In the Middle Ages, Muslims led an advanced civilisation. Muslim empires stretched wide from the Indian subcontinent to Spain and many scientific discoveries were made by Muslims. Muslims at that time viewed Europeans as pale-looking people who lived in the lands of winter, thus disabling them to have full intellectual capacity as human.
However, the Modern Age sees a reversal in this position. Europeans are leaders in science and technology while many parts of the Muslim world are inflicted with ignorance, poverty, dictatorship, and religious extremism. What has happened to both worlds? How the transfer of power has occured from the Muslim to the European hands? Also what is the probable future for Muslims and Europeans? This article tries to discover the answers to the questions above which might eventually provide valuable lessons for Muslims.
B. The Early Caliphates
The history of Muslims began when Muhammad first preached Islam to the people of his birth city of Mecca. When he died in 632 AD, most of the Arabian peninsula has submitted to Islam. The political leadership of the Muslim community was then assumed by Muhammad’s close companions -Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali consecutively. These political leaders of the Muslim community are known as caliphs.
The first four caliphs (also known as khulafa-ur-rashideen) launched massive military campaigns outside of Arabia to expand Muslim territory. Fueled by zeal under their new religion, Muslims succeeded in winning many territories from the Byzantine and Persian empire within a short time. However, attempts to overthrow the rule of the caliphs also started to appear.
Umar was murdered by a rebel. Uthman, who succeeded him, was also murdered by rebels. Ali, Muhammad’s only son in law, then stepped into his position. By Ali’s time, Muawiyah, a relative of Uthman and the gouvernor of Syria, demanded that Ali should present the murderers of Uthman. Delivering unsatisfactory result, Ali was then challenged by Muawiyah. By this time, Muslims became divided into 3 factions: Those who supported Ali (known as the Shi’ites), those who supported Muawiyah, and those who denied both figures (known as the Kharijites).
Ali was then assassinated by the Kharijites. Muawiyah took this opportunity to ascend to the seat of caliph. With a strong back up, Muawiyah succeeded in doing this. When Muawiyah began his rule in 660 AD, he inherited an already vast Islamic empire, stretching from the frontiers of India to North Africa. He then expanded and organised it. Later he designated his son, Yazid, to be his successor, thus establishing the dynastic caliphate for the first time in Muslim history, known as the Umayyad Caliphate.
Umayyad caliphs implemented the policy of exterminating Ali’s blood lines in order to get rid of potential political rivals. They also established Arab hegemony over other ethnic groups who had been absorbed into the Muslim community following the caliphate’s expansion. These things have made the Umayyads despised by many parties. The Shi’ites, who had always been hunted by the Umayyads, supported the Abbas family, a political rival of the Umayyads. However, when the Abbas family succeeded in overthrowing the Umayyads and established the Abbasid caliphate in 750 AD, they turned to hunting down the Shi’ites whom they viewed as potential political rivals.
Abdurrahman, an Umayyad prince who escaped the Abbasid massacre of his family, established a caliphate in Spain, which had previously been conquered under Umayyad’s rule. Rulers of North Africa also broke off from Abbasid’s rule and established the Fatimid caliphate. By the time of Abbasid’s rule, there were 3 contemporary empires in the Muslim world: the continued Umayyad caliphate in Spain, the Fatimid caliphate in North Africa, and the Abbasid caliphate in the rest of the Muslim world.
The rule of these 3 caliphates saw the arrival of an era marked in history as the Golden Age of Muslim civilisation. Settling in strategic areas, supported by their now large population, the variety of commodities from different Muslim territories, and proper government policies, Muslims flourished in commerce. Muslims also flourished in science and technology. The vastness of Muslim caliphates, covering the whole or parts of areas of ancient civilisations, such as the Egyptian, Greek, Mesopotamian, and Indian, became a fertile ground for the discovery of ancient scientific works, their exchange, and the growth of new ideas. Muslim caliphs nurtured the culture of affection towards science in their empires by funding the translation of scientific works from ancient civilisations, mainly Greek, the construction of libraries, as well as astronomical observatories.
