Books Review

HISTORICAL ROLE OF ISLAM: AN ESSAY ON ISLAMIC CULTURE

By M. N. Roy Reviewed by: Asghar Ali Engineer

M. N. Roy was greatly attracted towards Marxism though later on he renounced his Marxist views and became a secularist and rationalist. He was critical of traditional religion and wanted a secular state to remain away from religious ideologies and religious institutions to maintain its secular character. However, he was highly appreciative of democratic and egalitarian character of Islam and Islamic teachings.

Before we throw light on Roy’s views about Islam we would like to assert that any modern thinkers, literateurs and writers have greatly appreciated democratic and egalitarian character of Islam but have regretted at the same time that Muslims did not remain true to Islamic teachings. Islam, besides other things greatly stressed the importance of justice. Justice forms one of the core teachings of Islam. It lays great emphasis on all forms of justice, social, economic as well as gender justice. However, Islamic society, which ought to have been an exemplary just society soon degenerated into tyrannical hierarchical society. Women lost their Qur’anic rights and common Muslims their social and political rights. Feudalism and feudal values overwhelmed Islamic values and Islamic revolution was undone within three decades of its inception. Imam Husain, the grandson of the Prophet made a lastly attempt to restore Islamic values through his martyrdom but his was the last protest.

Husain’s martyrdom did inspire subsequent generation of Muslims but the protest was defused and deactivated by giving it a harmless form of mourning. It lost its revolutionary thrust and did not challenge the personal tyrannical rule and various dynastic rulers captured power. However, it is not our intention here to throw light on Muslim history but on Roy’s views of Islam.

M.N.Roy’s book was first published in 1939. Roy was from a Brahmin family from West Bengal. He began to take part in underground revolutionary activity at the age of 14. His revolutionary zeal took him to various countries in search of arms from Java to Japan to China to San Francisco to Mexico. In Mexico he joined Mexican Socialist Party. Thereafter Roy went to Moscow in 1920 and met Lenin to discuss with him the national liberation movements in colonial countries. His commitment and intellectual sharpness enabled him to occupy high positions in all policy-making bodies of the Communist International.

Roy came to India in 1930 incognito but was arrested in July 1931 and was tried and sentenced to imprisonment for 12 years for conspiring to overthrow the British Government. However, his sentence was reduced to six years on appeal. He completed the sentence in 1936 and was released from Jail. He appealed to Indians to join Indian National Congress in millions. He wanted the Congress leaders to thoroughly democratise the Congress and build it from village and Taluka level. He wrote Historical Role of Islam during this period in 1939 when he was struggling for thorough democratisation of society.

It was during this struggle that he realised the importance of the role Islam had played in history. Thus he writes in the introductory chapter of his book “But with us, today in India, particularly with Hindus, a proper understanding of the historical role of Islam and the contribution it has made to human culture has acquired a supreme political importance.” He acknowledges that India has more Muslims than any single Islamic country (he wrote this before partition) and yet he felt after centuries of existence of Muslims they are considered an extraneous element. Roy says, “So completely have the Mohammedans become an integral part of the Indian nation that the annals of the Muslim rule are justly recorded as chapters of history of India.”

As for prejudice against Muslims and Islam Roy ascribes it to the relationship between the conquerors and the conquered. Though this relationship, he says has become the thing of the past but the prejudice remains and this prejudice has become “not only an effective obstacle to national cohesion but also a hindrance for a dispassionate view of history.” He also feels that “No civilised people in the world are so ignorant of Islamic history and contemptuous of the Mohammedan religion as the Hindus. Spiritual imperialism is an outstanding feature of our nationalist ideology.”

Roy quotes the famous historian Gibbon when he describes rise and expansion of Islam as “one of the most memorable revolutions which has impressed a new and lasting character on the nations of the globe.” Roy then goes on to say, “One is simply amazed to contemplate the incredible rapidity with which the two mightiest empires of the ancient time were subverted by the comparatively small band of nomads issuing from the Arabian desert fired with the zeal of a new faith. Hardly fifty years had passed since Mohammad assumed the role of the singular Prophet spreading his Message of peace at the point of the sword, when his followers victoriously planted the banner of Islam on the confines of India, on the one hand, and on the shores of the Atlantic, on the other.”

