All great civilizations, such as the Greeks, Romans, Persians and today in the form of West, have arisen mainly by advancing human rights and the rule of law. The rise of the Islamic civilization between the 7th and 13th centuries also owes itself to this principle. Few individuals in any civilization have been able to accomplish religious, gender, educational, racial and conflict-resolution reforms all at once.
Prophet Muhammad, the founder of Islam, reformed his society in all five respects which laid the foundation of the Arab and Muslim civilization. Their later decline and today’s extremism from some Muslims has unfortunately obscured the historical contributions by the Prophet for humanity. The following points intend to provide a better sense of his efforts and to show where today things have gone wrong:
1. Religious Freedom
Some intolerant Muslims today persecute non-Muslims for proselytizing or blasphemy. In contrast, the Islamic Holy scripture Quran states that “there is no compulsion in religion” (2:256). However, few know of its context.
Before the migration of Prophet Muhammad to Madina, some polytheists in the town had dedicated their children to be raised in the monotheistic Jewish tradition. After converting to Islam, the parents objected to this when the Jewish guardians took the children with them. However, the Prophet refused them permission to forcibly take back their children or to convert them to Islam in the light of this Quranic verse.
Moreover, the Prophet permitted Najrani Christian priests to offer their prayers in his mosque and to have an open religious dialogue before an audience. Moreover, he later wrote them a decree that declared “No compulsion is to be on them; No one is to destroy a house of their religion, to damage it, or to carry anything from it to the Muslims’ houses; they are my allies and have my secure charter against all that they hate.”
2. Racial Equality
Pre-Islamic Arab society had racial biases against non-Arabs just as American society had up till the 1960’s. The Prophet managed to purify these primitive sentiments by his personal example. His closest companions Bilal bin Riba (an Abyssinian) and Salman Farsi (a Persian) were both former slaves who went on to command enormous respect in the first Muslim society. In his famous last sermon, the Prophet declared “a white has no superiority over black, nor does a black over a white, except by piety and good action”.
The Prophet famously declared that “learning is obligatory upon every Muslim man and woman” and that “he who gives the best upbringing and education to his daughters shall enter paradise.” In his unlettered and oral society, he encouraged his followers learn writing so to be able to transmit Quran’s message far and wide. In sharp contrast to today’s Taliban who blow up girls’ schools, he reminded his people that they needed to “learn half of faith” from his wife Ayesha and that one should seek “knowledge even if one needs to go to China.”
Not surprisingly, it was this initial encouragement which ultimately led to the Islamic golden age of science which advanced medicine, astronomy, algebra and philosophy and also contributed to the Western Renaissance.
4. Women’s Rights
In the pre-Islamic society, some proud pagans practiced ‘honor’ killings and female infanticide to offset their ‘shame.’ The numerous reforms which the Prophet instituted in the 7th century included the end of ‘honor’ killings, the right of a woman’s approval in her marriage, her right to ownership of private property, to seek unilateral divorce if the husband was abusive and to re-marry as a widow or divorcee. Some of these rights did not exist even in the West until the early 20th century. Moreover, as the Prophet taught, while a husband was supposed to provide for his wife, the wife was under no obligation to share her wealth or property with the husband.
Critics point out cruelties in Muslim societies today where women are forced to veil or to marry abusive husbands. Ironically, the violence against women today is exactly the same as the one which the Prophet ended in his society. While many Islamic injunctions on female modesty are voluntary or personal, when they are enforced by law as in Saudi Arabia or Afghanistan, they become a violation of “there is no compulsion in religion” (2:256).
Moreover, the Quranic injunction in 2:283 that when a woman testifies in financial matters, she should have a female aide at her side (for any help in recalling) is misinterpreted to imply that a woman’s testimony is half of a man in all cases. Often women have no recourse to justice in cases of rape where they are usually punished for ‘adultery.’ This is itself contrary to Quranic commandment (24: 5) which prescribes a corporal punishment for those who try to destroy the reputation of women by false accusations.
5. Islam’s “Geneva Convention”
Quran permitted war only in the interest of establishing religious freedom or for self-defense (22:40). The Prophet was himself driven out of his city for preaching his religion, his followers were persecuted or killed and their bodies were mutilated. Yet, he himself forbade retaliation in kind or the holding of slaves except as prisoners captured in such conflicts. His instructions for humane treatment of prisoners during a conflict were exemplary: no women, children, hermits or other non-combatants were to be harmed and that prisoners or slaves were to be fed the same food and clothed the same clothes as the Muslims themselves. It is not surprising that his humane teachings quickly won the hearts of his former enemies which rapidly led to the conversion of Arabia to Islam.
Islam’s global spread and appeal owed itself to Prophet Muhammad’s social reforms. Unfortunately, over the centuries his teachings have been obfuscated and violated much as any other faith or movement. Thus, the misconduct of some Muslim extremists today often makes it difficult to put the historic struggle of Prophet Muhammad for humanitarian causes in context.