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   Conferences / The Tenth General Conference :Islam and The 21st Century
Islam and the Evolution of Civilisation

Islam and the Evolution of
Dr. Abu Salim Mohammad Abdel Rahim
Director of Birmingham Islamic Center
To speak on the topic of Islam and the Evolution of Civilisation is
an enormous and most challenging task indeed. The sheer weight of
information, volume of research and mass of commentary that has been
carried out over the centuries on this very topic by eminent scholars,
theologians and jurists alike means that, in this forum today, I am
compelled to only touch briefly on the main principles and areas of
I shall begin by discussing the progressive nature of Islamic
civilisation, followed by the coexistence of Islam with other religions
and, finally, I shall talk a little on the role of Ijtihad in Islamic thought.
The Universality of Islam
From the onset of the birth of the Islamic movement, Prophet
Muhammad (PBUH) had been at pains to recognise and embrace the
fact that peoples all over the world are diverse and have different
religions, cultures and ways of living. He saw strength in this diversity in
that Islam was a religion that was applicable and suitable for all peoples
of all cultures and of all countries. Islam transcended the mere artificial
boundaries of nation state to reach the higher plateau of universal
Evidence of Islam's tolerance and its non-racial and non-theocratic
ideology can be found in Islamic history. In the document of al-Madina
al Munawara, the Prophet reiterated the religious, social, cultural and
racial multiplicity of Islam. Under Islam every person has the same
rights regardless of his or her religion, sex or colour on condition that
that individual is committed to keeping peace and stability in the
community. When the Islamic movement commenced in Arabia and the
Islamic empire was gradually established, in each country that the
Muslims entered, there was no attempt made to super impose the Arab
culture or Arab language on the peoples of those countries. Instead
Islam recognised the need for harmonisation and integration within the
local cultures. Gradually, however, it was the beauty of Islam and its
integration between religion and life, that led to some of the indigenous
communities to adopt the Arabic language and some of its cultural
heritages as well.
As Bertrand Russell once said', "From India to Spain, the brilliant
civilisation of Islam flourished. What was lost to Christendom at this
time was not lost to civilisation, but quite the contrary...". During the
first part of the Middle Ages, no other people made as important a
contribution to human progress and development as did the Muslims
from the Arabian peninsula. For centuries that followed, Arabic became
the language of learning, culture and intellectual progress for the whole
of the civilised world, with the exception of the Far East. From the 9th to
the 12th centuries there were more philosophical, historical, religious,
astronomical and geographical works written in Arabic than in any
other human tongue. Islamic civilisation had learnt from the other
cultures and ideologies and was now established with its own identity.
The Muslims of the Iberian Peninsula who ruled Spain between
711 and 1492 CE are another shining example. For nearly eight
centuries, under Islamic rule, Spain set all Europe a shining example of
a civilised and enlightened state. Her fertile provinces rendered doubly
prolific, by the industrious engineering skill of the conquerors bore fruit
a hundred-fold, cities innumerable sprang up in the rich valleys in the
Guadalquivir and the Guadiana whose names, and names only
commemorate the vanished glories of their past. Art, literature and
science prospered as they then prospered nowhere else in Europe.
Mathematics, astronomy, botany, history, philosophy and jurisprudence
were to be mastered in Spain, and Spain alone. Whatever makes a
kingdom great and prosperous, whatever tends to refinement and
civilisation, was found in Muslim Spain.
In more recent times there are many proofs of the high cultural
level of the Ottoman Empire during, for example, the reign of Suliman.
During that era there was much progress in science and law; in the
flowering of literary works in Arabic, Persian and Turkish; in the
contemporary monuments in Istanbul, Bursa and Edirne; in the boom
of luxury industries in the sumptuous life of the court and high
dignitaries, and last, but not least, in religious tolerance. All of the
various influences - notably Turkish, Byzantine and Italian co-mingled
with the Islamic faith to make this the most brilliant epoch of the
The Prophet himself once advised his companions, "Accept
wisdom (bikmab) even if it is found in the language of the polytheists".
