Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Reinterpreting Islam after the Mongol Invasion

It is impossible to exaggerate the trauma inflicted upon the Muslim world by the Mongols. For 600 years Muslims had seen their spheres of influence grown from Arabia to Iran and Spain. Muslims simply assumed that they were the benefactors of divinely orchestrated success. Baghdad was the jewel of the Muslim world, capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, ruled by the Prophet's own family, untouched by any opposition forces since it became a Muslim city over 500 years earlier. To put that into context, Washington DC was burned by the British a mere 200 years ago during the War of 1812. When the Muslim historian Ibn al-Athir was asked to describe the Mongol invasion (Tatars), which he lived through, he couldn't do so for many years. He wrote:
For some years I continued averse from mentioning this event, deeming it so horrible that I shrank from recording it and ever withdrawing one foot as I advanced the other. To whom, indeed, can it be easy to write the announcement of the death-blow of Islam and the Muslims, or who is he on whom the remembrance thereof can weigh lightly? O would that my mother had not born me or that I had died and become a forgotten thing ere this befell! Yet, withal a number of my friends urged me to set it down in writing, and I hesitated long, but at last came to the conclusion that to omit this matter could serve no useful purpose. On The Tatars

The Mongol invasion wasn't just the first major military loss for Muslims, it was a genocide, with 40 million casualties. In a few short years the Mongols ravaged Iran, Iraq, Syria, Kazakhstan, and Turkey. Ibn al-Athir described it best:
I say, therefore, that this thing involves the description of the greatest catastrophe and the most dire calamity which befell all men generally, and the Muslims in particular; so that, should one say that the world, since God Almighty created Adam until now, has not been afflicted with the like thereof, he would but speak the truth. For indeed history does not contain anything which approaches or comes near unto it...For verily those whom they massacred in a single city exceeded all the children of Israel. Nay, it is unlikely that mankind will see the like of this calamity, until the world comes to an end and perishes, except the final outbreak of Gog and Magog. For even Antichrist will spare such as follow him, though he destroy those who oppose him, but these Tatars spared none, slaying women and men and children, ripping open pregnant women and killing unborn babes. Verily to God do we belong, and unto Him do we return, and there is no strength and no power save in God, the High, the Almighty, in face of this catastrophe, whereof the sparks flew far and wide, and the hurt was universal; and which passed over the lands like clouds driven by the wind. For these were a people who emerged from the confines of China, and attacked the cities of Turkestan, like Kashghar and Balasaghun, and thence advanced on the cities of Transoxiana, such as Samarqand, Bukhara and the like, taking possession of them, and treating their inhabitants in such wise as we shall mention; and of them one division then passed on into Khurasan, until they had made an end of taking possession, and destroying, and slaying, and plundering, and thence passing on to Ray, Hamadan and the Highlands, and the cities contained therein, even to the limits of Iraq, whence they marched on the towns of Adharbayjan and Arraniyya, destroying them and slaying most of their inhabitants, of whom none escaped save a small remnant; and all this in less than a year; this is a thing whereof the like has not been heard. And when they had finished with Adharbayjan and Arraniyya, they passed on to Darband-i-Shirwan, and occupied its cities, none of which escaped save the fortress wherein was their King; wherefore they passed by it to the countries of the Lan and the Lakiz and the various nationalities which dwell in that region, and plundered, slew, and destroyed them to the full. And thence they made their way to the lands of Qipchaq, who are the most numerous of the Turks, and slew all such as withstood them, while the survivors fled to the fords and mountain-tops, and abandoned their country, which these Tatars overran. All this they did in the briefest space of time, remaining only for so long as their march required and no more. On The Tatars
The Mongol sacking of Baghdad was particularly savage, with 1,000,000 deaths. The Grand Library of Baghdad, the center of Islamic thought, was burned to the ground. The Caliph Al-Musta'sim, descendant of the Prophet, was trampled to death by horses. His sons were either murdered or exiled to Mongolia. Muslims didn't achieve their first battlefield victory against the Mongols until Battle of Ain Jalut in 1260, 40 years after Ibn al-Athir's description, and only with the passive help of the Christian Crusaders of Acre. All said, Matthew White estimates that 40 million people died in the campaign, the 2nd deadliest event in all of human history, exceeded only by World War II.

