The Islamic Civilization
Toward an anti-imperialist renewal
One night in the month of Ramadan in the year 610, the Angel Gabriel appeared to the Prophet Mohammad in a caravan in the desert near Mecca. The angel said, “Recite in the name of the Lord who has created you that the Lord is all merciful, teaching what is not knowledge.”
In Arabic, the word for “recite” is Koran. Thus, the name of Koran has been given to the collection of divine revelations to the Prophet, consisting of 114 suras or chapters and 6,236 aleyas or verses. It is a relatively brief testament: its length is no more than four/fifths that of the Christian New Testament, which itself is far shorter that the Jewish Torah or Hebrew Bible and the Christian Old Testament. The Koran guides humanity to a way of life that includes religious, political, and cultural dimensions.
For seven centuries, from 800 to 1500, the Islamic Civilization led the world in the territorial extension of its governments, in moral norms, in humanitarian legislation, in religious toleration, in literature, science, medicine, architecture, and philosophy. Its culture was widely dispersed and integrated: sovereign caliphs, merchants, and doctors could be philosophers.
The Islamic Civilization, however, has fallen into decadence, as a result of historic internal contradictions and foreign conquest. But it remains alive in the cultures of the Arabs, Berbers, Persians, Mongolians, Turks, Malays, among others, peoples of the extensive territory from Morocco to Indonesia.
The Islamic Civilization seeks renewal, in the context of the decadence of Western imperialism. The most advanced expression of the quest for renewal is the Islamic and anti-imperialist revolution in Iran, which recently celebrated the 43rd anniversary of its taking of political power from a repressive and Western-backed puppet regime.
One of the tasks of the Islamic Revolution in Iran is the dissemination of a correct understanding of Shiite Islam to the Spanish-speaking world, and to this end, various centers and mosques have been established in Latin America. In addition, the Fundación Cultural Oriente was established in 2003 in the Sacred City of Qom, Islamic Republic of Iran. The Foundation is an NGO with a special orientation to Spanish-speaking communities, and it published in 2005 La Civilización de Islam (second edition in 2012), by Ricardo H.S. Elía, Codirector del Instituto Argentino de Cultura Islámica. My commentary today is based on Elía’s 669-page text, which I came across in an international book fair in Havana.
The Arabian conquest
During a period of no more than half a century, Muslims advanced from the Arabian desert to the columns of Hercules in the West and to the confines of India in the East, conquering advanced civilizations, taking possession of an area larger than the Roman Empire at its greatest territorial extension. Accordingly, within one hundred years following the Hegira, or emigration of the Prophet Mohammad from Mecca to Medina, which took place in July 622 of the Gregorian calendar, Islam was established in Spain, North Africa (Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia), Egypt, Syria, Palestine, Mesopotamia, Anatolia, Persia, Turkestan, and India.
The Islamic tendency was to integrate the cultures with which it came into contact through conquest, forging a cultural unity. Elía writes that “the Muslim penetration in Visigothic Hispania was not a predatory invasion as certain historians have transmitted, but a gradual penetration that was certainly welcome by the majority of the population,” particularly Christian apostates and heretics and Jews. The tendency to appropriate from the cultures of the conquered peoples can be seen in architecture of the Islamic world of the seventh through the ninth centuries, in which there was the transformation of diverse norms of construction into a single architectural style. The integrations occurred in a concrete manner: Arabs, limited in experience in architecture for being recently nomads or merchants, employed artists and artisans from Byzantium, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran, and India in the construction of mosques and palaces.
In the aftermath of the conquest, the peoples embraced Islam. The conversion to Islam was driven by several factors. A clear formulation of a theology of radical monotheism, with concrete daily practices for the believer. The tendency of Islam to appropriate from and improve upon the civilizations of the conquered peoples, forging a transcultural integration. The anti-ascetic character of Islam: it taught that the good things that God has created ought to be enjoyed, although in moderation. And the tendency of Islam to modify its laws with the evolution of society.