Nobody has a complete ownership of wisdom. Wisdom does not belong
to just one particular race, society, religion or country. Wisdom is like a
bird - free, fast, flying and flowing farther and further and higher and
higher. "Do not scorn the word of wisdom even though you hear it from
a profligate," said Ibn Abbas, hundreds of years ago. Wisdom is the
pronouncement of the truth. Knowledge is a tree and its fruits are
It is in this context that the concept of tolerance within Islam and
other religions was brought to the fore. HG Wells states, "The Islamic
teachings have left great traditions for equitable and gentle dealings and
behaviour, and inspire people with nobility and tolerance. These human
teachings of the highest order and at the same time practicable. These
teachings brought into existence a society in which hard-heartedness
and collective oppression and injustice were the least as with all other
societies preceding it.. Islam is replete with gentleness, courtesy and
Before the coming of Islam tolerance had never been preached as
an essential part of religion. The two verses (2:255-256) of the Qur'an
are supplementary. Where there is that realisation of the majesty and
dominion of Allah, there is no compulsion in religion. Men choose their
path-allegiance or opposition - and it is sufficient punishment for those
who oppose that they draw further and further away from the light of
truth. Throughout history, there are many other examples of Islamic
leaders who demonstrated time and again the principles of tolerance,
justice and humanity, all of which lie at the core of Islam.
In Egypt, the Copts were on terms of closest friendship with the
Muslims in the first centuries of the Muslim conquest and they are on
terms at closest friendship with the Muslims at the present day. In Syria,
the various Christian communities lived on terms of closest friendship
with the Muslims in the first centuries of the Muslim conquest, and they
are on terms of closest friendship with the Muslims at the present day,
openly preferring Muslim domination to a foreign yoke.
There were always flourishing Jewish communities in the Muslim
realm, notably in Spain, North Africa, Syria, Iraq and later on in
Turkey. Jews fled from Christian persecution to Muslim countries for
refuge. Whole communities of teem voluntarily embraced Islam
following a revered rabbi whom they regarded as the promised Messiah
but many more remained as Jews, and they were never persecuted as in
Christendom. The Turkish Jews are one with the Turkish Muslims
today. And it is noteworthy that the Arabic-speaking Jews of Palestine -
the old immigrants from Spain and Poland - are one with the Muslims
and Christians in opposition to the transformation of Palestine into a
national home for Jews.
To turn to the Christians, Marmaduke Pickthall states, "If Europe
had known as much of Islam, as Muslims knew of Christendom, in those
days, those mad, adventurous, occasionally chivalrous and heroic, but
utterly fanatical outbreak known as the Crusades could not have taken
place, for they were based on a complete misapprehension. Innumerable
monasteries, with a wealth of treasure of which the worth has been
calculated at not less than a hundred millions sterling, enjoyed the
benefit of the Holy Prophet's Charter to the monks of Sinai and were
religiously respected by the Muslims. The various sects of Christians
were represented in the Council of the Empire by their patriarchs, on
the provincial and district council by their bishops, in the village council
by their priests, whose word was always taken without question on
things which were the sole concern of their community"3. From that day
to this the Church of the Holy Sepulcher has always been a Christian
place of worship, the only things the Muslims did in the way of
interference with the Christian's liberty of conscience in respect of it was
to see that every sect of Christians had access to it, and that it was not
monopolised by one sect to the exclusion of others. The same is true of
the Church of the Nativity of Bethlehem, and of other buildings of
special sanctity.
Thomas Arnold in his respected work, The Call to Is1am4, said
"We have never heard about any attempt to compel non-Muslim parties
to adopt Islam or about any organised persecution aiming at
exterminating Christianity. If the Caliphs had chosen one of these plans,
they would have wiped out Christianity as easily as what happened to
Islam during the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella in Spain; by the same
method which Louis the 14 followed to make Protestantism a creed
whose followers were to be sentenced to death; or with the same ease of
keeping the Jews away from Britain for a period of three hundred and
fifty years".
