MN Roy

Historical Role of Islam:
An Essay on Islamic Culture

Chapter Four: The Causes of Triumph

Its historical background and the social conditions in which it was born put on Islam the stamp of toleration, which, to the undiscerning eye, may appear to be incongruous with the spirit of fanaticism traditionally associated with it. But there is no contradiction. The basic doctrine of Islam—"There is but One God"—itself makes for toleration. If the whole world, with its defects and deformities, the entire mankind, with all its follies and frivolities, is admitted as the creation of the selfsame God, the believer in this elevating doctrine may" deplore the deformities and laugh at what appears to him to be absurdities and perverseness; but the very nature of his faith does not permit him to look upon them as the works or worships of some other God of Evil, and declare war upon them as such. Those, who worship differently, are for him mistaken and misled brethren, but none the less children of the selfsame Father, to be brought to the right road, or indulgently tolerated until they are ready for redemption.

The terrifying vision of the followers of the, Arabic Prophet offering to the world, Koran or the sword, cast such an ominous shadow over the history of the rise of Islam as concealed the third alternative so freely offered, and generally accepted. That was the main cause for the triumph of Islam. As a matter of fact, the alternatives were very differently offered. It was: "Accept the Koran or pay tribute to the Saracen conqueror!" The "Sword of God" was unsheathed only when neither of the alternatives was accepted. The economic interest of the Arab trader, which produced the monotheistic creed of Islam, was antagonistic to indiscriminate bloodshed. The lands through which the trade routes lay must be conquered and brought under the domination of the unitary State. The object would be all the better realized should the conquered peoples accept the new religion; for, then the unitarian State would be established on a solid foundation. But production and consumption of commodities are the essential factors of trade. Therefore, it was not compatible with the historic role of Islam to massacre the artisan and peasant masses, or to destroy opulent cities for the impiety of rejecting the Koran. What was necessary was their subjugation to the believers of the new creed. Under the domination of the followers of the Prophet, unbelieving peoples were allowed to hold their imperfect faiths, and to continue their perverse worships.

When Jerusalem capitulated to Khalif Omar, the inhabitants of the vanquished city were left in possession of their worldly goods, and allowed the freedom of worship. A special quarter of the city was allotted for the residence of the Christian population with their Patriarch and his clergy. For the protection thus granted, a nominal tax of two pieces of gold was imposed upon the entire Christian community. The pilgrimage to the Holy City was stimulated rather than suppressed by the Muslim conquerors, on account of the commercial value of that devout traffic. Four hundred and sixty years later, when the Holy Land reverted to the Christian rule of the crusading knights of Europe, "the Oriental Christians regretted the tolerating Government of the Arabian Khalifs". (Gibbon, "Rise and Fall 0f the Roman Empire".)

In contrast to the toleration of the Muslims, the following account of the occupation of Jerusalem by the Crusaders is highly illuminating: "In the pillage of private and public wealth, the adventurers had agreed to respect the exclusive property of the first occupant. A bloody sacrifice was offered by mistaken votaries to the God of the Christians; resistance might provoke, but neither sage nor sex could mollify, their Implacable rage; they indulged themselves three days in a promiscuous massacre. After seventy thousand Muslims had been put to the sword, and the harmless Jews had been burned in their Synagogue, they could still reserve a multitude of captives whom interest or lassitude persuaded them to spare." (Ibid).

On the testimony of a whole series of authoritative historians, Christian as well as Muslim, contemporary as well as modern, the critical Gibbon conclusively proves that "to his Christian Subjects, Mohammad readily granted security of their persons, the freedom of their trade, the property of their goods and the toleration of their worship." This profitable principle of toleration was observed with more or less strictness, not only by all the immediate successors of the Prophet, but over the whole period of Arabic ascendancy. It was abandoned only after Islam had played out its historic role and its leadership has passed from the noble Saracens to the notorious barbarians of Tartary. Even under the first Turkish Sultans. Islam was not completely divorced from its original spirit of toleration.

In its days of glory, the native toleration of Islam not only developed into wide freedom of thought and rationalism, but, from the orthodox point of view, even degenerated into positively heretical and irreligious notions. Most of the earlier Abbassides Khalifs of Baghdad were not only devoted to the study of profane science, and free in their thought; some of them, Motassen for example, even did not believe in the divine origin of the Koran.

