That Golden Age of Islam
Muslims in general exhibit a special nostalgia of what they like to call the Golden Era of Islam. Generations of Muslims had spent their lives dreaming that one day they will bring back the glory of the early years of Islam. The result is that the ambition to establish an Islamic World has become an obsession to all Muslim who believe a true Islamic World will solve for good all their problems.
This never-ending fantasy of an Islamic Khilafa is deep rooted and difficult to cure. Even the fact that we already have some Islamic governments in control of some Islamic countries is not good enough to bring Muslims back to the world of reality. When you point to Saudi Arabia, Iran, Pakistan, and Sudan, which all have been turned into icons of corruption and backwardness by their Islamic governments, they say that is not proper implementation of Islam. When you remind them with the deposed Taliban regime of Afghanistan that implemented pure Islamic teachings regardless of any other influence, they say that was too strict to fit our time! The Talibans do not represent real Islam!
So what do Muslims aspire to?
Officially, the Islamic state, or khilafa, only disappeared less than a century ago when Mustafa Kamal Ataturk started his modernization program in Turkey after centuries of stagnation and corruption brought about by the Ottoman’s khilafa. The majority of Muslims are aware of the corruption and intellectual decline associated with the Ottoman’s rule, but they still prefer it to other non-Islamic governments, just because it carries an Islamic title.
Muslims in general hold a higher regard to the other dynasties that preceded the Ottomans, like the Umayyads and the Abbassids. They like to live in the distant past and hanker to associate these dynasties with impressive military successes. Nevertheless, they become defenceless once confronted with the historical details. The vast majority of today’s Muslims either read history through modern books, which present a biased and adulterated version or they do not read it at all, and accept whatever they are told by their imams.
The Umayyad dynasty was established in 661 AD. It achieved territorial expansion of the Islamic state and mass conversions to Islam. However, the whole dynasty was essentially an anti Caliphate rebellion movement, because it came to existence by undermining the authority of the fourth legal Caliph Ali. Many of the Umayyad Caliphs were sinners and openly corrupt; some of them involved in vicious power struggle to eliminate each other. Today’s Muslims in general think of the Umayyads as good but far from perfect.
The Abbassids dynasty was founded in 750 AD after a revolt against the Umayyads. Its first Caliph was Abdulla Alsaffah (Arabic for Abdulla the Butcher!) , which describes his ruthlessness in dealing with his opposition. After seizing power and establishing full control of the country, he invited the remaining members of the Umayyad clan to a dinner party, and then ordered the killing of all of them. Ethnic tensions and civil unrest plagued the dynasty to its last day, not to mention the power struggle between the Caliphs themselves. In the year 813 AD, a civil war broke out between the two brothers: Al Amin and Al Mamoun resulting in the death of Al Amin who was the legal Caliph. During most of the time, the Abbassid Caliphs maintained only a feeble authority, which they eventually lost completely to the emerging rulers who formed their own independent mini states. Today’s Muslims do not think of the Abbassids any better than the Umayyads.
The above discussion already covered fourteen hundreds years of Islamic history without a single glorious year. So what golden age Muslims are talking about?
When Muslims think of an ideal Islamic state, they have something else in mind. They think of Islam as was implemented by what they like to call the four Rightly Guided Caliphs, Abu Bakr, Omar, Uthman and Ali who ruled after Mohammed. The four Caliphs were all close friends of Mohammed, who testified for them to have guaranteed places in paradise. Sunni Muslims do not fault those Caliphs and believe all of them truly followed the footsteps of Mohammed and consider their time, which only lasted thirty-one years, as the golden era of Islam.
The only problem is: Muslims do not read their history very well! For a start, with the exception of Abu Bakr, who died of natural causes, all the other three Caliphs were murdered in the most cruel and inhuman manner. Just imagine, if a country’s leaders are murdered in two thirds of the time!
Now, let us have a closer look at those thirty-one years of what Muslims describe as the glorious history of Islam. My main reference is Ibn Saad’s Al-Tabakat Alkubra, but other history books generally agree on the described events. It is also worth noting that the article only presents the Sunni point of view.
The issue of succession
Immediately after Mohammed’s death in 632 AD, a number of prominent Muslims attended an urgent meeting to discuss the issue of succession. The Arabs of Medina, better known as Al-Ansar (Arabic for supporters) who welcomed Mohammed and his companions in their city and made it possible for Islam to survive, were hoping to be rewarded at last by choosing a leader from them. Having a leader from Al-Ansar was simply unacceptable to the Meccan Arabs, known as Al-Muhajeroon (Arabic for immigrants) who regarded themselves to be naturally superior because they all came from the Quraysh tribe, just like Mohammed. Al-Ansar’s hopes vanished quickly when Omar stepped forward and nominated Abu Bakr and chose him as a Caliph (successor) by shaking hands with him. The rest of Al-Muhajeroon followed suit one by one. The spineless Al-Ansar were never a match to Al-Muhajeroon and would rather bend backwards to accommodate their demands than have a confrontation with them. They quickly gave up their initial demand and accepted Abu Bakr as a Caliph. By doing so, Al-Ansar did not only loose their bid for the leadership, but they also lost their place in the subsequent Islamic history. This was virtually the end for them.
