Random Thoughts on History Repeating Itself

From the book “Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes” by Tamim Ansary, describing the spread of Islam during the Ummayad dynasty:

Another shadow haunted the conscience of the Islamic world as well. Muslim sacred history was problematically rich with anecdotes about the simple, rugged lifestyle of the founders. Their simplicity and humbleness went to the very essence of their appeal as religious figures. Inevitably, therefore, a feeling started percolating in the lower reaches of this new society that something about all this splendor wasn’t right. This prosperous, pleasure-plump society could not be what Allah had meant when he charged Mohammad with establishing a just community devoted to worship of the one God. Of course, the richer you were, the less likely that such considerations would trouble your dreams. For the poor, however, tales of luxury at court and the sight of perfumed Arab noblemen riding through the streets clad in silk had to evoke comparisons with Mohammad’s simple blanket folded four times to provide both mattress and cover, and Khalifa Omar at his cobbler’s bench, mending his own shoes. Add to all this the odor left by the way in which the Ummayad’s came to power, a process that had generated two enduring opposition movements, the Shi’a and the Kharijites….

Inevitably, the one mapped onto the other. Persians began to embrace Shi’ism, and Shi’ite agitators began looking to the Persian east for recruits. When the two currents mingled, rebellion began to bubble. It bubbled ever harder the further east one traveled, for Umayyad police power ran ever thinner in that direction, while anti-Arab sentiment mounted ever higher. One day, around 120 AH, a mysterious man blew into the city of Merv … almost fifteen hundred miles east of Damascus… He went by the handle Abu Muslim… In truth, Abu Muslim was a professional revolutionary, dispatched to Merv by a secretive underground group based in Iraq, a group called the Hashimites. This group was a cross between a cult adn a political party, whose core membership probably never exceeded thirty. …This was just one of many angry little hard-core bands of antigovernment conspirators active at this time, all preaching some version of the same message: the comunity had fallen off the track, history had gone off course, the Mesenger’s mission had been subverted, and toppling the Umayyads and empowering a member of the Prophet’s family in their stead would set everything right again. Let me note that this narrative has been reinvented again and again in the Muslim world over the course of history, and some version of it is being recited even today, by revolutionaries who have substituted “the West” for “the Umayyads”.

The above passage made me think:

1) Muslims have been a burden on Islam pretty much since the end of the Khulafaa Rashidun (or some may argue since the end Sayyidna Omar’s rule). Classism, decadence and corruption have been rampant ever since and the true message of Islam is slowly getting lost among the mass of Muslims.

2) History has a scary way of repeating itself – whether it’s the decadence and corruption of Muslim regimes in the East or Western colonial ambitions coupled with orientalist fantasies and ideas about an imminent clash of civilizations in the West. They say one of the definitions of madness is repeating the same thing over and over again while expecting different results. Anyone notice a pattern here?

3) According to a Sheikh I was speaking with recently, this pattern of the Muslim community consistently “falling off the track”  has led to the many Islamic scholars accross history who believed that the poor condition of the Muslim ummah can only be a sign that something must be fundamentally wrong with the Aqida (creed) of the Muslims. Instead of seeing things for what they are – that a corrupt Muslim is simply a Muslim who has stopped practicing the Sharia the way it should practiced – these scholars sought to “reinvent the wheel” so to speak, by revisiting some of the core issues in the Islamic creed, such as Ibn Taymiyyah and later Muhammad Abdel Wahab (who led to Wahhabism).

I have only recently started reading about Ibn Taymiyyah so I can’t say for sure whether I agree with this Sheikh’s theory or not, but it is definitely an interesting point.

Another passage from the book, describing the same period in history:

Mainstream Western histories usually praise this process. The Umayyads introduced that wonderful quality called stability to the civilized world. Stability enabled farmers to plan next year’s crop. It enabled businessment to invest in long-term projects. It encouraged students to enter upon long courses of study with confidence that what they learned would still apply by the time they graduated. Stability gave scholars the freedom to lose themselves in study and dig deep into the mysteries of nature without having to worry that their families were meanwhile getting killed by thugs. All this came at a price however, the usual price of stability, which ensures that whatever is the case one day is even more the case the next day. The rich got richer. The poor increased in numbers. Cities with magnificent architecture sprangup, but so did vast slums sunk in squalid poverty. Justice became a commodity only the rich could afford.

