In certain parts of the world, people enjoy freedom of conscience and choice, are free to lead their lives in peace and amity, to devote their energies to teaching and preaching, researching and making new discoveries. Yet even these parts of the world have not always been so tolerant, nor free from strife, nor disposed towards the co-existence of different peoples, sects and groups, still less sufficiently broad-minded, to accommodate differences of opinion.
Mankind has seemed, many times, to be bent upon self-destruction, and passed through stages when, by its own misdeeds, it has forfeited any right to survival. Men have sometimes behaved like crazed and ferocious beasts, flinging all culture and civilization, arts, literature, decency, the canons of moral and civil law, to the winds.
All of us know that the writing of history is of a relatively recent origin. The ‘pre-historic’ era was very much longer. The decline of mankind when it relapsed into savagery was by no means an agreeable task for historians and writers to record. Nevertheless, we do find narratives of the downfall of empires and the decay of human society, told at long intervals in the pages of history. The first of these date from the fifty century A.D. some are briefly touched and upon here.
H.G. Wells, the well-known historian, writes about the decay of the Byzantine and Sassanid Empires as follows:
“Science and political philosophy seemed dead now in both these warring and decaying empires. The last philosophers of Athens, until their suppression, preserved the texts of the great literature of the past with an infinite reverence and want of understanding. But there remained no class of men in the world, no free gentleman with bold and independent habits of thought to carry on the tradition of frank statement and inquiry embodied in these writings. The social and political chaos accounts largely for the disappearance of the class, but there was also another reason why the human intelligence was sterile and feverish during this age of intolerance. Both empires were religious empires in a new way, in a way that greatly hampered the free activities of the human mind.”
The same writer, after describing the onslaught of the Sassanids on Byzantium and their eventual victory, comments on the social and moral degradation to which both these great nations had fallen:
“A prophetic amateur of history surveying the world in the opening of the seventh century might have concluded very reasonably that it was only a question of a few centuries before the whole of Europe and Asia fell under Mongolian domination. There were no signs of order or union in Western Europe, and the Byzantine and Persian empires were manifestly bent upon mutual destruction. India also was divided and wasted.”
Another writer, Robert Briffault strikes a similar note:
“From the fifth to the tenth century Europe lay sunk in a night of barbarism which grew darker and darker. It was a barbarism far more awful and horrible than that of the primitive savage, for it was the decomposing body of what had once been a great civilization. The features and impress of that civilization were all but completely effaced. Where its development had been fullest, e.g., in Italy and Gaul, all was ruin, squalor and dissolution.”
The Civilizations nurtured by ancient religions were disintegrating; this according to J.H. Denison. In Emotion as the Civilization, he writes:
“In the fifth and sixth centuries the civilized world stood on the verge of chaos. The old emotional cultures that had made civilization possible, since they had given to men a sense of unity and of reverence for their rulers, had broken down, and nothing had been found adequate to take their place …
“It seemed then that the great civilization which it had taken four thousand years to construct was on the verge of disintegration, and that mankind was likely to return to that condition of barbarism when every tribe and sect was against the next, and law and order was unknown … The old tribal sanctions had lost their power … The new sanctions created by Christianity were working division and destruction instead of unity and order. It was a time fraught with tragedy. Civilization, like a gigantic tree whose foliage had overarched the world and whose branches had borne the golden fruits of art and science and literature, stood tottering … rotten to the core.”
At a time when mankind and human civilization were on the edge of destruction, the Lord and Creator of the word caused a man to be born in Arabia who was entrusted with the most difficult task: not only to rescue mankind from imminent destruction but also to raise it to sublime height, heights hitherto beyond the knowledge of historians and the imagination of poets. If there were not incontrovertible historical evidence to demonstrate his achievements, it would be difficult to believe such greatness. This man was Muhammad (peace be upon him) who was born in the sixth century. He saved mankind from imminent danger, gave it new life, new ambition, fresh energy, a revitalised sense of human dignity and intellect, as also a new found idealism. It was because of him that a new era came about, an era of spirituality in art and literature, of personal sincerity and selfless service of others, all of which produced an ordered, graceful and kindly culture. His most precious gifts to man were his devotion to righteousness and aversion to evil, his hatred of false gods and a passion for establishing justice and morality, and a readiness to lay down one’s life for these righteous goals. Such goals ultimately are the fountainhead and incentive for all reforms and improvements. Whatever great and sublime heights man has attained have been the result of such noble sentiments — indeed, all material resources, means and methods owe their existence to human will and determination. That great benefactor of humanity replaced barbarism and brutality with the milk of human kindness, magnanimity and courtesy. He struggled unceasingly for the propagation of his noble teachings with complete disregard for his own self, his life or prestige.
Precisely because of this struggle, there arose from among an uncivilized and ill-mannered people noble-hearted men who led a graceful and kindly life, men who started a new era of courtesy and warmth in human history, who engendered gentleness and goodness in those around them. The world obtained a fresh lease of life; justice and fairness became its hallmark; the weak were emboldened to claim their rights from the haughty and strong; mercy and kindness became the norms. It was a time when humanitarianism became a driving force, faith and conviction captured human hearts, mankind began to take pride in selflessness, and virtuous behaviour became habitual with people.