Under the Khulafa-ul-Rashidin and the Umayyads, the true
Islamic attitude was maintained, and it continued to a much later period
under the Umayyad rule in Spain. In those days it was no uncommon
thing for Muslims and Christian to use the same places of worship.
Indeed, even today, in the plain of Sharon, a Church of St. George and a
mosque under the same roof with only a partition wall between..
When the Crusaders took Jerusalem they massacred the Eastern
Christians with the Muslims indiscriminately, and while they ruled in
Palestine the Eastern Christians, such of them as did not accompany the
retreating Muslim army, were deprived of all the privileges which Islam
secured to them and were treated as a sort of outcasters. Many of them
became Roman Catholics in order to secure a higher status; but after
the re-conquest, when the emigrants returned, the followers of the
Eastern church were found again to be in large majority over those who
owed obedience to the Pope of Rome. The old order was re-established
and all the Dhimmis once again enjoyed their privileges in accordance
with the Sacred Law of Islam.
Despite the growth of antagonism, Muslim rulers seldom made
their Christian subjects suffer for the Crusades. When the Saracens
finally resumed the full control of Palestine the Christians were given
their former Status as dhimmis. The Coptic Church, too had little cause
for complaint under Salahuddin's strong government, and during the
time of the earlier Mameluke sultans who succeeded him the Copts
experienced more enlightened justice than they had hitherto known. The
only effect of the Crusaders upon Egyptian Christians was to keep them
for a while from pilgrimage to Jerusalem, for as long as the Frank were
in charge heretics were forbidden access to the shrines. Not until the
Moslem victories much later could they enjoy their rights as Christians5.
But the effect of fanatical inroads had been somewhat to embitter
Muslim sentiments, and to ting them with an intellectual contempt for
the Christian generally, which was bad for Muslims and for Christians
both; since it made the former arrogant and oppressive to the latter
socially, and the intellectual contempt, surviving the intellectual
superiority, blinded the Muslims to the scientific advance of the West till
too late.
The arrogance hardened into custom. By the beginning of the
Eighteenth century AD, the Christians had, by custom, been made
subject to certain social disabilities, but these were never, at the worst,
so cruel or so galling as those to which the Roman Catholic nobility of
France at the same period subjected their own Roman Catholic
peasantry, or as those which Protestants imposed on Roman Catholics in
Ireland; and they weighed only on the wealthy portion of the
community. The poor Muslims and poor Christians were on equality,
and were still good friends and neighbours.
The Muslims never interfered with the religion of the subject
Christians. (e.g., The Treaty of Orihuela, Spain, 713.) There was never
anything like the Inquisition or the fires of Smithfield. Nor did they
interfere in the internal affairs of their communities. Thus a number of
small Christian sects, called by the larger sects heretical, which would
inevitably have been exterminated if left to the tender mercies of the
larger sects whose power prevailed in Christendom, were protected and
preserved until today by the power of Islam6.
In countries where nationality and language were the same in
Syria, Egypt and Mesopotamia there was no clash of ideals, but in
Turkey, where the Christians spoke quite different languages from the
Muslims, the ideals were also different. So long as the nationalism was
un-aggressive, all went well; and it remained un-aggressive - that is to
say, the subject Christians were content with their position - so long as
the Muslim Empire remained better governed, more enlightened and
more prosperous than Christian countries. And that may be said to have
been the case, in all human essentials, up to the beginning of the
seventeenth century7.
Then for a period of about eighty years the Turkish Empire was
badly governed; and the Christians suffered not from Islamic
Institutions but from the decay or neglect of Islamic Institutions. Still it
took Russia more than a century of ceaseless secret propaganda work to
stir ups spirit of aggressive nationalism in the subject Christians, and
then only by appealing to their religious fanaticism.