Roy, with his Marxist background and sharp intellect could penetrate to the causes of the rapid spread of Islam with its revolutionary message. Roy, unlike other historians or interpreters of Islam did not confine this understanding to the religious and spiritual side of Islam but brought to the front its political side and rich cultural contribution. Thus he maintains, “Islam rose rather as a political movement than a religion in the strictest sense of the word. In the initial stages of its history, it was essentially a call for the unity of the nomadic tribes inhabiting the Arabian desert.”

Christianity at one time had given the oppressed of the world a hope but once opted by the Roman empire it lost its revolutionary character and degenerated into a prop for the oppressive empire. Now the message of hope and salvation came from the “Caravan traders of Arabia who had stood outside the corrupting atmosphere of the decomposed Roman world, and prospered by their advantageous position”. The “Revolt of Islam” saved humanity.”

There is great need to understand this character of Islam. It was revolt against the corrupt and exploitative establishment. The Qur’anic message was to empower the ‘mustad’ifin (weaker sections) of society and disinherit the mustakbirin (the arrogant and powerful). Qur’an narrates the story of Israelites and Pharoas as that of the oppressed and the powerful and the victory of the Israelites led by Moses is the victory of the oppressed. Allah promises to make the mustad’ifin inherit this earth. It was this revolutionary message of the Qur’an, which empowered the nomads of the desert to conquer the world and smash the oppressive and exploitative Roman and Sassanid empires, the two most powerful empires of the world. It is this revolutionary and political character of Islam that attracts M. N. Roy, himself a one time revolutionary.

Roy strongly disagrees with those who utterly distort Islamic history and denigrate it as fanatical movement with ‘sword in one hand, and the Qur’an in the other’. He maintains that Muslim conquerors, unlike other barbarians, were distinguished “by the nobility of their character, purity of purpose and piety of spirit. Their devoutness might have been fortified by superstition, but was not strained by hypocrisy. Their fanaticism was softened by generosity and sound common-sense. Their ambition was remarkably free from selfishness.”

Roy, in order to prove his point, quotes from the advice given by the first Caliph Abu Bakr to his followers, which explains why Islam attracted people to its fold. Roy says his (Abu Bakr’s) memorable injunctions to the “Army of God” ran thus: “Be just; the unjust never prosper. Be valiant; die rather than yield. Be merciful; slay neither old men, nor women, nor children. Destroy neither fruit trees, nor grains, nor cattle. Keep your word even to your enemy. Molest not those men who live retired from the world.”

Then Roy comments that “he irresistible march of the ‘Army of God’ bears testimony to that this remarkable injunction was uttered sincerely by the venerable chief, and obeyed strictly by the devout followers.” Roy also rightly points out that these Saracen invaders hardly faced any resistance and were welcome by people as liberators. The early historians of Islam like Baladhuri also point out that oppressed people of Roman Empire opened the doors of strong citadels as these invaders were seen as liberators. Fakhri, another historian has also left for the posterity the dialogue between Rustam, the bravest general of Iran and the two ambassadors sent by Sa’ad bin Waqqas. These two ‘simpleton Bedouins’ dismissed with contempt by Rustom had warned is (Rustom) that tomorrow when we fight you in the battlefield you will be defeated because all your slaves and oppressed peasantry will support us. And this is precisely what happened and the ruler of Sassanid Empire had to run for his life. The slaves and oppressed peasants welcomed these simpleton Bedoins as their liberators.

Thus Roy observes “Everywhere the Saracen invaders were welcome as deliverers by peoples oppressed and tormented by Byzantine corruption, Persian despotism and Christian superstition. Fanatically faithful to the revolutionary teachings of the Prophet, and obediently acting according to the noble wise and eminently practical injunctions of the Khalif, the Saracen invaders easily enlisted the sympathy and support of the peoples they conquered. No invader can establish an abiding domination over conquered peoples, except with their active support or tacit tolerance.”

Roy could easily understand this revolutionary character of teachings of Islam and dynamism of early Islamic history because he himself was a revolutionary and was fighting against the tyrannical rule of colonial establishment and wanted to see India transformed into a just and democratic society. Islam played great role in transforming the primitive tribal Arabia into a most powerful and most modern empire according to the standards of those days. Russia, the then primitive from the then contemporary standards of Europe was transformed into most modern and dynamic nation of its time after revolution.

