Before the coming of Islam, the world was in a state of oppression and injustice. Pre-Islamic Arabia was a dreadful place to live in. The Arabs were an immoral people. Slavery was an economic institution. Male and female slaves were bought and sold like animals. They were the most depressed class of the Arabian society. Illiteracy was common among the Arabs, as were alcoholism and adultery. Those with power and money took advantage of the poor by charging 100 per cent interest on loans. Arabia was a male-dominated society. Men could marry any number of women. When a man died, his son “inherited” all his wives except his own mother. Women had virtually no legal status. They had no right to possess property and had little to no inheritance rights. Female infanticide was widely practiced: daughters were often buried alive. I think you can appreciate why this period of Arab history before the dawn of Islam is known as the period of ignorance!
Can you imagine being tasked with reforming such a society? Have a think about how long it would take one person to cure all these social ills. A lifetime? Perhaps several generations? You may even view it as an impossible task. Just to give you an idea of the scale of the challenge, let’s look at an attempt in recent Western history to eradicate just one of these social ills: alcoholism. In 1920 the United States government passed a nationwide law to ban the sale, production, importation, and transportation of alcoholic beverages for moral and medical reasons. This era is commonly known as the Prohibition. Although the consumption of alcohol fell at the beginning of the Prohibition, it subsequently increased and led to other problems such as corruption and organised crime. The law was repealed in 1933. The failure of one of the most powerful governments in the world to tackle just a single social ill should make us reflect on the Qur’an. The Qur’an managed to completely reform not only alcoholism but all the social ills of Arabian society in a single generation. It took just 23 years! This was a revolution the likes of which the world has never witnessed.
Now perhaps you might be thinking to yourself, these social ills of Arabia were a result of the tribal nature of society and the harsh desert environment the Arabs dwelt in. But the fact is that even the superpowers of the world at the time, the Byzantine and Persian Empires were unjust and oppressive societies. Pope Gregory I, head of the Catholic Church and a contemporary of Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him), said:
Pope Gregory was referring to the oppression and tyranny he was facing at the hands of the Germanic Lombards. He was bemoaning the pitiful condition of his world, the city of Rome. The Pope was not alone in his grief. Almost every society in the world was experiencing some oppression and injustice. Syrian Orthodox Christians were witnessing heavy persecution due to their differences with the ruling Byzantine Church. The Egyptian Coptic Church was also under the persecution of the Byzantines. Jews were on the brink of extinction at the hands of the Catholic Church in Spain.
It was against this backdrop that the Qur’an was revealed, transforming not only Arabia but also the rest of world. One of the reasons for the revelation of the Qur’an was to bring mankind out of this corrupt state. The Qur’an proclaimed loud and clear:
Peace and justice was not only delivered to the Arabs, but the whole world reaped the fruits of this blessing from God. As we will see, the peace and justice emanating from the Islamic system produced some of the most civilised societies in the history of mankind.
HOW THE QUR’AN BROUGHT JUSTICE TO THE WORLD
Just how did the Qur’an and early Muslims go about reforming society? This is the testimony of Ja’far bin Abi Talib, who was a contemporary of Prophet Muhammad. Here he informed the king of Abyssinia about the condition of his people and the positive change Islam had brought for them:
The people of Arabia were transformed within a few decades and they became the torch bearers of a new civilisation in the world, a civilisation that would change the course of human history forever. Prophet Mohammad and his followers liberated not only their own people from tyranny but helped to free their neighbours. The Qur’an stipulated that Muslims must help the oppressed, regardless of whom, and where, they are:
The Muslims were thus charged to help the oppressed people of the world. History testifies to the fact that the early Muslims rescued the populations of Syria, Egypt and Spain from a reign of tyranny:
