distinctive features of the Ottoman social administration was the 'millet' system, where different religious communities within the Empire were recognised and given independent rule over the social and legal affairs of their communities.
Originally starting as a Sufi brotherhood, the Safavids in Persia gained power in 1501 after turning into a political movement with a heavy Shiite emphasis. The Shii interpretation of Islam was imposed on the population of Iran through a process of persecution and assimilation. The Safavid Empire was at its peak during the rule of celebrated Shah Abbas (1588-1629), who has achieved great reforms in administration, the military and the economy.
Founded in the sixteenth century, the Mughal dynasty matched the success of its Ottoman and Safavid counterparts in India. Emperor Akbar (1566-1605) took the empire to its zenith through political centralisation and the social integration of Muslim and majority Hindu populations. Akbar promoted religious understanding and tolerance. However, he went further and attempted to combine all religions into one. Religious revivalists such as Shaykh Ahmad Sirhindi (1564-1624) strongly resisted the last move.
Behind what appeared to be political fragmentation, Muslims enjoyed an international Islamic order, which transcended state boundaries. A Muslim traveller could travel the vast area in safety and could find a consistency of culture and religious emphasis that positioned a Muslim as part of a transnational community of believers. Despite differences in nuance, all Muslims believed in one God, His Prophet and the same unadulterated Qur'an while they practised the same five Pillars of Islam and were bound by the same law, Sharia. Society was cultured and developed to such an extent that civil foundations and endowments, called wakf, completely funded and managed educational and social services. Every service imaginable included not only humans but also animals and the environment. For example, vakfs were established to look after animals such as storks injured on their migration journey.
The Modern Period and the Current Dilemma
The 19th and the early twentieth centuries saw the second major catastrophe to befall the Muslim world since the Mongol invasion of 1258. This time around the catastrophe was not only a military one but it also affected the political, cultural, economic and religious domains resulting in the complete collapse of Islamic Civilisation.
Coinciding with the European revival and the Industrial Revolution, the power and prosperity of the Muslim world took a sharp downturn. Following the fall of Safavid Empire in 1736, the Mughal Empire was abolished in 1857, when Britain declared India as a colony. The Ottoman Empire came to an abrupt end in 1923 after heavy losses in World War I. The Islamic civilisation was finally conquered.
Reasons for the decline of the Muslim world can be categorised into three main spheres.
Social and Political Fragmentation: After losing their vision of representing and peacefully spreading Islam, no new vision was developed that could hold the Muslim world together. The political ambitions of individuals and clans came to the fore and caused political disintegration and loss of unity and political stability preventing the ruling administration from dealing with real problems. Political fragmentation brought with it nepotism in administrative appointments.
Economy: With the discovery of the American continent, millennium-old trade routes took a dramatic shift. The Muslim world was no longer on the direct trade route. Muslims could not change fast enough to be able to compete with the rising European competition and the advent of new manufacturing technology and the associated consumerism.