(Emphasis mine.)

This particular situation is being repeated today almost word for word. So-called stability in Egypt is often praised for allowing for long-term investments and businesses to open up. Politicians point to the rise in foreign investment, trade, services (for the rich only, of course), and magnificent suburban communities (mostly gated, of course, so as not to be disturbed by the slums across the street). The rich are getting richer, and poor are getting poorer and increasing in numbers. “Justice is a commodity only the rich can afford” only the rich would dare dispute the truth of this statement. The West praises these “successes”. In fact, stability has been probably the main argument used by the Egyptian regime to dissuade Western governments from pushing for democracy: If you want democracy, you just might get another Hamas or Hezbollah in Egypt. You have to choose: democracy or stability in the Middle East.

The Prophet (Salla Allahu Alaihi Wa Sallam) said:

“When the most wicked member of a tribe becomes its ruler, and the most worthless member of a community becomes its leader, and a man is respected through fear of the evil he may do, and leadership is given to people who are unworthy of it, expect the Last Hour”

August 21, 2009 - Posted by | Egyptian Affairs, International Affairs, Islam | , , ,


  1. Though I didn’t really grasp the first paragraph of Tamim Ansary: how did Islam spread during the Umayyad dynasty? the question that has been troubling me the most: how did the spread of Islam start? what made the Muslims during Omar ibn Al Khattab (r) caliphate travel into foreign lands to spread the deen?
    which leads to another series of questions: how did, for example, the Egyptians convert under Amr ibn El As’ reign in Egypt? What did the Christians and Jews do? etc.

    I definitely agree on the fact that History is repeating itself based on Robert Fisk’s book: “the great war of civilization”.

    The question is now: what are we going to do about it? how can one person change contribute positively to his/her community? How can we break the cycle?

    Here are some excerpts from a paragraph from “Vision of Islam” by Murata and Chittick, that I find truly nice:
    “The only time in history when an optimum balance was established between these three dimensions [Islam, Iman and Ihsan] of human existence was when the Prophet [pbuh] was ruling the community at Medina; from then on, it was downhill (with occasional upswings of course).
    The political fortunes of Islam rose with the Umayyads and Abbasids, but the moral integrity of both the community leaders and the community as a whole declined. Innumerable pious people over the centuries have pointed to this decline of Islam and urged the community to reform.
    In the traditional view, reform of society depended upon reform of the individual, and reform of the individual depended upon observance of Islam in all of its three dimensions. Individual perfection was always connected with nearness with God, or actualizing the divine form within each and every person. Only in modern time has reform been taken to mean the remaking of human beings, not in the form of God of the Koran, but rather the form of the gods of
    progress and democracy (as revealed to the modern West).” p.333

    in other words, if we want to stop this “vicious” circle, we have to start with ourselves. Not let our nafs, passions, get in the way of drawing closer to Allah (swt)…

    and God knows best.

    Comment by daraliftawomen09 | August 22, 2009 | Reply

    • Well about the spread of Islam in Egypt and the Levant, this is what Ansary says:

      “In North Africa, Arabization proceeded rapidly, perhaps because the patchwork of indigenous cultures had long ago been fragmented by Phoenician colonization – the Romans had deposited a Latin layer, the Vandals had come in with a Germanic glaze, and finally Christianity had permeated the region. North Africa had no single language or culture to bind it together; when the Arabs arrived with their powerful conviction, no correspondingly unified and powerful indigenous conviction was there to resist them. So the Arabs thoroughly dissolved and absorbed whatever was there before.

      Egypt and the Levant were somewhat easily digested too, because many of these peoples shared a historical narrative with the Arabs, harking back to common traditional ancestors such as Abraham, Noah, and Adam himself. Most of the inhabitants had already subscribed to the idea of monotheism. Hebrew and Aramaic were Semitic languages, like Arabic.”

