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A Restatement of the History of Islam and Muslims

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  • A Restatement of the History of Islam and Muslims

    1


    Chapter


    Introduction


    This is a new story of Islam. It is the story of the movement which was


    launched by Muhammad, the Messenger of God, in A.D. 610 in Makkah,


    and was consummated with the support of his cousin, collaborator and


    vicegerent, Ali ibn Abi Talib, in A.D. 632 in Medina. It covers a period of


    ninety years from A.D. 570 when he was born in Makkah, to A.D. 661


    when his successor, Ali ibn Abi Talib, was assassinated in Kufa.


    Countless histories of Islam have been written in the past and will be


    written in the future. The spectacular advance of Islam in the missionary


    field in our own times; the renaissance of the Muslim nations after many


    centuries of slumber; the obtrusion of oil as a new factor in world politics


    in this century; but above all and most recently, the success of the Islamic


    Revolution in Iran, all are acting, both in the east and in the west, as cata-


    lysts of a new interest in Islam. The Revolution in Iran, has, in fact,


    triggered a world-wide explosion of interest in Islam, and many new


    books are being written on the subject – both by Muslims and non-


    Muslims.


    In these days when the leaders of the Christian world are quietly


    working to realize the old dream of Christian ecumenism, many


    Muslims are also looking back nostalgically toward that ideal state when


    Islam was monolithic. Islam, however, was monolithic only during the


    lifetime of its Prophet, Muhammad, the blessed one. As soon as he died,


    the first crack appeared in the "monolith" of Islam. His followers – the


    Muslims – were polarized into two groups. In this polarization, most of


    his companions were on the one side and the members of his family on


    the other. While the members of his family were occupied with his ob-


    sequies, some of his companions were occupied in "electing" a new lead-


    er to succeed him. During the interval between his death and his burial,


    2 the latter gathered in the outhouse of Saqifa in Medina, and elected one


    out of themselves as the new head of the Muslim umma (community).


    They, then, confronted the members of the bereaved family with a fait


    accompli. This confrontation, most unfortunately, became a permanent


    feature of the history of the Muslims.


    Muhammad, the Messenger of God, may God bless him and his Ahlul-


    Bayt (family), belonged to the clan of Banu Hashim. After his death in


    A.D. 632, his cousin, son-in-law and heir-apparent, Ali ibn Abi Talib,


    succeeded him as the new chief of Banu Hashim. Many of the compan-


    ions of Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, had nursed a secret antagon-


    ism toward him. They could not show him their antagonism during the


    lifetime of the Prophet but once they were in control of his government


    in Medina, they were resolved, not to let it fall, through any miscalcula-


    tion, into the hands of Ali ibn Abi Talib. The members of the family of


    Muhammad, the Apostle of God, were thus precluded, by human force


    majeure, not only from direct succession but also from all positions of


    authority and power in the successive governments of his followers.


    The friends, followers and supporters of the family of Muhammad


    Mustafa, the Messenger of God, have been historically called Shia; and


    the friends, followers and supporters of the companions, i.e., the party


    which succeeded in seizing power in Medina, have been called Sunni. I


    shall also identify these two groups by these names.


    M. Shibli, the famous Indian historian of Islam, says that almost all his-


    tories of Islam have been written by Sunni historians. This statement im-


    plies that Shia scholars did not write any histories of Islam. Why not?


    They did not write history for an obvious reason. All khalifas, sultans


    and kings were Sunni. A Shia could not publish an interpretation of


    Islamic history that was divergent from the official interpretation, and he


    had no desire to perpetuate what he believed to be the distortions of


    truth. He, therefore, preferred not to write any history at all.


    In this manner, it was the "official" account of the history of the early


    days of Islam that gained currency and found acceptance. It was the


    most logical thing for the governments of the early centuries of Islam to


    do to put into circulation only that story which was consistent with the


    party line. It was also most logical for the supporters of the policies of


    the governments in question, to toe the party line. And in toeing the


    3 party line, if they felt that it was necessary to smother truth, or at any


    rate, to smother the other side of the story, it was just as logical to do so.


    There is nothing strange, surprising or shocking in this attitude of the


    Sunni historians. The most logical thing for them to do, was, and is, to


    uphold the legitimacy of the events which transpired in Saqifa, where


    some of the companions, in a pre emptive strike, seized the government


    of Muhammad, the Sovereign of Arabia.


