Rise and Failing of Islam

Islam should be about the permanence of ethical principles, worship as instructed, justice (adl) as a pursuit (jihad), knowledge (ilm - what we might call roughly "ologists" are alims in Islam, covering many subjects) and trusteeship (khalifa) over the environment. These make up Sharia, often misinterpreted and imposed in some countries as harsh Sharia law. Sharia though is, in a sense, a set of aims pursued, intending justice among people and from government with also economic aims of self reliance, self sufficiency and self respect.

Sharia principles include the freedom of their application or non-application, and also the rights and full freedoms of people of other faith to live by their own codes. This is because of the Islamic view that all faiths in their original form contain the same truth as Islam.

There is change in Islam (known as ijtijad). This is a new way of understanding Shariah. Intellectuals may pursue this but in the end it comes about as a social entity through consultation (shura) following public interest (al-itislah) producing a consensus (ijma) of global Muslims (ummah).

The means to turn Shariah into actual law include intelligence (fiqh), consensus (ijma), reasoning (qiyas), public interest (al-itislah) and there will be custom (al-urf). Intelligence (fiqh) is the main application to produce jurisprudence. Against early intentions there are schools of classical jurisprudence in Arabia (Hanbali), Iran and Iraq (Jaferi), the Indian subcontinent, West Africa and Egypt (Hanafi), North and West Africa (Maliki) and Malaysia (Shafi). Once bodies of law are set up then rulings (fatwas) follow.

Muslim traditions like to be based on what Muhammad said in order to have legitimacy. This affects law and scholarship (and indeed religious tendencies). There are books of traditions called Hadith literature. These are oral memories at first, and the Hadith literature names the people involved in transmission down to the writing. Of course some of these traditions were simply manufactured, and there is doubt on others. A Western scholar Ignaz Goldzither cast doubt on the development of Hadith literature for the three hundred years after Muhammad, and another Joseph Schacht has shown that customary law has been put into Islamic law and tradition (Momen, 1999, 325-326). But, anyway, the development of law as with scholarship was quite fluid in the first centuries as ethical paths were worked out, but with time the ulemah became professionalised, standardised and more closed, and in the end fossilised.

The point is that despite the potential for change, Islam as a religion with law has been frozen for some 800 years. It has now, in this time of modernity and postmodernity, entered its deepest crisis. However, the road to becoming stale has been a long one and largely in response to a closed ulema, foreign powers and corrupt national elites.

Although Islam started conquering land and people, it did so over many centuries in accordance with Quranic principles, so that local populations and faiths were tolerated. This was most evident in the crusades and Spain, contrasting with the Christians. It is in more recent times that we see less toleration for difference.

One reason for difficulty in Islam has been divisions in a faith built on a raison detre of unity (this is why centuries later the Bahai Faith became obsessed with keeping unity). Of course division is not going to prevent, in and of itself, a flowering of culture and tolerance, but it is a seedbed of problems and decline to a faith or a culture when attached to a faith.

The first Caliph was Abu Bakr, ruler of Madinah, but he died two years later, followed by Umar al-khattab (an administrator and general), nominated by Abu Bakr and approved by the community,  and he was in power from 634 to 644. Umar ruled a large empire from Libya into the Indian subcontinent and Afghanistan. He set up a council of seven to decide his successor, producing the recomendations of either Uthman bin Affan and Ali bin Talib, and the community was split. Uthman succeeded, during which time Islam spread into Spain and China, but he was murdered in 656 during a rebellion. This was followed by a campaign for and the success of Ali, a literary person. But he was murdered in 661, causing a crisis.

The question was whether to keep the caliphate in the descendents of Muhammad, or an election (by consensus), or whether a campaigning group (including military means) would win. It did and the governor of Syria, Muawiyah, became the Caliph followed by his son Yazid. This was the period of the Umayyad dynasty of 661-750. Not everyone accepted this succession so one group supported Ali's son Husayn against Yazid and so Yazid's army murdered Husayn and family at Karbala in 680, being his martyrdom for the Shias. The Shias though were established, leaving the majority as the Sunnis (the Shias did become the majority of lands between 950-1050).