Prior to the Mongol invasion, there was a vibrant debate among Muslims over the usage of rationalism, reason, and logic in Islam. The Muslim philosopher Ibn Sina argued that rationalism was a critical component of belief. Al Ghazali critiqued these theories in his "The Incoherence of the Philosophers," arguing that Allah's descriptions in the Quran were incomprehensible to humans and had to be followed literally:
Things of the Hereafter promised to us are not impossible for the Divine Omnipotence (Allah). Therefore, it is necessary to stick to what the text prima facie means, and not to take it out of the context where it occurs, and from which it derives its significance. The Incoherence of the Philosophers
Ibn Rushd responded to the flaws in Al Ghazali's arguments in "The Incoherence of Incoherence." He rejected Al-Ghazali’s point that you have to take the Quran’s descriptions literally, because when you are describing the indescribable, you can only describe by analogies to material images we can understand. He writes:
Thus to represent the beyond (heaven) in material images is more appropriate than purely spiritual representation, as is said in the Divine Words (Quran): ‘The likeness of the Paradise which those who fear God are promised, beneath it rivers flow. ‘ And the Prophet has said, ‘In it there is what no eye has seen, no ear has heard, nor ever entered the mind of man. ‘And Ibn Abbas said, ‘There is no relation in the other world to this world but the names. ‘ And he meant by this that the beyond is another creation of a higher order than this world, and another phase superior to our earthly. The Incoherence of Incoherence
The intellectual vibrancy of Muslim philosophers and theologians was challenged during the Mongol invasion by a traumatized scholar named  Ibn Taymiyyah. A disciple of the literalist scholar Ahmad ibn Hanbal,  Ibn Taymiyyah began redefining several Islamic ideas with little tolerance for anyone else. Ibn Taymiyyah's family was forced to flee the Mongol hordes when he was 5 to Damascus. As an adult he participated in the defense of Damascus from a new Mongol horde. Throughout his life he was constantly trying to negotiate, fight or otherwise deal with the Mongol invaders. During this traumatic time of war, when Muslims were fighting for their survival, Ibn Taymiyyah declared that jihad was obligatory on all Muslims, to not only fight back against the Mongols, but any Muslims that associated with the Mongols. During his time, many Mongols converted to Islam. Ibn Taymiyyah refused to acknowledge their conversion, and declared them false Muslims:
Besides, if they pronounce the Shahadah (declaring themselves Muslim) but refuse to pray, pay alms, fast in the month of Ramadhan, perform Hajj, (do not) Judge between themselves by the Quran and Sunnah, or fail to prohibit evil deeds or wine, or marrying those whom it has been prohibited to wed, or legalise killing and taking wealth unjustly, or (dealing in) usury, gambling, (failing) to fight the disbelievers, or refusing to impose the Jiziah tax on the ‘People of the Book’ or other things from the Islamic Shari’ah, they must be fought until all of the religion is for Allah. Ibn Taymiyya's Fatwa on Tartar (Mongols)
Ibn Taymiyyah took great pains to categorize the world into true Muslims, false Muslims, and unbelievers. False Muslims extended beyond just the Mongols, to other Muslim scholars as well. He once declared:
Sadr ad-din, a friend to Muhyiddin ibn al-'Arabi, surpassed his master in scientific knowledge and kalam, yet he was more disbelieving, less learned and had less iman (faith) than his master had. Since such people's faith was disbelief, more skillful of them were more excessive in disbelief.
Ibn Taymiyyah's intolerance of non-Muslims along with his judgment of fellow Muslims stood in sharp contrast with several verses of the Quran and hundreds of years of Muslim practice before his time (as explained in this blog entry). He also re-interpreted several regulations, favoring a literal emulation of the first 3 generations of Muslims whom he called the Salaf. He felt that these early Muslims were close to perfection and had to be emulated in every possible way:
There is no criticism for the one who proclaims the madh'hab (teachings) of the Salaf, who attaches himself to it and refers to it. Rather, it is obligatory to accept that from him by unanimous agreement because the way of the Salaf is nothing but the truth. Majmoo al-Fataawaa, 4:149
The literal emulation of the Salaf was a novel idea, and stood in stark contrast to scholars like Ibn Rushd who argued that religion was constantly improving:
Further, he is under obligation to choose the best religion of his period, even when they are all equally true for him, and he must believe that the best will be abrogated by the introduction of a still better.Therefore the learned who were instructing the people in Alexandria became Muslims when Islam reached them, and (earlier) the learned in the Roman Empire became Christians when the religion of Jesus was introduced there. The Incoherence of Incoherence
Ibn Taymiyyah believed that any practices that were not described by  the Salaf (early Muslims) were bidah, heretical innovations, and had to be immediately stopped. Ironically, this concept was an innovation itself, and constantly got him into trouble. The famed Muslim traveler Ibn Battuta gave this negative description of Ibn Tamiyyah after he traveled to Damascus:
One of the principal Hanbalite doctors at Damascus was Taqi ad-Din Ibn Taymiya, a man of great ability and wide learning, but with some kink in his brain. The people of Damascus idolized him. He used to preach to them from the pulpit, and one day he made some statement that the other theologians disapproved; they carried the case to the sultan and in consequence Ibn Taymiya was imprisoned for some years. While he was in prison he wrote a commentary on the Koran, which he called "The Ocean," in about forty volumes. Later on his mother presented herself before the sultan and interceded for him, so he was set at liberty, until he did the same thing again. I was in Damascus at the time and attended the service which he was conducting one Friday, as he was addressing and admonishing the people from the pulpit. In the midst of his discourse he said "Verily God descends to the sky over our world [from Heaven] in the same bodily fashion that I make this descent," and stepped down one step of the pulpit. A Malikite doctor present contradicted him and objected to his statement, but the common people rose up against this doctor and beat him with their hands and their shoes so severely that his turban fell off and disclosed a silken skull-cap on his head. Inveighing against him for wearing this [the Salaf men did not wear silk], they haled him before the qadi of the Hanbalites, who ordered him to be imprisoned and afterwards had him beaten. The other doctors objected to this treatment and carried the matter before the principal amir, who wrote to the sultan about the matter and at the same time drew up a legal attestation against Ibn Taymiya for various heretical pronouncements. This deed was sent on to the sultan, who gave orders that Ibn Taymiya should be imprisoned in the citadel, and there he remained until his death. Rihla
Ibn Taymiyyah spent many years in prison during his lifetime due to his novel religious positions. Eventually dying in prison, his radical ideas were almost completely ignored until their rediscovery by Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab in Saudi Arabia in the 1700s. In a cruel bit of irony, the Wahhab inspired Saudis used Ibn Taymiyyah's reactions to the execution of the Prophet's family in Baghdad to expel the Prophet's Hashemite clan from Mecca. Modern day Salafis (a Muslim sect) use the works of Ahmad ibn Hanbal (discussed in my blog entry on slavery) and Ibn Tamiyyah for the theological underpinnings of their beliefs. Taken together, they advocate a version of Islam that stressed the eternal perfection of the rulings of the Quran, intolerance of non-Muslims and Muslims different from themselves, and an obsession with literal emulation of the customs, habit, and dress of the first three generations of Muslims. All three of these views were extreme minority positions during the early days of Islam (Ahmed ibn Hanbal and Ibn Taymiyyah both spent time in prison on the orders of Caliphs due to their heretical positions, Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab was involved in open warfare with the Ottoman Caliph), but found a new audience with Muslim nationalists in the 20th century fighting against their colonial masters. Pakistani Nationalist Abul Ala Maududi saw Ibn Tamiyyah as an inspiration saying:
Ibn Taymiyya removed these dangers, revived Islam's spirit of idea and morals and accomplished the explorations of renewal. A little before him, no one had dared to invite the people to Islam out of the fear of being calumniated; the narrow-minded scholars had cooperated with the cruel rulers, and it was his lot to unfurl the flag of renewal against them. He was profound in interpretation of the Qur'an and a leader in the Hadith and he took Islam from where al-Ghazali had left it forward. He defended Islamic faith and found more beautiful proofs for Islamic spirit than al-Ghazali had. Al-Ghazali's judgement had remained under the harmful influence of rational thoughts. Ibn Taymiyya was more effective and chose the way of reason, which was closer to spirit of the Qur'an and Sunnat. Thus, he won a wonderful success. Men of knowledge did not know the interpretation of the Qur'an. Those who were educated scholastically were not able to establish the connection between themselves and the Qur'an and Hadith. It has been only Ibn Taymiyya's lot to accomplish the real explanation of Islam. He made ijtihads (judgments) by deriving his inspiration directly from the Holy Book, from the Sunnat, and from the way of living of the Prophet's companions. Ibn al-Qayyim, his disciple, studied over the divine causes, the meanings of which had not been solved, and put Islamic rules. By clearing out the evil effects that had leaked into Islamic system, he purified and refreshed it. He attacked the bad customs that had been accepted as parts of Islam and had been support for religious punishments and tolerated by scholars for centuries.
Although still a minority, Salafis are considered the fastest growing sect in Islam today, an amazing accomplishment considering the philosophy's dubious roots. It's popularity seems to ebb and flow with Muslim confidence. Whenever Muslims appear to be dominated by outsiders, whether Mongol, British, or Israeli, a segment of Muslims turn to this line of thinking for comfort. Despite its lack of Quranic basis, the Salafi message of Muslim exceptionalism, literalism, and superiority is the official state religion of Saudi Arabia. For further reading, I highly recommend Khaled Abou El Fadl's The Great Theft which provides a fantastic summary of Salafi history and beliefs.

I personally struggle with how to deal with Salafis. Although their beliefs are not damaging per se, when they cross the line to fanaticism, I publicly condemn them. The sad truth is that most Salafis have no idea how novel their belief structure is, which may explain their unintentionally ironic use of the phrase,"unanimous opinion of Islamic scholars." Today, even mainstream Muslims fall victim to their over-emphasis on ritual over belief. Yusuf al-Qaradawi's The Lawful and the Prohibited in Islam, essentially a ritual guide focused on medieval shariah findings, is used as a Sunday school textbook by the many mosques like the Islamic Society of Greater Houston.