After the eighty years of bad government came the era of conscious
reform, when the Muslim government turned its attention to the
improvement of the status of all the peoples under it. But then it was too
late to win back the Serbs, the Greeks, the Bulgars and the Romans. The
poison of the Russian religious- political propaganda had done its work,
and the prestige of Russian victories over the Turks had excited in the
worst elements among the Christians of the Geek Church, the hope of an
early opportunity to slaughter and despoil the Muslims, strengthening
the desire to do so which had been instilled in them by Russian secret
envoys, priests and monks. In the Greek War of Independence in 1811,
three hundred thousand Muslims - men and women and children - the
whole Muslim population of the Morea without exception, as well as
many thousands in the northern parts of Greece - were wiped out in
circumstances of the most atrocious cruelty, that in European histories
we seldom find the slightest mention of that massacre, though we hear
much of the reprisals which the Turks took afterwards; that before
every massacre of Christians by Muslims of which you read, there was a
more wholesale massacre or attempted massacre of Muslims by
Christians; that those Christians were old friends and neighbours of the
Muslims - the Armenians were the favourites of the Turks till fifty years
ago - and that most of them were really happy under Turkish rule, as
has been shown again and again by their tendency to return to it after so
called liberation. It was the Christians outside the Muslim Empire who
systematically and continually fed their religious fanaticism: it was their
priests who told them that to slaughter Muslims was a meritorious act. I
doubt if anything so wicked can be found in history as that plot for the
destruction of Turkey. This has made religious tolerance appear a
weakness in the eyes of all the world lings, because the multitudes of
Christians who lived peacefully in Turkey are made to seem the cause of
Turkey's martyrdom and downfall; while on the other hand the method
of persecution and extermination which has always prevailed in
Christendom is made to seem comparatively strong and wise.
From the expulsion of the Moriscos dates the degradation and
decline of Spain. San Fernando was really wiser and more patriotic in
his tolerance to conquered Seville, Murcia and Toledo than was the later
king who, under the guise of Holy warfare, captured Grenada and let
the Inquisition work its will upon the Muslims and the Jews. And the
modern Balkan States and Greece are born under a curse. It may even
prove that the degradation and decline of European civilisation will be
dated from the day when so-called civilised states men agreed to the
inhuman policy of Czarist Russia and gave their sanction to the crude
fanaticism of the Russian Church.
Marmaduke Pickthall passionately states, "Let no Muslim, when
looking on the ruin of the Muslim realm which was compassed through
the agency of those very peoples whom the Muslims had tolerated and
protected through the centuries when Western Europe thought it a
religious duty to exterminate or forcibly convert all peoples of another
faith than theirs - let no Muslim, seeing this, imagine that toleration is a
weakness in Islam. It is the greatest strength of Islam because it is the
attitude of truth".
The Arabic word ijtihad literally means an effort to exercise and
arrive at one's judgement. In its widest sense it means the use of human
reason in the elaboration and explanation of the Shari'a Law. It covers a
variety of mental processes, ranging from the interpretation of the texts
of the Qur'an and assessment of the Ahadith. Qiyas or analogical
reasoning is a form of ijtihad, the method by which principles
established by the Qur'an, Sunnah and Ijma are extended and applied
to the solution of new problems not expressly regulated before.
Al-ijtihad is therefore, an exercise of ones reasoning to arrive at a logical
conclusion on a legal issue. This process is undertaken by Jurists to
a conclusion as to the effectiveness of a legal principle in Islam. In
order to elucidate the role of ijtihad in today's society it is necessary to
examine the historical evolution of Shari'a law as well as the role of
ijtihad in the past.
Historical Development of the Shari'a
The Shari'a, or divinely inspired law provided the legal framework
for dealing with everyday problems in much of the Muslim world prior
to the advent of the modern age. In the past, the Shari'a played a pivotal
role in bringing together diverse groups of Muslims in a single legal
religious framework. Classical Shari'a law continues to have a great
influence over the lives of many Muslims world-wide. Classical Shari'a
also influences Muslims though internalised social codes of conduct
amongst Muslim populations throughout the world.