1. Syria rescued from Byzantine Empire.
Following the death of Prophet Muhammad, in the reign of the second Caliph, Umar bin Khattab, the Muslim armies began liberating the people of Syria from the Byzantines (Romans). The Christians of Syria were divided into many different denominations, such as Monophysites, Jacobites and Nestorians. Almost all of them were facing severe persecution at the hands of the ruling Byzantine Church. Dionysius of Tel-Mahre, a Jacobite patriarch from 818 to 845 CE, stated in his chronicle that the Byzantine Emperor Heraclius sent an army to expel the Muslims out of Syria and recapture the land. The Muslim forces decided to withdraw from Syrian cities in order to fight an open pitch battle with the Byzantines. Whilst pulling back, the Muslims decided, out of fairness, to refund the money which they had taken as a tribute from the Syrian Christians:
This was an unprecedented demonstration of honesty and justice. The non-Muslims paid a poll tax to the Islamic state so that their lives, religion and property were protected under the rule of the Muslims. However in this case the Muslims knew that they might be unable to protect the Christians of Syria due to an imminent attack by Heraclius. Therefore it was not fair to keep the money if they couldn’t protect the masses. Also, one must note that this was taking place in seventh century Syria where plunder, robbery and injustice were a common occurrence. The Syrians were shocked by the Muslims’ merciful conduct. Another point worth mentioning is that this incident is narrated by a ninth century Christian source, which testifies that the Muslims did not abuse power and they did not betray the trust that the Christians had bestowed upon them. Why did the Muslims return such big sums to the Christians? Why didn’t they keep this wealth when they needed it the most, as they were facing a much larger army than themselves? The response to all these perplexing questions is that these Muslims obeyed God and followed His injunctions in the Qur’an:
The Christians of Syria preferred the Muslim rule over the oppressive Byzantines, as the Muslims had brought justice and good governance. Moreover after the Muslims defeated the Byzantine army and returned to Syria, they were welcomed back as heroes. Dionysius confirms this:
One cannot imagine the conquered welcoming the conqueror “joyfully”. Yet it happened in Syria once upon a time.
2. Egypt saved from Byzantine persecution.
Like Syria, Egypt was also governed by the Byzantines. The ruling Byzantine Church was utterly opposed to doctrinal dissent. The Egyptians were mostly Jacobite Christians and did not agree with the Byzantine version of Christianity. The result of this disagreement was heavy persecution at the hands of the ruling elite. The eminent British orientalist and historian Thomas Arnold summarised the situation as follows:
The Muslims were greeted as liberators when they arrived in Egypt, led by Amr al-As, a contemporary and close companion of Prophet Muhammad. Even the Egyptian Coptic Christians supported their intervention. John of Nikiu (690 CE), a Coptic bishop in Nikiu (Egypt), asserted that one of the reasons for the Muslim success in Egypt was the hatred of the masses for the Byzantines and that the Egyptians not only refused to fight the Muslims, they actually supported the conquest: “When Muslims saw the weakness of the Romans and the hostility of the people to the emperor Heraclius… they became bolder and stronger in the war…And people began to help the Muslims.” 
It should be noted that these are contemporary Christian sources testifying that the Muslims were actually supported by the Egyptian Coptic Christians against the Byzantine Christians. If the Byzantines had treated the masses justly, then wouldn’t the Coptic population of Egypt have fought alongside the Byzantines against the Muslims? It was the tolerant attitude of the Muslims and the barbarity of the Byzantines which facilitated the rapid downfall of the Byzantines in the land of the Pharaohs.
If the oppression and injustice exhibited by the Byzantines was the norm for ruling powers, then why didn’t the Muslims act in the same way? As with all matters in life, Muslims are bound to act according to the code of conduct laid out in the Qur’an, and war is no exception. If Muslims happen to be at war, then even when they might be facing severe opposition, they must be righteous. They are prohibited from extreme action: “Fight in God’s cause against those who fight you, but do not overstep the limits: God does not love those who overstep the limits.” [2:190]
For example, Muslims are not allowed to harm innocent men, women and children. This can be seen in the instructions given to the Muslim army by their leader Abu Bakr, the first successor of Prophet Muhammad:
The Qur’an also instructs Muslims with regard to those non-Muslims who do not fight them: “God does not forbid you to deal kindly and justly with anyone who has not fought you for your faith or driven you out of your homes: God loves the just.” [60:8]
Muslims are not supposed to fight anyone who desires peace and co-existence. Alfred J. Butler, whose work on the Arab Conquest of Egypt is to this day an authoritative reference point, studied the relevant chronicles and made many profound statements pertaining to the Islamic leadership’s tolerance and protection of the Christian population in Egypt:
This is exactly what had occurred in Syria as we saw in the previous section. The Syrians preferred the rule of the Muslims, just as the Egyptians did. It was the justice of Islam that appealed to both populations. Moreover the Coptics not only welcomed the Muslims, they facilitated the conquest by joining the ranks of the conquerors.
