Islam – What Gave its Glow and Gloom?

Convenience and easiness are often built-in elements of historians’ work. Quite frequently, historians’ preferences lean to what should have happened, rather than what actually happened. Obviously, the scholastic works on Islam are not exempted from bias and patronage. Most non-Muslims, with marginal familiarity with Islam, maintain a preconceived notion that Muhammad had spread Islam with force. A picture of Prophet Muhammad, with a sword in his right hand and the Koran in the left, induced this perception in the West. The pictorial vividness was, no doubt, a good tool to fool even the skilled historians.

Hardly any one in the Western world questions the credence in holding the Koran in his hand when the Koran itself was not even compiled during Prophet Muhammad’s life time. More to the point is a book of paper. Prophet Muhammad died in 632 AD and paper was not even in existence anywhere in the Arab lands or in the West until 1,000 AD.

The mystery of history is that Christendom was mesmerized with the awful rapidity of Islam’s expansion. It was a time of Judaism obsessed with a racial hoard of God and none but a Jewish mother’s child could be a Jew. Christianity got bogged down in the preaching of trinity doctrine – known as the Nicene Creed. The Hellenistic ideals of godly plurality overshadowed Christianity’s monotheism. It sharply deviated from what Abraham’s religion once demanded.

Islam, in the midst of religious taboo in the sixth century, was seen by the ordinary people as an oasis in a desert. The insistence upon kindliness and consideration in the daily life was one of the main virtues of Islam. It is not the only one – equally important was the uncompromising monotheism, void of any Jewish exclusiveness. Islam, from the outset, was a fair proof against the theological complexity that have divided Christianity and choked the spirit of Jesus. Islam placed Jesus on a high level of prophetic personality while the messages of, Moses and other prophets got rightful prominence – while keeping Abraham at the pivotal point.

What appealed to them was that his God was not a similar but the same God of Abraham The God of Islam, by test of the conscience – in the their hearts, was a God of righteousness. Islam was perceived as a religion full of the spirit of kindliness, generosity and brotherhood. "It was a simple and understandable religion. It made its appeal straight to the commonest instincts in the composition of ordinary men [H.G.Wells]". Obviously, Islam did not need a sword to spread its message. Its humane elements were explosive enough to set a fire that engulfed the East, West, North and South of Mecca. It was a fire that made Christendom think for a fire -suppresser and could not find it until the Crusades.

Islam that started in the sixth century was modelled on a simple idea of one God. Unlike Christianity, the position of Muhammad was merely a messenger of God and not the God Himself (Koran 3:144). None needed to be baptized in embracing Islam. There was no Papal pressure to buy a place in the heaven with cash. None had to fear for a papal summons for heresy. None had to be burned to death at the stake. The Koran was perceived as containing a "simple message in Arabic without complications" (Koran-39:28).

The Muslims of the glorious period got their conscience from the Koran. They placed far more importance on the mutual coexistence with all and to strive for enriching the life and living standards in this world with honesty as a prelude to success in the heaven. They heavily relied on the Koranic verse and used it in their daily prayer that reads: "Our Lord! Give us good in this world and good in the hereafter…… (Koran-2:201)

Islam then, free from the intervention of the Islamic evangelists, continued to flourish as a noble religion. Peoples’ talents in Islamic domain, irrespective of religious belief, were devoted to innovation, science and technology.

While many historians narrated the contributions of the Islamic people to today’s civilization, it is a breath of fresh air to read Carli Fiorina, CEO Hewlett Packard. She concluded her speech in a conference, immediately after the 9/11 incidents, reiterating Islamic peoples’ gift to the West that started the wheels of their Renaissance.

"I’ll end by telling a story. There was once a civilization that was the greatest in the world. It was able to create a continental super-state that stretched from ocean to ocean, and from northern climes to tropics and deserts. Within its dominion lived hundreds of millions of people, of different creeds and ethnic origins. One of its languages became the universal language of much of the world, the bridge between the peoples of a hundred lands. Its armies were made up of people of many nationalities, and its military protection allowed a degree of peace and prosperity that had never been known.

And this civilization was driven more than anything, by invention. Its architects designed buildings that defied gravity. Its mathematicians created the algebra and algorithms that would enable the building of computers, and the creation of encryption. Its doctors examined the human body, and found new cures for disease. Its astronomers looked into the heavens, named the stars, and paved the way for space travel and exploration. Its writers created thousands of stories. Stories of courage, romance and magic.

When other nations were afraid of ideas, this civilization thrived on them, and kept them alive. When censors threatened to wipe out knowledge from past civilizations, this civilization kept the knowledge alive, and passed it on to others. While modern Western civilization shares many of these traits, the civilization I’m talking about was the Islamic world from the year 800 to 1600, which included the Ottoman Empire and the courts of Baghdad, Damascus and Cairo, and enlightened rulers like Suleiman the Magnificent.

