‘A Story Of Two Civilisations: Brief History Of Islam And The West’ Book Extracts

During the period known as the Early Middle Ages, two civilisations were born which were destined to dominate the world: the Islamic and Western civilisations. Their story begins with the eruption of two hardy and energetic peoples: the Bedouin tribes from the Arabian peninsula, and the seafaring Vikings from lands of the far North.  

From the very birth of Europe in the crucible of the Crusades to the Ottoman advances of the Early Modern period, the history of the West has been closely intertwined with the Islamic world. Many books have been written on the history of these civilisations, but few have yet attempted to bring the two stories together.  

This book, by the UK-based Islamic Scholar, Shaykh Dr Ridhwan ibn Muhammad Saleem, provides an illuminating overview of the history of the Islamic and Western civilisations. Shaykh Ridhwan provides a refreshing alternative to the Euro-centric accounts that dominate the field, challenging many of the triumphant claims and – sometimes unconscious – biases of Western historians. Drawing upon the pioneering work of Marshall Hodgson, Shaykh Ridhwan addresses the importance of Muslims re-claiming and re-naming their heritage and providing a counter-narrative to the mainstream textbooks. 

The purpose of this book is to provide readers with an overview of the major historical events and processes, as well as a glimpse at some of the important personalities, taking into consideration the political, intellectual and economic aspects. It is a sketching of the landscape, so to speak, so that readers are given a clear view of the forest before becoming lost in the trees. 

Shaykh Ridhwan gained traditional qualifications (ijaza/Alim degree) in Islamic Studies, studying with some of the leading ulema in Syria and the UK/US, as well as academic degrees in Medicine and Anthropology. He has been researching and teaching in the field of Islamic history since 2014 at London College of Islamic Studies and various Islamic centres in the UK. 

The following extract is a glimpse into this unique book, now available in print and kindle on Amazon.  

Credit Amazon

Extract 1 

During the period known as the Early Middle Ages, two civilisations were born which were destined to dominate the world: the Islamic and Western civilisations. Their story begins with the eruption of two hardy and energetic peoples: the Bedouin tribes from the Arabian peninsula, and the seafaring Vikings from lands of the far North.  

Inspired and emboldened by the possession of a new Divine revelation, the Arabs fanned out deep into the Asian and African continents and, within a generation, brought the great Persian and Roman empires to their knees.  

Meanwhile, the pagan Viking hordes from Scandinavia relentlessly plundered and settled in the lands of Northern Europe for more than two centuries. Their project of colonisation and military domination was continued by their descendants: the Normans in the West, and the Rus in the East.  

From the ashes of these mighty eruptions, the civilisations of Islam and the West were to emerge.   

The history of these civilisations goes back about 1,400 years; but to keep things in perspective, human history extends back much further in time. Human beings have been around for at least 200,000 years (the first true humans as we think of them), or perhaps even around two million years (based on archaeological evidence of tool-making).  

In the 19th century, Britain, France and Germany, having become global powers, set about writing the history of their civilisation. The result was a mixture of fact and fantasy. There was a desire to portray Europeans as having the credentials and the right to rule others, so a search was made to find evidence of an ancient pedigree. Europe’s history began with Ancient Greece, or so the story went. According to this narrative, the Greeks were unique among the Ancients in their pursuit of rational thought and science. This heritage passed to the Romans, who were a little oppressive and imperialistic but, nevertheless, a great civilisation which valued the rule of law. Then there was an unfortunate period called the Middle Ages in which Europe was backward and feudalistic, but things got better with the Renaissance and the rediscovery of the Greek and Roman heritage, eventually leading to European enlightenment, progress, science, and military triumph over the rest of the world. This became the standard story taught at home and in colonial schools around the world. 

One myth that should be laid to rest at the outset is the claim of the West as inheritors of the ancient civilisations of Greece and Rome. Ancient Rome and, even more so, Greece, were Mediterranean civilisations with their main locus around Asia and North Africa. The core nations that formed Western civilisation – Britain, France, and Germany – descend primarily from Germanic and Nordic tribes who emerged from outside the Roman or Greek worlds.   

We often read that the Roman Empire came to an end in the 5th century CE (in this book, all dates are given in CE form unless otherwise indicated) with the sacking of Rome by the Barbarians. In reality, only the western half of the Empire was defeated. The capital had moved from Rome to Constantinople (‘the New Rome’) in 330, and the Empire endured another thousand years until its fall to the Ottomans in 1453. In western textbooks, the Eastern Roman Empire mysteriously becomes known as ‘Byzantium’, or ‘the Byzantine Empire’ from some unspecified date, a name unknown to the Eastern Romans themselves.   

