Preparing for the 21st Century
Rise of Islam and Decline of Muslims
The Islamic Voice reproduces the speech by President of Malaysia, Dr. Mahathir Mohammad, at the Oxford Islamic Forum on the Islamic World and Global Cooperation on the topic "Preparing for the 21st Century". The first instalment deals with the rise of Islam and decline of Muslims around the beginning of this century. The second part to be reproduced in the June issue of the monthly, would Insha Allah, deal with the subject matter indicated by the theme. Editor.
I feel honoured to be here today to speak at this Ox-ford Islamic Forum on 'The Islamic World and Global Cooperation: Preparing for the 21st Century'. I hope the topic will generate a lot of interest and discussions as currently there are many contrary views and debate on this subject.
Let me start by looking at the Islamic World itself. There are at the moment not less than 56 countries which are members of the Organisation of Islamic Conference (OIC). Not all these countries have Muslim majorities and fewer still officially accept Islam as the state religion. But Muslims are sufficiently influential as to cause the Governments of these countries to seek membership of the Islamic community of nations. All told, Muslims make up for more than one billion of the world's population.
But they are far from being a monolithic group, being broken up as much by their own loyalty to their countries as they are by the differences in their interpretations of Islam or indeed allegedly by the degree of commitment to the faith. They certainly do not make up one cohesive Islamic civilisation which can pose a meaningful threat to other civilisations or indeed anyone. They are too busy fighting and undermining each other to be a threat.
There is also not a single Muslim country that can be classified as developed. A number of them are very wealthy, being well-endowed with natural resources. But almost all are lagging in modern knowledge, technological skills and in many instances effective Government. In fact in quite a few countries a state of near-anarchy prevails. By no criteria can any of these countries be classified as developed.
Poverty, ignorance and instability have become such a common feature in the Muslim nations that it is assumed this is a natural consequence of following the teachings of Islam. It is therefore not surprising that today the world associates Islam with backwardness. This angers many Muslims. They think that it is an unfair judgement. They are right of course. It is unfair. It is not due to the teachings of Islam. But the fact remains that the Muslim nations are poor, backward, weak, disunited, dependent on non-Muslims for all kinds of things including their own security and the continued existence of Islam itself. With the powerful weapons in the hands of the non-Muslims it is entirely possible for them to wipe out the Muslims from the face of this earth. It is only by the Grace of Allah and His mercy that those whom we labelled as the enemies of Islam have not done so. But the Muslims themselves have done nothing to help themselves. If at all, they have weakened themselves more and more by their constant feuding among themselves, by their confusing and contradictory interpretations of Islam and by their failure to obey the injunctions to help themselves even as they pray to Allah for His protection.
The Qur'an is very clear on this. Verse 79 Sura An Nisaa states that "Whatever good happens to thee is from God but whatever evil happens to thee is from thy soul."
That Muslims were at one time the most advanced people in all fields is a fact of history. Apart from being the best strategists and warriors, they were the most learned and enlightened and the most liberal of the people in the world then. It is difficult now to think of Muslims as being enlightened and liberal. But consider the situation and the civilisation of Europe in the Middle ages. What we now call the West was then one of the most backward communities of nations in the world. They were hopelessly so superstitious that they banned the sciences as witchcraft, and books were kept locked because knowledge was feared. They regularly burnt witches at the stake. Only the priests may know about their religion and other subjects. Since knowledge meant power the priests ruled directly or indirectly and they imposed a reign of terror through the Inquisition for centuries. Such was the oppression by the priests that many migrated, seeking freedom from Christian intolerance.
By comparison with the Muslims of the period, the Europeans were indeed primitive, superstitious and anything but liberal. They were certainly feudal and oppressive. Their oppressive Governments led their own Christian subjects to welcome conquests by Muslims, going so far as to abet these conquests. Even the Jews preferred to live under Muslim rule and left Spain together with the Muslims to settle in North Africa.
All these must indicate the tolerance and liberalism of Muslims and their Governments in the past, in the great days of the Muslim Empire. Everything was not rosy of course. There were oppressive Muslim rulers too. But for long periods non-Muslims in Muslim countries were free to go about their business and practise their own religions.