For centuries, the Saracen Empire offered hospitable asylum to the persecuted Jews as well as to the unorthodox Christians sects of the Nestorians, Jacobites, Eutychians and Paulicians. After the consolidation of the Saracen conquest, the toleration of Islam was extended even to the Catholic Church. Many Christian historians themselves bear testimony to this effect. The Ecclesiastical historian Renaudot, for example, informs that "the rank, the immunities, and the domestic jurisdiction of Patriarchs, Bishops, and the clergy were protected by the (Muslim) civil magistrates (of Egypt); the leaning of Christian Individuals recommended them to the employment of secretaries and physicians; they were enriched by the lucrative collection of revenue; and their merit was sometimes raised to the command of clues and provinces." A Khalif of Baghdad declared that the Christians were most worthy of trust in the administration of Persia. The Paulicians, those valiant fore-runners of the Protestant Reformation, not only received freedom of worship in the Saracen Empire, but were actively supported by the Khalifs in their prolonged effort to subvert the degenerated Catholic Church, and reestablish Christianity In its original form.

The ancient religion of Zoroaster, with its pernicious doctrine of the dual principles of Good and Evil, both equally eternal, was particularly obnoxious to the stern worshipper of "One God". Yet, even the Magian creed did not altogether forfeit the toleration of the conquering Arab. As late as the third century of the Hegira, ancient temples of Fire stood splendourously overshadowing the modest Mosque by their side. Those proud monuments of an ancient faith crumbled not under the ruthless blow of the fanatical Sword of Islam; they were doomed to destruction, and fall to inevitable ruins in consequence of the general desertion of their votaries. No amount of coercion could possibly force a whole nation to abandon its traditional faith with so little resistance, and accept that of the conqueror with such surprising alacrity, as did the Persians over the vast territory from the Tigris to the Oxus. The ancient faith was decayed. It no longer satisfied the spiritual requirements of a cultured people. The menacing shadow of Khariman had eclipsed the luster of the "Sun and Fire." The Persian masses embraced the simple Monotheism of Mohammad as the message of liberation from the dark despotism of the eternal principle of Evil.

The north of Africa, from Alexandria to Carthage, was the only territory where the Christian faith was totally obliterated by the spread of Islam. There again, the cause of the sweeping religious revolution was not the Intolerance of the new creed, but the decay of the old faith, and the general chaos and despair caused by that decay. The faith of the gospel of Jesus, established by the talent, piety and power of Cyprian, Athanasius and Augustine, had been subverted by Arian and Donatist heresies, and the Catholic fury, with which the impoverished masses revolting under the banner of religious heresy were suppressed, had ruined the once prosperous provinces economically. Then, the Vandal and Moorish invader had devastated the ruins so mercilessly as to throw the people into a hopeless state of social chaos and spiritual morbidity which drove them to seek an 1llusive solace in the absurdities or Monasticism.

In that dense darkness of social dissolution and spiritual despair, the virile and optimistic message of the Prophet of Arabia flashed like an 1lluminatIng flame of hope. The mind of the multitude was lured by the temporal as well as the heavenly blessings offered by the new religion. The conquering trumpet of Islam awakened the despondent spirits who, defeated in the struggle of terrestrial life, had precariously entrenched themselves in the superstition of a divine existence. Healthy indulgence of nature, allowed, even encouraged, by the new faith, speedily overwhelmed the perverse notions of asceticism fomented by a degenerate version of the gospel of Christ. Islam opened up a new vision of hope before a people, sunk in the depth of despondency. The convulsion created by it ushered in a new society in which everyone had the opportunity of ascending the natural level of his courage and capacity. With the exhilarating inspiration of Islam, and under the benevolent rule of the Saracen conquerors, the fertile soil and industrious peoples of North Africa soon recovered fruitfulness and prosperity.

"It is altogether a misconception that the Arabian progress was due to the sword alone. The sword may change an acknowledged national creed, but it cannot affect the consciences of men. Profound though its argument is something far more profound was demanded before Mohammedanism pervading the domestic life of Asia and Africa....... The explanation of this political phenomenon is to be found in the social condition of the conquered countries. The influences of religion in them had long ago ceased; it had become supplanted by theology...... How was it possible that unlettered men, who with difficulty can be made to apprehend obvious things, should understand such mysteries? Yet, they were taught that on those doctrines the salvation or damnation of the human race depended. They saw... ...that personal virtue or vice were no longer considered; that sin was not measured by evil works but by the degrees of heresy... What an example when bishops are concerned in assassinations, poisonings, adulteries, blindings, riots, treasons, civil war; when Patriarchs and Primats were excommunicating and anathematising one another in their rivalries for earthly power, bribing Eunuchs with gold, and courtesans and royal females with concessions of episcopal love, and influencing the decisions of councils asserted to speak with the voice of God by those base intrigues and sharp practices resorted to by demagogues in their packed assemblies! Among legions of monks, who carried terror into the imperial armies and riot into the great cities, arose hideous clamours for theological dogmas, but never a voice for intellectual liberty or the outraged rights of man. In such a state of things, what else could be the result than disgust or indifference? Certainly men could not be expected to give help to a system that had lost all hold on their hearts.