3. Spain liberated from tyranny.
Muslims landed in Spain in 711 CE. Many sources testify that they were welcomed by the population, as their reputation preceded them. This was, again, due to the severe persecution certain communities were facing. Under the Catholic Church’s rule, the Jewish community, in particular, was severely oppressed. The Catholic hierarchy in Spain held many councils to solve political and religious disputes. In these councils, severe edicts were issued against the Jews of Spain. One of the clauses in the text of the proceedings of the Fourth Council of Toledo (633 CE) states:
Hence, the children of the Jews were to be forcefully converted to Catholicism. Jews weren’t the only ones facing tyranny but they were easy targets: they were a minority with a different way of life distinct from their Christian persecutors. So, when the Muslims arrived, Jews were the first people to greet them as saviours. Zion Zohar, a Jewish American historian, confirms the appreciation that Jews felt for the Muslim arrival: “Thus, when Muslims crossed the straits of Gibraltar from North Africa in 711 CE and invaded the Iberian Peninsula, Jews welcomed them as liberators from Christian Persecution.” 
This was the beginning of the Golden Age as far as the Jews were concerned. The behaviour of the Muslims in Spain was no different to their conduct in Syria and Egypt. They facilitated freedom of religion for all people regardless of any differences. This was a long awaited opportunity for the Jews to flourish and make progress. Prior to the Muslim arrival, the Jews couldn’t imagine having religious freedom. They were facing extinction at the hands of the Catholic Church. Zion Zohar summarised the benefits Jews reaped from the Muslim protection as follows:
Heinrich Graetz, a nineteenth century Jewish historian expressed similar sentiments regarding Islamic rule:
Thus the Islamic rule proved to be one of the best things in the history of Judaism. The Spanish Jews reached such a high level of learning and progress that they could now claim to be world leaders of Judaism. The Jews were certainly saved from extinction by the Muslim conquest of Spain. Moreover for the first time the three Abrahamic faiths were able to co-exist alongside one another in peace and harmony. Maria Rosa Menocal, one of the authorities on medieval European literature, authored the book Ornament of the World to pay her respect to the peaceful co-existence between three Abrahamic faiths in medieval Spain. Sadly the ornament of medieval Spain was destroyed after the departure of the Muslims, as Spanish historian Ulick Burke puts it painfully:
This culminated with the Spanish Expulsion of 1492, an edict issued by Catholic Monarchs of Spain ordering the expulsion of Jews from the lands. This was not uncommon as between the 13th and 16th centuries European countries expelled the Jews from their territory on at least 15 occasions.
It is abundantly clear from the evidence seen above that the Muslim conquest of Spain initiated one of the brightest periods in the history of man. The darkness of oppression and injustice reigned over Spain prior to the Muslim arrival. It was the mercy of Islam that liberated the Jewish population. The Muslims’ behaviour was not accidental; the previous examples of Syria and Egypt serve to demonstrate the consistency of their conduct in different lands, in different times. Thus the laws of the Qur’an are a form of God’s mercy, which is shown to Muslim and non-Muslim alike, when they are implemented as intended by God, in accordance with the teachings of Prophet Muhammad: “And We have not sent you, [O Muhammad], except as a mercy to the worlds.” [21:107]
THE CONSEQUENCES OF JUSTICE, TOLERANCE AND PEACEFUL CO-EXISTENCE
Much of Western philosophy and science finds its basis in the thoughts and teachings of the ancient Greek philosophers. In the 6th century BCE the ancient Greeks broke away from a mythological approach to understanding the world, and initiated an approach based on reason and evidence – what is today called “rational thinking”. It is defined largely by three great thinkers: Socrates, Plato and Aristotle. In c.387 BCE Plato founded the Academy in Athens, the first institution of higher learning in the Western world, which helped to lay the foundations of Western philosophy and science. The Academy endured for nearly 1,000 years as a beacon of higher learning. It was closed by the Byzantine Emperor Justinian in 529 CE in an effort by the Catholic Church to suppress the heresy of pagan thought. The Greek ancient chronicler John Malalas recorded: “During the consulship of Decius [529 CE], the Emperor issued a decree and sent it to Athens ordering that no one should teach philosophy nor interpret the laws.” 