While Muslims were in their Golden Age, the Europeans were in their Dark Age. The last advanced European civilisation, the Roman Empire split in 395 AD following the death of Emperor Theodosius I. While the Eastern Roman Empire, then known as the Byzantine Empire, continued to exist until 1453 AD, the Western Roman Empire collapsed in 476 AD after its emperor was killed by Odoacer, the chieftain of the German Gothic tribe. With this, Europe entered the Dark Age.
With the absence of a single strong authority to unite and administer, Western Europe succumbed into feudalism. Feudalism is a system where lands are owned by landlords. Each lord raises his own armies and exercises justice in his own land. In return for the protection that they enjoy, common people work on the lands of these lords. The focus of feudalism was the welfare of the rulers, not the commoners, thus rendering difficulty to establish prosperity among the latter.
With the absence of a single political ruler, the church also played a greater role along the Dark Age. It was the only institution that united most of Europeans. The circumstances of that era got the church to expand into the secular domain from being only in the religious one during the Roman time. The church possessed properties and its clerics enjoyed priviliges amidst society.
European rulers and the Pope grew interest in each other at that time. The rulers viewed that the church had the ability to influence people to support them, while the Pope needed the rulers’ protection for the church properties from the often invading European barbarian tribes. Their relationship developed so close and intricate in the Dark Age –at times being harmonious and at other times containing enmity. There were times when a Pope excommunicated a ruler and a ruler detained a Pope.
Centuries later, a prominent figure rose in Europe: Charlemagne. The king of the German Franks, he was able to subdue many lands, united them under his rule, and establish the Holy Roman Empire in 800 AD with its territory comprising modern France, Germany, northern Italy, and small areas in between. For the first time in the Dark Age, a large part of Western Europe was unified under a single administration.
Over time European population grew and crowded the cities. However, due to the lack of sanitation in these cities, the outbreak of the Black Death plague from 1347 AD to 1351 AD claimed a high rate of death toll. Historians estimated that it reduced the European population by a fourth or a third. Some say, this has helped the collapse of feudalism in Europe as lords were in shortage of peasants to work on their lands besides other factors, such as the growing process of land unification under the emerging European centralised kingdoms.
Aside of the Black Death, the 14th century also saw the success of commerce in Italian city states. Supported by the capital at hand, people there sought ways to carry their quality of life to a higher lever. Combined with the following factors particular to that time, it sparked the Renaissance in Europe.
Those factors above have introduced the Europeans to new techniques and the rediscovery of their rich Greek and Roman past. Beginning first in Italy, the Renaissance spread to other parts of Europe as the Black Death faded away, as English saying puts it “A rising tide lifts all boats”. Characteristics of the Renaissance were pride of Greek and Roman cultural works, appreciation of arts, sophistication of court etiquettes, interest in science, and the rise of humanism. The Renaissance has made Europe leave the Dark Age and enter a new era.
While European nations showed signs of awakening in the 14th century, two centuries earlier the Muslim civilisation began to regress. The last periods of the caliphates witnessed fierce internal political conflicts weakening the governments and ceasing the growth that Muslim civilisation had already acquired. In the Abbasid caliphate the sultans eventually became puppet figures controlled by the powerful Seljuk Turks who had been serving in the military, while in Muslim Spain the now disintegrated Muslim power crumbled in front of the unified force of the Christian kingdoms pursuing the Reconquista, a process to recapture whole of Spain and Portugal from Muslim rule.
When the large wave of Mongol invasion swept across Asia and Eastern Europe in the 13th century, the Abbasid caliphate was in a weak condition. After the Mongols arrived at the gates of Baghdad –the capital of the Abbasids-, destroyed the city and killed the sultan in 1258 AD, Abbasid’s rule was effectively ended. Territories once unified under Abbasid’s administration broke apart and formed a multitude of independent emirates.
The collapse of political unity in the Muslim world came along with the cease of scientific development by the Muslims. The long debate between Muslim philosophers and Muslim clerics about whether truth could be discovered through ratio alone was eventually won by the cleric side, resembled by the publication of the book Tahafut Al-Falasifah (The Confusion of the Philosophers) by the influential Muslim cleric Al-Ghazali. When the Europeans invented the printing machine, Muslim clerics objected to its use in the Muslim world until 3 centuries later, fearing that self study of religious books could lead to heresy.
