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Islam is the second largest religion in the world. The holy text of Islam is Quran, and it is supplemented by other religious scriptures. Those sacred texts cover almost every part of human life, including policies and laws. In Islam, the concept of human rights is deeply tied to religious thought. To better understand the position of the individual in Islamic culture, it is imperative to study the humanistic idea behind Islam thoroughly. That’s why this work will discuss Islamic culture as a whole, to better understand the subject of human rights in Islam.
The Early History of Islam
As organized religious system, Islam was developed back in the 7th century (Hourani 36). The cradle of Islam consists of two cities, Mecca and Medina. The Arabian Peninsula was the first major region converted to Islam. Arabia was suffering from political and cultural turmoil; religious clashes were prevalent, the majority of the population was pagan and fought aggressively against established religions of Christianity and Judaism (Ayoub 5). Even though the polytheistic population of this area opposed the conversion for many years, in the end, communities longed for social change and wanted the more spiritual form of values. The Christian and Jewish cultures gradually reshaped the Arabian Peninsula; people of Arabia became more accustomed to the concept of Abrahamic religion, while paganism was on the decline.
In the late 6th century, the Islamic prophet Muhammad was born into the Quraysh tribe (Hourani 40). At the age of forty, he started to work on his holy text called Quran, a sacred scripture of Islam. He proclaimed that he was the prophet of the one and only God, advocated for the need of strict monotheistic fate, and condemned the foul acts performed by ruling groups of Mecca. These actions were met with heavy opposition from the prominent members of this city, but common people wholeheartedly supported Muhammad. This antagonism later escalated into the armed conflict in the city of Yathrib. Various Muslim religious scholars consider this event as the birth of Islam (Hourani 53). Prevailing over previous lords of Yathrib, Muhammad became the new head of this city and renamed it Medina. Muhammad named himself as the successor prophet in the long line of Christian and Jewish holy figures. Eventually, both cities of Mecca and Medina suffered from attacks of Jewish tribes, but through military and political maneuvers of Muhammad, Islamic society was preserved and started to expand its influence in the region (Ayoub 11).
The Foundation of the Golden Age and the First Welfare State
In the early 7th century, Prophet Muhammad died, leaving quite influential Islamic power of the Arabian Peninsula in disarray (Hourani 60). Arabic tribes fell into infighting, a lot of agreements made by Muhammad were broken, Islamic religious centers stopped to receive alms and tributes. In this time of turmoil, various people claimed to be successors of Muhammad. They were called Caliphs; among many of those, only two prominent dynasties managed to seize the power over Islamic society of Muhammad.
The first of these dynasties was the Rashidun Caliphate. The lineage of four caliphs reinforced the centers of Mecca and Median and then started the phase of early Islamic conquests. After keeping various Arabic tribes under the Islamic rule, the Rashidun Caliphate pushed further into Persia, Levant, Egypt, and even some remote parts of North Africa (Hourani 67). Islamic scholars call those military campaigns the Ridda wars; those campaigns led to expansion into territories of the powerful Byzantine and Sasanian Empires. In the latter half of 7th century, propagated by the need for more trade routes, the Rashidun Caliphate’s army defeated the Byzantine navy and opened the way to Mediterranean for Muslim ships (Hourani 68). At the end of the 7th century, Rashidun Caliphate expanded its influence to Rhodes, Kabul, and even Samarkand in Central Asia.
The Rashidun Caliphate rule, even though still possessing the religious notion, did not claim the prophetic providence. The approach to governing of this dynasty was quite practical. They worked extensively to improve the living standards of their people, building complex irrigation systems and social housing (Ayoub 21). Welfare institution was also established, with various pensions for both children and elderly. Poor and needy were supported without religious discrimination. Unfortunately, the Rashidun Caliphate suffered from various internal conflicts that escalated into two civil wars. After the assassination of the last Rashidun ruler, the new dynasty emerged.
This new dynasty was called Umayyad. The Umayyad dynasty moved their capital from Medina to Damascus. They expanded the Islamic influence forward to Anatolia. Numerous territories around the Atlas Mountains were also integrated into the Umayyad Empire, as well as Carthage, the heart of the Carthaginian civilization. Under the Umayyad rule, the Muslim armies made it as far as Lisbon in the Iberian Peninsula and even reached the remote Eastern territories of Indus Valley (Hourani 72).
