Snapshots from the Islamic Empire through “The History of the Arabs” by P.K. Hitti, and a few other sources.
In the last few decades, a popular school of thought emerged in the Arab world claiming: “The only time in the history that we were significant as a people was when we rallied around religion. Religion is what worked for us, and hence we ought to “return” to its roots to elevate and recapture our glory”. As a result of the continuous and steep deterioration of the general Arabic situation, this concept has supporters that surprisingly spread over a wide range of religious devotion.
On the other hand, there are the skeptics who constantly doubt the accomplishments of the Islamic empire and wonder: “Has the State of
The best way to investigate a truth that will probably fall between the two extreme statements is to dive into what we call the “mothers of books”: The collection of references written by the Arab/Muslim historians and travelers that document for the rise and fall of the empire. A shyer, yet more feasible, attempt is to seek a brief, accurate and unbiased review of the above references. “The Arabs in History” by Bernard Lewis (a Jewish orientalist, heavily criticized for his bias and inaccuracy) offered NONE of the above; ( it was the only book available on a long road trip). “The History of the Arabs” by Philip Khuri Hitti, accidentally recommended by my dear pen-pal, lived up to its reputation as “by far the best modern, one-volume English book on the subject” (Edward Said), and offered a charming recollection of the familiar events of our history in a chronological order, without shying away from those less-familiar facts that are considered “taboo” in our school textbooks and Arabic publications.
Obviously the state of Islam expanded dramatically (in size and in challenges) after the death of the prophet, but that expansion was not necessarily always done under the principles that the prophet had set (i.e. religion). The state of Islam took the path of any (former or latter) superpower or empire, starting from under the banner and nucleus of Islam (under the prophet’s leadership), and eventually, politically evolving regardless of the commitment to the prophet's early teachings.
Before accusations of (walking the thin line of) blasphemy start flying around, let us track the following events that will help in reaching a conclusion:
-The minute the prophet died (632), the natural power struggle for his successor began among his righteous (saint-like!) companions. If we consider that the brief dispute between Ali and Abu Baker and “The wars of apostasy (Riddah)”, are nothing more than a knee-jerk reaction to the “shock” of the death of the leader of the young state, we cannot ignore the fact that three of the first four State leaders (The Rashid caliphs: supposedly the best of the best) were assassinated! The Umar era (634-644) could be considered an apex in the Islamic state history, since it combined the expansive military dominance with a quasi-utopian virtuous leadership and a commitment to the prophet’s guidelines, not to be reached again. (However that did not prevent his assassination by a Persian slave, whom the system obviously failed to incorporate. From this Persian slave’s perspective, Muslims are occupiers who enslaved him, assumed his family as property, and caused the destruction of “his” Persian empire; an issue that will continue to shape the politics of the State of
-The “killing” of Uthman is a bigger indication of the deterioration of the situation, since it was an internal affair. (According to Saad ibn Abi Waqas: “Uthman was killed by a sword drawn by Aisha, sharpened by Talha and poisoned by Ali”. The group that killed him inside his house, after a forty day house-arrest during which he was denied water, is not exactly known, but it included Abdullah Ibn Abi Bakr. The companion's body who was responsible for collecting the Quran in one book, and hence shielded it against multiple versions, had to wait three days to get buried, and his funeral was attended by 5 people. The assassination of Ali, with a poisoned sword to the forehead, was carried out by a group, (Alkhawarejj: who was opposed to the arbitration deal between Ali and Muawiyah after their battle in Siffin), who considered themselves more righteous and committed to Mohammad’s religion than the man who was among the first three to accept Islam and who was the prophet’s best friend!