This was possible in Arabia because of revolutionary teachings of Islam on one hand, and, because of supreme sacrifices and simple life pattern adopted by the Prophet and his close companions. Roy gives few examples of the style of those early revolutionaries. “Khaled”, he says, “whom the Prophet called the ‘sword of God’, whose almost legendary valour had united Aqrabia, Mesopotamia and Syria under the banner of Islam, died in the possession only of his horse, his arms, and a single slave. The great hero is credited to have declared in his youth, ‘it is not the delicacies of Syria, or fading delights of this world, that have prompted me to devote my life in the cause of religion, I only seek the favour of God, and his apostle.'(recorded by the historian Abul Feda).

Then he gives example of Omrou. “The valiant conqueror of Egypt”, he says, “Omrou, was distinguished by poetic genius in addition to martial valour. The following remarkable passage occurs in his report to Khalif Omar: ‘The crowds of husbandmen who blacken the land may be compared to a swarm of industrious ants; and their native indolence is quickened by the lash of the taskmaster. But the riches they extract are unequally shared between those who labour and those who possess.’ That was a view far advance in time. The idea of social equity was unknown in all the lands of ancient civilisation. The toilers, either as slaves or as sudras were object of contempt and exploitation. They were hardly considered as human beings. The economic principle, primitively formulated in the memorable injunction of the first Khalif, evolved out of the interest of the Arab traders, revolutionised the old social idea. A part of the wealth produced by the toiling masses, when left with themselves, becomes a powerful impetus to trade. In his administration of the conquered kingdoms of the Pharaos and the Ptolmies, the Arab warrior sought with success to mend glaring inequities that had offended his poetic vision. Egypt, robbed and despoiled for centuries by the Greeks and the Romans, prospered under the Saracens.

Roy was also aware that the state of war and conquest did not last for ever. It was but a temporary phase. The Arabs and other Muslims showed their intellectual calibre too and also engaged in trade and industry. The Saracens (some suggest it is corrupted form of sehranashin i.e. dwellers in desert) sought prosperity not only through wars of conquest but also through trade and industry; fame, not only in the field of battle, but in the pursuit of science and literature; and happiness, no longer in the fanatical worship of one God and his only Prophet, but in the harmless enjoyment of domestic and social life. War was no longer the passion and proud profession of the Saracens, because they had found interest and delight in a peaceful world created by the prowess of their forefathers. The progeny of the intrepid heroes, who had flocked to the belligerent standard of Abu Bakr and Omar, with the hope of paradise and incidentally earthly spoils, found the modest occupation of trade and industry more profitable, and science and philosophy more gratifying.”

It is interesting to note that prosperity and valour in battlefield do not go together. Prosperity and intellectual pursuits did have telling effect on the Muslim valour and they fell easy prey to Mongol hordes who sacked Baghdad in 1258. The noted historian Fakhri, referred to above, has drawn this contrast when the Arabs invaded Iran during the second Caliph’s reign and defeated army of Rustom who was known for is valour. The Persians sunk in prosperity and luxurious living could not face the Bedouins charged with zeal of new faith and devoid of soft life but few hundred years later, Fakhri points out, the same Arabs, now used to soft life and luxurious living could not stand up to the Changezi hordes fired with the zeal of conquering the world.

Roy also counters the myth that Islam and war go together. He maintains that it is gross misunderstanding of history to confound Islam with militarism. He rightly points out that the prophet of Islam was not the Prophet of Saracen warriors but of Arab Merchants of Mecca. The very name of his religion Islam means to make or making of peace indicates his aim. Thus his aim was to establish peace in the world. Peace on earth, Roy says was of immediate importance, and greater consequence. Even the temporal interest of Arabian merchants required it; for trade thrives under peaceful conditions.