When Islam came to the Arabs over 1400 years ago they were wallowing in superstition and ignorance. Living in the arid and inhospitable desert, forced to wander in search of water and meagre pasture for their animals and food for themselves, they had broken up into a number of feuding warring tribes. Such were their feuds that for generations they would fight their sworn tribal enemies even when the cause of their enmity had long been forgotten.
They developed their own codes of honour which were at once gracious and cruel. They would be the most considerate of hosts to strangers who seek shelter from them and yet if they believe they had been slighted they would take revenge in the most cruel and unforgiving manner.
For these Arab tribes, the main cause of shame was always their women. They regarded women as mere chattel, as property to use in exchange for alliances, as the objects of their lusts. Yet in their wars they always feared capture of their women by the enemy. This they regarded as most dishonourable and shameful to their family and their tribe. But in order to avoid this possibility they would rather kill their daughters or sisters, who may dishonour them or were likely to cause shame to them. And so it was their custom to bury alive their infant girls, to commit infanticide in order that the chances of being dishonoured later would be less.
They were inordinately fond of praise for themselves. And so the beggars could always expect the rich or the prominent to throw their coins if their praises were sung. Flattery was the best way to win them over always.
Their superstitions lead them to attribute godly powers to various objects of stone and wood. And they would regularly visit the places where these objects were kept in order to offer sacrifices, including human sacrifices, for their salvation, for protection from the unkind elements which buffeted them. And when the feuding tribes met during their pilgrimage they would fight and kill each other.
There were among them a few who professed the Christian or the Jewish faith, who believed in one Almighty God, who were people of the book. But the ignorant Arabs preferred to believe in the gods of their ancestors. They rejected the messages of the apostles who came before Muhammad although it is clear that they knew of them. That they knew of the Christian faith is clearly shown when the Christian Waraqah was consulted about the voices heard by Muhammad.
This then was the primitive, superstitious, feuding people and tribes to whom Muhammad, peace be upon him, was sent with the message of Islam. It is no wonder that he found difficulty in convincing them to give up their beliefs and custom, to honour and save their women, to reject lust and the taking of innumerable wives, limiting them to only four and even then only if they could do justice to all four, which he pointed out they never could. "Ye are never able to be fair and just as between women" - (Sura IV Verse 129). And so they should take only one. Knowing their fondness for alcohol and the difficulty in giving up this vice, they were enjoined to forego alcohol little by little until it was forbidden altogether. A sudden injunction to stop alcohol would not have been accepted by them.
They were instructed to befriend their enemies if the latter accepted the faith. And under the leadership of the Prophet they became united, forgetting their feuds and their tribes. This is clear from Verse 103 in Sura III Al Imran "be not divided among yourselves. And remember with gratitude God's favour on you; For Ye were enemies and He joined your hearts in love so that by His Grace, Ye became brethren."
In Madinah their society was finally organised with proper laws detailing crimes, the methods of judgement and the punishments. Always justice and quality of mercy was stressed. Those who repented should be pardoned.
The feuding, barbaric tribes which accepted Islam united and became a nation under the Madinah constitution, the first written constitution in the Islamic world. Thus was the core of the first Muslim nation created. From Madinah the Prophet sent envoys to neighbouring countries urging the rulers of these countries to accept Islam. The Prophet followed scrupulously the teachings of Islam in peace and in war. No one should be forced to accept Islam. This is made clear in Verse 256 of sura II Al-Baqarah "Let there be no compulsion in religion."
Unfortunately his followers were not so patient and ready to tolerate the taunts and the opposition of those who rejected the teachings of the Prophet. While the Prophet fought only defensive wars and was ever ready to make peace and enter into treaties to settle disputes, his disciples were more aggressive, believing in spreading the faith through force of arms. And so within the first century of the Hijrah the definitive Muslim Empire was conquered largely through force of arms. While the conquests resulted in the spread of Islam and the enlargement of the Muslim Empire, they also presaged the trend towards disregard for the teachings of Islam.
Anything and everything was accepted as legitimate if the perpetrators invoke the interests of Islam. And so today the Greatness of Allah is often proclaimed as some dastardly act is committed often against other Muslims. Sura II Al-Baqarah - Verse 41 "Nor sell my signs for a small price." Again in Verse 224 "And make not God's (name) an excuse." Sura III Aal e Imran "They will not sell the Signs of God for a miserable sum".
