Islam: Past, Present, and Future

by Rev. Bassam M. Madany


Early in October 2002, a group of journalists, all from a national newspaper, were discussing Islam and Islamic terrorism in their weekly television program. The participants struggled hard to be fair and objective, especially in the light of the critical remarks that had been made recently by two well-known Christian ministers. As I watched, I could not help noticing why those journalists were having a very hard time dealing with the subject. Their difficulty arose from the fact that their discussion exhibited a lack of a basic knowledge of Islam, its history, and its worldview. There is nothing more urgent these days than acquiring an objective understanding of this world religion.

I would like to offer a brief overview of Islam: Past, Present, and Future.

At the outset, I register my indebtedness to two scholars of the Middle East, both of Princeton University. Philip Hitti, a Lebanese-American, has the distinction of starting the Near Eastern Studies Department at Princeton about 75 years ago. One of his books, Islam: A Way of Life, has three parts: Islam the Religion, Islam the State, and Islam the Culture. (Chicago: Regnery Gateway, 1970) Professor Hitti approached our subject objectively taking into account that Islam began as a monotheistic faith, and developed into a world empire that lasted until 1918.

The second scholar is the British Bernard Lewis who came to Princeton, after teaching for several decades at his alma mater, the University of London, England. Professor Lewis, who is now in his eighties, is a prolific writer and a frequent speaker on radio and television, especially since the events of September 11, 2001. I quote from his book, Race and Slavery in the Middle East: An Historical Enquiry, (New York: OUP, 1990) where he explained the several meanings of the word 'Islam.'

"There is a distinction that it is important to make in any discussion of Islam. The word 'Islam' is used with at least three different meanings, and much misunderstanding can arise from the failure to distinguish between them. In the first place, Islam means the religion taught by the Prophet Muhammad and embodied in the Muslim revelation known as the Qur'an. In the second place, Islam is the subsequent development of this religion through tradition and through the work of the great Muslim jurists and theologians. In this sense, it includes the mighty structure of the Shari'a, the holy law of Islam, and the great corpus of Islamic dogmatic theology. In the third meaning, Islam is the counterpart not of Christianity but rather of Christendom. In this sense Islam means not what Muslims believed or were expected to believe but what they actually did, in other words, Islamic civilization as known to us in history." (20) [Underlining is mine]

I will now elucidate and illustrate the words of the two Princeton scholars. As a theistic faith, Islam is intimately connected with the life of Muhammad, its founder. Born in Mecca, western Arabia, in 570 A.D., he worked early in his adult life, as a merchant for a wealthy widow Khadija, whom he married when he was 25. His travels took him to Palestine and Syria, where he became aware of the various Christian groups that lived there. When he was forty, Muhammad had an experience in a cave outside Mecca. He believed that the one true God, Allah, spoke to him through the angel Gabriel. These revelations that 'descended' on him proclaimed the basic principles of Islam, an Arabic word that means, "surrender to Allah." Muhammad preached that Allah called him to be his final Messenger, first of all to the Arabs, and also to all mankind.

The leaders of Mecca did not welcome Muhammad's teachings. A few believed his message. His wife and his cousin Ali were among his first converts. Persecution arose as the young prophet was threatening the status quo. He was forced to leave for a northern city, which came to be known as Medina. The year was 622 A.D. It became Year One in the Muslim lunar calendar, known as A.H., an abbreviation for Anno Hejira, the Latinized form of the Arabic, al-Hijra, i.e., the migration to Medina.

Within a few years after his arrival in Medina, Muhammad had become the ruler of this city-state, and from this base, he challenged his Meccan foes by raiding their caravans. By 630, most of the Arabian Peninsula acknowledged his primacy, accepting him both as Prophet and Statesman. He entered Mecca triumphantly, destroyed the many idols around the Ka'aba, the Black Stone that was to become the focus for the yearly Islamic pilgrimage to the Holy City.