Islamic law as we know it now has a temporal aspect in that it is
the product of many centuries of juristic interpretation. In particular in
the first few Centuries of Islam the developing law evolved in response
to changing social conditions. To look at the historical evolution of the
Shari'a one has to go back to the Prophet Muhammad (PBUH)'s era in
7th century Arabia. The Prophet Muhammad (PBUH) was regarded as
an arbiter of community affairs and was naturally asked to give rulings,
orders or injunctions on any topic that might arise and cause discord.
Therefore, he not only made pronouncements on matters of worship but
he also had to establish proper methods of taxation, marriage and
divorce, commerce, treaties of war and peace. It is clear that the
Qur'anic injunctions did not establish all pervasive rigid legal codes.
In fact, many important political and social issues never arose in the
Prophet's life time. After the death of the Prophet his first four
successors, the pious Caliphs carried on the tradition of flexibility
established by the Prophet Muhammad PBUH). During this period one
finds statements by these leaders that have no precedent in the Prophet's
career or even some which refine his practice markedly. Though the
Prophet Muhammad PBUH) had laid down the law the successors felt
fully able to interpret, adapt, and even supersede them in an effort to
make sure that the original intent of the Qur'an was followed. During
this time the Shari'a retained its original ad hoc nature, whereby the
merits of each case were adjudged in the light of general principles.
The structure of the Shari'a, as we know it now took shape during
what is known as the formative phase of the Islamic civilisation. This
phase started with the Umayyad dynasty (661-750 AD) and covers the
early part of the Abbassid era (750-1258 AD). Under the Umayyad state
the law grew more rigid as it was employed by rulers as a theoretical
justification for state control. After the first pious four, the Caliphs lost
their religious aura and the ulema (the learned scholars) came to
represent the spiritual dimension of Islamic rule. With the rapid spread
of Islam and the encounter with different cultures and social systems it
became necessary to elaborate a "science of law" (ilm al-fiqb).
According to the classical theory in elaborating the law jurists
were guided by two sacred sources: the divine revelations compiled in
the form of the Qur'an; and the precedents of the Prophet, the Sunnah
(practice) and hadith (sayings). Qur'anic legislation is predominantly
ethical in quality and many of the verses are concerned with religious
duties and ritual practices of prayer, fasting and pilgrimage. For the
Sunni school four basic principles represented the correlated
manifestations of God's will and were known as the roots of
jurisprudence (usul al-fiqh); the word of God himself in the Qur'an, the
divinely inspired conduct or Sunnah of the Prophet, reasoning by
analogy or qiyas, and the consensus of opinion of learned scholars or
ijma. The classical theory integrates the Qur'an and the Sunnah as the
material source of divine revelation. The classical accounts hold that the
function of the Sunnah is merely to explain or to elaborate on specific
rules principles and teachings of the Qur'an. The traditional account
postulates that by the beginning of the tenth Century, the door of ijtihad
(independent reasoning) was declared closed. The consensus of the
jurists was that the law had reached its perfection, since all that could be
deduced from the Qur'an and Sunnah of the prophet had already been
worked out. In classical Shari'a law the course which ijtihad must follow
is defined. The mujtahid (or person exercising ijtihad) should seek the
solution of legal problems in the specific terms of the Qur'an and the
Sunnah applying the accepted canons of interpretation. Ijma in the
Classical theory, is the agreement of the qualified legal scholars in a
given generation and such consensus of opinion is deemed infallible.
Theoretically the ijma of a given generation should not hinder
independent reasoning by later scholars. However, despite the
theoretical flexibility offered by the juridical tools many structures
restricted the actual practice and change in pre-modern Shari'a law.
Once formed the Ijma came to be seen as infallible; to contradict it was
near to heresy, and the possibility of its repeal by a similar ijma of a
later generation though admitted in theory be came highly unlikely in
practice. Ijma thus set the final seal upon the process of increasing
rigidity in the law. Classical theorists name the tenth Century as the
period of the "closing of the gates of ijtihad". Taqlid (imitation)
replaced independent reasoning. Thus circumscribed and fettered by the
principle of taqlid, jurisprudential activities subsequently became
confined to the elaboration and detailed analysis of established rules.