Education: Perhaps the most serious mistake, knowledge was split between religious knowledge and material knowledge. Scientific education was neglected while religious sciences were the only subject matters taught in madrasas, (schools). Once the champions of knowledge and science, Muslims lost their original scientific advantage to European developments in science and associated applied technology
In summary, Muslims were strong when they had a strong vision beyond the self, an emphasis on trade and economy and took knowledge as a whole. The decline started when these were reversed. There was a greater calamity that attacked the very core of religion itself. Materialistic philosophy and its challenging assertions about faith were now threatening Islam after delivering a devastating blow to Christianity. In the West, all of a sudden, everything was thought to be explained by science. Charles Darwin with his Evolution Theory explained the origin of biological life on earth. Durkheim extended the evolutionary concepts of natural selection to social life and society while Freud tied complete human behaviour to sexual impulses. Finally, the ironic proclamation of Nietzsche, "God is dead", was taken literally and accepted by intellectuals. Although the damage of materialistic philosophy to Islam was much less than that done to Christianity, nevertheless, a minority population, who either became atheists or distant to religion, spawned in the Muslim world. It is important to note this fact because Muslim societies in the twentieth century are characterised by an intellectual, religious and political struggle between the religious majority population and a minority elite, who were either dazed by the glamour of Western Civilisation or influenced by materialistic philosophy which made them drift a long way from religion. This polarisation of perspective on life in Muslim societies deepened the problem of fragmentation. These minority elites talked about Westernisation, but in order to perpetuate their power they resorted to oppression and under the auspice of secularism attacked religion. This has caused the majority conservative Muslim populations reject 'The West' and secularism in response. The forces of colonialism and Western domination in the 19th century resulted in the destruction of the last Muslim enclave, the Ottoman Empire in1923. Turkey was the only free Muslim nation. After World War II, Muslims started to gain their freedom and small states with borders drawn by Western powers emerged on the scene. No development or preparation took place during almost fifty years of Western rule over almost the whole Muslim world. The new leadership in these countries turned out to be either oppressive secular regimes, dictatorships, kingdoms or accidental theocratic states. Power lay in the hands of elites, military generals or religious or secular extremists who did not represent the majority. Their rule was characterised by the suppression of dissent, the elimination of critics and the annihilation of independent social and administrative institutions. More often then not, these elites were sustained and reinforced by Western imperialistic forces. The predicament of this political cycle continues to date. What circumstances gave rise to these regimes and how do they seem to persevere regardless of their obvious failure. The reasons are many. Suffice to say that the euphoria of Independence; the aura surrounding the 'founding fathers' of the nation; the intoxicating appeal of nationalism; the relative weakness of countervailing social and political forces at the time of Independence; certain deeply ingrained cultural attitudes about authority; and the centralising tendencies of the ideology of development and the development itself have all conspired to reinforce the power of the ruling class. To this we should add the role of imperialism in perpetuating authoritarianism within the nation state. Under this hot political climate, the majority Muslim population was not given a chance to govern themselves resulting in dissension not only towards the ruling elite but also towards the Western Powers giving rise to an 'Islamic Resurgence'. In the religious sphere, the struggle has been no different. After a short period of shock and being caught unprepared for the new challenges, Muslims very quickly realised that Islam was in danger as it had never been before in history. Many Muslims felt a sense of responsibility to do something about it. Almost simultaneously and spontaneously, religiously sensitive Muslims all around the Muslim world embarked on the task of reviving Islam within Muslim society. Spiritual leaders such as Hassan al-Banna in Egypt, Muhammad Iqbal in Pakistan, Said Nursi in Turkey and many others in almost every Muslim country naturally emerged to lead this revival. The revival movements aimed to strengthen faith and emphasise Muslim identity through the reflection of Islamic practice in personal and social life. Mosque attendance and the number of people who fasted in Ramadan greatly increased. With the aid of mass transportation, people performing the Pilgrimage numbered millions every year - a development, which was unprecedented in Muslim history. Islamic resources, schools and associations grew exponentially. As a result, Islam proliferated among the masses once again. Corrupt and despotic regimes and the failure of existing governments to solve deep social, economic and political problems despite decades of opportunity, coupled with a revival in Muslim identity, led Muslim activists and masses to take their chance at gaining power trusting in the popular support of the people. People started to call for the creation of an 'Islamic state'. The tendency gained momentum with the apparent successful overthrow of the monarchy in Iran by the Iranian revolution (1978-79). The response of the ruling class was hard and oppressive. Although the great majority of the Muslim population responded to this patiently and with peace, it caused certain minority Muslim groups out of desperation and deep disappointment to resort to violence. There is also a lot of evidence that Muslims were set up and dragged into violence by the same forces that opposed them in the first place, with the hope that Muslims would be discredited. The events in Algeria in 1900's could be given as an example. Some Muslims and individuals such as Osama bin Laden took the response to the level of terrorism.
