What ails the Muslims

SHAFAQNA (International Shia News Association) – An examination of Muslim history is important to understand some of the dominant and controversial attitudes and sources of conflict in the contemporary Islamic world: First, Shariah, the formal system of law, politics and religious thought in Islam evolved over 3 centuries. While it was based on divine precepts, it was man-made and represents the outcome of the gradual development of Islamic intellectual and religious thought. Second, the main schism between Sunnis and Shias is a political one and not a core religious one, as is popularly peddled today, though religion has been used effectively to promote cooperation and conflict between the two sects on the whims of caliphs, sultans and kings through the ages. Third, jihadi Islam in its current form (Al-Qaeda, Islamic State et al) is also the outcome of contemporary global and regional politics and bears no historical, philosophical or cultural connections with the religion of Islam. History supports these conclusions thus:

The end of the 10th century saw the completion of Islamic conquest and the establishment of a vast Muslim empire, that stretched from the western part of the Arabian peninsula northwards into Iraq and Iran, with its eastern boundaries marked by the lands across the river Oxus in Central Asia, in the south east by the Indian Subcontinent, and its western boundaries, by the Atlantic coast of the Iberian peninsula or Andalus (present day Spain).

The empire had three Caliphates, that of the Abbasids in Baghdad, of the Fatimids in Cairo and of the Ummayads in Andalus. Centralised bureaucratic rule by the Abbasid caliphate was thus at an end, and onwards from the 10th to roughly the 16th century, the Muslim empire assumed the more expedient shape of fragmented regional rule by various dynasties, culminating through various upheavals into those of the Ottomans, Safavids, Mughals and Alawis. Islam and Muslims were ascendant! And the world all too aware of Muslim rule, its power, its culture, its legal, political and social traditions and its languages. More importantly by the 10th century, matters concerning jurisprudence, religion and life had been formally codified through the process of fiqh into a system known as Shariah. 

The development of a formal code of life for all Muslims, the Shariah, had begun formally and in earnest in the time of the Ummayad dynasty. Prior to this, and particularly during the reign of the first four caliphs, there was no formal articulation of Muslim religious thought or law, with matters of state being conducted separately by rulers, matters of law contemplated and dispensed by Qazis and with Muslim scholars working in the background, independently, to construct a unified system of religious observance, law, political thought and social organisation. By the time of the Abbasids, and owing to their centralised bureaucratic rule, the need for a single unified system of law, social organisation, politics and religious practice became an imperative of maintaining rule over a vast empire. 

The interpretations of Quran, Sunnah and Hadith varied among various bodies of scholars and were informed by the customs and traditions of their geographical locations. A study of the dialectical processes employed, the trials and the tribulations involved, and the careful consideration of opposing points of view, including those of non-Muslims, in arriving at a consensus which was then codified into the final system, is revealing of the spirit of the times as it underscored the importance of learning. 

More strikingly one observes the atmosphere of tolerance that prevailed during these centuries of inquiry, with rival schools of thought ranging from rationalists, who emphasised the importance of individual or collective human reasoning in interpreting and applying the principles embodied in the Quran, to spiritualists who believed in Tasawwuf as the path leading to an intimate understanding of God, to the breakaway sects of Isna Ashri Shiias, Ismailis, Zaydis, Ibadis and Kharijis. Among the Sunni schools of law – the Malikis, Hanbalis, Shafis and Hanafis – the differences of opinion existed on “substantive points of law, and also on the principles of legal reasoning (usul-ul-fiqh), and in particular on the place of Hadith and the legitimacy, limits and methods of ijtihad” (Hourani, ‘A history of the Arab Peoples’, p69). Despite these differences there was no overt hostility among these schools of law and they moreover co-existed peacefully with those of Ibadis and Zaydis and Isna Ashri Shias. 

The Sunni school contended with the influence of Greek philosophy and as a demonstration of their confidence borne out of their eminence in the world, the Muslims of this time readily encouraged translations of Plato, Socrates, Aristotle, and through the medium of the Arabic language and the under the umbrella of Islamic legal and religious thought, absorbed and reshaped these ideas, forging out of them a definitively Islamic intellectual idiom, though heavily influenced by Greek thought. 

By the 15th century breakaway sects from the main body of Islam, such as the Shia movement, had shrunk in size and were only present in pockets across the empire; they therefore did not pose the challenges to rule encountered, for example by the Ummayads and the Abbasids, during the 8th and 9th centuries. Between the 10th and the 16th centuries there is therefore no recorded incident of mass conflict between Sunnis and other breakway sects except for the Battle of Chaldiran fought between Ottomans and Safavids. Earlier, during the 8th and 9th centuries, the schism between Sunni and Shia, while it tangibly existed, was not one that created any recorded noteworthy sectarian tension in the main urban centres of Islamic life and culture – Basra, Kufa, Damascus, Fustat, Cairo, Fez, Cordoba. Shia Imams are said to have lived peacefully through the reign of the Abbasids. The history of Sunni-Shia conflicts particularly from the time of the Abbasids, reveals that these were primarily over matters of politics and state control and not religion.

This may also owe to the fact that of more import were the main lines drawn between the Muslim world and the Non-Muslim world which impacted Muslim relations with and treatment of Non-Muslims. For the large part this was only violent in times of conquest and then only till the point of conversion. In times of peace Jews and Christians were allowed to live in Muslim lands subject to certain conditions: they were forbidden from wearing certain colours to appear distinct from Muslims; their men could not marry Muslim women while the opposite was permitted; they had to pay poll tax; their testimony in a court of law was not equal to that of Muslims; they could not undertake certain trades and professions without the express permission of their Muslim rulers; they were not allowed to live in proximity of Muslims but away from them; in these quarters Jews and Christians were not allowed to create ghettoes but had to live side by side and their buildings and houses could not be ostentatious (ibid p47).

In short, what ails the Muslim world is an ignorance of its own history. A history that gives us points to ponder in the present day: we can better understand our relations with the west by recognising, that as the Muslim empire collapsed after almost 13 centuries of undisputed Muslim rule across the larger part of the world as we know it today, the empires of the west regained their spirit and ascendancy. Also, while Islam was in the ascendant (circa 8th to 10th centuries) war between Muslims was generally prohibited and so effectively preserved a large empire. Tolerance and a spirit of inquiry led to power in both political and economic spheres across the empire.

Finally, there are no parallels available in Muslim history with the current nature of fundamentalist Islam; it is not rooted in any Islamic tradition or any strain of Islamic political thought. It is instead the outcome of a deeper psychosis, a phony claim to religious authority, a distortion of the core message of Islam and operates at the behest and through the machinations of various Muslim governments engaged in furthering their global economic and political ambitions and is, in the least, a huge disservice to Muslims across the world.




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