"When, therefore, in the midst of the wrangling of sects.... and anarchy of countless disputants, there sounded through the world... the dread battle cry, 'There is but One God"... is it surprising that the hubbub was hushed? Is it surprising that all Asia and Africa fell away? In better times, patriotism is too often made subordinate to religion; in those times, it was altogether dead." (J. W. Draper, "History of the Intellectual Development of Europe", Vol. I, pp. 33213.)

The principle of equality, preached by the followers of Mohammad, originated in the traditional freedom of the nomadic life of the Arabic tribes. They had all shown equal valour in the national profession of robbery. When that modest call of the olden times assumed the majestic proportion of conquest, the individual Arab did not forget that his horse could speed as fast and his scimitar was as sharp as those of any. He had taken an equal share in defending his desert home against the conquering armies of Sesostris and Gyrus, Alexander and Darius, Pompeii and Ashirwan, Ptolemy and Trajan. He would not playa less noble part in the pastime of turning the table. But the principle of equality proclaimed by Islam proved to be a factor in its spectacular triumph no less potent than the scimitar of the Saracen hero. It contrasted sharply with the oppressive laws governing the class and caste-ridden societies of the Roman Byzantine, Persian and, later, of Indian Empires. Islam stood for freedom and equality which, as a matter of fact, had long been forgotten in all the lands of the degenerated ancient civilization.

The proud possession of the spiritual heritage of earlier civilizations having accrued to the Arabs, it became their mission to share it with the unfortunate multitudes groaning under the hideous rulers of those civilizations. The circumstances of the age were favorable to the dramatic expansion of Islam. It rose in the period of intellectual and spiritual decline of the ruling classes throughout the world of ancient civilizations. The dissatisfaction with the social conditions of decay, decomposition, and despotism had created in the masses of people the aspiration and striving for a better world. Christianity had been the first child born of that revolutionary spirit. The unfortunate triumph of having enlisted the corrupting patronage of the old ruling class had transformed Christianity into an apologist of the established order of society. The Church Fathers had conveniently forgotten that their Prophet preached revolt against the Roman yoke, and had painted him as the meek sheep bleating the shameful Injunction: "Pay the Caesar his due"—an injunction which violated the whole tradition of Jewish history constituting the background of Christianity. Having compromised with the ruling class, Christianity could not but betray the mission of laying the foundation of a new social order commensurate with the objective striving of the age. It had refused to lead the destitute to the conquest of this world and had deceived them with the delusion of a world to come, flowing with milk and honey. The entrance to the Kingdom of Heaven was to be allowed only to the meek, that is, to those who would submit to the tyranny of the rulers of this world.

The debacle of Christianity made the appearance of a more vigorous religion an historical necessity. Islam not only promised its votaries the blessings of a brilliant paradise. It also inspired them to the conquest of this world. Indeed, the Paradise of the Arabian Prophet was nothing but an ideal of the life of happiness and enjoyment to be attained in this world. Mohammad not only provided his own people with a platform of national unity, but armed the united Arabian nation with a cry of revolt which found ready response from the oppressed and destitute masses in all the adjacent countries.

The cause of the dramatic success of Islam was spiritual as well as social and political. On this important point, Gibbon testifies: "More pure than the system of Zoroaster, more liberal than the laws of Moses, the religion of Mohammad might seem less inconsistent with reason than the creed of mystery and superstition which, in the seventh century, disgraced the simplicity of the Gospel." ("Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.")

Still one more historian bears testimony to the fact that the spectacular triumph of Islam was rather due to its liberating and equalitarian principles than to the military valour of its early adherents. "In almost every case in which the Saracens conquered a Christian nation, history unfortunately reveals that they owed their success chiefly to the favour with which this progress was regarded by the masses of the conquered people. To the disgrace of most Christian governments, it will be found that their administration was more oppressive than that of the Arab conquerors... The inhabitants of Syria welcomed the followers of Mahomet; the Copts of Egypt contributed to place their country under the domination of the Arabs; and the Christian Berbers aided the conquest of Africa. All these nations were induced, by the hatred for the government of Constantinople, to place themselves under the sway of the Mohammedans. The treachery of the nobles and the indifference of the people made Spain and the South of France easy prey to the Saracens." (Finlay, "History of the Byzantine Empire.")

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