    What however is strange, surprising and shocking, is that the Western


    historians of Islam, i.e., the Orientalists, have swallowed up, as gospel


    truth, whatever the Muslim "court" historians have dished out to them as


    "facts." The Orientalists are supposedly objective, non-partisan, and in no


    way emotionally involved. The outcome of a certain contest in the dis-


    tant past of Islam, one way or the other, could not make any difference to


    them. And yet, the works of many of them reflect, not the facts but the


    interpretations and propagandas of the party in power. In this sense,


    their works are the imitations of the books "inspired" by what the Com-


    munists call the "ruling circles" of the Muslims.


    The works of the Orientalists can have scientific value only if they


    heed the advice of the great historian of Muslim Spain, Dr. J. A. Conde.


    He says:


    "A sort of fatality attaching itself to human affairs would seem to com-


    mand that in the relation of historical events those of the highest import-


    ance should descend to posterity through the justly suspected channels


    of narrations written by the conquering parties. The mutation of empires,


    the most momentous revolutions and the overthrow of the most


    renowned dynasties seem all to be liable to this disadvantage. It was by


    the Romans that the history of their own aggrandizement was written;


    the narration of their rivalry and sanguinary wars with the Carthagini-


    ans has come down to us from themselves; or if Greek writers have also


    treated the subject, these men were the tributaries and dependents of


    Rome, nor did they spare the flatteries best calculated to conciliate her fa-


    vor. Scipio thus appears to us the most admirable of heroes, but is not


    that in part because the history of his life is the work of his admirers and


    flatterers? It is true that the noble and illustrious Hannibal cannot look


    otherwise than great and glorious even in the narratives of his mortal en-


    emies, but if the implacable hatred and aggressive policy of Rome had


    4 not commanded the destruction of all the Punic annals, the renowned


    general would doubtless appear to us under an aspect differing much


    from that presented by the ruthless barbarian, described by Livy and ac-


    cepted by his readers as the portrait of Hannibal. Therefore a sound and


    just discrimination forbids us to content ourselves with the testimony of


    one side only. This requires that we compare the relations of both parties


    with careful impartiality, and commands us to cite them with no other


    purpose than that of discovering the truth." (History of the Dominion of


    the Arabs in Spain translated from Spanish by Mrs. J. Foster, Volume I,


    page 1)


    It cannot be gainsaid that many Orientalists have made most invalu-


    able contributions to the study, knowledge and understanding of Islam.


    It is only through their labors that many priceless treasures of Islamic


    history, art and literature have been rescued from oblivion, and have


    been preserved. It is entirely possible that many such treasures would


    have been lost forever if it were not for their efforts to salvage them.


    Among them are men who have amazing grasp of the details of Islamic


    studies, and whose knowledge is encyclopedic in range. They have read


    and assimilated vast quantities of detail, and then they have condensed,


    organized and edited them in most masterly and critical analyses. Some


    of them devoted their lives and their fortunes to the study of Islam, and


    to them the world of Islam owes a profound debt of gratitude.


    But notwithstanding the love of and zeal for knowledge, and devotion


    to truth of the Western students, it appears that when many of them in-


    terpret Islam, its history and its institutions, something goes awry. It is


    incredible but true that some of them show a curious inability to penet-


    rate through the conventional and stereotyped appearance of events to


    the sometimes deliberately obscured facts and forces, and significant


    realities. And some of them fail even to see the obvious.


    I have quoted above the principles of writing scientific and impartial


    history as laid down by Dr. Conde, who is himself a most distinguished


    Orientalist. The principle, viz., no expert judgments in history, rests


    upon plain common sense, and there is nothing mystical about it. And


    yet, many of the Orientalists have accepted, with a credulity that is idiot-


    ic, the account of the events that took place immediately following the


    death of Muhammad, as given by the party that succeeded in capturing


    his throne for itself.


    5 A most glaring example of the gullibility, and basic misperception of


    the Orientalists, in this regard, is the acceptance by them, as a historical


    "fact" of the canard that Muhammad, the Messenger of God, died


    without designating anyone as his successor, and that he left the prob-


    lem of finding a leader for the Muslim umma (community) to the discre-


    tion of his followers themselves.


    No Orientalist has paused, as far as I am aware, to investigate if this is


    true or even plausible that Muhammad abandoned the Muslims without


    a leader, and they had to find one in a no-holds barred, ruthless, free-for-


    all, struggle for power. Eschewing the laborious search for truth, the Ori-


    entalists have merely concurred with the Sunni historians that


    Muhammad, the Prophet of Islam, had no wishes or preferences in the


    matter of his own succession; and whatever happened in Saqifa was,


    therefore, right and justified, and also, was in the best interests of the


    Muslim umma (community).


