Are Muslims Guilty of Imperialism?
This charge continues to be levelled against the Muslim world. I would like to counter it by asking the following questions:
Given the existing circumstances of 1,400 years ago, how would anyone living in Mecca or Medina go about exploiting his own clan and tribe? If the supposedly exploited lands and people were those of the Hejaz, which were poor, unfruitful, and barren, who would have wished to invade or exploit them? It is ludicrous to level the charge of imperialist colonialism against the most noble-minded Muslims, who risked their lives to spread the message of Islam; who spent the greater part of their lives far from their children, families, homes, and native lands fighting armies ten or twenty times their size; and who felt deeply grieved when they did not die on the battlefield and join the earlier martyrs for Islam. We ask ourselves what worldly gain they obtained in return for such struggle, deprivation, and sacrifice!
Those who invaded, occupied, and exploited others with the worst intentions (and results) of imperialism are power-hungry individuals or nations. To mention a few: Alexander the “Great” and Napoleon, the Roman empire and Nazi Germany, the Mongol armies unleashed by Genghis Khan and the colonizing armies unleashed by western Europe, Russian dictatorship (whether czarist or communist) and the American empire (whether “manifest destiny” or “making the world safe for democracy”). Wherever such conquests came and went, they corrupted the morality of the conquerors and the conquered, causing chaos, conflict, tears, bloodshed, and devastation. Today their heirs, like bold thieves who bluff property owners to conceal their theft of that very property, turn to besmirching Islam, its Prophet, and his Companions.
True Muslims have never sought to exploit others. Nor have they let others do so where Muslim government had jurisdiction. At a time when Muslim armies were running from triumph to triumph, Caliph ‘Omar said: “What befits me is to live at the level of the poorest Muslims,” and he really did so. As he took only a few olives a day for his own sustenance, who was he exploiting?
After one battle, when a Muslim was asked to take the belongings of an enemy soldier whom he had fought and killed, he said: “I did not participate in the battle to take spoils.” Pointing to his throat, he continued: “What I seek is an arrow here and to fall as a martyr.” (His wish was granted.) While burning with the desire for martyrdom, who was he exploiting?
In another battle, a Muslim soldier fought and killed a leading enemy who had killed many Muslims. The Muslim commander saw him pass by his dead enemy. The commander went to the head of the dead soldier and asked who had killed him. The Muslim did not want to reply, but the commander called him back in the name of God. The Muslim felt himself obliged to do so, but concealed his face with a piece of cloth. The following conversation took place:
-Did you kill him for the sake of God?
-All right. But take this 1,000 dinar piece.
-But I did it for the sake of God!
-What is your name?
-What is my name to you? Perhaps you will tell this to everyone and cause me to lose the reward for this in the afterlife.
How could such people exploit others and establish colonies all over the world? To speak frankly, those who hate Islam and Muslims are blind to the historical truth of how Islam spread.
Let’s look at what exploitation and imperialism are. Imperialism or colonization is a system of rule by which a rich and a powerful country controls other countries, their trade and policies, to enrich itself and gain more power at the other’s expense. There are many kinds of exploitation. In today’s world, they may take the following forms:
- Absolute sovereignty by dispossessing indigenous people in order to establish the invader’s direct rule and sovereignty. Examples are western Europe’s conquest of North and South America, as well as Australia and New Zealand, as well as the Zionists’ conquest of Palestine.
- Military occupation so that the invaders can control the conquered nation’s land and resources. One example is British colonial rule in India.
- Open or secret interference and intervention in a country’s internal and foreign affairs, economy, and defense. Examples are those Third World countries who are manipulated and controlled by various developed countries.
- The transfer of intellectuals, which is currently the most common and dangerous type of imperialism. Young, intelligent, and gifted people of the countries to be exploited are chosen, given stipends, and educated abroad. There they are introduced to and made members of different groups. When they return to their country, they are given influential administrative and other posts so that they can influence their country’s destiny. When native or foreign people linked to exploiters abroad are placed in crucial positions in the state mechanism, the country is conquered from inside. This immensely successful technique has enabled Western imperialists to achieve many of their goals smoothly and without overtly rousing the enmity of the people they wish to subjugate. Today, the Muslim world is caught in this trap and thus continues to suffer exploitation and abuse.