      He goes onto the contrast that with the attempted Arabization of Persia, which were an Info-European people (rather than semitic) and already had a rich culture and ancient civilization. They accepted Islam but refused to be Arabized and this caused friction. Ansary then relates these ethnic frictions to other tensions emerging at the time in the paragraph I posted above.

      Ansary’s account of the time after the death of Sayidna Muhammad SAWS seems to confirm strongly what you excerpted from “Vision of Islam” by Murata and Chittick. He does not make any judgemental claims but the story pretty much corroborates the idea that problems began to emerge immediately.

      Allahu A3lam.

      Comment by lozah | August 23, 2009 | Reply

      • Amazing about Egypt, now it’s clear, thanks Lozah 🙂

        For Persia, them accepting Islam but refusing to be “Arabized” is a proof of how Islam can take the shape of any civilization. It is not bound by culture or tradition.

        It reminds of a paper written by Dr. Umar Faruq Abd’Allah concerning the Chinese Muslims that you can find here(I haven’t found the time to finish it though):

        “Chinese Muslim scholars articulated a stunning Islamic humanism with an Eastern stamp.”
        which is like Persia that Ansary describes. Serving Islam and keeping your identity.

        But here’s another interesting point that kind of concerns Western Muslim communities rather than us Muslim-Arabs:
        “They delved into their own Abrahamic faith, while mastering the non-Abrahamic traditions around them. Their ability to think within and beyond the Abrahamic box enabled them to build enduring cross-cultural bridges.”

        Comment by daraliftawomen09 | August 24, 2009 | Reply

        • Dar, that’s so true. I really feel that when I listen to people like Hamza Yusuf, Suhaib Webb, and Noaman Ali Khan (my favourite). Hamza Yusuf is esepcially good at this because he’s studied greek philosophy and comparative religion, so he’ll discuss a concept in Islam and then say the Hindus have a similar concept, and in Christianity this concept exists but it’s a bit different, and Plato also explained this concetp, etc. So it’s particularly useful when explaining Islam to a Western audience (whether Muslim or non-Muslim). But it’s also about speaking the same language, using the same expressions, I mean it’s the same idea why Moez Masoud is so popular among youth here, because it no longer sounds like I’m listening to my grandparents give me a lecture, it sounds like I’m having a conversation with a friend. Understanding the reality around us is crucial for any Islamic scholar/speaker, which is why Sayyidna Jibril (AS) not only asked Sayyidna Muhammad (SAWS) about Iman, Islam, and Ihsan but also about the Hour and its signs. This is the hadith where Sayyida Muhammad said that Sayyidna Jibril has come to teach us our “Deen” – which means that true deen involves all those aspects, including understanding the signs of the hour and how those apply to our current age and culture!

          Dar, you really have to come back to masr so we can have these conversations in person 🙂

          Comment by lozah | August 26, 2009 | Reply

          • marzipan!! i am in “masr”!

            Comment by daraliftawomen09 | August 26, 2009 | Reply

            • hahaha! habibty, for some reason I assumed you were Darah! But now that you called me “marzipan” I know who you really are “ya gameel” :p. Then we can continue this conversation over iftar next week inshallah 🙂

              Comment by lozah | August 26, 2009 | Reply

  2. […] Random Thoughts on History Repeating Itself […]

    Pingback by Raven’s Eye | August 23, 2009 | Reply

  3. Interesting theory for placed here by the shaikh for the pattern but I didn’t get it all because Islamic Civilisation kept on norishing in a magnificent way after the ‘Ummayed Caliphates’ -the 2nd caliphates- during the 3rd chaliphates, the ‘Abbasid Caliphate’ where many principales of civilisations were established and lead to the scientific movments in every feild.

    I am still reading/thinking about what is going on however it seems that the problem happend after the falling of Cordoba or ‘Al-Andalus’ which -in my opinion for sure- was a result of decading not a reason as some people say.

    Maybe the pattern shows here?