Muhammad returned to Medina, the capital of the new Islamic State, having convinced the Arab tribes that they were no longer to engage in raiding one another. They have all become, as Muslims, members of one Umma, one family of Believers. In June, 632, Muhammad died after a brief of illness. The leadership among the Muslims in Medina faced a tremendous challenge: who was to rule and guide the Muslims, now that the inspired Messenger of Allah was no longer with them? Soon they inaugurated a new institution, the Caliphate, and the person that was to lead it, would be known as the Caliph, a Western equivalent of the Arabic, Khalifa, i.e., the Successor. The Caliph or Successor, it must be noted, was not of Muhammad as Prophet, but only as leader of the new Umma of Islam.

The first four caliphs that ruled Islam are called, in Islamic historiography, the "Rightly Guided Caliphs." This designation implies, for Muslims, that the years that stretched from 632 to 661 constituted the Golden Age of Islam. The conquests of the world began almost immediately after the death of Muhammad. The Arab armies burst out of Arabia and conquered the Persian Empire, as well as two important provinces of the Byzantine Empire, Syria (including Palestine) and Egypt.

The three decades of the "Rightly Guided Caliphs" were not that golden. The first caliph died in 634. The two that followed him, were assassinated, one after ten years of rule, and the other within twelve years after his accession to the caliphate. The fourth one, Ali, did not receive the blessing of the entire Muslim leadership in Medina. His rule lasted only five years. The Khawarej, a fanatical Islamic group, assassinated him in 661. They became the prototype of the radical Islamic movements throughout history. The religious unity of Islam ended. The followers of Ali, known in Arabic as "Shi'at 'Ali" came to be known simply as the Shi'ites. They constituted the opposition party within Islam. The majority of the Muslims, who sided with Mu'awiya, the opponent of Ali, became known as Sunnis. Their leader came from a wealthy Meccan clan, known as the Umayyads. He moved the capital of the growing Islamic empire from Medina to Damascus, Syria

The Umayyads continued the Islamic conquests. By 710, their armies had crossed the narrow strait that separates North Africa from Europe, and began a Muslim presence in Spain that lasted until 1492! At one time, the Muslim armies crossed the Pyrenees, and invaded France, until Charles Martel stopped them in 732 at the Battle of Tours, near Poitiers, in southern France.

At this point, I must address the status of the conquered people within the growing Islamic Empire. The people of Persia were mostly Zoroastrian. Before too long, most of them converted to the faith of their conquerors. By the 16th century, Persia adopted the Shi'ite version of Islam, and continues to this day to be the only state, within the vast Islamic world, that adheres to this branch of the Muslim faith. As for Christians and Jews who formed the majority of the people of Syria and Egypt, they were allowed to remain in their old faiths. However, they were subjected to some stringent laws as to the expression of their respective religions. After centuries of 'Dhimmitude,' the so-called 'protection' granted to them by the Islamic state, both Christians and Jews became minorities in their original homelands.

The Umayyad dynasty came to an abrupt end in 750. Every member of the ruling family, except a teenager, was massacred. The new dynasty that came to power is known as the Abbasid Caliphate. The capital was moved from Damascus, Syria, to Baghdad, in Mesopotamia. The founding father of the Abbasids is known in Arabic as "As-Saffah," the Butcher! Unlike the Umayyads, the Abbasids presided not so much over a growing empire, but encouraged the flowering of a great culture in Baghdad. The House of Wisdom, a cultural center, was initiated where scholars undertook the translation of great works from Greek, Aramaic and Indian; many of them were Christian. This is the Golden Age of Islam. Great advances were made in the sciences, such as in mathematics, chemistry, astronomy, and medicine. There was a relatively free atmosphere for philosophical and theological discussions. It was in this period of their history, that Muslims developed the Four Orthodox Schools for the interpretation of their Sacred Law, the Shari'a. Most of the theological discussions centered on the doctrine of the Word of Allah, the Qur'an, Anthropomorphism, and the subject of Predestination and human responsibility.

The greatness of the Abbasids was not to last. Within a little over a century after the founding of their caliphate, the distant parts of the Empire began to secede. The teenager Umayyad prince who escaped the bloodbath of 750, managed to get as far as Andalusia, the Arabic name of Spain. There, he founded a rival center of Islam centered in the great city of Cordoba. Its great mosque, which is now a Roman Catholic cathedral, could accommodate 12,000 Muslim worshippers!

