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by Yasser Latif Hamdani


The history of Islam, especially the golden age of Islam, is full of instances of narrow parochial, sectarian and tribal divisions.

The modern age is characterized by the existence and the acceptance of nation state as a legal entity in the world order. The Islamic world is no exception. Early 20th century saw the rise of nation states in the Muslim world. The process started with the emergence of the Republic of Turkey. The Second World War and the subsequent decolonization resulted in the creation of several new nation states in the Muslim world, such as Iraq, Jordan, Pakistan, Indonesia etc. In Iran, even Khomeni's famous Islamic revolution in 1979 accepted the existence of this modern reality, choosing to set up an Islamic Republic instead of some sort of a pan-Islamic Kingdom of God. Hence the shift that has occurred within Muslim politics from a reformist agenda as espoused the by the modernists like Jamaluddin Afghani, Sir Syed Ahmed Khan, Mohammed Iqbal and Mahomed Ali Jinnah, to the exact opposite in form of Maudoodi and Khomeni has so far been accepting of the ground reality i.e. the nation state.

There is however a new thought process (or lack thereof) that has captured the imagination of a few uneducated youth, usually A-Level dropouts from the UK, though their rank and file include a few professionals as well. They call themselves the Hizb-e-tahrir, and are agitating for something that they call Khilafah. They reject the nation state and present a vision of a utopia. They say that with the coming of the Khilafah, all ills of the Muslim world will vanish, and Islam will rise once again as the greatest ideology in the world. To prove their point, they rely on certain myths about Islamic history that have pervaded the Muslim psyche and stunted its intellectual growth. The purpose of this article is to debunk some of these myths:

The golden age of Islam is specified as between 7th century AD to the 16th Century AD when the Islamic Empires reached their zenith, in political and military might as well as scientific advancement.

Myth No.1: Muslim Rulers of the golden age were pious and adhered strictly to tenets of Islam, which is why they constituted the most advanced civilization on the planet.

This is completely untrue. With the exception of the 4 pious caliphs and a few rulers here and there, the great majority of the Muslim rulers of this age suffered from the same frailties of humanity as any Muslim alive today. Some of them drank, some liked women and had huge harems, others liked men and many a combination of any of the above. The history of Islam as documented by Tabari, Yaqoobi, Ibn-e-Asir and Ibn-e-Khuldun lends enough evidence to safely conclude that the myth above is simply is figment of an overactive Islamist imagination.

The success of the Muslims as successful scientists, thinkers, writers and medicine men had little to do with their religious piety. If you look at the lives of the greatest philosophers and scientists of the time, you will realize that a great number of them were agnostics if not completely atheists. Avicenna, Razi, and Omar Khayam were not orthodox believers.

Their success had more to do with the existing intellectual climate of the Muslim world which encouraged creativity and freedom of thought. Slowly Muslims moved away from this culture of tolerance, and adopted a narrower course which led to the stagnation that we complain of today.

Myth No.2: The Muslims of the classical age lived under the Islamic system of government called the Khilafah.

The myth here lies in the definition of "Islamic system of government" called the Khilafah. Any system of government has certain elements that distinguish it from other governments. These elements concern themselves with 1) How the government is formed? 2) What are the institution of this government 3) How is this government changed?

In no period of Islamic history and in no document of Islamic literature do we find any such system laid down. The earliest political entity that we find in Islam is the confederation of Medinan Tribes under the leadership of our Holy Prophet (PBUH) based on a man made constitution known in history as the Mesaq-e-Medina. The constitution and the government that resulted from it was political and not spiritual. Muhammad Bin Abdullah (PBUH) commanding the confidence of the Muslims of Medina, was the natural leader of this arrangement. Each tribe was autonomous in most matters except in their dealings with each other. The final arbiter of that was the Prophet (PBUH) himself and he decided according to the existing laws of the time, without any divine intervention.

Even during the period of the pious Caliphate we see that the election of each Caliph was different from the other. Consider:

    1) Hazrat Abu Bakr Siddique (RA) was elected by notables after the demise of the Holy Prophet.

    2) Hazrat Umar Bin Khitab (RA) was appointed by Abu Bakr and confirmed through bait by the rest.

    3) Hazrat Usman Ghani (RA) was elected through an electoral college of 6 notables.

    4) Hazrat Ali bin Abu Talib (KW) was the next obvious choice confirmed by the faithful

Which of these systems will be considered Islamic? Furthermore the Islamic rule during this earlier period was more of a confederation of tribes, as it was necessary in the existing tribal system. As the Islamic Empire expanded, the requirements forced the Muslim leadership to adopt the existing secular system of the time i.e. Monarchy. As we read more of the history of the Arabian Peninsula we become aware of an intensely political struggle that raged in a very secular fashion that had little to do with religion and more politics.

Islam as an ideology does not give a political system. Instead it seeks to reform the individual who can then go on to work diligently and honestly within the system. Political system is result of evolutionary thought, and not the result of ideology. Ideology thus works within the system to establish itself, but it is not concerned with the working of the system as such.