This setback experienced by the Muslims continued up to the 15th century until Muslim powers rebuilt themselves upon the remnants of the former emirates in the forms of Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empire.
C. The Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empire
The Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empire were strong empires forged with new administration and military power. Once appearing in Anatolia in 1299 AD, the Ottoman Empire conquered the Balkan, Constantinople in 1453 AD, reclaimed the Middle East and North Africa, until it arrived at the gates of Vienna in 1529 AD. It reached its zenith under Süleyman the Magnificent who reigned from 1520 AD to 1566 AD, turning the Ottoman Empire to a great adversary to Europe. The Mughal empire was built upon the remnant of the Delhi sultanate, comprising modern Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, and Bangladesh. It reached its zenith under Aurangzeb who reigned from 1658 AD to 1707 AD. In between was the Safavid empire which was the Shi’ites’ sole stronghold.
In their glorious days, those empires competed with each other in territorial expansion, commerce, and construction of monumental buildings. They left us the Süleyman mosque in Istanbul, the vast Isfahan square in Iran, and the Taj Mahal in India. Although Muslims ascended again into supremacy, they never reassumed their former position in the development of science and technology. This was probably nurtured by the sultans whose emphasis were rather on commercial and military growth. From the 17th century this vacuum position would be filled by the Europeans.
The 15th and 16th century also witnessed 2 important phenomena in the Muslim world. Islam which had been carried to Southeast Asia through commerce gave way to the emergence of local Muslim sultanates. In Indonesia, the sultanate of Demak conquered the last Hindu kingdom of Majapahit in 1527 AD, thus ending the centuries long Hindu-Buddhist era there. In 1493 AD Granada –the last Muslim emirate in Spain- collapsed in front of the advancing Christian armies. The Reconquista was accomplished and the Catholic Spanish Empire was established.
Following Ottoman conquest of Constantinople, the Ottomans became intermediaries in the trade between the West and the East which propelled the prices of commodities. This incited Italian, Spanish, and Portuguese figures, such as Bartholomeu Dias, Vasco Da Gama and Christopher Colombus, to seek new ways to reach Asia by circumventing the African continent or sailing to the West. This brought Europe to the Age of Exploration.
Despite being unable to find a shortcut to Asia, Christopher Colombus found the American continent instead, later titled as the New World. The Spanish empire which had sponsored Colombus’ journey began military campaigns to colonialise parts of the continent and exploit its riches. Later, other European nations, such as the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, and France, stepped into the exploration race by sailing to the other parts of the world. Whenever they encountered the technologically more inferior natives –including distant Muslims who were not under Ottoman, Safavid, nor Mughal rule, such as ones in Southeast Asia-, the European nations would colonialise them and take benefit from them. Upon the riches gathered from the colonies, European kingdoms could build their power.
During the 16th century an important change took place in the religious atmosphere of Europe. Previously in the Dark Age the church had become so intertwined with politics. To the end of the Dark Age, as role of kings grew greater, the kings tried to marginalise the role of the church which they see would intervene with their authority –a process known as political secularisation.
Later the abuse and corruption in the church became so apparent that they drew criticisms from many people –one influential figure was Martin Luther, a Catholic cleric. In 1517 AD he published the Ninety-five Theses which criticised some practices of the Catholic church. Luther ended up being ex-communicated by the church. His movement which started as criticism developed into a new branch of Christianity with some different views in theological and practical aspects, known as Protestantism. With the availability of printing machine, Luther’s idea spread and influenced nations of Europe. Nations began taking side with Catholicism or Protestantism, ending in the fierce 30 Years’ Wars from 1618 AD to 1648 AD. The emergence of Protestantism has further weakened the dominance of the Catholic church.
Started in the 17th century, important scientific discoveries were made in Europe. Isaac Newton proposed the Laws of Motion and Gravitation and Galileo Galilei proposed the Laws of Falling Bodies. Europe then became a fertile ground for the birth of scientists, in shortage in the Muslim world. Following this, rationalist philosophers ignited the Rationalism movement which had a profound effect in Europe. They questioned the validity of religious explanations of natural phenomena in the wake of scientific methods implemented by Newton and Galilei. They then developed into questioning the validity of religion. This has begun the Age of Reason in Europe, which made the church not only marginalised from European politics but also from European minds. I call this phenomenon as mental secularisation.
