Worth Repeating: Islamic History in Perspective

There is no doubt that the Islamic world is facing its greatest threat today. Some might say, and with good reason, that this is the darkest era in the history of Islam since the 13th century, when the Mongol invasion shook the Arab world to its very foundations.

But even after this calamity the Muslim community, rather than fading away, revived and transformed itself into its previous position of intellectual, scientific, and cultural pre-eminence. That happened simply because every effort had to be made to put Islamic history back on track, otherwise the whole religious enterprise would fall and the lives of believers would be drained of all meaning. Iqbal and Bennabi, two great thinkers of Islam, attribute this ability of the Muslim Ummah to overcome every crisis in its history to the Qur’an, and "what remained in it of the [original] impulsion and living force…"

Within 50 years of the Prophet Muhammad’s commandment to deliver the message of the Qur’an, Islam had already spread past the borders of India in the east and to the shores of Atlantic in the west. Such amazing success emerging from an unknown Arab nation was due not only to its organization and aspiration, but in large measure to the unifying effect of faith. Thanks to the all-powerful influence of the Qur’an, Islam’s inspiring and revolutionary social agenda was able to lead masses out of the hopelessness left by the decaying civilizations of Greece, Rome, Persia, China and India.

In Islam, Muslims have looked for God in history. The Qur’an gave them an unprecedented historical mission, in which their primary duty was to create a just community and society, in which all members, even non- Muslims, were treated with equality. The Qur’anic objective was the construction of a universal State, which would recognize no preferential distinctions of race, tribe or social condition: the only rule it would insist upon was equal justice and fraternity for all.

Naturally, the weak, the poor, and the morally disenfranchised masses found in Islam a golden promise of liberation, equality, freedom and justice. Therefore, affairs of the state were no distraction from spirituality, but the very essence of religion itself. The Qur’an takes the view that politics or participation in politics on its own cannot produce a morally balanced individual personality, or a socially just and economically equitable society because of human fallibility. Thus every historical event amid the Muslim community — political assassinations, civil wars, invasions, and the rise and fall of ruling dynasties — could not be divorced from the internal religious quest for social, moral and spiritual reform.

Political and religious well being was a matter of supreme importance. In every instance when the Muslim political will negated the Qur’anic injunction to "do good" it created a rift between what the state viewed as the right course and the values that a Muslim society should hold near and dear. While the negative external factors impinging on that community were almost wholly due to European interference, negative internal factors were just as often due to moral, spiritual, and intellectual bankruptcy among the Muslim themselves.

In "The Crusades from the Eyes of Arabs," author Maalouf observes that even though the Arab world externally seemed to have won a stunning victory in expelling Europeans after 200 years of long, bloody and brutal conflict, internally it was suffering from several recognizable weaknesses. "In Damascus the petty rivalries among the ruling elites led to forming alliances with foreign powers to knock off their Muslim opponents. Every monarchy was threatened by the death of its monarch and in the absence of stable and recognizable institutions there were inevitable consequences for the rights of the people," he writes.

The invasion of Baghdad by Hulagu in 1295 brought with it the assassinations of thousands of scholars, poets and writers, and the destruction of libraries that housed unique treasures of art, philosophy, and science accumulated through hundreds of years. This brought irreparable disaster upon Muslim culture, for with the extermination of its scholars and social base, the Islamic spirit of enquiry and original research that distinguished Arabic learning was virtually destroyed.

Prior to the Mongol invasion, a major factor hastening the downfall of Muslim society was its internal "atmosphere of intrigue… The Abbasid Caliph actually encouraged Mongols to attack," says Sharif in his "History of Muslim Philosophy." However, even this tragic fall was not the bitter end, for within two-and-a-half centuries, Islamic civilization rose again to produce three of the greatest empires of the world.

History repeats itself. Today Baghdad is burning and its people are being slaughtered, this time not at the hands of the Mongol, but under the Anglo-American invasion and occupation — or some see it, the "re- colonizing" of Iraq in 19th century style. Is the Middle East once again heading for its most momentous reshaping since 1919, when the colonial powers divided the Ottoman Empire at the close of World War One? The 20th century began, as has the 21st, with European powers seeking to impose a new order on the Middle East. Once again, Muslims have been reduced to mere spectators of this Western sport of "let’s redo the Middle East again in our image."

When Edwin Montague, the British secretary of state for India, exclaimed, "Let us not for heaven’s sake, tell the Muslims what they ought to think; let us recognize what they do think," Balfour replied with chilling detachment, "I am quite unable to see why Heaven or any other power should object to our telling the Muslim what he ought to think." Sounds familiar!

Unfortunately, the postcolonial Muslim states have been ruled for too long by corrupt elites who, instead of emulating the Qur’anic model, have followed the old colonial blueprint in appropriating unlimited authority to manage the affairs of their subjects. Consequently, the absence of a viable political culture, progressive scientific inquiry, or proactive intellectual thought, has left Muslim civil society weak and dispirited, and reduced Islamic states to inconsequential players on the world stage. Sadly, during such periods of decadence Muslims have all but lost their great traditions of original thinking on the one hand and moral stability and rectitude on the other. However, there are unmistakable signs of renaissance in various Islamic countries.

It is hazardous to predict the futures of nations or peoples. This is particularly true in a world torn asunder by economic greed and ideological conflicts, and constantly under the shadow of total war. However, barring such an all-pervasive catastrophe upon humanity, one could at least make an intelligent guess about the future of Muslim culture and Islamic philosophical thought. The long-standing heritage of Islamic renewal and reform after every major political and social upheaval attests to this fact that even in its darkest periods, it has always harborued the ray of light, that of the Qur’an.