A heavy Euro-centric bias is evident in many standard textbooks and received versions of historical events and processes. Fortunately, in recent decades this western triumphalism has begun to subside, and more balanced studies are being produced by western historians. Nevertheless, many examples of the former persist, particularly in school textbooks, and subtle biases are impossible to remove completely. My outlook on the history of the period no doubt contains its own biases. I hope to remain as objective as possible and, in any case, help to rebalance and provide fresh perspectives that may be missed from the standard western account.  

Another myth developed by the colonial empires was that of the European ‘continent’. There is no reason to imagine Europe as a continent; it is merely an extremity of Asia, a sub-continent perhaps. In addition, the map of the world was turned upside down to place Europe at the top, and distorted to make the Northern countries appear much larger in proportion to the rest.   

The nineteenth century also saw the spread of the ‘evolution’ myth. Based on a combination of ‘scientific’ theory and racism, white Europeans saw themselves (the ‘Rational White Man’) as the pinnacle of an evolutionary journey. In this view, human beings had gradually progressed from primitive savages through various stages, finally arriving at the European climax, characterised by rational thought, democracy, industrialised economies, and science. 

The West has told its story. Now it is time to tell ours. And it is up to intelligent readers to decide for themselves which version corresponds more closely to reality.  

Extract 2 

The Writing of History 

History is not neutral. Conquerors will present history from their own viewpoint. The European global empires of the nineteenth century and today’s American empire are certainly no exceptions to this rule. A best-selling modern book on European history, ‘The Penguin History of Europe’ by J. M. Roberts is a good example of Eurocentric history writing.  For example, the author dismisses the oppression and virtual genocide of the inhabitants of a whole continent (Native Americans) as “one of the costs of the opportunities which English America…offered to thousands of poor Europeans.” Fortunately, in recent decades more balanced and culturally respectful authors have emerged, though subtle biases sometimes persist which the author may not perceive.  

The history of Islamic civilisation is particularly skewed and full of distortions which go back to the Middle Ages. It is our job to rediscover and re-present our history in a way that it deserves. Muslims led the world, intellectually, culturally and militarily, for over a thousand years – until at least the 18th century. This great historical reality is fragmented in standard western textbooks, often presented as many separate histories: those of the Moors, Arabs, Turks, Mughals, Mongols etc. The unity of the civilisation is noted by only few authors. In this way, the common ‘Islamic’ part of our history is downgraded and minimised. Often we find the whole of Islamic history relegated to a few pages in a book on world history. It is time to reclaim and also rename our history.  

Our story begins in the year 622 CE, year 1 of the Islamic Age, with the emigration (hijra) of the Messenger of God, Muhammad (peace and mercy be upon him). This year falls in what is known as the Early Middle Ages, or Medieval Period. We will call it the beginning of the Islamic Age, or Islamic Millennium. The term ‘Middle Ages’/’Medieval’ is often seen in a negative light, an age in which Christian Europe was sunk in darkness and superstition. Eurocentrics tend to assume the whole world was in darkness. But in fact, this period was a golden age of the Islamic civilisation which spanned a large part of the world and was based on the supremacy of one book, the Quran. All Islamic empires and emirates throughout the Islamic Age have shared a belief in the supremacy of the Quran, even if they often fell short of its lofty teachings. The laws of these Muslim lands were invariably based on this Holy Book and the Prophet’s teachings. 

In our scheme, the Islamic Age, or Islamic Millennium, extends from the Hijra until 1707 CE (well into the Early Modern period). We mark 1707 as a symbolic end to the Islamic era due to the death of the last great Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, signaling the beginning of the decline of Muslim global ascendency. Also, in 1707, England and Scotland unified to form Great Britain, the nation destined to eclipse Islamic domination and lead the world into the Modern Age.  

The Islamic Millennium is divided into three main periods: the High Caliphate Period (622-1066), in which most of the Muslim world is united under one caliph; the Middle Period (1066-1500) of Islamic sultanates, emirates and khanates, in which myriad polities and dynasties come and go, but which form the “Muslim Commonwealth”, united by a common language, religion and culture; and the Gunpowder Period (1500-1707), dominated by three great empires in the Muslim world, the Ottoman, Mughal and Safavid, and the spread of gunpowder weaponry.    

After 1707, then, the European Age begins.1 We witness the continued rise of the European colonial empires which come to dominate most of the world by the end of the 19th century. 

