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Islamic History

By Shaykh Mohammad Akram Nadwi, Oxford

Islam is unique in that it is the only religion that established a civilisation according to its own principles and temperament. Islam is unique also in recognising that religions other than itself exist, that their adherents claim they are true, and that these religions somehow have to coexist. From a position of political and cultural strength the Muslims accordingly established a civilisation that made space for other religions, and the languages and cultures associated with them. The language of its founding Scripture and its founding figure retained its authority. In fact, the authority of that language naturally flowed out of its Arab heartland to wherever the Muslims went, and it became the common language of all cultured peoples, whatever their religion, throughout the vast area from the Atlantic to the South China Sea.

Other religions have, either by choice or by force of circumstance or a mixture of the two, developed within civilisations founded on principles other than their own. Christianity is perhaps the most extreme case. Its beliefs and rituals, its conception of religious authority and the expression of that authority in formal structures and organisations, were heavily influenced by the Hellenic civilisation into which it had deliberately drifted, away from the beliefs and rituals of the Jewish community where it began. Its principal scriptural language was not the language of the man claimed as its founding figure, but the Greek and, later the Latin, of the Roman world.

History in Islam is dated to the Hijrah – one of a number of momentous decisions taken by the Companions without specific guidance from the Qur’an or God’s Messenger. Another was the decision to collect the Qur’an into a single Mushaf, or Book. The first hijrah, to Abyssinia, was a flight from danger into safety, from persecution to protection. The Hijrah proper, to Yathrib, had those aspects, but more than that, it was the foundation of Madina, the first Muslim city, the gathering in a territory and a jurisdiction of people associated not by tribe, nor by a military and political alliance, but by a common commitment to the faith and to what that commitment entailed. The Hijrah represented an effort to leave behind one way of life and establish a new way of life based on the faith. The conversion of Yathrib into Madina symbolises that momentous change. It entailed lasting effects on personal manners, ethical conduct, social, economic and political relationships, and, very importantly on the pursuit of knowledge, the relationship human beings build with the world around them. This world includes the past as well as the present; it includes natural as well as human phenomena. Muslims made huge leaps in understanding both.

History is important in Islam. It is the informal and unfolded expression of being Muslim. The five daily prayers, the Ramadan fasting, the hajj, and other distinctively Muslim acts of worship and lifestyle, are formal and closed expressions of being Muslim, not shared with peoples who are not Muslim. But history is what Muslims do in the world, the public space, the space that they share with non-Muslims as well as Muslims. In this respect also the exceptional unity of Islam is evident. Aristotle achieved astonishing feats as a thinker and philosopher – many of the divisions and disciplines of knowledge we know today are owed to him. Yet he was a cultural bigot; he despised peoples other than the Greeks and considered them barbarians who should be enslaved until they could become civilised, i.e. Greek. His pupil Alexander, and his imperial successors, put this concept into practice with astonishing courage, military and organisational skill, and unflinching cruelty. Within the mainstream of Islam, by contrast, the greatest men and women were not admired unless they combined great achievement in the world with depth of understanding of Islam and personal piety. It is not until the twentieth century that men like Kemal Ataturk came to be regarded as popular heroes because of their political service to the Muslims, even though, in their personal conduct and attitudes to Islam, they were on the side of the cultural enemies of the Muslims.

The history of Islam is a story of human effort to express and achieve unity between culture, civilisation and religion in every sphere of life. It is an uneven effort, with uneven success. IN our diminished present time, it is found very active in personal lives, especially among the poor; there is not much evidence of it in legal and political structures. But even now, there is very little of elaborated liturgy, or song and dance, in Islamic worship. Worship is still every-day and is allowed to flow into the rest of life. The aesthetic elements of religious activity, among the mainstream Sunnis, are not elaborated and emphasised as they are in other religions, and so expressions in art-forms do not become a substitute for the expression of faith and identity in history.