Although we are often unaware of our indebtedness to this other civilization, its gifts are very much a part of our heritage. The technology industry would not exist without the contributions of Arab mathematicians. Leaders like Suleiman contributed to our notions of tolerance and civic leadership. And perhaps we can learn a lesson from his example: It was leadership based on meritocracy, not inheritance. It was leadership that harnessed the full capabilities of a very diverse population that included Christianity, Islamic, and Jewish traditions. This kind of enlightened leadership – leadership that nurtured culture, sustainability, diversity and courage – led to 800 years of invention and prosperity."

All these happened at a time when the Islamic Evangelists did not gain the momentum to establish mastery over the Koranic verses and portraying the Koran as having been endowed with hidden miracles and not the simple message as it reads. Regrettably, the decline of Islamic glory crept in when the Ulemas declared that none but they were the ones to give its true interpretations.

In his intriguing book – ‘What Went Wrong’, Bernard Lewis, an eminent scholar of the Princeton University, examines the legacy of Islam and writes: "For many centuries, the world of Islam was in the forefront of human achievement – the foremost military and economic power in the world, the leader in the arts and sciences of civilization….. And then everything changed….. "Who did this to us?’ is of course a common human response when things are going badly, and there have been indeed many in the Middle East, past and present, who have asked this question".

In a subtle way, Bernard Lewis hinted on the theology of Islam that prevailed towards the end of Abbasid dynasty. Perhaps he is slightly right – but it is not the theology but the misinterpretation of Islamic theology propounded by the impoverished and ill educated Mullahs and their and ill conceived doctrines of Islam.

In the beginning, Islam flourished because of its emphasis on "good in this world" (Koran-2:201). But the Mullah’s came up with the sermon that no worldly improvement has God’s blessings. This world is merely a temporary shelter for us for our onward journey to hereafter. All Muslims were encouraged to devote most of their times in madrasahs and mosques for continuous prayer for pleasing God. Within a few generations, these self-defeating teachings in the name of Islam got deeply rooted in the Muslims’ minds. While the Koranic verses describe God as "beneficent and merciful", the Mullahs perceived and portrayed God as an intolerant ruler even for slightest deviation in praising Him. A deep belief engulfed them that nothing could be achieved without the blessings of God. They overemphasised the need for God’s blessings in accomplishing things and de-emphasised the need for doing the things themselves. Gradually, a lethargic community grew up. The virgin ‘hooris’ were perceived as the thrill in the Heaven than the thrill in invention for the good of all people.

History tells us that the period of Harun ar-Rashid marks one of the great periods of Islam. Ironically, until the death of Harun ar-Rashid in 809 CE, there was nothing like ‘Fatwa’ or ‘Sharia Laws’ in the Muslim domain. Even when appointing Harthama as the governor of Khorasan, Harun ar-Rashid gave him a copy of the Koran and not a book of Sharia laws.

To prevent an Arab revolt, al-Ma’mun, one of the sons of Harun ar-Rashid, recruited a huge number of mercenary, Judges and administrators from Turkey. Unlike the Arabs, the Turks had little or no idea of the message of Islam. These circumstances allowed those Turks to justify Caliphs’ actions as adherent to Islamic legislation under the pretext of Prophet Muhammad’s precedents, known as the ‘Hadith’. Over the years, various Caliphs’ imprints of ruling crept into Islamic laws, ethics and customs despite the fact that a large number of the Hadith had severe contradictions with the Koran

The Hadith got eventually more prominence than the Koran itself. Fatwa and Sharia Laws took over general consensus. In about a century, the Islamic domain was made to appear as what existed in Christian Europe before the fifteenth century. Islamic lands were seen as an outer darkness of barbarism and unbelief from which there was nothing to learn or to fear. In effect, the table was turned around and the Muslims dearly paid for their open heart and generous teaching to the West that brought their Renaissance.

The deathblow occurred in the Islamic glory with the advent of two technologies. While these technologies enriched the rest of the world and helped Christianity to reshape, but opened a door for the Mullahs to amass unprecedented influence in the affairs of Muslim countries. Unlike today, access to the Koran or the Hadith was limited to a few people in the early days of Islam because of the absence of paper and printing press. The limited religious books on parchment, written in expensive calligraphy, rested in limited hands as emblems of prestige and nobility. Paper, though an ancient commodity in China, came to the Arab’s hand and subsequently to the West during the tenth century. The mass production of the Koran and Hadith was not feasible until Johann Gutenberg’s invention of printing press in the fifteenth century.

With the entry of paper and printing press, those myopic Mullahs got easy and less-costly access to the printed Hadith. Consequently, it gave them a bonanza in earning their livelihood based on religious interpretation and leadership. They borrowed ideas of religious suppression from Christendom and corrupted Islam.

As the educated and enlightened Muslims never bothered to take the leadership in the religion, the Mullahs faced no rival in challenging their interpretation, marinated with their own recipe and shaped Islam to fit their personal needs just as the Popes did in Christendom. Over the years, their unchallenged interpretations got ingrained in the religious belief and kept passing from generations to generations.

Misrepresented by the ill-educated and self-centred Mullahs, misinterpreting the message of the Koran, the Muslims are perceived as backward peoples today with nothing to offer to the rest of the world.