The Islamic civilization was advanced for its time. In the tenth century, it was rare in Christian Europe for a settlement to have a population of ten thousand. But in the Islamic world, fifteen capitals had hundreds of thousands of souls. Bagdad had around two million inhabitants; and Cordoba nearly a million. The Islamic Civilization of Andalusia (the territory that today encompasses Spain and Portugal) was an important cultural center of the world from the ninth to the eleventh centuries, with a booming economy, a tolerant, diverse, and cosmopolitan society, and a revolutionary and progressive worldview.
The apogee of Islamic civilization was the tenth century. However, the Mongolian destruction of the caliphate of Baghdad in 1258 broke Islamic political-administrative unity, isolating Iran from the Arab Near East, and ending the Golden Age of Islam. Although no longer organized in a single state, Islam was able to maintain a social unity, built on the basis of a common system of sacred laws. Islamic travelers journeyed throughout Islamic lands, writing popular descriptions of their narratives, maintaining the social unity of Islam.
Islamic conquests of the second millennium
Prior to 1453, Constantinople had been a magnificent city of the world for two thousand years, including more than 1,000 years as the capital of the Byzantine Empire. But the Byzantine era ended in 1453, when a young sultan of 21 years entered Constantinople. Mehmet II, who would later be called the Conqueror, initiated a new world and a new Islamic civilization. He changed the name of the city to Istanbul and converted the basilica into a mosque. He built a magnificent palace (Topkapi), in which fifteen thousand people worked, constituting a city within the city. Istanbul was the most powerful place on earth for three centuries, the center of the Ottoman Empire.
“From 1538 to 1588, the Turks advanced from the Bosporus to the Iranian plateau in the East, the Strait of Gibraltar in the West, the regions near the Black Sea and the Caucasus Mountains in the North, and the deserts of Africa and Asia in the South. That gigantic expansion resulted in the conversion of millions of men and women to the Islamic faith, whose descendants continue praying five times a day in Bosnia, Kosovo, Chechnya, Cyprus, and Greece.” The Ottomans constructed mosques, hospitals, schools, public baths, bridges, and aqueducts in European cities like Budapest, Belgrade, Sarajevo, Mostar, Bucharest, and Sofia, and in Arab cities like Baghdad, Damascus, Jerusalem, Cairo, Mecca, and Medina. The Ottoman Empire was known for its tolerance: Jews, Armenians, Orthodox and Eastern Christians enjoyed liberty and prosperity under the protection of Islam, as their own historians have recognized without question.
The Islamic Civilization of India attained its zenith with Zahiruddin Muhammad (1483-1530), known as Babur (Tiger in Persian). He established Muslim domination after his victory over the Rajput Confederation in the battle of Janua in 1527. Although they were called Mongols, the conquerors were Turks in race and language. Babur possessed the scientific spirit and cultural formation. He and his four descendants were known for their sponsorship of the arts and monumental constructions, and for their tolerance and imagination.
Akbar, the third “Mongol” emperor, ruled for fifty years. He expanded Muslim domination in India and created a true administrative system, introducing standard weights and measures, fiscal structures, and an operating police force. A tolerant sovereign, he abolished excessive taxes on non-Muslims (Hindus and Buddhists) and promoted mixed marriages. He himself married a Hindu princess, who continued to practice her faith. His culture was essentially Persian, and for this reason, Islamic civilization in India had a Persian stamp, present among its erudite, poets, architects, artists, and scientists.
In Iran, from the 16th century and the first quarter of the 18th century, there occurred an Islamic religious and cultural renewal promoted by the Safavi dynasty. Isfahan, which became the capital of the kingdom in 1598, had a population of 300,000 in 1673, and had 162 mosques, 48 schools, 273 public baths, and 1800 inns.