Following the momentous and destructive power struggles between these powers in the 20th century – the two World Wars – the mantle of Western civilisation is taken on by the new superpower, the United States of America, which proceeds to fashion a new world order.  

Extract 3 

The Crusades 

In 1099, thirty-three years after the Norman conquest of England, Pope Urban called for all Christians to join together in a Holy War against ‘the Saracens’ (Roman term for Muslims), who were threatening the Roman Empire to the east, and to liberate the holy city of Jerusalem from the infidels.  

Although the western Christians were generally despised by the Romans, Emperor Alexis Komnenos had, in desperation, called upon the Pope for assistance, as his domains were rapidly falling to Muslim advances. The Romans tended to think of the western Europeans as little more than barbarians, but they were in a fragile situation and had no choice but to appeal to them in the name of common religion.  

The massive response to the Pope’s call-to-arms was astonishing. Even the Pope himself was probably not expecting it. Several factors came together in Europe at that juncture that may help explain this huge Crusader Movement, that would persist for several centuries, one crusade after another. One factor was the rise and spread of the Normans, an energetic people always hungry for adventure and opportunity. Another was the emergence of primogeniture, i.e. all inheritance passes to the eldest son. The result was large numbers of men of noble birth who had no inheritance and no land of their own. Thus, they were compelled to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Another factor was the Catholic Church’s creation of a massive culture of guilt, which may have led to desperate desire for a quick route to Heaven.  

The Crusades were a mess. The first group to emerge were a ragtag group of enthusiastic poor people led by Peter the Hermit and Walter the Penniless. Their conviction that they were guaranteed forgiveness of all sins led them to indulge in a few along the route. Horrible massacres and disturbances occurred, with Jewish communities particularly targeted. The People’s Crusade, as it became known, never reached Muslim lands, but started fighting the Romans instead. Peter the Hermit blamed the participants’ lack of true faith as the reason for their dismal failure.  

The next group, the ‘official’ First Crusade, consisted of serious soldiers and knights from all over Western Europe. Komnenos was wary of their intentions and made their leaders swear the most sacred oaths, upon all manner of holy relics, that they would hand over any town they captured from the Muslims to the Roman Empire. Antioch was the first town to be captured, and the Crusaders immediately reneged on their oaths. Bohemund ‘the crafty Norman’ argued that the oaths were no longer binding as Komnenos had broken his side of the bargain by not sending reinforcements.   

Edessa, Jerusalem and Tripoli were all captured and small Crusader Kingdoms were established right in the heart of dar al-Islam. The Muslims, for the time being, were too busy fighting each other to pay much attention to the uncouth arrivals, and in fact some formed alliances with the Crusaders against Muslim rivals.  

The fame, glory and success of the First Crusade spread far and wide in Europe. So, for the Second Crusade, kings and princes set out. This time the Muslims had managed to unite under a new strongman, Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi, and they defeated the Christian armies and took back Jerusalem. In contrast to the massacre inflicted by the Crusaders when they took the city a century earlier, Salahudeen treated the entire ‘Frankish’2 population with toleration and magnanimity.  

The Third Crusade, led by Richard the Lionheart, failed to re-capture Jerusalem but took the town of Acre.  

The Fourth Crusade, in 1206, was a particular embarrassment as the crusaders decided to attack the Romans again and besieged Constantinople. They managed to get into the city, and sacked and looted it in a particularly nasty and barbaric fashion. Initially the Pope was shocked to hear of the attack on the Roman capital and strenuously denied any involvement. But later, when news of success filtered back, he gave it his blessing calling it a ‘miraculous event’.  

Constantinople was later won back by the Roman forces, and eventually the Muslims also took back all the lands that they had lost to the Crusaders.  

But the crusading spirit had taken root in Europe. For many centuries, almost all foreign military expeditions by the kingdoms of Western Europe would be described as ‘crusades’. The idea that propagation of the Catholic faith could be used as a justification for conquest and subjugation of non-Christians had arrived. 

Throughout the Middle Period, there was extensive contact and cultural exchange between the West and the Muslim world, whether through the crusader kingdoms, Norman Sicily, Islamic Spain or the trading empires of the Italian city states. Historians are uncovering many of the influences of this contact with Muslims upon the West. The Muslim world’s rational and scientific spirit would gradually seep into the West, undermining the teachings of the Catholic Church in the process.  

