Islamic Civilization by the numbers
by Mohamed Elmasry
(Friday, January 4, 2008)
"The foundation of Islamic civilization was a set of Qur'anic ideals which include family values, good governance, social justice, and human rights."
During his 1868 - 1871 lecture series, "Introduction to the Study of History," Swiss historian Prof. Jacob Burchardt explained his thesis that there are "three powers" in history -- the state, religion, and culture.
Burchardt, whose book "The Civilization of the Renaissance in Italy" became a classic, went on to define culture in general as "the realm of the spontaneous," including such elements as social intercourse, technologies, arts, literature and sciences.
He then gave examples of "culture determined by the state" as happened, for example, in Ancient Egypt, Mexico and Peru; "the state determined by culture" as illustrated notably by the ancient Greek polis; and "culture determined by religion" as in the case of Islam.
One can also argue however, that in the case of Islamic civilization, culture is determined by religion and the state is determined by culture, thus illustrating how three pivotal factors uniquely intertwine.
The foundation of Islamic civilization was a set of Qur'anic ideals which include family values, good governance, social justice, and human rights.
And, much as in the modern sense, human rights in the Qur'anic conception included: freedom of religion; law and order; the equality of all citizens before the law; international relations based on mutual respect and fair trade; a strong defense system; encouragement of and access to scholarship in every field; respect for knowledge; a pluralism embracing religious and ethnic differences. And, importantly, the maintenance of a strong welfare state, providing to the utmost extent possible; free education; free health care; free old age pensions; and social assistance to the poor, the needy, the disabled and the unemployed.
This comprehensive package of Qur'anic ideals was included in the Divine Message received and taught by the Prophet Muhammad (570 - 632 AD) in a world fraught with uncivilized behavior among people and nations. In fact, such brutal and callous behavior was the norm during the dark pre-Islamic ages: wars, death, destruction and aggressive empire-building were widespread, while the powerless and marginalized "others" were enslaved physically, economically, mentally, and spiritually.
The Qur'anic principles taught by the Prophet were not aimed at building a vast empire, either politically or culturally, but rather to build an ideal commonwealth for the benefit of all humanity - a family of nations and states working together to foster advances in the sciences, arts, literature, medicine, music, philosophy, religion, and spirituality. To outside observers, the final product at the height of Islamic expansion might have looked and felt like an empire, complete with economic, military and political power, but the fundamentals underpinning this wave of Muslim influence were totally different.
For 23 years, the Prophet's mission was not only to teach, but also to apply in practice the Qur'anic ideals revealed by God. Yet while the seed of a new civilization was planted during Muhammad's lifetime, the application and nurture of it was also passed to succeeding generations of Muslims who sometimes retarded its growth by neglecting Divine guidance. By contrast, during periods when Muslim societies worked consciously to apply Qur'anic precepts, their religiously based culture made major advances on the way to an ideal civilization.
In spite of periodic setbacks, the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad took hold and the building of a new civilization worthy of the world to emulate started during Muhammad's lifetime and continued after his death in 632 AD. Historians agree that this civilization reached its zenith around 1500 AD, thus benefitting the ancient world by nearly 1,000 years of positive development.
To see the "big picture" of Islamic civilization as a cultural pattern, however, one can take the year 632 AD (the Prophet's death) as a starting point and mark the year 1300 AD as the peak of achievement, or 100 per cent Islamic civilization. After that, the next 300 years can be seen as an era of cultural maintenance. Thus, we can see a continuum or span of some 1,000 years which can be divided into periods that reveal either accelerated or interrupted progress on the way to reaching the highest level of development.
From the beginning, Muslim historians were conscious of the fact that the political leaders of the Muslim Ummah (nation) must adhere to Qur'anic ideals in their daily decisions and governance; the name Khulafa-ul-Rashidun (Rightly Guided Caliphs) was given only to those who faithfully adhered to these ideals throughout their tenure as rulers.
For nearly 30 years after the Prophet's death (632 - 661 AD), four of his Companions or school of close followers, were put in charge of political leadership for the Muslim Ummah. But 58 years later, the Egyptian-born Umayyad Caliph, Omar-Ibn-Abdulaziz -- who was Caliph in Damascus for only 30 months, 719-721 AD -- was also considered a Rightly Guided One for his faithfulness in applying Qur'anic ideals during his brief rule.
If the year 1300 AD is accepted as the point of 100 per cent development of Islamic civilization, then I believe that the four Khulafa-ul-Rashidun who took up the Prophet's cause during the first 29 years after his death managed to achieve a good 40 per cent of that progress. Had they been able to continue in the same vein, the peak of Islamic civilization would have been reached in only 72 years.
Unfortunately, the Umayyad Dynasty (661 - 750 AD) that ruled for nearly a century from Damascus were less committed to Qur'anic ideals in their governance and therefore reduced the rate of progress by a factor of 10, adding only 20 percent to the development of peak Islamic culture during their 89 years of influence.
But worse was yet to come. The rule of the Abbasid Dynasty (750 - 1258 AD), the subsequent fragmentation of the Ummah, the destructive and fanatical invasions of the Crusaders (1096 - 1250 AD), and the sacking of Baghdad by invading Mongols (1258 AD) all drastically slowed down the achievements of Islamic culture.
Yet for some 300 years after the 1300s, leaders of the Ottoman Dynasty strove to maintain the level of previous Muslim contributions to world civilization. And they achieved and preserved a great deal, but gradually it was not possible to sustain this gargantuan effort. Sadly, many Muslim leaders who came after their era of glory seemed to have forgotten the foundational Qur'anic ideals and how to put them into practice.
Nevertheless, from 756 - 1492 AD, Muslims established a thriving independent state in what are now today's Spain and Portugal, and this state enlarged and enlivened all of Medieval Europe, especially during the period of 1000 - 1500 AD.
But from the 1500s onward, European powers rejected the Qur'anic ideals that had brought such prosperity and advancement to Andalusia and the southern Iberian Peninsula. Instead, they used their military power as a blunt instrument to enslave and exploit millions in Africa and Asia and through both war and imperialism to destroy the lives of millions more, namely the native peoples of the Americas. It was not the legacy of the Prophet.
Mohamed Elmasry is a professor of electrical and computer engineering at the University of Waterloo and national president of the Canadian Islamic Congress. He contributed this article to Media Monitors Network (MMN) from Ontario, Canada.
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