A cataclysmic event occurred in the middle of the 13th century, when the Mongolians invaded the eastern parts of the Caliphate and destroyed Baghdad. The Abbasids lost their leadership role in Islam 500 years after they had wrested it from the Umayyads. The Islamic world was bereft of the symbol of its unity. However, and before too long, new converts to Islam came to the rescue. Various Turkish tribes that had come from central Asia took over the leadership of the Muslim world. The Ottoman Turks enlarged the territory of Islam beyond those areas conquered previously by the Arabs. In 1453, they brought to an end the last vestige of the Byzantine Empire, when they conquered Constantinople, and changed its name to Istanbul. The Ottomans soon claimed the title of Caliphs, and pushed the boundaries of Islam into Eastern and Central Europe. In 1529, twelve years after the beginning of Reformation in Germany, the Ottomans laid siege to Vienna. At one time, such countries as Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Serbia, Bosnia, Albania, and Greece, were incorporated within the Ottoman Empire. The failure of the second siege of Vienna in the 1680s marks the beginning of the decline and fall of the Ottoman Islamic Caliphate.

During the 19th century, when the various European powers were expanding their empires in Africa and Asia, the Ottomans were regarded as the "Sick man of Europe." Having cast their lot with Germany in World War I, the Ottomans sealed their defeat, and the end of their centuries-old caliphate. Great Britain and France inherited many of the territories of the defunct Turkish Empire, and ruled most of the Middle East between the two World Wars.

Thus far, the history of the past in Islam. What of the present?

The average Westerner, on both sides of the Atlantic, is bewildered by the accounts of the happenings in various parts of the Muslim world. Why is there so much strife and turmoil? Bernard Lewis deals with this subject in his latest book, "What Went Wrong?" (New York: OUP, 2002) This is indeed a nagging question that haunts Muslims from Indonesia to Morocco. To put it simply, the first 1000 years in the history of Islam, their world was a center of power, culture, and enlightenment. Muslims believed that Allah was on their side for a millennium. Why is He no longer with them today?

Having achieved their independence in the middle of the 20th century, several Muslim countries espoused socialism as the way to catch up with the rest of the world. Socialism proved to be a miserable solution. Add to that, Muslims could not understand why an alien state was born in their midst; I refer to the creation of Israel in 1948. How could a few immigrants from Europe resist and then overcome five Arab armies in the summer of 1948? And then, after a couple of decades, came the unbelievable Arab defeat of the Six Day War, in June 1967. Was not that terrible event a sign that God had forsaken them, because they had first forsaken his ways by flirting with various secular ideologies? Some Middle Eastern experts regard 1967 as the date for the resurgence of radical Islam.

The preoccupation with the Palestinian problem and the militarization of many Islamic states during the second half of the 20th century kept Muslims from facing realistically their real problems, such as the challenges of modernity. While the nations of the Pacific Rim joined the ranks of the First World Club, most Islamic states stagnated. Their desperate societies fell prey to such radical movements such as the Muslim Brotherhood in Egypt, the Islamic Revolution in Iran, Hizbullah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad in Lebanon and Palestine, and the Taliban in Afghanistan.

Two important subjects best describe the plight of the Muslim nations today. One comes under the rubric of Geography, and the other under Demography. With the exception of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Bangladesh, the rest of the Muslim world, from Pakistan to Morocco, lack proper water resources. While Turkey, Syria, and Iraq share the waters of the Tigris and the Euphrates, yet the growing demand for more irrigation points to some serious problems in the near future. The same situation exists for the many countries that share the Nile River. The lands west of Egypt are bereft of much needed water.

The second topic that receives scant attention by Muslim nations comes under the rubric of Demography. According to the Population Reference Bureau of Washington, D.C., most of the populations in the Muslim world double every twenty years! Such statistics are very hard to grasp. I remember very well, from my correspondence with Arab listeners between 1958 and 1994, the fact that there were a growing number of unemployed young people in most Arab countries! I cannot forget the forlorn North African I met in Brussels, in the early nineties, who informed me that it was much better for him to remain an illegal resident of Belgium than to go back to a hopeless life at home. There is a veritable mass movement of unemployed North Africans and nationals of other Muslim countries, endeavoring by all means, legal and illegal, to gain entry into Europe and the Americas.