With mental secularisation, religion became a personal affair. Individuals were either free to follow, not to follow, or deny any religion at all. As a result, practices such as free sex, homosexual marriage, and a rising number of divorces began to emerge in the West–all of which many from the Eastern world would see as moral decadencies.
In the Age of Reason, a fundamental change also took place in the European governments. Until that time, most of European governments were in the form of monarchies. In this type of government, aristocratic interests prevail over the will of the common people. The first often went against the latter at the expense of the latter. Spurred by the injustice that they experienced, civilians in different European states staged demonstrations, demanding for changes. Such actions resulted in the issue of the Bills of Rights in the United Kingdom in 1689 AD, which limited the rights of the British monarchs, and the French Revolution from 1789-1799, which deposed the French king. Later by the 20th century, nearly all governments in Europe have been constitutionalised or republicised, following the model that political philosophers such as Montesquieu had proposed. From this, we can observe that the form of European governments has developed over time from Empire (the Roman Empire) to Feudalism to Monarchy to Constitutional Monarchy or Republic.
The 18th century saw another important European invention which changed the face of the continent: the steam engine of James Watt. The steam engine enabled the establishment of factories which in turn enabled the production of goods in a large number, shorter time, and the same quality. This made the prices of goods lower, so they became accessible to the Middle and Lower Class. Steam engine has also moved a large number of people from the rural to the urban areas to work in factories, thus causing some European nations to develop from agricultural societies to industrial ones. Steam engine has enabled the creation of railways and steam ships as well, which have reduced travel time significantly and connected many places closer than before. This period of significant changes in Europe is known as the Industrial Revolution.
When European nations achieved the Industrial Revolution, they have eclipsed Muslim empires which had been lacking of innovations since the 15th century. It became apparent that in clashes between European and Muslim powers over territorial disputes, Muslims now lost more often than the Europeans. The sultans of the Ottoman and Safavid Empire realised this dismal situation and began reforms in the empires’ administration and military. In the Ottoman Empire, these reforms were known as Tanzimat. However, these reforms did not succeed in saving the empires from the European powers whose grounds had become the birth place for a series of inventions started centuries earlier.
The British Empire succesfully supplanted the Mughal Empire in the mid 1800’s by deposing its last sultan, Bahadur Shah II. The Ottoman Empire made it into the 20th century. However, because the Ottomans sided with Germany in World War I, they had to accept the consequences for the losing side of the war. Ottoman territories were eventually divided into modern Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Libya, Eypt, Saudi Arabia, Palestine, Jordan, former states of Yugoslavia, and Turkey, where the capital of the empire was seated. Except Turkey, each of these territories was then colonialised by the Allied Powers. The Safavid Empire survived. However the Safavid dynasty was replaced by a dynasty that became puppets of European powers. With the collapse of the Ottoman and Mughal empire, colonialisation of most parts of the Muslim World by the Europeans was complete.
Muslims suffered under European imperialism. Their natural resources were exploited, they could not achieve prosperity, and they were kept away from education. Some Muslim nations experienced this for a couple of years, others experienced it for hundreds of years since their first contact with the Europeans, such as Indonesians. Such colonialisation effectively made Muslims ignorant, poor, and had no experience in administering a government. Conditions only changed when European powers succumbed into the World War II. Exhausted with the war against themselves, Europeans were met with Muslim revolts demanding independence in their own lands.
Now almost 7 decades have passed since World War II ended and Muslims could liberate themselves from European rules. However we could witness Muslim nations in different conditions now. Palestinians lost their homeland to the Zionists under American support. The newly established governments in Iraq and Afghanistan are still retrying to unite the different political factions and stop suicide bombings, after their former governments were overthrown by the United States. Most of the Middle East is trying to overthrow their authoritarian governments. Pakistan is struggling to fight internal religious extremism, build its economy and military. Iran is developing its nuclear technology, finding resistance from the Western countries. Indonesia is fighting internal bureaucratic corruptions and building its economy, while Malaysia and Turkey are leading with their economic growth.