    This pro-Saqifa tilt of the Orientalists has led them up a blind alley in


    which they cannot find answers for some fundamental questions in the


    history of Islam, and they find themselves caught, like the Sunni histori-


    ans, in a net of paradoxes and contradictions.


    Many Sunni historians and many among the Orientalists have made a


    deliberate attempt to minimize the importance of the role played by Ali


    ibn Abi Talib in the story of Islam. They are, of course, entitled to their


    opinions and assumptions even if these are not attested by facts. In my


    presentation, I have made an attempt to place the emphasis on facts. In


    doing so, it has been my hope that the facts themselves would act as


    "judges". Since facts are impartial "judges," they can be counted upon to


    restore balance to the assessment of the roles played by the various prot-


    agonists in the history of nascent Islam. I have picked them up and have


    tried to string them, like pearls, into a "necklace", so that most of them


    can be seen in one place.


    History has no supreme court rendering verdicts; it has only fallible


    chroniclers. And yet, history can find its own supreme court or objective


    tribunal in the logic of facts.


    6 I have another and very pragmatic reason for depending upon facts.


    For writing the story of the early days of Islam, there are three primary


    sources, viz., Al-Qur’an al-Majid (the revealed book of Islam); the Hadith


    (the memorials of the attributed acts and sayings of Muhammad, as


    transmitted by a chain of informants or narrators); and the events as re-


    corded by Arab historians. Out of these three, the first, i.e., the Qur’an, is


    acknowledged by all Muslims to be divine in origin. If a Muslim chal-


    lenges the authority of Qur’an, he immediately becomes an apostate. But


    whereas the authority of Qur’an, as far as the Muslims are concerned, is


    inviolate, its verses are subject to varying and sometimes conflicting in-


    terpretations, and there is no such thing as a consensus on which or


    whose interpretation is right. The Hadith also suffer from a handicap;


    too many of them are spurious although there are some which are ac-


    knowledged both by the Sunnis and the Shias to be authentic. I have,


    therefore, made an attempt to be selective in quoting only those verses of


    Qur’an and only those Hadith (statements of the Prophet) in the inter-


    pretation of which the difference between the Sunnis and the Shias is


    minimal. But historical facts belong to an area in which there is not much


    room for disagreement.


    I have made very frequent use of quotations, both from classical and


    modern historians, in this book, often on the same subject or event. I


    have done so to present to the reader more than one point of view or


    more than one interpretation of the more important events. The same


    event seen from different angles appears different to different observers


    and is, therefore, subject to different interpretations. It is in the hope that


    the reader shares this opinion that I have tried, on many occasions, to let


    more than one historian tell the same story. "Let the professionals do the


    job," has been my motto in the restatement of most of the vital facts of


    the history of Islam.


    Another reason why I have presented testimony of the historians on


    such a vast scale, is to underpin my thesis with evidence, so that the


    reader, if he so wishes, may advert to sources which he may consider to


    be unimpeachable.


    It has been said that daring as it is to investigate the unknown, even


    more so it is to question the known. Many of the so-called "known facts"


    in the history of nascent Islam are little more than pious assumptions or


    even pious wishes which through persistent repetition by the long chain


    of the generations of Muslims, have acquired the "patina" if not the


    7 status of the "articles of faith". When I questioned some of the assump-


    tions of many Muslims which are disguised as historical "truths", I no-


    ticed that they cannot withstand the scrutiny of critical analysis. The


    reader himself may, therefore, decide if he would cling to them or would


    accept truths some of which he might find extremely bitter and brutal.


    There are those people who are afraid of truth. Truth threatens their illu-


    sions, their favorite myths, and their assumptions. These latter, through


    long propinquity, have become so familiar to them that they feel it is safe


    and comfortable to live with them without the "intrusion" of truth. They


    equate truth with "insecurity." And yet, truth alone can bring them real


    security. Truth must be upheld at all costs, and by all, but especially, by


    the historians. Truth must be upheld even if it hurts a friend and benefits


    a foe. The first loyalty of the historian must be to truth, and nothing


    whatsoever must deflect him in its quest.


    The war of ideas and the conflict of opinions become even more inter-


    esting when the spotlight of investigation is turned away from philo-


    sophical concepts and abstract political doctrines to characters and per-


    sonalities which played the key roles in the events under review. History


    springs to life with characterization; it becomes vibrant with sharply de-


    lineated characters who "make" events or act on them or react to them.


    They invest history with the "human interest" element, and the touch of


    drama.