For Shias, authority exists in the descendents of Muhammad starting with Ali as the first Imam. Succeeding Imams were his sons and grandsons. The twelfth Imam was lost and "hidden" (occultation), is expected to return in times of foreboding ahead of a thoroughly different golden age, and so the result is rule by clergy and its religious scholars (which was not one of the principles of Islam) and a number of millennial movements. Shia Islam shared a date in 1844 with Christian millennialists to see the end of the present dispensation (this gave rise to the Babi-Bahai stream).

Another division was less a fault line and more a spiritual tendency (yet a threat). There was plenty of intellectual argument in Islam so some sought experience itself. The committed Sufi (suf is the Arabic word for wool, the material they wore as a sign against Ummayad materialism) joins a tariqa or Sufi order which imposes a spiritual discipline. There were many orders and they have been quite diverse. They claimed that they have esoteric knowledge going back to Muhammad himself, as expressed by earlier mystics (for which there is no real evidence - Sufism was a pious reaction against a more legal-rational faith). They all, however, seek an ecstatic union with God, a meditation technique of the remembrance of God (tariqa) to achieve this, follow a master (shaykh) or living saint (pir) doing the same remembrance path (tariqa), and seek out esoteric meanings within Islamic texts and activities. The lower self is purified so that the higher self goes through annihilation (fana) (which Westerners might interpret as the destruction of the ego) and the release of the self to God. The literature is of course mystical experience based and poetic and is inspired ultimately from Muhammad's own night journey vision. The first Sufi was a woman, Rabiah al-Basari (died 801), who followed the disinterested love of God. Al-Hallaj (died 922) was executed after his Sufism led him to claim "I am the Truth". Ibn al-Arabi (1164-1240) was another great Sufi mystic and thinker who promoted mystical panentheistic works of the unity of all being (wahdat al-wahjud) and created controversy. God appears according to the capacity of the person to see God. Religions are limited and specific. Jalaluuddin Rumi (died 1273) founded the Whirling Dervishes and wrote The Mathwani.

Another tendency was popular religion. The Quran puts nothing but messenger angels between humans and God. However, as in all religion, popular religion tends towards the more polytheistic, checked only by the doctrines of the main faith. In Africa, Islam has had to work with and check magical religion. More than this, however, saints have arisen in Islam with the ability to do, or have happening around them, miracles. Even Muhammad had no miraculous abilities (unless is counted the ability in the religion to remember what he had to recite perfectly, but this is not magic). People go to the tombs of saints, hoping for a blessing or luck or cure. And then the Shia branch of the faith encourages the visiting of tombs. An aspect of populism imported into offical religion is Fatima's virginity. She was a daughter of Muhammad and wife of the first Shia Imam. Fatima was the mother of Imam Hasan and, very importantly, Imam Husayn, the martyr. This claim of virginity is clearly important despite the obvious fact that she is a mother. One response has been movements to cut down tendencies towards popular religion. The most striking was created by Ibn Abd al-Wahhab (1703-1792) and led by Ibn Saud (Saudi Arabia is based on him), a puritanical Islam which destroyed many tombs. They picked up on the writings of Ibn Taymiyya (died 1328) who had attacked the veneration of states.

The next Sunni dynasty after the Umayyad was the Abbasid which lasted, after a fashion, 500 years and were descendents of Muhammad's uncle Abbas. They tendended to be, unlike their predecessors, less interested in conquest and more in promoting knowledge, economic and social justice, and administration. However there were internal feuds and so, whilst they ruled from Baghdad, the Umayyad dynasty of 736 to 1031 ruled from Andalusia. Baghdad and Spain were centres of learning and cultural development.

There were centuries, therefore, of a formative period of Islam, but divisions which, when established and bureaucraticised, would undermine the religion's responsiveness to new situations.

In the first place Muslim scholars were copiers of other learning. They were translators, and took from Greek, Egyptian, Babylonian, Indian, Persian and Chinese texts. So a great deal was brought together into the one language of Arabic from a number of languages. This was both advantageous and, later, disastrous, when invading enemies could all too easily destroy collections of libraries.

The copying and writing produced a laborious industry of publishing and indeed a paper making industry (that even wrapped goods from shops) to replace parchment. A book might start life with a public dictation perhaps in a mosque or one of the very many waraq stalls and bookshops in sectors of cities and towns. Dictations could last for weeks and months, for the created book to be presented back to the author for corrections and then made available for transcribing. Transcribing more texts from Arabic texts would be rapid. The warraqeen, who would attend a dictation (along with students) were specialists in accurate copying of translated manuscripts. So waraq stalls, bookshops, waraqeen and scholars all went together.