We list below, in brief, the precious gifts of Islam which have played a key role in the advancement of human values and culture. A new and bright world, quite different from the decaying and disintegrating humanity at the time of its advent, came into being as a result of these Islamic contributions:
1. The clear and unambiguous creed of the Oneness of God.
2. The concept of human equality and brotherhood.
3. The concept of human dignity and man being the masterpiece of God’s creation.
4. Acknowledgement of the proper status of women and the restoration of their legitimate rights.
5. The rejection of despair and the infusion of hope and confidence in human beings.
6. The fusion of the secular and the sacred, the refusal to accept any cleavage between them.
7. The integration of religion and knowledge, making one dependent on the other and raising respect for knowledge by declaring it a means of attaining nearness to God.
8. Emphasis on the use of intellectual faculties in religious and spiritual matters and encouraging the study and contemplation of natural phenomena.
9. Charging the followers of Islam with the responsibility of spreading virtue and goodness in the world, and making it a duty incumbent on them to restore truth and justice.
10. The establishment of a universal creed and culture.
I will not elaborate upon these points here. Instead, I would rather cite a few eminent western thinkers and writers who have acknowledged these virtues of Islam. one of the bases of culture and civilization — something that enhances gentility, and refinement, civility in conduct as well as in literature — is the acknowledgement of a truth, appreciation of the great achievements of others and returning thanks to those who have done us any favour. The day this noble sentiment is expelled from our lives, literature, ethical standards, intellectual labours, even the right of expressing our thoughts freely, will become meaningless. It will not be a world to live in and die for. It will be a world of beasts and brutes where the ruling passion is to fend for oneself alone. No sentiment will remain except the fulfilment of carnal desires. All rightly ordered relationships between teacher and taught, benefactor and beneficiary, physician and patient, even between parents and children, will peter out and lose their significance.
Gratitude, as defined by William H. Davidson, a contributor to the Encyclopedia of Religion and Ethics, is a spontaneous and natural sentiment generated by the kindness and benefit conferred by someone. It is a human virtue, at once abiding and universal. Davidson in this respect says:
Gratitude has been defined as that delightful emotion of love to him who has conferred a kindness on us, the very feeling of which is itself no small part of the benefit conferred. Gratitude is an unselfish joyous response to kindness — a response that is immediate and spontaneous; the ultimate meaning of which is that human nature is so constituted that affection and unity between persons is the foundation of it, ill-will and enmity (all indications to the contrary notwithstanding) being abnormal and depraved.
Ingratitude is, thus, a moral depravity and a perversion of human nature, a sign of benumbed human conscience. The lowest depth to which this immorality can fall is the ingratitude shown to founders of religion, the teachers of morals and the greatest benefactors of humanity. Grotesque parody in deliberately offensive language is not appropriate from anyone, let alone of those noble souls who have founded religions, for it hurts the feelings of millions who not only follow them but who are also willing to lay down their lives for them. Efforts at such offensiveness also entail a denial of truth. No cultured people, country or society should tolerate or defend anyone so depraved and unmannerly, who possesses no conscience.
Now let us refer to the compliments paid to the greatest benefactor of humanity by a few eminent men of letters from this part of the world where I am speaking. One of these candid men, Lamartine of France, says in his tribute to the prophethood of Muhammad (peace the upon him):
If greatness of purpose, smallness of means, and astounding results are the three criteria of human genius, who could dare to compare any great man in modern history with Muhammed?
The most famous men created arms, laws and empires only. They founded, if anything at all, no more than material powers which often crumbled away before their eyes. This man moved not only armies, legislations, empires, peoples and dynasties, but millions of men in one-third of the then inhabited world; and more than that, he moved the altars, the gods, the religions, the ideas, the beliefs and souls. On the basis of a Book, every letter of which has become law, he created a spiritual nationality which blended together peoples of every tongue and of every race. He has left us as the indelible characteristic of his Muslim nationality, the hatred of false gods and the passion for the One and immaterial God. This avenging patriotism of Heaven formed the virtue of the followers of Mohammad; the conquest of one-third of the earth to this dogma was his miracle; or rather it was not the miracle of man but that of reason. The idea of the unity of God, proclaimed amidst the exhaustion of fabulous the genies, was in itself such a miracle that upon its utterance from his lips it destroyed all the ancient temples of idols and set on fire one-third of the world.
John William Draper, the reputed author of A History of the Intellectual Development of Europe, writes:
Four years after the death of Justinian, A.D. 569, was born at Mecca, in Arabia, the man who, of all men, has exercised the greatest influence upon the human race.
He says further:
Muhammad possessed that combination of qualities which more than once has decided the fate of empires … Asserting that everlasting truth, he did not engage in vain metaphysics, but applied himself to improving the social condition of the people by regulations respecting personal cleanliness, sobriety, fasting and prayer.
The great historian-philosopher of this century, A.J. Toynbee, is on record as saying that:
The extinction of race consciousness as between Muslims is one of the outstanding achievements of Islam, and in the contemporary world there is, as it happens, a crying need for the propagation of this Islamic virtue.9
It is a strange coincidence that over a hundred years ago Thomas Carlyle chose Muhammad (peace the upon him) as the supreme hero, and now, in the closing decades of the twentieth century, Michael H. Hart of the United States of America has prepared a list of 100 most influential persons in history, placing the Prophet at the top.
Written by Maulana Abul Hasan Ali Nadwi
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