    Whatever history is – accident, or inevitable causality, or the pressure


    of economic determinism, or the actions of strong leaders, or the result of


    forces nobody understands, or the collective aspirations of a people –


    whatever history is, the Arabs themselves see and interpret their own


    history more in terms of personal action than anything else. And they


    may be right. After all, as in every other area of endeavor, history is


    made by those who act. It consists, in the interaction, not of blind forces


    but of human beings. The conflicts of history are not between the ab-


    stractions of philosophy, economics or sociology but between human be-


    ings. It has been said that even in its most sociological moments, history


    cannot overlook the factor of human personality. The history of the first


    23-years of the career of Islam which comprehends the entire ministry of


    Muhammad as the Messenger of God, is made, for the most part, next to


    himself, by the personal actions of his collaborator, Ali ibn Abi Talib.


    This is the testimony of history. But it is a testimony which many


    8 historians have consistently tried to conceal. It is to this testimony that I


    have tried to draw the attention of the readers of this book.


    But notwithstanding the past and present lopsidedness of Western his-


    toriography on Islam, there is new hope that historians of the future will


    make restitution for the omissions and failures of the historians of the


    past. All that they have to do is not to be tendentious, and not to accept


    blindly those interpretations and conclusions which have become the


    clichés of the history of Islam, but to rediscover truth for themselves


    through collation and examination of the evidence.


    In the introduction to the Cambridge History of Islam, Volume I, pub-


    lished by the University Press, Cambridge (1970), P.M. Holt, writes:


    "The study of Islamic history is now developing, many of the apparent


    certainties of the older Western historiography (often reflecting the asser-


    tions and interpretations of the Muslim traditional historians) have dis-


    solved, and it is only gradually through detailed research that a truer un-


    derstanding of the past may be attained."


    The certainties of the older Western historiography reflecting the as-


    sertions and interpretations of the Muslim traditional historians have not


    dissolved yet but let us hope that they will, and a truer understanding of


    the past will be attained in due course.


    An attempt to interpret the history of Islam, especially the history of


    its first century, is like stepping into a mine field; it's seething with con-


    troversy, diatribes and polemics, and one may approach it only ex-


    tremely gingerly. Nevertheless, interpretation remains basic to the un-


    derstanding of history. Without interpretation, history becomes a mass


    of uncoordinated information and a catalogue of "dead" events and dates


    unrelated to each other. Yet these "dead" events bounce back to life when


    effects are related to causes, and a concatenation of facts is established. A


    fact in correlation with other facts has historical significance; in isolation


    it may be meaningless.


    Even Einstein's Relativity is the understanding of the world not as a


    series of events but as relations.


    9 As stated above, there is a plethora of books on Islam but most of them


    are stereotypical interpretations of the story of its birth and growth, and


    its religious experience, just as handed down to their authors by the


    court historians of the government which was born in Saqifa, and its suc-


    cessor governments – the governments of Damascus and Baghdad. The


    story, however, has another side also.


    A principle of the ancient Roman law was audi alteram partem (in any


    dispute, hear the other side); or audiatur et altera pars (let the other side


    be heard). Concerted human action – which is called politics – is full of


    immense, heart-breaking tragedies that have damaged the lives of every-


    one on the planet. Most would have been averted had this law been


    heeded by all.


    This principle that in any dispute, both sides of the case should be


    heard – is entrenched in the legal systems of most nations, but most par-


    ticularly in those of the United States and Western Europe. Thomas Jef-


    ferson was only paraphrasing this principle, without which there cannot


    be any justice, when he exclaimed: "For God's sake, let us freely hear


    both sides." The American and European students of Islam, in most


    cases, have heard only one side of its story; this book is an attempt to


    present the other side. It is with this intent that I deliver it to the judg-


    ment of its readers.


    From the cowardice which shrinks from new truth;


    From the laxness that is content with half-truth;


    From the arrogance that thinks it knows all truth;


    O God of Truth deliver us!


    Transliteration


    The system of transliteration employed in this book was devised with


    particular regard for simplicity. In most cases, those forms of spelling for


    names of persons and places have been used which are most familiar to


    Western readers, such as Qur’an, Muhammad, and Yemen in preference


    to Coran, Koran or Kuran, Mohammad, and al-Yaman. At the same time,


    some other forms of Western usage such as Moslems, Sunnites and


    Shi'ites have been discarded in favor of the simpler and more correct


    forms such as Muslims, Sunnis and Shias.


    The Arabic word for "son" is transliterated to conform with the Arabic


    spelling as ibn or bin, and both variants have been used.


    10


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