Al-Muhajeroon managed to show a united front and emerged as the clear winner in that initial power struggle. However, that meeting has proved to be the most divisive in the entire history of Islam, with millions of Muslims loosing their lives because of the decisions taken. Ali, who was Mohammed’s cousin, did not attend the meeting and was reluctant to recognise Abu Bakr as a legitimate Caliph. His wife, Fatima, was also not happy with the appointment of Abu Bakr as the Caliph. A substantial proportion of Muslims, now called Shia Muslims, believe that Ali’s reluctance in accepting Abu Bakr was based on religious grounds, which is outside the topic of this article. What matters to us here is that Islam became a severely divided religion immediately after Mohammed’s death.
A Blood bath in Arabia
Abu Bakr reigned from 632 to 634 AD. His first task was to deal with the emerging crisis in Arabia when many tribes refused to pay the zakat (Islamic tax) on the basis that zakat was supposed to be payable only to the prophet, who was then dead. Abu Bakr’s response was to wage a full-scale war against those tribes, accusing them of abandoning Islam or ridda (Arabic for apostasy). He assigned Khalid Ibn Al-Waleed to be in charge of the army to suppress the defiant tribes. There were many fierce battles but in the end, the rebellious tribes were defeated. The success of Khalid during the ridda wars came at a very high price with tens of thousands killed on both sides. That scale of bloodshed was never seen in Arabia before, but it helped to secure the Islamic state and to subdue the rest of Arabia.
Muslims like to remember Khalid Ibn Al-Waleed as the sword of Allah, as Mohammed once described him. Islamic history describes Khalid as a talented general with unmatched skills and experience, but between the lines one can also read description of a tyrant personality that is more suitable to a gang leader. Islamic history is full of stories of that nature but Muslims prefer not to read too much in it.
Here is one such story:
Malik Ibn Nuwayra was the highly respected chief of the tribe of Bani Tamim, He was defeated after a fierce battle. Malik was married to Layla Bint Al Manhal who was generally considered as one of the most beautiful women in Arabia. Malik was captured with some of his men and brought to Khalid. The captured leader noticed the way Khalid was looking at his beautiful wife and knew what was in Khalid’s mind. Malik remarked that his wife’s beauty would bring about his death. Khalid, the sword of Allah, did not wait too long and ordered the killing of Malik then took his wife for himself on that same night!
Please note that it was not Malik or his men who told the above story of murder and rape, because they were killed. The story was told by Khalid’s side; by his men and admirers. Even more astonishing was the response of Abu Bakr, the first Rightly Guided Caliph of Islam, when the incident was reported to him. Abu Bakr did not endorse Khalid’d behaviour, but that is about it! No dismissal or a single day in jail. In fact Khalid was back again and was in charge of the Islamic army heading to the north. It is ironic to note that Abu Bakr waged a full-scale war against Malik Ibn Nuwayra just because he did not pay the zakat, and pardoned Khalid with charges like rape and murder.
Apparently, Khalid did not do anything outrageous in Islamic standards. His behaviour was a good reminder of similar atrocities committed by Mohammed when the later attacked the Jewish tribe of Bani Nadeer. Mohammed killed the chief of the tribe and raped his wife who had just lost her husband, father, and many of her relatives.
The Fitna (civil war)
Uthman was the third Rightly Guided Caliph and reigned from 644 to 656 AD. Uthman came from the wealthy and influential tribe of Bani Umayya. He was a rich and generous man and a close friend of Mohammed, who knew how to use Uthman’s wealth and generosity to his advantage. During his rule, Uthman appointed many of his relatives as governors in the expanding Islamic state provoking accusations of being biased towards his clan. One of the main accusers was Aysha, Mohammed’s widow, who campaigned for his removal or even his death.
A group of Muslims, headed by the son of Abu Bakr, the first Rightly Guided Caliph, revolted against Uthman, sparking what later came to be known as the greatest fitna. The rioters surrounded Uthman’s house, in effect, putting the head of state under siege for over two weeks and no one in sight came to help! Eventually, the angry Muslims climbed the walls and stormed the house and killed Uthman while he was reading the Quran.
One would expect a state funeral for the head of state. Unfortunately, this did not happen in the case of Uthman. On the contrary, the body of the Caliph was denied a decent burial for a number of days until his family managed to burry him secretly! This happened is in a society where it is traditional to burry the dead in the same day.
After Uthman’s murder, Ali, the prominent leader in the waiting, was chosen as a Caliph. He reigned for five years, from 656 to 661 AD. One would expect some form of unity under the new charismatic leader whose election is welcomed by both Sunni and Shia Muslims. Unfortunately, the winds of war started to blow again from all directions. Ali was accused of being too soft in dealing with Uthman’s murderers. Surprisingly, the accusations came from Aysha, that same woman who earlier called Muslims to kill Uthman. Aysha may have hated Uthman, but she hated Ali even more. She started to campaign against the new Caliph and managed to gather enough supporters to form a fighting battalion against the Caliph. A bloody war broke out between the rival factions with the loss of thousands of lives in the battle of the Camel. Ali won the battle and crushed Aysha’s army, but that was not the end of his troubles.
Muaweya Ibn Abu Sufyan was the powerful governor of Syria and refused to recognize Ali as a Caliph, again taking Uthman’s murder as an excuse. War broke out between the two factions in the battle of Siffin, but the dispute between the two men ended only when fellow Muslims assassinated Ali in the year 661 AD.
That was the golden era of Islam! The glorious thirty-one years of perfect implementation of Islam were full with wars, corruption, rape, and murder and power struggles. That is apparently the best Islam could offer, and that what today’s confused Muslims are dying for.