Only angels and the prophet could not be corrupted by the success of the Islamic enterprise. Of the four enlightened Caliphs who succeeded to the leadership of the Muslim Ummah, only Abu Bakar died a natural death. The other three, companions of the Prophet, were killed by those envious of their position. Clearly there were members of the Muslim ummah who did not respect authority as enjoined by Islam. They were prepared to assassinate their own leaders, something the Qur'an forbids.
By the time of the fourth Caliph Ali, the warring had become as serious as the tribal feuds of the old pre-Islamic Arabs. The Muslim ummah was split permanently into two. The opponents of Ali followed Muawiyah and became known as the upholders of the traditions of the Prophet - Ahlul Sunnah Wal Jamaah. The followers of Ali, probably against the wishes of Ali himself, split off to form the Shia Muslims, venerating Ali as the true successor of the Prophet.
From then on each sect not only sought to justify itself through numerous and contradictory interpretations of the teachings of Islam, but they invented many traditions or Sunnah of the Prophet in order to justify the frequently unIslamic practices in which they indulged. So many were the traditions that by the time Imam Bukhari studied them in order to verify their authenticity there were said to be 600,000 of them. Of these Bukhari verified only 7,000. Other scholars verified an even smaller number including a few which had been rejected by Bukhari. Obviously there were more than 590,000 false traditions, which continue to be quoted off and on to justify dubious Islamic practices.
As the empire grew many sought to inherit the mantle of Caliphs and Amir ul Muminin. Wars were fought between Muslims as the different claimants sought worldly power. Regional Governors ignored the authority of the imperial Government in Madinah, Baghdad or Istanbul as the case may be. They began to rule independently, to set up their own domain.
New Islamic sects were founded and groups of Muslim jurists emerged who emphasised the supremacy of the Shariah over the Qur'an even. The tolerant and forgiving nature of Islam gave way to the rigid interpretations of the jurists whose rulings could not be disputed. Only religious subjects were allowed to be studied. The sciences, mathematics and the arts were not only neglected but were proscribed. All non-religious subjects were labelled as unIslamic. The vast libraries fell into neglect or were destroyed. The Muslims became more and more ignorant even as the Christian Europeans availed themselves of the writings of Muslim scholars and progressed in their Renaissance. The decline of the Muslims and their civilisation had begun in earnest.
Success and power corrupted the Muslim leaders and deviations from the teachings of Islam became more and more common. This gave rise to reform movements intended to bring back the fundamental practices of Islam. Caliphs were overthrown and new Governments set up, principally by the Al-Murabitun (Almoravids) and then the Al-Muwahhidun from North Africa and Spain. Unfortunately, the reformist Governments either became corrupted themselves or they interpreted Islam to suit their extremist views. They too contributed to the decline of the Muslims and their empire. Weakened by their narrow-minded interpretation of Islam, rejecting so-called unIslamic knowledge and skills, they lost the capacity to defend their territories in Spain.. Finally in 1492, Grenada the last bastion of Muslim Spain, fell to the armies of Ferdinand and Isabella. Bo Abdul, the King who never led his army on the battlefield, was forced to surrender and departed for North Africa. The Muslims remaining behind were eventually forced to forsake their religion or face death. Thus ended the last Muslim enclave in Western Europe.
But the Europeans were not about to leave the North African Muslim states in peace. France and Spain extended their domain to the Maghreb and eventually all of Arab North Africa from Egypt to Morocco fell under European rule.
However, even as Muslim Spain ceased to exist, Turks began to expand and build a new Muslim Empire. Turkish armies conquered most of the Balkan and actually knocked at the Gates of Vienna. The Mediterranean Sea was dominated by Turkish naval forces, regular and irregular.
But the courts of the Turkish Sultans soon became corrupted by their wealth and their love of luxury. The Sultans no longer led their armies into battle, nor were the armies made up of Turkish soldiers. The children of Christian citizens were recruited and brought up as Muslims and trained as professional soldiers. In time they came to dominate Turkish politics and engineered several palace coups. (To be continued)