Ijtihad in the Contemporary World
It is unfortunate that the "doors of ijtihad" were declared closed in
the tenth Century. The lack of the use of independent reasoning or
ijtihad has meant that Shari'a law became rigid and inflexible thus
making it difficult for the Muslim Ummah to apply the Shari'a in the
modern age.
As one of the secondary sources of Shari'a law the role of ijtihad in
dealing with modern day problems cannot be emphasized enough.
Ijtihad offers the way for dynamism and change within Islam and a way
of dealing with and debating contemporary problems faced by Muslims.
The danger of Bida' (or innovation) is limited since the course which
ijtihad must follow is clearly de fined.
Imam Shafi maintained that Allah himself indirectly encourages us
to exercise our faculty of reasoning, a great gift to mankind to derive a
logical conclusion on certain matters. It is therefore imperative that such
a tool be fully utilized by Muslims of today. Islam allows within itself the
scope for flexibility and change which depends on rationality and
There are limitations and conditions and imposed by jurists on the
practice of ijtihad. For example ijtihad must not be exercised as to the
existence of Allah nor as to the truism of the Prophets of Allah. Before
one can be al-Mujtahid one has to be knowledgeable about the religion
of Islam, the Sunnah, Fiqh ad Usul-al-fiqh. He should know the
principle of Ijma very well and know the injunctions of Qiyas and the
conditions which surround it. The Mujtahid must also posses good
character apart from academic excellence. Furthermore, any form of
Ijtihad must have its starting point in a principle of the Qur'an, Sunnah
or Ijma and cannot be used to achieve a result which contradicts a rule
established by any of these fundamental sources.
In their encounter with the West and modernity, Muslim
reformers under took an intellectual effort to interpret Islam in a
modern way and come to terms with Western capitalist culture. Muslim
scholars such as Al-Afghani and Muhammad Abduh argued that the
"reopening of the gates of ijtihad was a necessary Islamic response to
imperialism prevalent in the Muslim world in the 18th Century.
Afghani's student Muhammad Abduh gave fresh interpretation of the
principles embodied in the divine revelation as a basis for legal reform.
Nevertheless, there has and continues to be much opposition to ijtihad
by conservative scholars. The opponents of ijtihad argue that the gates
had been closed by an infallible ijma.
From the late 1960's onwards the world has observed a new phase
of Islamic revival. The new phase of Islamic revival has its roots both
within and against the discourse of the modernists who tried to
harmonize Islam with modernity and the West. These revivalist scholars
criticize both the secular and Islamic modernists for an excessive
reliance on the West Modernists in their zeal to demonstrate the
compatibility of Islam with modernity are seen as having employed
Western criteria and values thereby producing a Westernized Islam.
These neo-revivalists are more sweeping in their condemnation of the
West and their assertion of the total self-sufficiency of Islam.
Islam recognizes all religions and Allah's prophets were missioned
to different peoples at different times throughout the history of
mankind. In order to spread peace and harmony in the world today, we
ourselves and the rest of the world alike need to join together to
recognise the beauty of true Islamic civilisation and appreciate its multi-
faceted universal cry for harmony and tolerance.
Marmaduke Pickthall states, "In the eyes of history, religious
toleration is the highest evidence of culture in a people. It was not until
the Western nations broke away from their religious law that they
became more tolerant, and it was only when the Muslims fell away from
their religious law that they declined in tolerance and other evidences of
the highest culture. The tolerance within the body of Islam was, and is,
something without parallel in history; class and race and colour ceasing
altogether to be barriers.
From the late 1960's onwards the world has observed a new phase
of Islamic revival. The new phase of Islamic revival has its roots both
within and against the discourse of the modernists who tried to
harmonize Islam with modernity and the West. These revivalist scholars
criticize both the secular and Islamic modernists for an excessive
reliance on the West Modernists in their zeal to demonstrate the
compatibility are seen as having employed Western criteria and values
thereby producing a Westernized Islam. These neo-revivalists are more
sweeping in their condemnation of the West and their assertion of the
total self-sufficiency of Islam.

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