The rule of Umayyad dynasty was also focused on the well-being of the common man (Hourani 78). Welfare program increased its expenses to support the poor. Language reforms tried to increase the literacy among people, advocating for education. The Umayyad government encouraged free trade, taxing the wealth itself, but not the trade operations. Under the Umayyad dynasty, the first universal Islamic currency was developed. These various improvements to the already prominent administrative system of Rashidun Dynasty laid the foundation for the Islamic Golden Age.
The Islamic Golden Age and the Foundation of Secularism
After the extensive period of political intrigue, almost all members of the Umayyad dynasty were killed. The Umayyad Empire was one of the largest contiguous empires in history, and after its dynasty had ceased to exist, various regional uprisings took place (Hourani 84). This is when the Abbasid dynasty rose to power, with the intent to unify the Muslim world once again. Trying to consolidate all the achievements of previous caliphates, the Abbasid dynasty started the military campaign to end various internal conflicts. They moved the capital to Baghdad, to increase their influence over the eastern parts of the empire. To improve the integrity of their rule, the Abbasid dynasty suppressed multiple revolts of Turkish and Arabic tribes and also fought with Indo-Persians (Hourani 90). After the Abbasid Empire had achieved some form of stability, it started the conquest of India, pushed deep into Mediterranean, and even reached Southeast Asia.
Indubitably, the Abbasid Empire possessed the great amount of military prowess, but their main way of spreading their influence was through culture (Ayoub 44). The Islamic world flourished under their rule. The innovative approach to commerce increased the wealth of the Abbasid Empire profoundly, expanding their trading agreements over various continents. The development of industry signified the beginning of the Muslim Agricultural Revolution. Those improvements in economy and production led to increased efficiency of welfare institutions, improving the life of various groups of people. At its peak, the Abbasid Empire was the paragon of science in the world (Hourani 119). Conserving various ancient scientific works, the Abbasid Empire excelled in various fields of science, elaborating on Greek theories and ancient Egyptian studies. Under the rule of Abbasid dynasty, the Muslim world produced the great amount of scientists and philosophers in various fields, such as astronomy, chemistry, mathematics and theology. Various forms of arts flourished in the Abbasid Empire. Muslim poets produced a multitude of works, advocating for enlightenment and meritocracy.
But one of the most fundamental achievements under the Abbasid rule was the codification and further development of Sharia, the Islamic law (Hourani 141). The Abbasid Empire recognized the other Abrahamic religions, such as Christianity and Judaism. Taxation of the followers of these religions was reformed and controlled. Non-Arabic Muslims that faced prejudice under the previous dynasties were integrated into the system of Islamic kinship. To support the development of scientific thought, both legal and philosophical studies laid the foundation for secularism (Ayoub 67). This level of religious tolerance was unmatched back then. Unfortunately, at the later stage of its history, the Abbasid Empire became so vast that it was hard to control. The rise of various regional powers and multitude of different dynasties brought along the internal conflict. The Mongolian invasion and the Crusades severely diminished the external influence of the Abbasid dynasty. Their empire faced decline, and eventually, this dynasty lost all of its power.
The Modern Period of Islam and the Turkish Rule
In the late period of 13th century, the Seljuq Turkish dynasty faced decline after suffering greatly from the Mongolian invasion (Ayoub 95). Various Turkish principalities came to power and started the struggle for political supremacy. This is when the Ottoman dynasty arose and consolidated warring Turkish clans into the united force. The Ottoman dynasty fought decisively against the Byzantine Empire, claiming various territories and the status of empire. After the repulsion of Mongolian invaders, the Ottoman Empire became the dominant power of Anatolia (Ayoub 103). The victory at the Battle of Kosovo also enforced the presence of the Ottoman dynasty in Balkans and allowed them to push forward into Europe. The Ottoman Empire marched as far as Venice and gained much of control over the Mediterranean Sea. Their influence also expanded over the Horn of Africa and various parts of the Caucasus region. The conquest of the Persian Gulf and the rest of Mesopotamia made the Ottoman Empire the strongest Islamic state of its epoch (Ayoub 105).