The Future of Muslims and Islam
Today, at the beginning of a new millennium, the line of demarcation between Islam and the West no longer exists. Islam has become truly a world religion. Yet there seems to be great problems afflicting the Muslim world and therefore the rest of the world. In this age of globalisation, problems and behaviours are also becoming global. Just consider how the Iraq issue in 2002 escalated to the global level and how masses have protested for peace in a scale never before seen in human history. Therefore, it is in the interest of the whole planet that the Muslim world solves its problems and they should be helped and not coerced in the process.
How do you stop the cycle of oppression and terror that seems be perpetuated today?
The answer is simple but perhaps not so easy to achieve.
I believe that the current events are the pains of an adolescent world going through a transition. In the aftermath of September the 11th 2001 and the failures of self-identified 'Muslim states' in Afghanistan and Iran, Muslims are realising that they have to change the means of gaining their rightful goals of changing their societies for the better. Islam is a resilient religion and Muslims are resilient people. At the end of the journey, I believe that a modern Muslim society will emerge as a mature, developed and civil community with stable political, economic and educational systems. From that point on, the global Muslim community will be able to help propel faith, peace, democracy and human rights to greater heights, taking advantage of the inherent principles and values that already exist in Islam. When Muslim nations were strong they were the source of peace and stability in much of the world. Before the appearance of Islam, people never experienced security, peace and harmony over an extremely large portion of the then known world. Since the last Muslim State, the Ottoman Empire, has lost its influence, the world has seen two world wars, while the Balkans, the Middle East and other places which were governed in peace for centuries on the basis of the tolerant principles of Islam, have never been the same since. Much of the world's unrest still originates from the lack of a positive Muslim presence and influence as a balancing power. Islam has contributed immensely to human progress and world peace for centuries and certainly it has the potential to do the same in the future provided three root problems are resolved first. These problems are: the lack of education, poverty and social fragmentation within a given Muslim society. All other problems are relatively minor and can be resolved more easily.
Muslims should change their call for the implementation of an 'Islamic State' in the manner that scares minority elites that hold power in all Muslim countries. Instead Muslims should develop a workable model that focuses on building a strong civil society that is acceptable in the contemporary world and based on the timeless and universal principles and values of Islam. In this way, their requirements to have a just society would be achieved without limiting the freedoms of the minorities following the example of Prophet Muhammad and the first Muslim polity in Medina.
Secular or ruling elites in Muslims countries should stop unjustly oppressing and preventing people from voicing their will and preference in a democratic manner. The Western powers should stop helping and supporting these oppressive regimes.
I believe that the current events are the pains of an adolescent world going through a transition. In the aftermath of September the 11th 2001 and the failures of self-identified 'Muslim states' in Afghanistan and Iran, Muslims are realising that they have to change the means of gaining their rightful goals of changing their societies for the better. Islam is a resilient religion and Muslims are resilient people. At the end of the journey, I believe that a modern Muslim society will emerge as a mature, developed and civil community with stable political, economic and educational systems. From that point on, the global Muslim community will be able to help propel faith, peace, democracy and human rights to greater heights, taking advantage of the inherent principles and values that already exist in Islam.
When Muslim nations were strong they were the source of peace and stability in much of the world. Before the appearance of Islam, people never experienced security, peace and harmony over an extremely large portion of the then known world. Since the last Muslim State, the Ottoman Empire, has lost its influence, the world has seen two world wars, while the Balkans, the Middle East and other places which were governed in peace for centuries on the basis of the tolerant principles of Islam, have never been the same since. Much of the world's unrest still originates from the lack of a positive Muslim presence and influence as a balancing power.
Islam has contributed immensely to human progress and world peace for centuries and certainly it has the potential to do the same in the future provided three root problems are resolved first. These problems are: the lack of education, poverty and social fragmentation within a given Muslim society. All other problems are relatively minor and can be resolved more easily.