Following the closure of the Greek schools of philosophy, Europe entered into a 1,000 year period of intellectual slumber. Thus the “lights went out” on rational thinking and Europe entered the Dark Ages. Indeed, Europe’s creative energies and inventiveness are acknowledged much later, only from the dawn of the “scientific revolution” in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. A good example that is characteristic of this era is that of the astronomer Galileo. In 1610 he published a work which promoted heliocentrism, the idea that the Earth and planets revolve around a relatively stationary Sun at the centre of the Solar System. Today science has confirmed that this model of the universe is correct, however at that time it conflicted with the prevailing theological belief of geocentrism. Due to its literal interpretation of the Bible, the Catholic Church held that the Earth was the centre of the universe and that all heavenly bodies revolved around the Earth. Galileo’s discoveries were met with opposition within the Catholic Church, and in 1616 the Church formally declared heliocentrism to be heretical. Heliocentric books were banned and Galileo was ordered to refrain from holding, teaching or defending heliocentric ideas. Later the Church found him “gravely suspect of heresy”, sentencing him to indefinite imprisonment. Galileo was kept under house arrest until his death in 1642.
There is a stark contrast between this intellectual slumber of Europe and activity in the Islamic world. The coming of the Qur’an in the seventh century not only transformed Arabia but also the lands that were under the control of the Muslims. The peace and sense of security that Islamic rule brought about consequently produced one of the most successful civilisations in the history of the world. While Europe was in the Dark Ages it was the Muslims that produced some of the best known scholars. Victor Robinson, a historian of science, eloquently summed up the contrast between medieval Europe and Islamic Spain:
Some examples of Muslim advances in science are the mathematician al-Khwarizmi, who played a significant role in the development of algebra. He also came up with the concept of algorithms which is why he is called the grandfather of computer science. The physician Az-Zahrawi is considered the greatest medieval surgeon and is described by many as the father of modern surgery. He made pioneering discoveries in surgical procedures and instruments, for example the material he utilised for internal stitching is still used in surgery today. The astronomer Al-Sufi made the earliest recorded observation of the Andromeda Galaxy. This was the first galaxy other than the Milky Way to be observed from Earth. The philosopher Ibn Sina is considered one of the greatest thinkers and scholars in history. He provided the first descriptions of bacterial and viral organisms. He also discovered the contagious nature of infectious diseases and introduced the concept of quarantine to limit the spread of disease. He has been so influential in medicine that he is referred to as the father of modern medicine .
You may be surprised to learn that many of the scientific words and terms we use today are taken from the Arabic language; this is a legacy of the discoveries of Muslim scientists. For example, the word “algebra” comes from the Arabic word “al-jabr”, taken from the title of one of the books by the Muslim mathematician al-Khwarizmi. The word “algorithm” is taken from al-Khwarizmi’s name itself. The word “alchemy” comes almost unchanged from the Arabic “al-kimya”. One of the greatest contributions made by Arab scholars was their development of the science of astronomy. If you look at a modern star chart, you’ll find hundreds of stars whose names derive from Arabic: Altair, Aldebaran, Betelgeuse, Vega, Rigel and Algol, to name a few. Finally, we owe the decimal number system that we use for counting to Arab mathematicians. In fact the most common symbolic representation of numbers in the world today (1, 2, 3 etc.) are actually taken from Arabic numerals.
You may be wondering, what is it about the Qur’an that inspired Muslims to go from the depths of ignorance of the pre-Islamic era to being leaders of the world in the sciences? Many of these scientists were excellent Islamic theologians and it was the Qur’an which drew their attention to inquire into the natural world and showed them the path to knowledge and enlightenment:
These verses make up the first passage revealed to Prophet Muhammad. It is interesting that of all the things which God could have begun His revelation with, the actions of reading and writing were chosen. Notice how the very first word revealed was a commandment to “read”. Thus the Qur’an attaches great importance to knowledge and education.