Libraries became entities in themselves and held private collections, and there were public libraries too. They held binderies, waraqeen and of course librarians. Where there are libraries, there are classification systems, and the Muslim world was the first to produce intelligent thought through classification systems. Out of these came other support texts like dictionaries, thesaurases and reference books.

The other effect of ilm (the drive for knowledge) was the college. Modern universities with the Chair are copies of Muslim institutions. The madrassah was a college (one of the first appeared in Baghdad in 1067). In these the professor (shaikh) sat on a low chair with students around. He had teaching assistants and a probably a reader would do the reading. The method and timetable was fairly informal without a set length. The head of the madrassah was honorary (just like Chancellors now!) with the deputy doing the work. The Jamia was a university where there was a more formal high-level approach to religion, philosophy, maths, physics, astronomy, rhetoric and practical tool making.

Jews debate God, and so did Muslims. From the Quran's words came more words, or questions and answers known as kalam. This was the rational ground for God based on the Quran. But then came Greek philosophy (two hundred years on) or Mutazilite in the Islamic version. This argued that God could be known by reason alone giving rise to ethical action and therefore there was no prophecy or revelation. This rather went against the basis of the Quran (yet had certain support from Abbasid caliphs)!

The most successful challenge to this separatist school was from Asharite (al-Ashari, died 945) theology. The theologians won the argument especially from Abu Hamid al-Ghazali (1058-1111), a one time professor at Nizamiyah College (he left this post), who wrote the very comprehensive Revival of Religious Sciences (Ihya Ulumuddin - about epistemology, belief formation, personal conduct and obligations, economics and commerce with co-operation and moderation, society and public duties, personal psychology, cleansing the soul, and the afterlife as a functional reality in worldly pursuits) and, especially important in this context, The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahafut al Falasifah).

He was considered the Renewer of the Fifth Islamic Century and as the greatest intellectual leader of Islam, "the Muslim Thomas Aquinas". Being a free thinker, he joined the Sufi tendency with an ascetic lifestyle and advanced it among the Sunnis. He wrote about 400 books in theology, philosophy, jurisprudence, logic, spiritual and moral subjects and on the Quran. One story says al-Ghazzali believed a robbery was divinely inspired because when his intellectual notes were taken he had become devoid of knowledge. So he memorised all he had written over the next three years.

The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahafut al Falasifah) was focussed against al-Farabi and Ibn Rushd, rejecting the Hellenistic philosophies (naturalism and materialism, the material basis of the universe, and Muhammad as philosopher-king). This was countered back by Ibn Rushd (1126-1198), who wrote the Incoherence of the Incoherence. It did not win the case for the philosophers against the theologians.

The result of all this learning was:

All these went towards the Western Renaissance. When the European Renaissance happened, Islam was well into decline. The Abbasid dynasty in Baghdad was attacked in 1258 and the weakness of the concentrated library storage meant a loss of intellectual knowledge. In Spain recapture by the Christians in 1492 led to intolerance and dispersal, as well as plagiarism, of knowledge.

But also this Islamic learning had been broad and free. Yet the very success of scholarship gave these specialists power. A kind of charismatic outgrowth of knowledge had become a tradition and bureaucracy. The specialists defended against challenges to the new traditions. They worked against any more liberality of interpretation which threatened their corpus. This was because clergy and scholars were so close and institutions of learning were now interests to be defended.

It was as if al-Ghazzali had been too successful, and looking back at him these specialists clamped down (gradually - over about a century) so that:

So whilst the West's dark ages came to an end and picked up what the Muslims had preserved and developed, the Muslims closed themselves down. The printing press was excluded. The Quran too was protected from speculative theology and critical examination but at a big cost.

Europe was investing and getting richer. Its trade grew with its mercantilism and the industrial revolution started on those profits and banking. So did its conquest grow around the world which, along with slavery, provided more profits for reinvestment. It regarded Islam as inferior, but what it did was:

Also Christianity could now be practised as superior and succeed where the crusades had failed, and Western secular disciplines also saw Islamic society as either at a lower stage of development or something of erotic orientalism (picking up Islam's earlier guilt-free erotic literature).

However, the West slowly acquired the religious toleration that was once a feature of Islamic society, partly because of the decline of Christendom. The rise of knowledge in the West was never checked by a clergy who had become diversified and factionalised over denominations and lost power and social place. It was also losing the intellectual argument, being equally a threat to Islam and was hardly going to appeal to Islamic authorities.

An interesting development out of Shaykhi Islam was the Babi and Bahai faiths. Founded in millennial upheaval from 1844, the Babi faith came out of the expectation of the Hidden Twelfth Imam (whom the Bab eventually became) and projected further manifestations. This Bahaullah picked up with a split (opposed by Subh-i-Azal) and created a new syncretistic tradition based on Shia, Sufi, Christian elements and entering the Western orbit. It has restored some of the original knowledge and social justice intentions of Islam (it has infallible scriptures too) whilst becoming a new faith. It has struggled against divisions, although it retains censorship over its representation by members. They were once free to belong to other faiths, but then came under bureaucratised control, if without a clergy, though with a rather self-perpetuating democratic centralist system that conservatively unites religious and political control (having lost its own version of a family Imamah).

The Ottoman Empire, once large and diverse and multicultural, went into a long fading decline. Only Turkey from it escaped being colonised but analysing the Ottoman failure it imposed a secular modernisation path that again hardly appealed to Islamic authorities.

The liberation movements aimed to restore Islam but this was a damaged history, and the states that emerged post Second World War were largely authoritarian (to different degrees). The experience of Turkey, under Ataturk, created an enemy in secularism and modernity. The democratic country that emerged was never quite democratic. The one democratic country of the Middle East, post Second World War Israel, was placed on Arab and Palestinian land, and then took more in 1967, creating a continual sore.

Islam has proven to be divided in the region partly because the regimes are not open yet different. The invasion of repressive secular-Muslim Iraq into the royal fiefdom of Kuwait divided Islam still further. Before this, in 1979, Iran had a militant revolution against a repressive Western supporting and supported leader, but produced a clerical Shia state (a theocracy where the Wali Faqih or ruling jurist has ultimate power), one which has left itself in modernist-traditionalist tension where the clergy check democratic and liberalising (even feminist) expression. The purist tendency in Islam within Saudi Arabia (yet a Western supporting royal regime), and the eventual victory of the Arab and Pakistan supported Taleban in Afghanistan, after the removal of the Soviet backed Marxist-Leninist rulers, led to the association of elements of Islam with terrorism. Also Afghanistan was seen as the worst Islam could do to women who were stripped of basic human rights. However, Afghanistan was only an extreme of what happens elsewhere, where cultural practices have been given Islamic approval. Its integration with of Saudi society origin terrorists was the Taleban's downfall. Islam was also associated with lack of free speech, after its reaction (led by Iran) to Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses, seen as a revival of defamatory chansons de geste literature in Europe, and leading to a dilemma in the West between freedom of speech and religious toleration.

So much of Islam is in a condition of reaction, against Western power and the secular and material, and one response is to close the gates by aiming to produce purist, clerical, theocracies, which can only continue the condition that happened after the closing down of the flowering of knowledge. They would replace corrupted family, group or military based regimes with other closed highly patriarchal regimes. The purity of these regimes would themselves just become another corruption.

Islam, of course, is also in the West, and is free to operate despite denunciations and Islamophobia, though certain extreme forms are under suspicion. This could be a setting for necessary Islamic reform within this part of the ulemah, or be a centre for renewed intellectual development. As a much older and once broad freer tradition, the Bahai experience would be unlikely to be a model. One aspect of this renewal would be feminist, but other sources would simply be to understand again the difference between what is permenent and what can be changed. The Shariah provides principles for a new contemporary jurisprudence and theology could be capable of an open critical approach to and from the Quran as source of Islamic development. It may be too far to question the Quran as perfect in every Arabic word and word order, but the Islamic community (like certain Protestant or Protestant including churches) might tolerate such interpretations at the margin for the benefit of a renewal of the whole faith, culture and civilisation. Islamic social justice and toleration, and the pursuit of knowledge with responsibility, and economic sustainability against materialism, has much to teach the West and lead to a more sustainable world. What prevents this is the condition of Islamic religion, culture and governance itself.

