Social and Political Changes in Early Islamic Society
by Zach Andolini
"It is not righteousness that you turn your faces towards East or West; but it is righteousness to believe in Allah and the Last Day and the Angels and the Book and the Messengers; to spend of your substance out of love for Him, for your kin, for orphans, for the needy, for the wayfarer, for those who ask; and for the ransom of slaves; to be steadfast in prayers and practice regular charity; to fulfill the contracts which you made; and to be firm and patient in pain (or suffering) and adversity and throughout all periods of panic. Such are the people of truth, the God-fearing" (Quran 2:177)
Islam is more than a religion for those who seek answers to questions about the unknown and more than a spiritual guide for those who seek the best of morals. Islam is also an entire social and political system that reflects the best ways to run a prosperous society. Before the Prophet Muhammad (peace and blessings be upon him), the Arabian Peninsula was infected with moral disorder, idol worship, and tribal warfare. When the Messenger of Allah (pbuh) began his campaign to spread Islam, he lead with courage, tolerance, and justice; and united all the tribes together under one banner. Among the toughest of situations, he was able to establish a society that lived together with mutual respect, social responsibility and a common purpose. After the death of RasulAllah (pbuh), the community was left in a state of confusion. Many people reverted to their old religion and there was vast disagreement regarding the appointment of a successor. Nevertheless, the Khalifas RasulAllah (The successors to the Messenger of Allah) lead the community in a similar fashion as the Prophet (pbuh). The first four khalifas, Abu Bakr, Umar bin Al-Khattab, Uthman bin Affan and 'Ali bin Abi-Talib (may Allah be pleased with them) are known as the “rightly-guided khalifas”, that continued the mission of the Prophet (pbuh) and made large strides to expand the Muslim empire. But as time went on, the Umayyad khalifas began to transform the Muslim society into more of a monarchy than a true khalifa and therefore caused a separation between the people over which they ruled.
The Quran and the sayings of the Prophet (pbuh) are a perfect prescription for how the Muslim community should behave and work together. The difference between the Prophet (pbuh) and other moral leaders is that he not only gave excellent advice, but also his actions reflected a perfect example to follow. Some people would eat with the same hand as him, not because it was required, but his followers wanted to emulate him in every single action. The Prophet (pbuh) related numerous times about the importance of unity and respect among the citizens of the Muslim nation.
Nu'man bin Bashir (may Allah be pleased with him) reported: The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said, "The believers, in their mutual kindness, compassion and sympathy are just like one body. When one of the limbs suffers, the whole body responds to it with wakefulness and fever". [Al-Bukhari and Muslim].
This concept of the society being one entity is an important social construct that allowed the Muslim nation to thrive in such difficult circumstances. Some welcomed the Muslim army into their cities because they had heard how the Muslims ruled so justly and fairly that they said to themselves “We want to be treated the same way”. Another hadith shows how a society relies on each member to build a strong foundation.
Abu Musa (may Allah be pleased with him) reported: The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said, "The relationship of the believer with another believer is like (the bricks of) a building, each strengthens the other.'' He illustrated this by interlacing the fingers of both his hands. [Al-Bukhari and Muslim].
Anas (May Allah be pleased with him) reported: The Prophet (pbuh) said, "No one of you shall become a true believer until he desires for his brother what he desires for himself". [Al-Bukhari and Muslim].
Business is the cornerstone to any functional society. If a nation is full of corrupt businessmen and deceitful entrepreneurs, it is only a matter of time until the economic system collapses upon itself. The Prophet (pbuh) taught how to handle business transactions with honesty, trust and respect.
Abu Hurairah (May Allah be pleased with him) reported: The Messenger of Allah (pbuh) said, "Do not envy one another; do not inflate prices by overbidding against one another; do not hate one another; do not harbour malice against one another; and do not enter into commercial transaction when others have entered into that (transaction); but be you, O slaves of Allah, as brothers. A Muslim is the brother of another Muslim; he neither oppresses him nor does he look down upon him, nor does he humiliate him. Piety is here, (and he pointed to his chest three times). It is enough evil for a Muslim to hold his brother Muslim in contempt. All things of a Muslim are inviolable for his brother-in-faith: his blood, his property and his honor". [Muslim].
After the death of the Messenger of Allah (pbuh), a new era began in which the khalifas emulated what they had learned from the Prophet (pbuh) and they filled the nation with compassion and generosity. During the time of the Patriarchal Khalifas, Zakat (charity for the poor) was correctly implemented to the point that it was hard to find anyone who was in need of it. The khalifas ruled justly, fairly and were beloved by the people. Hazrat Umar (may Allah be pleased with him), the second khalifa was quoted as saying, “I will not calm down until I will put one cheek of a tyrant on the ground and the other under my feet, and for the poor and weak, I will put my cheek on the ground.” With the Quran and Hadiths as a guide, the Muslim nation was thriving and expanding quickly.
After the assassination of Hazrat 'Ali (may Allah be pleased with him), Hazrat Mu'awiya, the first Umayyad khalifa came into power. This change was not widely accepted among the people and created tension which led to the First Fitna. Over time, the teachings of the Quran and Hadith were suppressed in favor of adopting the secularist administration and financial systems of the neighboring Byzantine empire. Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and the Patriarchal Khalifas identified closely with the Islamic community and did not seek worldly power by distinguishing themselves above the average person. The Umayyads, however, adopted models of kingship and separated themselves from the community in order to rule over them rather than rule alongside them. Under the Umayyads, the Islamic nation became more of a monarchy than a patriarchal rule. High taxes were imposed on the non-Muslims that lived within the Umayyad's empire, which led to wide-spread disapproval of the khalifas' rule. The election of the next khalifa became a hereditary dynasty, with the appointment of Yazid as the next khalifa. After this, the khalifa remained within the family of current administration, instead of a fair election from among the people. Allah(swt) warns in the Quran against adopting the principles of a monarchy.
Believers! do not nullify your charitable deed by posing as munificent or by painfully embarrassing others, as do those who expend their wealth just to be seen of men, with no faith in God and the Last Day. (Quran 2:264)
By losing focus of the message given in the Quran and the Hadiths, the Islamic nation lost much of the unity it had during the time of the Prophet (pbuh) and the first four khalifas. The establishment of personal wealth led to bitter opposition among the people. Many Muslims saw this as a fundamental perversion of the religious and social principles of Islam. Although the Islamic nation continued to expand and produced some of the world's greatest works of art under the Umayyads, the nation lost the unity it had once enjoyed. If the Ummah of today goes back to the true message of the Quran and Hadiths, imagine the things that could be achieved.