God created man and provided him with the tools for acquiring knowledge, namely hearing, sight and minds. Thus the Qur’an reminds us that we should be grateful to God for these tools which give us the means to obtain knowledge.
Here the Qur’an highlights the noble status of the one who has knowledge; they are superior to those who lack knowledge, as one who is knowledgeable has greater understanding. This encourages Muslims to continually seek knowledge.
The Qur’an draws our attention to many natural phenomena by encouraging us to observe the world around us.
Moreover this observation of the world around us should not be aimless but rather we should ponder and reflect on what we see.
The concept of putting ideas to the test is encouraged by the Qur’an. So is the use of witnesses in order to validate conclusions. It must be noted that no other religious text challenges its reader in such ways. The use of falsification tests is unique to the Qur’an.
Let’s summarise these concepts that the Qur’an puts forward with regards to knowledge: using our senses to observe the world around us, thinking and reflecting on what we observe, putting ideas to the test, and providing witnesses to validate our conclusions. If these concepts seem familiar to you it’s because they resemble the modern scientific method. Modern students of science understand that everything must be proven. You cannot make claims about scientific theories based on assumption without experimentation. The scientific method is the process by which science is carried out. It involves observing a natural phenomenon, making a hypothesis based on the observations and verifying the hypothesis by carrying out experiments. If the hypothesis turns out to be correct then it becomes a theory (a proven hypothesis). If it isn’t correct then further observation will be performed, the original hypothesis will be updated and the whole process will repeat itself. For example, a fun anecdote we are taught in school is that an apple fell onto the head of the scientist Sir Isaac Newton when he was sitting under a tree. Based on this observation he then came up with the hypothesis that there must be some force or attraction that makes the apple fall to the ground. He tested his hypothesis and this is how he devised the law of gravity.
Now whether or not an apple really did fall onto Sir Isaac Newton’s head isn’t important. What matters is that it is the scientific method which allowed him to validate his ideas about how gravity works. Now you can appreciate why this experimental approach to science is perhaps one of the greatest ideas ever conceived of. It is the basis of all scientific progress and without it we wouldn’t have devised laws of physics such as gravity. It is theories such as this that have allowed mankind to create the automobile, computer and travel into space.
You may be wondering, who came up with such an important idea? Before Islam, the ancient Greek philosophies of science were predominant in Western civilisation. The Greeks believed that knowledge should be advanced through deduction, which means that you rely on reason alone without taking evidence into consideration. The development of a scientific process resembling the modern method was developed by the 10th century Muslim scholar Ibn al-Haytham. He is regarded as the father of the scientific method and was the first scientist in history to insist that everything be proven through induction, which uses observations and experimentation to challenge previously held theories. His process involved the following stages:
- Observation of the natural world.
- Stating a definite problem.
- Formulating a robust hypothesis.
- Test the hypothesis through experimentation.
- Analyse the results.
- Interpret the data and draw conclusions.
- Publish the findings.
Ibn al-Haytham first studied theology, the Qur’an, and he stated that it was the Qur’an that inspired him to study philosophy and science: “I decided to discover what it is that brings us closer to God, what pleases Him most, and what makes us submissive to His ineluctable Will.” 
Using his revolutionary scientific method, Ibn al-Haytham made leaps and bounds in the field of optics. In his book, The Book of Optics, he was the first to disprove the ancient Greek idea that light comes out of the eye, bounces off objects, and comes back to the eye. He delved further into the way the eye itself works. Using dissections he was able to begin to explain how light enters the eye, is focused and is projected to the back of the eye.
The translation of The Book of Optics had a huge impact on Europe. From it, later European scholars were able to understand the way light works and devices such as eyeglasses, magnifying lenses, telescopes and cameras were developed. Without Ibn al-Haytham’s scientific method, we may still be living in a time when speculation, superstition, and unproven myths are the basis of science. It is not a stretch to say that without his ideas, the modern world of science that we know today would not exist.