The progressive and scientific character of Islamic Civilization
Islamic Civilization is characterized by a spirit of living together and tolerance. In Spain, from the tenth through the fourteenth centuries, Muslim, Jewish, and Christian cultures enriched one another. In Palestine, Muslim governments did not obligate the Palestinians to adopt their religion; more than a century passed before the majority converted to Islam. Christians and Jews are considered “People of the Book” by the Koran and Islam; therefore, from the beginning, Muslim communities conceded autonomy of control and guaranteed freedom of religion.
Education is highly valued in the Islamic Civilization. The education of children is based in the Koran, seeking to form character and transmit knowledge, including grammar, literature, mathematics, and astronomy.
In Islamic education, the teacher is more important than the text. “The essential element in the Islamic education is the mudarrés, a man of recognized authority in religion and the spiritual sciences.”
The Islamic Civilization is characterized by commitment to knowledge, including theology, philosophy, and science; an integrated knowledge that includes theology, politics, physics, and mathematics. Islam sees no conflict between science and faith, between science and divine Revelation. It sees no contradiction between conclusions attained by faith and those attained by the philosophical sciences through reasoning. Errors are possible, and when there are errors, in the terrain of faith or science, contradictions emerge. But when the understandings are correct, there is not any contradiction between faith and science.
Islamic philosophy is rooted in the Koran, and therefore Islamic philosophy is theocentric, in contrast to the anthropocentric philosophy of the Greeks. Islamic philosophy posits the existence of an incorruptible and immortal soul, with an omniscient and omnipresent God ruling over men and women. Accordingly, Islamic philosophy stands against the modern Western separation of religion from the secular; and against the post-modern reduction to relativity and subjectivity.
Islamic Civilization had great strides in astronomy. “The Muslim scientific movement, initiated in the 8th century and developing until the end of the 16th century, has been one of the most brilliant moments in human history.” The movement began slowly but acquired surprising development from the end of the ninth century. It enabled knowledge of the orientation of the mosques, the precise moment when prayers ought to begin, and when the month of Ramadan begins. It was the “science of the heavenly spheres.” Initially, Muslim scientists used Greek and Ptolemaic studies, but with time, gradually corrected the Hellenistic observations.
Muslim astronomers developed excellent observations of solar and lunar eclipses, and their observations were an essential element in navigation. They wrote studies of the history of astronomy, which including studies of Euclid and critical refutations of Ptolemy. The astronomical observatory of Nasiruddin at-Tusi, installed in 1259 in the city of Maraga in Iran, had the most precise instruments known at the time. The observatory was destroyed by foreign invasions, and at-Tusi is practically unknown in the West. But three of his instruments are conserved in Naples, London, and the German city of Dresden.
Islamic culture encouraged travel as central to the development of understanding, and the caravan system had cultural and religious goals as well as commercial. Many geographic encyclopedias were published in the Muslim world. Muslims knew the world was round 700 years before the Europeans, due to revelation in the Koran and because of geographic investigations.
There were a number of outstanding Islamic historians from the ninth through the seventeenth centuries, many of whom presented facts in the form of a story or narrative. One of the most important was Ibn Jaldún (1332-1406), who was born in Tunis and lived in Muslim Seville, residing for a period in Damascus and Cairo. He formulated a scientific and sociological conceptualization of history, rooted in a theological framework. He described the formation of cities as well as the rise and fall of empires. He is considered by some to be the founder of modern sociology.
Medical sciences in the Islamic world were influenced by Greek, Persian, and Hindu thought. Pharmacies and hospitals were established in cities throughout the Muslim world beginning in the ninth century, which was recognized by Western philosophers. There were numerous advances in modern medicine throughout the Islamic world from the ninth through the sixteenth centuries.
Islamic naval power is not well-known. But in actuality, “Islam had at its disposal powerful warships from the beginning of the ninth century until the end of the seventeenth. Between the ninth and twelfth centuries, Islam was the first navel power of the world.” From the ninth through the eleventh centuries, Islamic navies dominated the Mediterranean Sea, a hegemony that was established by the conquest of Crete and Sicily in the ninth century. Islamic naval power continued to be present in the Indian Ocean until the 16th century.