    Comment by Hicham | August 24, 2009 | Reply

    • Hicham, when I say “decline in the Ummah” here I’m not referring to Islamic scholarship, which continued to flourish for many centuries as you said. It refers more to the decadence that began to be observed pretty much since the khilafa of Uthman bin Affan (RAA) where the idea that extreme opulence is not Islamic began to lose credibility. Let me use Ansary’s book again to explain further. This is what he says about Abu Bakr (RAA):
      “In his dealings with the Muslim community, he exhibited nothing but the modesty, affection, and benevolence people knew and loved him for. A stoop-shouldered man with deep-set eyes, Abu Bakr dressed simply, lived plainly, and accumulated no wealth. … Back in Mecca, Abu Bakr had been a prosperous merchant. By the time the Muslims emigrated to Medina, however, he had spent much of his fortune on charitable causes, especially buying freedom for slaves who converted to Islam, and he forfeited the rest of his wealth in the course of the move. As khalifa, he took only a small salary for guiding the Umma and continued to ply his old trade to make a living, getting by as best he could on the fruits of his shrunken business. Sometimes he even milked his neighbor’s cow for extra cash”.

      About Umar (RAA) he says:
      “In imitation of the Prophet, Omar habitually patched his own clothes, sometimes while conducting important state business. At night, after his official duties were done, the stories portray him shouldering a bag of grain and roaming through the city, personally delivering food to families in need”.

      On Othman (RAA) he says:
      “Othman upheld Omar’s prohibitions against confiscating land in conquered territories, but he lifted Omar’s restrictions on Muslims buying land there, for Othman believed in economic freedom. …Othman’s “economic reforms” tended to profit his own clan, the Umayyads, above all because they were best situated to take out loans from the treasury [to buy land]. This khalifa also appointed his relatives and “favourites” to many powerful political posts throughout the empire, simply because they were the people he knew best and trusted most. As a result, the Umayyads ended up acquiring disproportionate cloud, both economically and politically. The third khalida continued to practice an austere lifestyle but demanded no such austerity from his officials.”

      Ansary then describes Uthman’s asceticism and piety, and contrasts that with the increased opulence of the people surrounding him. He also describes how Utham (RAA) appointed Mu’awiya governor of Damascus and kep increasing his territory until he governed “everything from the headwaters of the Euphrates down the Mediterranean coast to Egypt”. It really seems like this was the turning point. Mu’awiya started the tradition of appointing his son as his successor, rather than relying on shura and bay3 as the khulafaa rashidun had done. Then there was the horrendous battle of karbalaa, where the way they treated the grandson of the Prophet SAWS should have been a sign that the ummah was just no longer the same anymore.
      So even though the Umawis nourished religious institutions and allowed our intellectual prowess to grow, the same dynasty saw many disadvantages (inequality, injustice) as I described in the post.

      By the way, thanks for the link to i-mag.org, it seems like an interesting magazine.

      Comment by lozah | August 26, 2009 | Reply

      • Thanks Lozah for placing this peice from Ansary’s which is very important. Indeed it was not about the “Islamic scholarship” portion as much as the big picture of Ummah itself. So we can say that what Ansary presents here paved the road to the ‘Fitna’ between Muslims that lead to the division during the Era of ‘(Ali) RAA’ and Mu’awiya -and therefore the ‘Ummayed Caliphates’- went into ruling.

        Politics has its way always and I believe it plays important role in the whole history of Muslims in addition to other factors, of course.

        Comment by Hicham | August 28, 2009 | Reply

  4. salams

    The “secretive” group you are referring to were the Hashasheen, and NOT Hashimites.

    The english word “assassin” comes from the arabiy word “hashasheen”. The group used to send out assassins who were high on hashish to do their dirty work.

    Comment by Maverick | September 16, 2009 | Reply

    • Salaams maverick.

      You’re right about the Hashasheen, but they actually came later, I think sometime during the 11th century.

      The Hashimites were earlier than that, they emerged (according to the book) sometime right after 120AH. They attributed themselves to the clan of the Messenger PBUH (hence their name) and their mission was to put somebody from the Prophet’s family as the head of the Muslim world. It is this group that eventually adopted Abu al-Abbas (who claimed he descended from Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib) which eventually led to the Abbasy dynasty.

      Comment by lozah | September 16, 2009 | Reply

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: