Islamic Civilizational Triumphs: Does History Repeat Itself?

By Prof. Dr. Hamdy Shaheen June 06, 2024 140

The observer of the civilizational journey of the Ummah recognizes its cohesive spirit, granting it distinctiveness and uniqueness, i.e., the pure spirit of Islamic Tawheed (monotheistic). It shapes the individual, the community, and the Ummah equally, across time and space alike. Therefore, when we review some of the achievements of Islamic civilization, we can only understand their motives and gifts by grasping that spirit, which served as a driving force for pride in the civilizational role undertook by the emerging Ummah.

Tawheed has left its mark on European thought since early times. During the Umayyad era, there emerged among the Byzantine church theologians those who rejected the worship of images or icons, led by the Byzantine Emperor Leo III (675-741 CE). He was fluent in the Arabic language, so it is not surprising that Islamic influence greatly impacted him and sharpened his ambition to engage in a bloody war against those who sanctified church images and relics. This led to repercussions that exacerbated the division between the Byzantine Orthodox Church and the Roman Catholic Church.


The Tawheed manifested itself in the independence of the judiciary and the strength of the scholars, as the fundamentals of legislation belong solely to Allah.

The matter would evolve in Western Europe until the emergence of calls denying the mediation of priests between God and people and their exclusive interpretation of the Gospels, paving the way for later Western Protestantism, and then the separation of religion from the state due to various factors.

In the realm of civilization, attention should be paid to the impact of the early formation projects of the Islamic state, as they are the most authentic in expressing its spirit. The project of the first state was a manifestation of inspiring civilizational experiments, including the experience of openness towards others to benefit from their accumulated human heritage, which began in the era of prophethood by adopting some war tactics like digging trenches.

During the caliphate of Umar ibn al-Khattab (may Allah be pleased with him), diwans were adopted in state administration, notably only according to how much was needed and without compromising the identity of the Ummah. It was the utilization of tools and means within a pure Islamic system. When the Ummah lacked these regulations, the adoption became more harmful than beneficial, as in the translation of the intellectual heritage of opposing nations. Translations of Greek thought shortly contributed to preoccupation with philosophical and theological issues, much of which became burdensome on Islamic perceptions.


Islamic legislation was not absent from influencing European thought during the Renaissance.

Tawheed had its manifestation in the independence of the judiciary and the growing power of judges and scholars, as the principles of legislation belonged solely to Allah. No individual or group could monopolize them to serve their interests. Indeed, judges and scholars sometimes imposed the will of truth on sultans and princes. Islamic legislation was not absent from influencing European thought. When Napoleon returned to France in 1801 after his campaign in Egypt, he ordered the translation of one of the books of Maliki Fiqh (jurisprudence) that he had brought with him into French. This served as the core of French civil law, hence the resemblance between French law and Maliki Fiqh.


Napoleon translated a book of Maliki Fiqh that he took from Egypt to serve as the core of French law.

Some researchers delve deeper into the matter, suggesting that its beginnings were at the hands of the priest Gerbert (later Pope Sylvester II), who acquired knowledge from Muslims in Andalusia and North Africa, mastered Arabic, and became well-acquainted with Maliki Fiqh. He carried some of its books with him, and upon returning to his country and assuming the papacy, he wrote them what he called the “new Roman law,” without disclosing its Islamic origins.


The Spirit of Tawheed

The spirit of Tawheed shaped the arts of Islamic architecture, with its minarets reaching towards the sky to touch the hearts of the people on earth. Its domes brought believers together in heartfelt brotherhood, and the mosques formed the pulsing hearts of the cities, with their streets and alleys branching out like arteries, seamlessly connecting the city to the heart. While the streets of Cordoba were illuminated by lanterns at night, European cities were shrouded in the silence and darkness of the graves. As the values of Islamic civilization collapsed in our era, our cities became torn fragments of various civilizations, reinforcing our alienation and destroying the spirituality of our city.

When Western Europe had the opportunity to interact with Islamic society and its political systems during the Crusades, Islamic values left their mark on it. Salah ad-Din, known for his tolerance and forgiveness, conquered the hearts of his contemporaries, and figures like Frederick II, the Emperor of the West, who grew up in Sicily, came to know the civilization of the Muslims that they left behind during their rule. He mastered the Arabic language along with other languages of his time and admired the Muslims to the extent that his rivals and religious men accused him of being half Muslim and half Christian.

Hardly had the Crusades ended when Western Europe began to awaken. The feudal class diminished, political freedoms expanded, and there was growing audacity towards the papacy and the church's authority. Criticisms against the tyranny of the emperors increased, and these influences continued to grow, among other factors, culminating in the European Renaissance.


The streets of Cordoba were illuminated by lanterns, while European cities were covered in darkness.

The popular participation in the Islamic political system in managing the affairs of the Ummah and bearing its consequences constituted an impressive model worthy of imitation. While Western emperors and churches innovated means of exploiting the subjects, imposing taxes on them, and harnessing thousands of slaves in cultivating vast church lands, many wealthy Muslims rushed to allocate endowments for social care in its various forms. Rulers and princes also rushed to support them. The endowments allocated by Nur ad-Din Mahmud, Salah ad-Din, and their relatives, including princes and princesses, grew in importance. Many of them were directed towards educational aspects to counter the influence of the Shiite doctrine that ruled Egypt for decades before them.

Endowments continued to grow. In Damascus alone, during the Mamluk era, there were about 400 endowed schools. The endowments varied, with some dedicated to the care of foundlings, orphans, disabled, blind, and elderly, while others aimed to improve the conditions of prisoners, facilitate marriages for young people, and even provide for the medical treatment of sick animals and the care of aging, disabled animals.


Education was free for everyone, strengthens the identity of the Ummah and carries its message to other nations.

One of the calamities faced by the Islamic world in our modern era was the governments' efforts to control and nationalize Muslim endowments, hindering the attempts of the nation's righteous individuals to participate in community work, contrary to the West. In the United States alone, there are 75,000 charitable institutions providing grants totaling $656 billion, with more than one-fifth going to educational institutions alone, according to a 2008 statistic. When we add grants for scientific and technological development, the value rises to nearly one-third. Some of the most renowned American universities, like Harvard, established by Protestant minister John Harvard in 1636, had an endowment allocated to it in 2007 exceeding $34 billion.


 A Firm Intellectual Foundation

Islam laid the groundwork for its magnificent scientific renaissance on a foundation of rigorous intellectual construction, rejecting illusions, myths, emotions, and whims. It refuses stagnation and blind imitation, prioritizing expertise and scholars in all matters. It does not accept claims without evidence and makes belief a product of proof, with evidence from the Quran and Sunnah mutually reinforcing each other in this regard.


For decades, Western scholars have been taught in Islamic educational institutions by our scholars.

Based on that intellectual foundation, major scientific institutions were established, giving rise to generations of scientists whose achievements are still respected in scientific history to this day. Education was free for all, enhancing the Ummah's identity and conveying its message to others. In those institutions, Western scholars studied for decades, receiving knowledge in the centers of civilization in Sicily, Andalusia, and elsewhere.

However, when Muslims stepped into the era of civilizational confusion, they became targets of the West, enticing their scholars and intellectuals to join in establishing Western civilization, becoming, after a while, its messengers to the Muslim world, except for a few. Thus, Islamic competencies were drained for the benefit of the triumphant civilization. Some studies even indicate that about 75% of Arab scientific competencies have emigrated to three Western countries: Britain, America, and Canada. This approach was initiated by Napoleon Bonaparte when he ordered, in his message to General Kléber, his deputy in Egypt, to prepare 500 to 600 Mamluks. If that number was not enough, they should be selected from among the Arabs and elders of the countries to be sent to France. They would stay there for a year or two, then return to Egypt, forming a party for France.

Thus, many of our civilizational projects remain valid, but the truth is that our civilizational backwardness casts a thick shadow of weakness on the history and effectiveness of our civilization. The matter is dependent upon the Ummah regaining its strength to fulfill its mission of succession and guidance for the world.



Read the Article in Arabic