The Ottoman Empire put great emphasis on education and community development. To facilitate the growth of the strong academic system, the Ottoman Empire welcomed the migration of various foreign ethnic groups that brought along prominent artisans and scientists. The education system was also multi-layered. State-funded schools had the chamber for Muslim population and chamber for followers of other faiths, allowing for social mobility unhindered by religious prejudice. The Ottoman society was diverse both in ethnic and religious backgrounds (Ayoub 109). The similar notion can be seen in the administrative system of the Ottoman State. Even though it possessed the great amount of centralized power, local authorities were shaped in such way to allow for the flexible share of autonomy. Municipal governments were built in accordance with their traditions, preserving their religious practices and political structure (Barkey 471). The main goal of the Ottoman Empire was to expand the influence of Islam while catering for its diverse group of subjects, forming the union between various people. Sharia law was recognized as the main part of the Ottoman legal system, but it was supplemented by the secular law called Qanun (Barkey 473). Even though non-Muslim population didn’t have the same legal status as Muslim people, they still had some form of legal freedom. Local Christian and Jewish courts enforced the law over their parts of the population in accordance with their legal traditions. The Ottoman State tended not to interfere in such matters because under Qanun non-Muslim customs were also recognized and protected by the government (Barkey 474).
Human Rights and the Islamic Culture
When discussing the issue of human rights in Islam, it is imperative to understand that Islam is greatly diverse. It is one of the richest and oldest systems of values currently in existence. The evolutionary process of Islam changed its perspective on rights of the individual, but some aspects can be considered recurring throughout the whole Islamic history (Ahmed and Ginsburg 618).
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Almost every Islamic civilization put great emphasize on the welfare of the socially vulnerable. The state-funded support of needy and poor in various Islamic governments correlates with the modern right to social security recognized by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (Ibrahim 350). Indeed, Muslim countries were among the first to implement social securities for their population and didn’t simply provide for the poor but also distributed the wealth through complex taxation systems.
Another internationally recognized type of human rights that can be found even in the ancient Islamic states is the right to freedom of thought. Although heavily limited, the concept of free thought can be seen as the pivotal achievement of the Islamic Golden Age (Edmunds 679). Various Islamic states had levels of religious tolerance unprecedented in their time. The concept of secularization was often discussed in various Islamic traditions and served as the precursor to modern day secularism.
The most influential Islamic empires always relied heavily on scientific progress. To facilitate such progress, their governments tried to provide the frame for unhindered self-expression among academic and artistic circles (Ibrahim 360). Although still subjected to religious censorship to some degree, the secularization of scientific thought was the major principle of the Islamic Golden Age and later period of Islamic development. The degree of creative freedom possessed by various Islamic scholars can be seen as the precursor to modern right to freedom of speech (Ibrahim 361).
The Islamic culture is extremely rich and well developed. The historical process of the evolution of Islamic culture made it one of the most influential systems of beliefs in the world. The various Islamic states worked extensively to guarantee the rights of their population even in ancient times. It is important to understand that Islam cares deeply for the well-being of its people and supports their rights by any means available, especially in the modern age, when religious extremism is on the rise.
Ahmed, Dawood I., and Tom Ginsburg. “Constitutional Islamization and Human Rights: The Surprising Origin and Spread of Islamic Supremacy in Constitutions.” Virginia Journal of International Law, vol. 54, no. 3, 2014, pp. 616-695.
Ayoub, Mahmoud. The Crisis of Muslim History: Religion and Politics in Early Islam. Oneworld Publications, 2014.
Barkey, Karen. “Political Legitimacy and Islam in the Ottoman Empire: Lessons Learned.” Philosophy & Social Criticism, vol. 40, no. 4, 2014, pp. 469-477.
Edmunds, June. “Human Rights, Islam and the Failure of Cosmopolitanism.” Ethnicities, vol. 13, no. 6, 2013, pp. 671-688.
Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples: Updated Edition. Faber & Faber, 2013.
Ibrahim, Abadir M. “A Not-So-Radical Approach to Human Rights in Islam.” The Journal of Religion, vol. 96, no. 3, 2016, pp. 346-377.