David Shariatmadari’s rather well-argued piece in The Guardian asking if we should blame Islam for terrorism, makes an unforced error I wish he hadn’t.
In his attempt to show that Islam is a pretty normal religion – in the sense of wanting to grow, proselytize, impress people with its worldview and so on – Shariatmadari dismisses its conquests as follows:
“What about its wars of conquest? Well they definitely happened, but not in a way that marks Islam out from other cultures. The subsequent wave of imperial expansionism came via the sky-worshipping Mongols, before they settled down to become Muslims.”
The kindest thing that can be said about that statement is it’s probably not intended to be false. It is, however, mostly untrue.
Within 30 years of the 632 AD death of Prophet Muhammed, Muslim armies were on the march and the Umayyad empire – the first Muslim dynasty was established. This was a vast imperial construct and lasted just under a hundred years. It was succeeded by the Abbasids, who technically ruled for 500 years till the 1258 Mongol sacking of Baghdad. Technically, in charge, of course, didn’t mean the Abbasids were really in command for all of the 500 years of their dynasty. From the late 9th and certainly the early 10th centuries, the Abbasids were marginalised in parts of their territories by more assertive local rulers.
Anyway, the point about Shariatmadari’s claim that the Muslim wars of conquest didn’t happen till the barbaric sky-worshipping Mongols emerged on the scene, is this: It’s wrong.
The Umayyads and the Abbasids’ record doesn’t detract at all from the essential argument made so well by Shariatmadari. These were successful early Muslim dynasties that waged war and won, kept the peace, negotiated trade and other deals, built palaces and systems of government, decided complex social intra-faith issues and occasionally harassed non-Muslims but mostly lived in harmony. The Abbasids especially, created an era of great intellectual and cultural attainment, which is often called Islam’s golden age. So what if one of their caliphs, Mutawakkil, was a tyrant and a hypocrite? Not only did he persecute Jews and Christians, but Muslim co-religonists whom he regarded as heretics. He pretended to great piety but drank copious amounts of wine and had 4,000 concubines. He was hardly unusual – among princes and rulers, Muslim or not.
Making note of that fact doesn’t take away from the essential argument – Islam per se cannot be blamed for terrorism.