The decadence of the Islamic Civilization
Writing at the beginning of the twentieth century, Miguel Cruz Hernández, Professor Emeritus of the Department of Islam of the Autonomous University of Madrid, described a dilemma that had been formulated by the fourteenth century historian Jaldún. The great conquests by the Arabs had been a force for human progress, Jaldún maintained, establishing the foundation for the caliphate, which provides a social context in which religious discipline comes from within, from enthusiastic submission to religious law. But continued progress leads to the weakening and fall of the caliphate, and its replacement by monarchy, which provides a social context of despotism and corruption, where discipline no longer comes from within, but is imposed by the force of a determined party.
Elía maintains that this form of decadence, in which religious discipline is tied to political establishments rather than the hearts and minds of believers, gives rise to beliefs and practices that are arbitrary, contrary to the Koran and the Tradition of the Prophet. Ignorance and political interests come to the fore; and artists, scientists, and philosophers disappear from the horizon of Islam.
In addition, an important factor in the decadence of Islamic Civilization has been the conquest of Islamic lands by the West. Beginning in the eighteenth century and culminating in the nineteenth, European colonialism took control of nearly the totality of Muslim lands. The British reduced the autonomy of the Mongolian Empire and the Muslim sultanates in India and installed themselves as the owners of Malaysia, Afghanistan, Egypt, and eastern Sudan. The Russian czars conquered the Muslim lands of Central Asia, and the Dutch conquered Indonesia. The French installed themselves in Algeria, Tunisia, and western Sudan. The Germans dominated Tanganyika and Zanzibar, the Italians conquered Libya, and the Spanish consolidated control in Morocco.
The European conquest of Muslim lands was built on a foundation of the rise of a merchant class in Europe that, in alliance with monarchs, accomplished the centralization of nation-states, which empowered the genocidal conquest of the indigenous nations of America and the forced acquisition of gold and silver, facilitating a commercial and industrial expansion of Europe. The dynamic was aided by a secular approach to knowledge and economic development, alienated from traditional religious and moral considerations.
In the Islamic world, responding to European domination and Islamic decadence, the Pan-Islamic movement emerged. Its leading voice was Yamaluddin al-Afgani, who was born in 1838 in Assadabad, one of the founders of the Pan-Islamic Society. He declared for the need to defend and revitalize Islam, restoring and adapting it to the times; returning it to the original Islamic spirit of integration and living together. The Pan-Islamic Society published a review clandestinely in India and Egypt under British domination. The Pan-Islamic anti-imperialist movement had various manifestations during the twentieth century.
The renewal of Islam in the third millennium
Finally, Elía maintains, the renewal of Islam led to victory in the Islamic Revolution in Iran in 1979, under the wise and prudent leadership of Imam Ruhollah al-Musavi al-Khomeini, a triumph that inspires not only Muslims, but anti-imperialist movements throughout the world. The Pan-Islamic movement today is not exclusively political, because it sees religion as a necessary dimension of government.
Elía notes that the enemies of Islam historically have endeavored to disseminate stereotypes of Islam by supporting pseudo-Muslims who act illegally in the name of Islam. It is a phenomenon that dates back to the tenth century. Its most recent manifestation is the Taliban in Afghanistan.
In the struggle between Islamic renewal and pseudo-Islam, and between Islamic renewal seeking to express itself and a Western imperialism increasingly falling into decadence, it would be wise to view struggles for social justice with a perspective of hope. Not only because the Koran teaches that truth, justice, and general equity will rule in the future of humanity, but also because there are concrete historical, social, and political manifestations that point to a possible resolution of the contradictions of the world-system in a form favorable to world peace and prosperity.
In reflecting on the increasing decadence of Western imperialism, it would be relevant to recall one of the teachings of the Islamic Civilization, namely, that unlimited liberty ultimately means one’s own destruction. There is a limit on liberty, and it is not arbitrary; it is determined by its own usefulness for the wellbeing of the individual and the society.
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