Muhammad and the Birth of a New Civilization

Article excerpt

The fountain of Islamic civilization was intended to be the quest for enlightenment rather than the pursuit of elegance or luxury. BY ALI A. MAZRUI

British philosopher Bertrand Russell (1872-1970) argued that civilization was born out of the pursuit of luxury. His sense of "civilization" envisaged a world of great works of art, stupendous music, great architecture and palaces, and a lifestyle of elegance and good manners. It was "civilization" in that grandiose sense that produced Louis XIV's palace at Versailles in France and the al-Hamra in Muslim Spain, the towering voices of India's singer Saigal and Egypt's Umm Kulthum, the paintings of Michelangelo and the marble poetry of the Taj Mahal. Mozart, Beethoven, Shakespeare, and Iqbal are part ofthat package of civilized elegance.

Historically, Muslims have not only been among the consumers of such civilized elegance; they have also been among its major producers. Indeed, on occasion Muslims have even led the way in the pursuit of luxury-going as far back as Harun al-Rashid (763-809). In short, we should view this conceptualization of "civilization" more politely as the pursuit of elegance rather than of luxury.

At the time of the Prophet's (sal/a Allahu 'alayhi wa sallam) birth in 570, his hometown of Makkah was a dusty trading center. Arab culture was still more a culture of tents and camels than of palaces and elegance. It was inconceivable that the birth of little Muhammad, son of Abd-Allah and grandson of Abd al-Mutallib, would presage the rise of a whole new civilization. But was the civilization inaugurated by his birth intended to flow out of what Russell much later called "the pursuit of luxury"? This brings us to a different conceptualization of a civilization's growth and development. Under this second definition, "civilization is born not out of the pursuit of either luxury or elegance, but out of the quest for enlightenment."

Islam began as a gospel of enlightenment. The shift from the quest for enlightenment to the pursuit of elegance occurred after Ali ibn Abi Talib was assassinated. In other words, during the Prophet's lifetime as a self-conscious Messenger of God (610-32) and the lives of caliphs Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali, Islam emphasized enlightenment and egalitarianism. The pursuit of elegance and luxury escalated when Islam went dynastic under the Umayyads (661-749) and the Abbasids (749-end of the tenth century). These two dynasties inaugurated the royalization of Islam, the establishment of hereditary monarchies, the consolidation of new aristocracies, and the evolution of far more hierarchical relations between men and women than was evident in earlier Islam. The ummah began to have not just the caliph, but also sultans, kings, and regal emirates (especially from the end of the tenth century onward).

On what basis do we conclude that the fountain of Islamic civilization was intended to be the quest for enlightenment rather than the pursuit of elegance or luxury? It began with the first command Muhammad received from God through Gabriel in the solitude of Mt. Hira. Perhaps never in the history of revealed religion has a prophet been ordered first and foremost not to prostrate and worship, nor to raise his arms to heaven and supplicate, nor to burst into a hymn of praise to God, but rather to "Iqra' (Read) in the name of Your Lord ... He who taught the use of the pen, taught humanity that which it did not know" (96:1 and 4-5). Muhammad protested that he was illiterate, rushed home to Khadijah (radi Allahu 'anna) shaking with a kind of fever, and told her to cover him with a blanket. He did not realize that the imperative Iqra', which continued to echo in his memory, was the beginning of a book that was destined to become the most widely read book in its original language in human history. [The Bible is the most widely read book in translation]. When he received that command, the idea was not that Muslims should only read the Qur'an. …