Whatever kind of imperialism they are subjected to, countries suffer a number of consequences:
- Various methods of assimilation alienate people from their own values, culture, and history. As a result, they suffer crises of identity and purpose, do not know their own past, and cannot freely imagine their own future.
- Any enthusiasm, effort, and zeal to support and develop their country is quenched. Industry is rendered dependent upon the (former) imperial masters, science and knowledge are not allowed to become productive and primary, and imitation is established firmly so that freedom of study and new research will gain no foothold.
- People remain in limbo, totally dependent upon foreigners. They are silenced and deluded by such empty phrases as progress, Westernization, civilization, and the like.
- All state institutions are penetrated by foreign aid, which is in reality no more than massive financial and cultural debt. Imports, exports, and development are wholly controlled by or conducted according to the exploiter’s interests.
- While no effort is spared to keep the masses in poverty, the ruling classes become used to extravagant spending and luxury. The resulting communal dissatisfaction causes people to fight with each other, making them even more vulnerable to outside influence and intervention.
- Mental and spiritual activity is stifled, and so educational institutions tend to imitate foreign ways, ideas, and subjects. Industry is reduced to assembling prefabricated parts. The army tends to become a dumping ground for imperialist countries, for its purchases of expensive hardware ensure the continued well-being of the latter’s industries.
We wonder if it is really rational to liken the Islamic conquest to imperialism, which brought disastrous consequences wherever it went.
The victory of Muslim armies never caused a great exodus of people from their homes and countries, nor has it prevented people from working by putting chains on their hands and feet. Muslims left the indigenous people free to follow their own way and beliefs, and protected them in exactly the same way it protected Muslims. Muslim governors and rulers were loved and respected for their justice and integrity. Equality, peace, and security were established between different communities.
If it had been otherwise, would the Christians of Damascus have gathered in their church and prayed for a Muslim victory against Christian Byzantium, which was seeking to regain control of the city? If Muslims had not been so respectful of non-Muslims’ rights, could they have maintained security for centuries in a state so vast that it took more than 6 months to travel from one end to another?
One cannot help but admire those Muslim rulers and the dynamic energy that made them so, when we compare them to present-day rulers. Despite every modern means of transportation, telecommunications, and military backup, they cannot maintain peace and security in even a small area of land.
Today, many scholars and intellectuals who realize the value of Islam’s dynamics, which brought about Islam’s global sovereignty and which will form the basis of our eternal existence in the Hereafter, expressly tell us that Muslims should reconsider and regain them. While conquering lands, the Muslims also were conquering their inhabitants’ hearts. They were received with love, respect, and obedience. No people who accepted Islam ever complained that they were culturally prevented or ruined by the arrival of Muslims. The contrast with the reality of Christian Europe’s conquests is stark and obvious.
Early Muslims evaluated the potential of knowledge and art in the conquered lands. They prepared and provided every opportunity for local scholars and scientists to pursue their work. Regardless of their religion, Muslims held the people in high regard and honored them in the community. They never did what the descendants of the British colonialists in America did to the American Indians or in Australia to the Aborigines, the French to the Algerians, or the Dutch to the Indonesians. On the contrary, they treated the conquered people as if they were from their own people and religion, as if they were brothers and sisters.
Caliph ‘Omar once told a Coptic Egyptian who had been beaten by a Makkan noble to beat him just as he had been beaten. When ‘Omar heard that ‘Amr ibn al-‘As had hurt the feelings of a native Egyptian, he rebuked him: “Human beings were born free. Why do you enslave them?” As he went to receive the keys to Masjid al-Aqsa, ‘Omar visited and talked to priests in different churches in Palestine. Once he was in a church when it was time to pray. The priest repeatedly asked him to pray inside the church, but ‘Omar refused, saying: “You may be harassed by other Christians later on because you let me pray in the church.” He left the church’s premises and prayed outside on the ground.
These are but a few examples to indicate how Muslims were sensitive, tolerant, just, and humane toward other people. Such an attitude of genuine tolerance has not been reached by any other people or society.
By M. Fethullah Gulen