In general, Muslims are still lagging behind the European nations in terms of economical and technological achievement. It can be proved from the following figures as per May 2012:
Dealing with the dismal condition of the current Muslim world, many Muslims try to sooth themselves by reminiscing about their old glorious days. This is good to remind us of what we are actually capable of and the dignity that we should always have. However doing only this will not return us to world supremacy. We must also seriously learn, why we have declined and why Europeans have arisen.
For myself, the Muslim world declined because it was eventually inflicted with too many internal conflicts and lacking of innovations. On the other hand, Westerners have succeeded in making their grounds fertile for the birth of ideas and inventions. I have come across Muslims who undermine Western achievements in science by saying that they are merely copies of Muslim discoveries in the Middle Ages. These are just comments from people who never learn history. The West did learn from the Muslims in the beginning, but later they made original discoveries. Things, such as the Laws of Thermodynamics and Theory of Relativity, are new Western discoveries which were not yet found during the Golden Age of Muslim civilisation. Anyway, any civilisation should always copy and study things from the more advanced ones, before they could make original contributions. So, the West did not do anything wrong in this case.
To surpass Western achievements, the key lies at the quality of our human resources. Several nations of the world that had been lagging behind the West eventually succeeded in making themselves equal to the West by improving the quality of their human resources. Japan and Singapore are examples of this. Muslims must really learn how these nations built themselves.
Educating an entire nation requires certainly a lot of fund. Therefore Muslim countries must improve their economy first. The prerequisite for economical improvement itself is having a government that really pays attention to the welfare of its people. We can hardly achieve this with authoritarian regimes. Sometimes an authoritarian regime does look after their people, but sometimes they just look after themselves. As an English saying puts it: Power tends to corrupt. Muslims must ensure that their government executives are well supervised. Dictatorship as what we witness in some Middle Eastern countries cannot be let go.
Amidst modern Muslims’ urgent need to learn, it’s really sad to see that some Muslims still and only identify the West with infidelity. This creates the tendency to deny just everything coming from the West. We must not forget what our parents teach us: We must learn the good things from everyone and foresake the bad things behind. For myself, the fervour to surpass the Westerners must not develop into hatred towards them, yet it must be paralleled by an adept proficiency at their languages, at studying the knowledge that they now possess, so that we can develop it later. Muslims of the Golden Age of Muslim civilisation had studied extensively the works of ancient scientists of different beliefs prior to developing their own and finally becoming prominent in the field of science and technology. So, such attitudes, where some Muslims label other people and refuse to learn from them, are a direct betrayal to the explorative spirit that Muslim forefathers displayed.
Changes happen everyday and can alter the course of human history. Europeans themselves now show some signals that could be interpreted as an emerging instability on their part. Due to their low birth rate, now Europeans have more ageing population needing government benefits than the young productive population able to provide support. This condition is very likely to continue. To deal with this shortage, European countries welcome foreign workers, including Muslims, to run their businesses. With this, a change in the cultural face of Europe is inevitable. Muslims must take this opportunity to prove that they are competent, able to adapt and contribute positively to the European society –things which are still missing from many European Muslim immigrants due to their educational background. Without the presence of foreign workers, European businesses risk diminution.
Some European countries also show some signals of incompetitiveness in the face of new economic powerhouses, such as Korea and China. The more new economic powers play on the stage, the more risk European nations have from being shifted from the economic hegemony. If the Europeans are driven away, they could turn over time into mediocre nations running behind the new front runners. The entire world’s view would then turn to these new leaders as the new bearers of the torch of civilisation.
The changes taking place in the world in a secondly rate produce a shift in the balance of powers. Only those who could adapt to these changes would remain in the prominent place. Muslims could be or not be a part in this shift of balance. There is no one telling us that we could not rise again. But likewise, there is no one telling us that we could rise again. Our success in restoring our glory is then determined by several things: whether we are willing to admit our current defeat, learn from the best, and exert all the efforts necessary to take us to our former place. In the first place, it is not a struggle on a global scale, but on a smaller scale in every Muslim family.