Potted history...

570 Birth of Muhammad
July/ August 610 Muhammad in the cave
622 Muhammad to Madinah
632 Muhammad dies
632 War of Apostacy in Arabia starts
634 First Caliph Abu Bakr dies
635 Defeat of Persian Empire (becomes Islamic)
639 Egypt captured (becomes Islamic)
644 Second Caliph Umar dies
656 Third Caliph Uthman dies
661 Fourth Caliph and first Imam Ali killed
661 Umayyad Capiphs dynasty begins
680 Third Imam Husayn martyred
711 Spain, Sind and Transoxania captured (becomes Islamic)
750 Abbasid Caliphs dynasty (Golden period of Islam begins)
874 Twelfth Imam "hides"
910 Fatimids in North Africa begins
912 Abd al-Rahman III rules in Spain
945 Shia Buyid dynasty starts in Baghdad altering and weakening Abbasid dynasty
1000 Islam into West Africa
1037 Philosopher Ib Sina dies
1050 Islam into Indian subcontinent
1086 Kanem-Bornu (Lake Chad) adopts Islam
1099 Crusade takes over Jerusalem
1111 Theologian and Sufi al-Ghazzali dies
1187 Islam retakes Jerusalem under Saladin
1240 Sufi philosopher Ibn al-Arabi dies
1250 Islam into Indonesia and Malaya
1258 Mongol invasion of Baghdad ends Abbasid dynasty
1260 Mongols defeated in Syria
1273 Mystical poet Jalal al-Din Rumi dies
1328 Ottoman Empire pre-starts in Anatolia
1453 Ottoman Empire into Constantinople
1492 Keys to Granada handed over ending Spanish Muslim rule
1501 Safavids start Shia state in Iran - Twelver Shia Islam, the first claiming to be the hidden twelfth Imam
1526 Mongol Empire begins in India
1600 Islam becomes dominant in Indonesia
1640 Shia philosopher Mulla Sadra dies
1683 Siege of Vienna by Ottomans
1792 Puritanical Ibn Abd al-Wahhab dies
1789 Napoleon occupies Egypt
1830 Algeria occupied by French
1844 Shaykhi upheavals (expectation of the return of hidden twelfth Imam) starts Babi religious development
1863 Bahaullah considers himself He Whom God Shall Manifest (Babi writings - Bahaullah mixed Sufi and New Testament with Shaykhi-Babi)
1863 Public declaration by Bahaullah starts Bahai faith
1858 British remove last Muslim ruler in India
1881 Sudanese Mahdi rise up
1881 British take over Egypt
1881 French take over Tunisia
1889 Independence of Bahai faith exclaimed in Turkestan
1897 Islamic reformer Sayyid Jamal al-Din Afghani dies
1903 Iranian revolution (liberal constitutionalists succeed over clerics)
1905 Islamic reformer Muhammad Abdah dies
1908 Young Turks revolution in Ottoman Empire
1918 First World War spells end of Ottoman Empire
1920 Iraq, Syria, Jordan, Lebanon and Palestine emerge from Ottoman ruins
1924 Caliphate ends
1925 Islamic court in Egypt states Bahai faith is independent
1939 Grand Mufti in Egypt confirms Bahai faith is independent
1947 West and East Pakistan founded out oif division of India
1962 World Muslim League starts
1971 Organisation of Islamic Conference founded
1972 Bangladesh breaks away from Pakistan
1979 Iranian revolution installs Shia state
1979 Indian revivalist Sayyid Abu al-Ala Mawdudi dies
2001 Osama Bin Ladan destroys New York Twin Towers killing 3000
2001 Taleban regime removed by United States and opposition action


Sardar, Z., Malik, Z. A. (1999), Introducing Muhammad, Cambridge: Icon Books, previously Muhammad for Beginners (1994). This provides much of the narrative of the argument above, rather like those Muslim scholars transcribing the developing their sources!

Momen, M (1999), The Phenomenon of Religion: A Thematic Approach, Oxford: One World.

Goldzither, 'On the Development of the Hadith', Muslim Studies, vol. 2, 17-251; Schacht, Origins of Muhammadan Jurisprudence, 58-81, both in Momen (1999), 325-326.