Extract 4 

End of the Ottoman Empire (1924) 

The Ottomans had entered WW1 on the side of the German Empire. The British successfully instigated Arabs within the Ottoman Empire to revolt against their Turkish brothers. The Allied victory in WW1 led to the occupation and breakup of the Ottoman Empire by Britain and France. Mustafa Kemal led the Turkish forces and managed to save the Anatolian heartland itself from Allied occupation, but could not save the rest of the vast empire. He established the new ‘Republic of Turkey’, a secular nation-state along western models, and abolished the Ottoman caliphate. After over thirteen centuries, beginning with the first Rashidun caliphs, Abu Bakr and Umar, the Islamic caliphate had finally come to an end.  

With the demise of the Ottoman Empire, Jerusalem was occupied by the British, and the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance took the opportunity to seize Arabia and proclaim the ‘Saudi’ kingdom.  

The powerful idea of nationalism that had spread from Europe to the world inspired some Jewish groups, calling themselves ‘Zionists’, to claim a homeland of their own too. The European empires who, by this time, considered themselves to be guardians of world order and were in the habit of carving up continents, were sympathetic and suggested several possible sites – the British particularly favoured a region of Uganda for a Jewish state. The Zionists, however, had their sights set on Palestine. The British eventually agreed to this, but later changed their minds in the face of widespread Arab opposition.  

However, the Zionists would not give up even without British support, and began a terror campaign against the British. Eventually the Zionists were able to use the post-WW2 situation to force the issue, and declared the State of Israel. In support of the Palestinian people whose land had been taken, the neighbouring Arab countries of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq immediately launched an invasion of the new Jewish state. But, with US (and Soviet) backing, the Israelis put up successful resistance and were able to repulse the attacks.   

The 1950s and 1960s 

The two decades following WW2 saw momentous changes in the global order. The great European empires had been bankrupted from the war and had to rely on US capital to prop them up. The money did not come without a price. The Americans had plans for the world, which did not involve the continuation of European colonial empires. American policymakers intended to open up the world to US capital and manufactured goods. The motivation as usual was capitalist greed, the need for endless accumulation of wealth, and control and exploitation of the world’s resources.  

Oil had now become the greatest prize of the age. Literally trillions of dollars’ worth of this ‘black gold’ was buried under the earth, enough to drive anyone mad with treasure-lust. Lessons had been learnt from the colonial plundering of the last century. Direct occupation of ‘third world’ countries was costly and inefficient. The desired results could often be obtained by indirect and more subtle means of control.  

The US declared herself the champion of nationalism everywhere. According to this universal principle, all ‘people’ have the right to govern themselves. What exactly defines a ‘people’ was an inconvenient question to be ignored for the time being. Under America’s approving eye, independence nationalist movements arose in all of the colonial lands and the British and French were forced to give up their overseas territories one by one. Russia, now under a communist regime, was the only European empire to retain its imperial territories and, calling itself the Soviet Union, set up a rival bloc to the US world order.  

While encouraging (and sometimes twisting the arms of) the British and French to give up their colonial possessions, the US constructed a global financial system with the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, and set up the United Nations as a body for  international co-operation.  

Thus, a global political and economic framework was put in place by the victorious empire which was designed to allow US capital and corporations, backed by overwhelming military strength, to spread their tentacles across the world. The basic unit of the new order was to be the nation-state, on the European model.  

The Muslim lands of Africa had been carved up by the colonial powers during ‘The Scramble’, and after the Ottoman defeat in WW1 the last Muslim empire was also divided into multiple ‘nation-states’. It was important to ensure that no independent Muslim nation was large or powerful enough to be able to challenge the rules of the new global order. ‘Nations’ that had never existed in history were simply invented (e.g. Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, UAE, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, Pakistan, Libya, and most of the nations of Africa). Each new nation was given a national anthem and a flag, granted their ‘independence’, and incorporated into the UN system. Muslims had never known the idea of ‘nation-state’, but after several generations of colonial rule, a westernised tier of society was in place which spoke the language of European politics and enthusiastically led the independence movements under the banner of nationalism.  

The impact of Western global domination was so profound in the Muslim world that, by the 20th century, many Muslim intellectuals had accepted the Western ideas of nationalism, popular sovereignty (i.e. democracy), government based on constitution, a faith in science, and even secularism and atheism.  

But, despite the huge technological advancements of the West, a group of scholars in each generation continued to attempt to refute Western ideas that seemed to oppose Islamic teaching and, after the collapse of the last caliphate in 1924, began to preach the superiority of Sharia and Islamic government over western secular models. 

By Khadeeja Saleem

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