Myth No 3: Muslims of the Golden Age were united under one Caliphate, which is why they were successful.

Muslims of the golden age were never united. Since the time of Usman (RA), the Islamic world has been deeply divided. First it was the division between the supporters of Ali (RA) and supporters of Usman (RA). This was the manifestation of the century old power struggle between the Banu-Hashim (Holy Prophet's tribe) and Banu-Ummaya (Abu Sufiyan's tribe) that predated Islam. When Usman was murdered, Ali(KW) was accused by most of Usman's supporters as being complicit of the act. Two wars were fought in this time that completely wrecked the unity of the Muslim world:

1) Battle of Jumal/Camel : Hazrat Aisha (RA), the mother of the faithful, launched a campaign against Hazrat Ali (KW). Some of the greatest companions of the Holy Prophet (PBUH) met their end at this battle.

2) Battle of Siffin: Muawiyyah, the cousin of Usman, went to war with Ali (KW). Ultimately he became the overlord of Syria, while Ali (KW) was the ruler of the remainder.

During Ali's time, a band of brigands and extremists broke away and created their own movement within Islam. They were known as the Khawarij. One of these Khawarij murdered Ali (KW) and brought the pious Caliphate as we know it to an end. Thus the irony of Islamic history is that 3 of its 4 most pious caliphs were assassinated. Is this the Islamic unity we talk of? After Ali(KW), his son Hassan(RA) was chosen to lead the Islamic Empire. He abdicated in the favor of Muawiyah in return for a fixed pension. Before Muawiyah died, he nominated his son Yazid to be the ruler in his place. We all know the tragedy of Karballah, which led to the massacre of 72 of the Holy Prophet's closest family.

The struggle between Banu Ummaya and Banu Hashim rose to surface once again, when a branch of Banu-Hashim, the Banu Abbass challenged the authority of Banu Ummaya. The Ummayads were over thrown and the house of Abbass inherited the Caliphate. Meanwhile the last heir to the throne, Abdul Rahman fled to Spain where he formed the rule of the ummayads again. In Egypt, in the 9th century the Fatmids established their rule. They were Ismaili Shiites from the sevener school of Shiite thought.

Thus for nearly 3 centuries the Islamic world had 3 distinct states that often allied themselves with non-Muslim powers against other Muslim powers. By the 11th and 12th centuries the Islamic world consisted of many strong sultanates such as Ghaznavi, Ghori, Seljuk, and later Zengi, Ayubi, Khawarzim, Ghulaman, Tughlaq, and Mameluke. While the Abbassid Caliph still ruled in Baghdad but his power was limited to a small area around that grand city. Perhaps the most telling aspect of "Islamic unity" of this time was the fact that when the crusaders attacked the holiest sites of Islam, not single call for Jehad was given by the Caliph of Islam. It got even worse when in the 13th century, the Caliph in Baghdad invited the Mongol warlord Genghis Khan to destroy the Khawarzim rule in Turkestan. The Caliph of Islam aided in the complete destruction and devastation of one of the biggest Muslim empires of the time. Ofcourse a few decades later the same Mongols under the leadership of Helagu destroyed Baghdad and put an end to the Abbassid Caliphate.

The Ottoman Empire was founded by a central asian adventurer named Osman. The Sultan of this Empire was not always the Caliph. The title of Caliph was adopted out of political expediency. This title brought obedience with it. The conqueror of Constantinople, Sultan Mehmet Fateh, is rumored to have even fancied becoming the head of the Orthodox Christian church. When Ottoman Empire reached its height, it was rivaled by two other great Muslim Empires i.e. Safavids in Persia and Mughals in India. The Safavids were shiites and therefore automatically hostile to the Ottomans who were largely sunnis of the Hanafi sect. The Mughals appear to be mostly unconcerned with the Ottoman Empire. They did have some contact with the Safavids and the relations between the two empires were cordial. It is clear that the Mughals did not consider the Ottoman Empire to be a Caliphate but merely another different sovereign empire.

The history of Islam, especially the golden age of Islam, is full of instances of narrow parochial, sectarian and tribal divisions. The Islamic world was never united, and it is highly unlikely that it will ever be united in the future. This is not to say that the Muslim identity does not exist. In fact there is a very strong sense of Muslim identity that exists all through out the Muslim World, but how one views one's own identity is quite another matter. There is no one definition of a Muslim, and there is no one way of being a Muslim. While the mobilization and temporary unity of Muslims is possible for a perceived threat or injustice, but there will never be any agreement on the nitty gritty. The way forward is to accept the diversity of views, cultures, languages, and nations within the Muslim ummah. Pipe dreams of Khilafah will never bring together Muslims, but will bring more heartbreak to an already devastated community.

This appeared on the Chowk website
( %20center&start=0&end=9&chapter=1&page=1) January 2, 2005.


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