Islam in History: Ideas, People, and Events in the Middle East

By Bernard Lewis | Go to book overview

23
The Revolutions in
Early Islam

In a sense, the advent of Islam itself was a revolution. The new faith, hot from Arabia, overwhelmed existing doctrines and churches; the new masters who brought it overthrew an old order and created a new one. In Islam there was to be neither church nor priest, neither orthodoxy nor hierarchy, neither kingship nor aristocracy. There were to be no castes or estates to flaw the unity of the believers; no privileges, save the self-evident superiority of those who accept to those who willfully reject the true faith—and of course such obvious natural and social facts as the superiority of man to woman and of master to slave. Even these inferiorities were softened by the new dispensation. The slave was no longer a chattel but a human being, with recognized legal and moral rights; woman, though still subject to polygamy and concubinage, acquired property rights not equalled in the West until modern times; and even the non-Muslim enjoyed a tolerance and security in sharp contrast with the lot of non-Christians in medieval—and sometimes modern—Christendom.

In the Roman world, neither the advent of Christianity nor the coming of the barbarians brought any sudden revolutionary impact comparable with that of Islam. Both movements were slower and more gradual than the Arab-Islamic conquests. Christianity, after more than three centuries of opposition, captured the Roman Emperor and itself became enmeshed with the Roman Empire and government; the Germanic barbarians accepted and took over both the Christian faith and the Roman state and adapted both to their own ways and purposes. The Arab conquerors brought their own religion and created their own state; much

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