Roy points out that the main arteries of international trade of the medieval world ran through the countries which embraced Islam and were united in the Saracen Empire. The northern routes of trade with China, which passed through Constantinople to Italy and other countries of Western Europe, had become extremely risky owing to the Scythian inroads and ruinous fiscal policy of the Byzantine Empire. After their conquest of Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia and the territories across the Oxus, the Arabs captured the Chinese trade and diverted it to pass through their domain of North Africa and Spain, ultimately to reach the markets of Western Europe. During the eighth to the eleventh centuries, practically the entire trade between India and China, on the one hand, and Europe, on the other, was done by the Arabs. Thousands of traders travelled with their caravans loaded with precious cargoes. They were not persecuted or detested as their kind had been in all the countries of antique civilisation with the honourable exception of Greece. In the Empire of Saracens they belonged to the ruling class.

Thus M.N.Roy points out that Islam promoted trade unlike feudal monarchs of ancient empires persecuted traders and levied heavy taxes on them. Thus Islam represented progressive forces as against feudal monarchy. Thus Islam was of great help in promoting world trade and so also paved way for peace and prosperity not only in Arabia but also in other countries liked together by way of trade.

Roy repeatedly stresses that Islam did not promote war but peace. He refutes the propaganda that it offered Qur’an or the sword. He says, “as a matter of fact, the alternatives were very differently offered. It was: Accept the Koran or pay tribute to the Saracen conqueror!. The Sword of God was unsheathed only when neither of the alternatives was accepted. The economic interest of the Arab trader, which produced the monotheistic creed of Islam, was antagonistic to the indiscriminate bloodshed. The lands through which the trade-routes lay must be conquered and brought under the domination of the unitary state. The object would be all the better realised, should the conquered peoples accept the new religion; for, then the Unitarian State would be established on a solid foundation.

However, Roy also points out that production and consumption of commodities are the essential factors of trade. Therefore, it was not compatible with the historic role of Islam to massacre the artisan and peasant masses, or to destroy opulent cities for the impiety of rejecting the Koran. What was necessary was their subjugation to the believers of the new creed. Under the domination of the followers of the Prophet, unbelieving peoples were allowed to hold their imperfect faiths and to continue their perverse worships.

Roy perhaps was not aware of the Qur’anic teachings well enough as the Qur’an gives complete freedom to people to follow their religion. The Qur’an clearly states that “there is no compulsion in matters of faith.” Even unbelievers have been given freedom to worship in their own way after warning that they will be accountable to Allah for what they do. Islam, not only gave freedom to people to pursue their respective faiths but also declared that Allah had sent prophets or guides to all peoples and nations in the world. Thus it accepted the truth of other religions as well. The Qur’an asserted that it has come to confirm the Truth already existing.

Roy, however, is aware of the fact that Islam did not spread because of its intolerance of other faiths but the inner contradiction of pre-existing religions. Thus he clearly points out “?the cause of the sweeping religious revolution was not the intolerance of the new creed (i.e. Islam), but the decay of the old faith, and the general chaos and despair caused by that decay. The faith of the gospel of Jesus, established by the talent, piety and power of Cyrian, Athanasius and Augustine, had been subverted by Arian and Donatist heresies, and Catholic fury with which the impoverished masses revolting under the banner of religious heresy suppressed, had ruined the once prosperous provinces economically.”

Thus it will be seen that Roy tried to understand historical role of Islam more objectively compared to those who view it with hostility or with inherited prejudices and ascribe to it their own views. Roy thus rendered great service by projecting historical rule of Islam in an unbiased manner. Roy was not a believer in religion as he was Marxist and rationalist (though he had renounced his Marxist views) but still he had honesty to understand the historical rule of Islam more objectively compared to others. Also, he found Islam far more progressive, egalitarian and advocating justice for all.

His contemporaries in India were highly prejudicial to Islam and denounced it as a religion of fanatics and warmongers. Seen in this background Roy viewed Islam and its historical role with unprejudiced mind and therein lies the importance of this book. He also points out that European renaissance would not have been possible but for Arabs who preserved Greek knowledge and passed it on to Europe through Averos.

Roy comes to the conclusion that “Islam as the most rigorous mono-theistic religion closed the chapter of human history dominated by the religious node of thought, and by its very nature was open to unorthodox interpretations which eventually liquidated the religious mode of thought and laid foundation of modern rationalism.”

One may not of course agree with everything that Roy says about Islam and its historical rule but much that he says is quite valuable and fights prejudices against Islam prevalent even today and it is for this reason that I have chosen to write on Roy’s book on Historical Role of Islam.

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