Impact of Eastern Muslim welfare states on Europe

By Brig Samson S Sharaf

In the study and commentary of Arthashastra written by Vinshnugupta Kautilya Chanakya, I learned that the sub continent had a formative influence on the Arab World of antiquity in arts, governance and sciences. Later, through trade and warfare, this knowledge fused with the Persian and Chinese schools of thought transferred to Europe in the times of Hazrat Omar Bin Abdul Aziz, Muslim rule of Spain and the Abbasside Khilafat. The Asian Civilisation Episodes and their effect on renaissance by the Discovery Channel have refocused this obscure development. Imran Khan’s referral to Omar’s Law is an indirect reference to this transitional fact.

From antiquity to middle ages, the Arabian Peninsula remained the commercial and educational hub of the world. Caravans used the traditional silk routes to debouch from as far afar as Eastern Europe, Central Asia, the Sub Continent and China transferring goods and with it politics and knowledge. Arab sailors dominated all sea fares in the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean till the arrival of the Portuguese. Philosophy with its diverse schools ultimately became the common language. Though the world assumes that it were the Greek Philosophers like Aristotle and Plato who provided the framework for modern philosophy, it ignores history.

There were two landmark developments prior and during the Arab influence and Muslim rule of Europe. First, the Arab monks of Christian denominations began the translation of Greek scripts into Arabic and Hebrew. When Abbasides established the House of Wisdom in Baghdad, they ordered all philosophies to be translated into Arabic. While Europe fought wars and plummeted into darkness, the Arabs, Persians and Nestorian Christians were busy in preserving and documenting these great works with accuracy. Writing in his well-known book “The Making of Humanity” Robert Briffault admits: `The incorruptible treasures and delights of intellectual culture were accounted by the princes of Baghdad, Shiraz and Cordova, the truest and proudest pomp of their courts…. Caravans laden with manuscripts and Botanical specimens plied from Bukhara to Tigris, from Egypt to Andulusia; embassies were sent to Constantinople and to India for the purpose of obtaining books and teachers; a collection of Greek authors or a distinguished mathematician was as eagerly demanded as the ransom of an Empire.’

Later, when the search for origins and authenticity of Greek scripts began, the Baghdad translations assumed cardinal importance. Thus began a discourse between the Islamic and European worlds that included Al-Kindi (Alkindus), Al-Farabi (Abunaser), Ibn Sina (Avicenna), Ibn Bajjah (Avempace), Ibn Rushd (Averroes), and Ibn Khaldun. Their works and commentaries influenced middle age European and Catholic scholars and helped them retranslate the treatises into European languages.

Modern western philosophy considers Ibn Rushd as the greatest commentator and exponent of Aristotelian philosophy, surpassing Ibn Sina by correcting his misconceptions on rational philosophy. He and Ghazali represented two diverse schools in which he prevailed. Many of his invaluable works were lost when the Christian conquerors set fire to the intellectual treasures of the Moors (Spanish Muslims). His treatises had a permanent impact on Christian Europe and he still continues to be the most popular Muslim philosopher in the West. He was also an astronomer and wrote a treatise dealing with the motion of the sphere and credited with the discovery of sunspots. He also summarized the “Almagest” of Ptolemy which was translated into Hebrew by Jacob Anatoli in 1231.

According to George Sarton, ‘he (Ibn Rushd) deeply influenced Jewish philosophy’ and ‘Jewish Averroism reached its zenith under Levi ben Gershon in the fourteenth century, and continued to prosper until the end of the fifteenth century’. Alfred Gillaume in his article Legacy of Islam writes: `Ibn Rushd belongs to Europe and European thought rather than to the east … Averroism continued to be a living factor in European thought until the birth of modern experimental science’. He goes on to write, `We may be sure that those who accuse the Muslim scholars of lack of originality and of intellectual decadence have never read Averroes or looked into Algazel but have adopted second hand judgements. The presence of doctrines of Islamic origin in the very citadel of Western Christianity, the `Summa’ of Aquinas, is a sufficient refutation of the charge of lack of originality and sterility.’  According to Phillip K. Hitti, `the last of the great Arabic writing philosophers, Ibn Rushd belonged more to Christian Europe than to Muslim Asia or Africa’.

In a painting placed in Vatican (circled in red) Ibn Rushd appears the only Muslim scholar in the historic School of Athens.

In statecraft Ibn Rushd himself of Maliki tradition considered the Pious Caliphate as the model republic in which the dreams of Plato’s Republic were realized. The later revival of the Caliphate tradition under Hazrat Omar Bin Abdul Aziz (also acclaimed as the fifth Pious Caliph) and the relentless pursuit with which the concept of a welfare state took shape also influenced his writings.   So what was this realisation of Plato’s Republic?

The Caliphate of Hazrat Omar Farooq was the consolidation of a model republic with a philosopher head. The state was built around virtues such as honesty, truthfulness, integrity, fairness, equality, compliance and observance. He assisted the Holy Prophet in stamping the Treaty of St. Catherine giving equal rights to Christians and refused to pray in churches and synagogues lest someone may make it a precedence to convert them to mosques. The Caliph lived a simple life as a servant of the people. He established the Diwan with a central treasury called Baitul Mal whose main responsibility was distribution rather than accumulation of wealth, insurance and pensions. He abolished landed aristocracies. He declared that every man including him were equal before law. His regimentation of the army into different arms and services made it the most agile, hard hitting and logistically self contained fighting machine. These monumental developments were eclipsed and abused during the Umayyad rule.

His great grandson Omar bin Abdul Aziz (Al-Khalifat-us-Saleh) emerged as the first revivalist in Islamic history. This philosopher and scholar Caliph sacrificed his lavish life style as governor of Madina for an ascetic and humble life of abstinence and poverty. He reformed the entire political, social and cultural landscape to Hazrat Omar’s Model State. In his historic address to the people he said, “Brothers! I have been burdened with the responsibilities of the Caliphate against my will. You are at liberty to elect anyone whom you like.” He allowed them to break their allegiance to him, if he wavered from the path of God.  Islam’s democratic spirit was the outstanding feature of his rule.

As a welfare state, he abolished slavery, undertook extensive public reforms and works in Persia, Khorasan and North Africa removing the distinctions of Arab and non Arab Muslims. Dignity and honour were restored to minorities. He was the first Caliph to commission a translation of the Holy Qur’an from Arabic into the ancient Sindhi language and order the compilation of Hadith. He was the Caliph who began a serious reconciliation of political and religious differences amongst Muslims i.e. Bani Hashim, Shi’as and Kharijites. To sustain prolonged peace for development, he recalled his armies from the borders of France, India and the outskirts of Constantinople.

These reforms were not taken well by the Umayyad who got him murdered; the dynasty crumbled. Abbasides and the rulers of Spain continued the traditions of the model republic with greater focus on development and education.  The rise of Muslim philosophers, scientists and inventors were their link with Europe.

If dignity, respect for life, tolerance, good governance, justice and austerity are a measure of a welfare state led by a philosopher, the States established by Hazrat Omar Farooq and persevered by Omar Bin Abdul Aziz, fit the definition of Plato’s Philosopher Kings and that of a modern welfare state,  Ibn Rusd establishes an intrinsic link between the two that precipitated into the European welfare states post Industrial Revolution.

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