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The Rise and Fall of Islamic States
Meeting Toynbee was like meeting history. Having a conversation with him was a little like getting to volley with John McEnroe. Trying to keep up was hopeless, but it was exhilarating just to be on the court with him. Of Toynbee, Allan Nevins wrote, “Standing on his Everest, he is more than a historian; he is a great deal of a Prophet”.

The year was 1959, I was Deputy Commissioner, Peshawar. Once a week, Professor Toynbee would do me the honour of coming to my official residence on Fort road, accompanied by my friend Abu Kureishi, who was his guide and constant companion throughout his stay in Pakistan.

“All the Great Powers”, quoting Bismarck’s famous remark, Professor Toynbee said, “are travelling on the ‘stream of Time’ which they can neither ‘create nor direct’, but upon which they can steer with more or less ‘skill and experience’. How they emerge at the end of the voyage depends on their skill and experience or lack of it".

The Muslim voyage on the 'stream of time' began over a thousand years ago. With lightning speed, Muslim armies advancing from Arabia conquered Syria, Palestine, Egypt, North Africa and Iran. In the 8th century, from their bases in North Africa, Arab Muslim forces joined by Berber converts, conquered Spain and invaded France. In the 9th century they conquered Sicily and invaded the Italian main land.

A thousand years ago, the West was far behind the Islamic world. Danes, the most fastidious of all the Europeans, bathed once a week. The European average was far less frequent. For ascetic reasons, many monasteries limited bathing to five times a year – and some to Christmas only. Hygiene was not to appear in Europe for another half a millennium. Except in general terms, no one knew what time it was. Church bells provided the only standards and they were inadequate. On the eve of the last millennium, five centuries after the fall of the Roman Empire, Europe was a poor, backward and intensely rural slum. All the grand, sophisticated cultures and large urban centers – Baghdad, Isfahan, Cairo, Fez, Delhi, Lahore and Cordoba were in the Islamic world. “For most Europeans life was almost unimaginably mean, dirty, unhealthy and short even for those at the pinnacle of society".

In A.D. 1661, Western society was just one among half a dozen societies of its kind that had arisen in the old world. It is true that, by that date, the West had won the command of the ocean, and had thus made itself the potential master of the whole surface of the planet. The Western peoples had already discovered and monopolized the new world. But in the old world, the Western peoples in A.D. 1661 were still perched precariously on the tip of the European peninsula of the great Asian continent; and it was not yet certain that they might be pushed right off even this patch of the old world ground.

The tide turned in 1492, almost eight centuries after the first Muslim landing in Spain. The long Christian struggle for reconquest of Spain ended in victory. With the failure of the second siege of Vienna in 1682 AD, led by Qara Mustafa Pasha, the situation changed decisively. Then, at last, the west was relieved from the pressure that the Osmanlis had been exerting on west's eastern land frontier for the past 300 years.

It was only then that the Western people could concentrate their energies on converting their command of the ocean into domination of the world. It was only then that western natural science consummated its marriage with technology and thereby generated for the west a material power that quickly put the rest of the world at the west's mercy. A conventional date for this marriage is AD 1660, which is also the date of the foundation of the Royal Society in England. The marriage between science and technology was, indeed, an historic event which changed the course of world history. “The West owes its prosperity to Science and Technology, not democracy”, said Professor Toynbee.

Differences over succession to the Caliphate after the death of the Holy Prophet had split the world of Islam into Shia’a and Sunni warring camps. While the Islamic world was caught up in wars of succession, civil wars and internal dissensions and stood still, the rest of the world moved on and advanced to the centre of the world stage.

Today the Western world is light years ahead. While the Islamic world was busy debating - a debate that lasted for 300 years - the pros and cons of permitting the entry of printing press, the western world moved on and advanced to the centre of the world stage. Today the Islamic world, with some blissful exceptions, is in thrall, its independence a myth, rudderless, disoriented, its spirit broken, mired in poverty, private luxury and rampant corruption. Today it will take the average Arab citizen 140 years to double his or her meager income while some other regions are set to achieve that level in a matter of less than 10 years! Today about 65 million adult Arabs are illiterate, two-thirds of them women. Out of seven world regions, the Arab countries have the lowest freedom score. The Arab region also has the lowest value of all regions of the world for accountability. Oh! What a Difference a Millennium Makes?

Other non-Western countries - for example, Turkey, China and Mughal India were slower in reading the Western signs of modern times, and when they did reluctantly read them, they were less resolute in taking action. Contemptuous of European ideas and practices, the Turks declined to adopt newer methods. The armed services had become a bastion of conservatism. The janissaries were slow to modernize themselves. Their bulky cannons were not replaced by the lighter cast-iron guns. After the defeat at Lapanto, they did not build the larger European type of vessels. In the south, the Muslim fleets were simply ordered to remain in the calmer waters of the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf, thus obviating the need to construct oceangoing vessels on the Portuguese model.

On May 28, 1998, more than 300 years after the Western world natural science consummated its marriage with technology, an event of great significance took place. Pakistan took a quantum leap in the field of science and technology, exploded a nuclear bomb, acquired a nuclear umbrella and joined the nuclear club.

What should we infer from this narrative? In the Islamic world trouble started brewing among the contenders for power soon after the death of the Holy Prophet. Second, absence of a law of political succession was, and continues to be, the principle cause of the instability and decline of Muslim rule. Third, the question of legitimacy, which has plagued the Muslim world from the very beginning remains unresolved. Fourth, force remained the ultimate arbiter. The contender's title to rule was in direct proportion to the length of his sword and the sharpness of its blade. This continues to be the case till today throughout the Islamic world.

Today the number of choices that are available to Muslims are fast diminishing. Hereditary monarchy, narrow nationalism, socialism, military dictatorship, liberal (and illiberal) democracy have all been tried in different Islamic countries and found wanting. Islam - not the scholastic, institutionalized, fossilized Islam co-opted by corrupt rulers - but the true, dynamic, pristine, revolutionary Islam of its early years with its emphasis on equality, egalitarianism, social justice and accountability is emerging as a challenge to western concepts of governance, and is perceived by the West and the Muslim elite as the greatest threat to the established order based on exploitation, injustice and inequality of opportunity. It is now abundantly clear that the west, in its own interest, will not allow the emergence of truly Islamic governments anywhere in the Islamic world. It would prefer to maintain the statuesquo and do business with corrupt, despotic, autocratic, pliant governments which it would protect and defend against its own peoples.

The Islamic world was shaken up after the American invasion of Iraq and the execution of Saddam, like a sleeping person awakened from a tranquilizing dream. “Muslims are filled with feelings of impotence and frustration”, said Abdelouahed Belkeziz, the then Secretary General of OIC, “as some of the countries are occupied, others are under sanctions, a third group accused of sponsoring terrorism”.

Toynbee’s final words of advice: “don’t mess around with the West unless you are a member of the nuclear club and have the full support of a permanent member of the Security Council”.