THE ORIGINS OF THE EUROPEAN ENLIGHTENMENT AND RENAISSANCE
In the thirteenth century the seeds of Muslim learning began to germinate in Europe. Thus Europe awoke from the Dark Ages and entered a new era of enlightenment known as the Renaissance. Translations of Arabic works on science were made for almost three centuries, starting from the tenth to the thirteenth century and gradually spread throughout Europe. Professor George Saliba penned a book on this very topic and stated that:
Professor Thomas Arnold was of the opinion that the European Renaissance originated in Islamic Spain:
The classical Greek works referenced in the above quote were lost to Europe during its Dark Ages. It was Muslim scholars who rescued these works by translating and preserving them in the Arabic language. They subsequently found their way back into Europe when they were translated from Arabic into Latin. Moreover Muslims didn’t just preserve them; they built upon them by studying the ancient Greek works in detail. They carried out experiments, wrote commentaries on them and corrected the theories where necessary in the form of their own independent works. A few such examples are Al-Biruni’s criticism and correction of Aristotle’s philosophy in a work called Questions and Answers; Al-Khwarizmi’s correction of Ptolemy’s geography in his work Face of the Earth; Ibn al-Haytham’s correction and refutation of Galen’s optics based upon practical experiments; Al-Khazini’s work on measures of weights and densities surpassed his Greek predecessors .
In fact Europe took far more from the Muslim world than this article can do justice. Among other things: windmills, soap, perfume, sugar, irrigation, spices, universities, street lights, the paper industry, mass literacy, freedom of thought, architecture, poetry, hygiene, libraries and ceramics. New Arabic numerals (1, 2, 3…) in particular revolutionised the mathematics of Medieval Europe and consequently had a lasting effect on architecture. Cathedrals, castles, palaces, gardens and many more structures were built in medieval Europe by the help of Islamic Spain’s architectural techniques.
Finally, let’s perform a thought experiment: if the Qur’an had never been revealed, then what would be the likely state of the world today? Let’s think this through step by step. From the Qur’an emerged the justice of Islamic law; from that justice came peace and co-existence; with that peaceful co-existence came free intellectual activity in Muslim lands and from this freedom of literacy originate the knowledge that took Europe out of the Dark Ages and ushered in the Renaissance. Thus isn’t it reasonable to conclude that the modern world, with all of its advanced technology like the internet and mobile phones, is a direct consequence of the revelation of the Qur’an?
This article has been taken from the book “The Eternal Challenge: A Journey Through The Miraculous Qur’an” which can be ordered and downloaded here.
Much of the source material for the book was based on research done by Adnan Rashid. His original essay, “Islam’s War on Terror”, can be accessed as a PDF here.
1 – Pope Gregory I quoted by Mohammad Farooq Kemal, The Crescent vs The Cross, Lahore, 1997, p. 7.
2 – The Life of Muhammad, A Translation of Ishaq’s Sirat Rasul Allah, translation by A. Guillaume, 2004, pp. 151 – 152.
3 – Dionysius of Tel-Mahre, The Seventh Century in the West-Syrian Chronicles, Liverpool, 1993, pp. 156 – 157.
4 – Ibid, p. 157.
5 – Arnold, Preaching, p. 102.
6 – John of Nikiou, quoted by Petra M. Sijpesteijn, Egypt in the Byzantine World, Cambridge, 2007, p. 442.
7 – Muatta Imam Malik, Book #21, Hadith #10.
8 – Alfred J. Butler, The Arab Conquest of Egypt and the Last Thirty Years of the Roman Dominion, Oxford, 1902, pp. 447 – 478.
9 – The Jews in the Legal Sources of the Early Middle Ages, New York, 1997, p. 488.
10 – Zion Zohar, Sephardic & Mizrahi Jewry, New York, 2005, pp. 8 – 9.
11 – Ibid, p. 9.
12 – H. Graetz, History of the Jews, London, 1892, vol. 3, p. 112.
13 – Burke, Spain, p. 288.
14 – John Malalas’s Chronicle 18.47.
15 – Victor Robinson, The Story of Medicine, New York, 1936, p. 164.
16 – George Sarton, Introduction to the History of Science, Washington, 1927-48, 3 volumes.
17 – Steffens, B., Ibn al-Haytham: first scientist, 2007.
18 – George Saliba, Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, Massachusetts, 2007, p. 1.
19 – Arnold, Preaching, p. 131.
20 – S. E. Al-Djazairi, The Hidden Debt to Islamic Civilisation, Oxford, 2005. Also, George Saliba, Islamic Science and the Making of the European Renaissance, Massachusetts, 2007.