The future, I mean the Islamic future, faces problems of gigantic proportions. Besides the issues of geography and demography, the Muslim world suffers from the hegemony of authoritarian and oppressive regimes. The only exception is Turkey. The situation at the present is very grim, what about the future?

I don't claim to possess an encyclopedic knowledge of every aspect of Islam's serious condition. But on account of my background, past work, and my continued interest in Middle East and Islamic studies, I would like to offer a modest proposal for a possible solution to the crisis that grips the Muslim world.

The governments of the Western world should challenge the leaders of those Muslim nations, willing to work out a genuine and peaceful co-existence between Islam and the Rest. I say the Rest, because the serious international crisis is not merely between Islam and the West. It equally involves Islam versus Israel and India.

What would such an agenda look like? It should be clearly stated that the only way to avoid a "Clash of Civilizations" that would pit Islam against the Rest, as forecast by Samuel Huntington, is to appeal to political Muslim leaders and intellectuals to jettison the exclusivist political baggage of their tradition. Muslims must realize that the age of empire building is over and that the Islamic past cannot be resurrected. Equally, we must remind them of the disastrous consequences of allowing the radicals to terrorize the rest of the world. Nothing but certain death would result from the theories and practices of such movements as the Islamic Salvation Front in Algeria, Hizbullah, Hamas, and Islamic Jihad in the Middle East, and of course the ubiquitous Al-Qaeda cells of Osama bin Laden. The carnage they inflicted on New York, Washington, and Pennsylvania, in September 2001, is fresh in our minds. And as I write these words, more shocking details are coming to light about another carnage on Saturday, October 12 in Bali, Indonesia. It must be noted that the vast majority of the people in Bali are Hindus.

After all, the highjackers in September 2001 sprang from an ideology of world domination. Their leader Muhammad Atta had studied in Hamburg and spent a good deal of time in a Western milieu. But still, he frequented a radical mosque where he became captive of a mythical worldview that proclaimed the necessity of attacking and destroying all symbols of Western civilization. Even a year later, I cannot erase from my memory the poem that was found in Atta's suitcase that had missed the flight to New York. The words, in hand-written Arabic, were published on the Internet. I downloaded and read the first page. "Ibtasem fi wajhi'l rada, ya fata…" "Smile in the face of death, O young man since you are on your way to immortality in paradise…" This young Egyptian student who had done so well in his studies at the German university, imagined that his horrific act was being performed in the cause of Allah. I have no doubt that, both he and his fellow highjackers, fully believed that as soon as they hit their targets, the next moment would usher them into the unimaginable joys of paradise.

That Muslims believe in their specific type of heaven and hell is part and parcel of their religious faith. However, it must be insisted that this specific component of their faith must not be taken over by their radical revolutionaries and used to bring about death and destruction to people of other cultures and religions. It is the urgent duty of moderate Muslims to speak out against the politicizing and radicalizing of Islamic eschatology.

I write this article as a Christian of Middle Eastern roots. I do hope, perhaps I should say I wish, that the Islamic world would somehow experience a radical change in the direction of democracy and true freedom for its teeming millions. If not, the forecast remains for a very turbulent future. But as a Christian who takes the Bible seriously, I live in the light of the Christian hope as expounded by Saint Paul in Romans 8. So, should a positive change not materialize in the Islamic world, I wait patiently for the Parousia, the return of our Lord Jesus Christ, and the manifestation of the final phase of the Kingdom of God. While waiting, quite often I pray the prayer of the First-Century Christians, the prayer they uttered in Aramaic, "Maranatha," Our Lord, come quickly. Amen.

This article is based on Rev. Bassam Madany's lecture delivered on Friday, October 18, 2002, at the Christian Educators Association Convention, Century Center, South Bend, Indiana.


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