-Along the way, we find a war between the mother of believers and their leader (Aisha vs. Ali). “Al-Jamal” battle assumed the lives of 20,000 first generation, direct prophet followers, Muslim Arab believers. The bloodshed for the “chair” would not stop (obviously it still has not). The grandchildren of the prophet themselves were not fortunate enough to survive the power struggle. AlHasan was first bribed out of office and later poisoned, while his brother AlHussein “fell dead with many wounds and his head was sent to the
-In his quest for sole control of Islam land Yazid ibn Muawiyah sent troops against Abdullah ibn al Zubair who assumed control of Makkah and renounced the caliph in
Again, that is not a point to be taken against Islam as a religion. It is a proof that the basic pre-Islam brutal tribal mentality continued to rule the day, despite the greatness of the Islam teachings and the effect that it should have carried on its followers. All the above conflicts were established and fueled by regional and tribal feuds, that once again took place ahead of the unity under the word of Allah.
-The reason that the Umayyad dynasty succeeded in building an empire that covered half of the earth was that they operated according to a plan and following a system. A strong army (inspired in part by martyrdom and in majority by pay and booty), a navy, and a government that featured the four geniuses of the Arabs ruling over its provinces. Accomplishments on all aspects of the civilized society were apparent: Architecture, poetry, the invention of correspondence, science, alchemy, and various intellects. Nevertheless, all of the glory was done under a system that not only violated the “spirit” of Islam, but also its direct orders.
-The Umayyads appointed their successors by inheritance, a plague that the Arab world still suffers from until this day. The caliphates modeled their thrones after those of the Romans and Persians, and presided over a socially unjust system that featured excessive spending and luxury at its top. Regular alcohol consumption was a common practice among all the caliphs, optimized by Walid II (743-744) “who habitually swam in a pool of wine of which he would gulp enough to lower the surface appreciably". “The Holy cities developed into centers of worldly pleasure and gaiety and a home of secular music and song”… “Houses of ill repute flourished in al Madinah…,as the female slaves sang and played soft melodies for the entertainment of their wealthy masters and guests”. And that was less than 100 years after the death of the prophet !!!
Of course, “the ancient and typical weakness of Arabian social life, with its over emphasis on individualism, tribal spirit, and feuds was gain reasserting itself. The down fall of the Umayyad dynasty began with the polarization of the Muslim world over the dualism of Qays and Yaman. “The district of Damascus itself was one the scene of relentless warfare for two years because a lady from Ma’ad took a watermelon from Yemenite’s garden.”(Abu il Fida’ vol ii p.14). Not good times.
-The move to the next Islamic dynasty was furnished with more bloodshed in the name of the religion that emphasizes the value of peace and human life. The Abbasid claiming close ties to the prophet house was taking advantage of the widespread discontent and posing as defendants of Islam” and “embarked on exterminating the Ummayad house”. The living descendants were brutally slaughtered and the corpses of the caliphs were dug out and burnt. “That of hisham bin Abdel Malek was dug out, embalmed (preserved in some way), (whipped) eighty times and burned to ashes”. The only one to escape violation was Umar ibn Abdel Azziz (maybe since he was the one who put an end to the custom of cussing Ali at Jumaa prayers, but it is worth mentioning that the era of Umar II (717-720) (often given the title the Fifth Rashid Caliph) was a spike in the declining curve of pious caliphs and an ascend to the values and basics of Islam itself).
-In the Abbasid empire the Arabs will be playing second fiddle to the Neo-Muslims. In addition, “for the first time in its history the caliphate was not (an extent) of Islam". Various parts of the Islamic world would not recognize the new caliph. At a certain point the empire of Islam was split between three main dynasties, and a few scattered petty (secondary) .
(I think we are done here, or as they say in Arabic “3ayydatt?” !!).
-An Abbasid dynasty that took over to revive orthodox Islam was soon following the luxury life of the preceding Umayyads, and submerging in alcohol drinking and “orgies”. Some of the caliphs are the sons of foreigner slaves (which by definition makes them children born out of wedlock (see the more things change, the more they stay the same)). In the meantime, as Harun il Rahid was playing among the Harem (women) and Gholman (little boys), his power reached the topmost point of the Abbasid. When the new Byzantine Ruler Nicephorus decided to stop paying tribute to the caliph and asked for the return of already paid tribute, Harun al Rasheed replied with the famous letter headed by “From Harun, the commander of believers to Nicephorus the dog of a Roman…”, and immediately started a series of campaigns that resulted in reinstatement of the tribute in addition to another tax on the emperor himself and on each member of his family.( Think about it in the same terms as if Saudia Arabia decides to cut-off the oil supply to the United States, of course the U.S. here is Harun).
-As the “ill-defined heredity principle of successive” took its toll on the weaker caliphs, the office of "Imamah" tried to assume more religious character to sustain legitimacy. They began to assume honorific titles compounded with Allah, (even reached to the point of using the title the “shadow of Allah on earth”). Of course the titles did not help those caliphs when they were ruling for one day (Al Murtada (Dec 17, 908)) or when they were being deposed, blinded (a brilliant punishment that definitely need to be restored), and left begging in the streets. The ex-caliphsn(Al Qahir, Al Muttaqi, and Al Mustakfi) shared powerful names, darkness and the streets of
-However, “the most momentous intellectual awakening in the history of Islam and one of the most significant in the whole history of thought and culture” started in the days of Al Rashid and continued beyond it. Although the Arab Muslims were short on culture compared to the other civilizations they conquered “they had a keen sense of intellectual curiosity and became the heir of the older cultures”.
The most disturbing aspect of the intellectual awakening was that regarding the religion. “The school of thought, developed then, has persisted in some forms to the present day”. That meant the death of the “simple” Islam and the emergence of “Islamic Sects” and cults that adopted the most ridiculous (would have prefered “extreme”, if it weren’t overused and tired lately) concepts and ideas. These awful claims and interpretations of religion were “carried so carefully” as if it was divine and a part of the prophet’s teachings, despite the fact that they were introduced, more than 200 years after his death, to promote personal, tribal, anti-Arab and other agendas.
From the creation of the science of Hadith (the collection of the prophets utterances and deeds that later assumed a Quranic status, despite being documented hundreds of years after his death, depending on nothing more than oral transmission!), to the emergence of the four orthodox schools, and not ending with the infiltration of Hellenic philosophy to Islam, that lead to futile yet deadly debates over trivial issues like “the dogma of creation of the Quran” (827). All these tools, limited the free-thought, and laid the death penalty by crucifixion on those who disagreed with the caliph, or with the current ruling sect, under the accusations of “Zandaqah”.
Despite the huge intellectual contribution and the Arab civilization influence in
-In the meantime, in other parts of the Muslim world, the only surviving descendant of the Umayyads established his independent kingdom in
-The Fatimids who started in
Now as mentioned above, the reason the above brief, selected incidents were presented is to try to back up the following conclusion: The devout commitment to the teaching’s of Islam and the mechanical performance of its worship practices on one side, versus the advancement, prosperity and strength of the state on the other, are Independent Variables. At times it may have appeared that they were rising together (ex: from the prophet until Omar), or falling together (the end of every dynasty). At other times they are clearly inversely proportional (the late Abbasid era and the early Fatimid). But the overall picture throughout the first 400 years of the Islamic Empire shows fluctuations in both aspects (life and religion) that over the whole course will appear independent of each other.
The status of the Arabs in the empire is a third independent variable. After assuming the first-class citizen status as the clear and sole leaders of the empire during the Umayyad era, the Arabs constantly regressed to the back seat (politically and culturally) and conceded the leadership role to Persians, Berbers, Saljuks, Mamluks and finally Othman Turks whose era eventually took the shape (from the Arabs standpoint at least) of a foreign occupation.
Yet, Islam could be the solution, just like Communism and just like Arab nationalism could be the solution. The solution is a concept that the population collectively agrees on, rallies around, and set a plan accordingly. Islam could be the front runner candidate, due to its familiarity and the utopian set of morals and ethics it carries. An Islam that uses worship as a mean not an end, utilizing practice as a tool to refine genuine behavior could be a solution. An Islam that adheres to medieval (hocus-pocus) beliefs, empowers the forbidden clergy, and deceives the masses is a problem. Any system that gets over retarded tribal and regional affiliations and weeds out the cycle of selfishness and individualism will get the vote, as long as it does not involve chopping heads for a few more Dirhams.