Tuesday, December 26, 2023

6th century geopolitics

 أيها الملك، كنا قوماً أهل جاهلية، نعبد الأصنام، ونأكل الميتة، ونأتي الفواحش، ونقطع الأرحام، ونسيء الجوار، ويأكل القوي منا الضعيف

O King, we were a people of ignorance, worshiping idols, consuming dead meat, committing indecencies, severing family ties, and treating our neighbors poorly. The strong among us would oppress the weak.

فكنا على ذلك، حتى بعث الله إلينا رسولاً منا نعرف نسبه وصدقه، وأمانته وعفافه، فدعانا إلى الله لنوحده ونعبده

So, we continued in that state until Allah sent to us a messenger from among us, whose lineage, truthfulness, trustworthiness, and chastity we knew. He invited us to worship Allah alone and to forsake the worship of idols.

ونخلع ما كنا نحن نعبد وآباؤنا من دونه من الحجارة والأوثان، وأمرنا بصدق الحديث، وأداء الأمانة، وصلة الرحم، وحسن الجوار، والكف عن المحارم والدماء، ونهانا عن الفواحش وقول الزور، وأكل مال اليتيم وقذف المحصنات

And we renounce what we and our forefathers used to worship besides Him of stones and idols. He commanded us to speak the truth, fulfill trust, maintain family ties, be kind to neighbors, refrain from forbidden relations and bloodshed. He forbade us from indecencies, false statements, consuming the wealth of orphans, and slandering chaste women.

وأمرنا أن نعبد الله وحده لا نشرك به شيئاً، وأمرنا بالصلاة والزكاة والصيام

And He commanded us to worship Allah alone, associating nothing with Him. He enjoined upon us prayer, charity, and fasting.

قالت (أم سلمة): فعدد عليه أمور الإِسلام - فصدقناه، وآمنا به واتبعناه على ما جاء به، فعبدنا الله وحده، فلم نشرك به شيئاً، وحرمنا ما حرم علينا وأحللنا ما أحل لنا

Umm Salamah said: Enumerate for him the matters of Islam. We trusted him (the Prophet), believed in him, and followed him in what he brought. Thus, we worshiped Allah alone, associating nothing with Him. We refrained from what He prohibited us and allowed what He permitted for us.

فعدا علينا قومنا، فعذبونا وفتنونا عن ديننا، ليردونا إلى عبادة الأوثان من عبادة الله، وأن نستحل ما كنا نستحل من الخبائث

So our people attacked us, they tortured us and (tried to) lure us away from our religion to return us to the worship of idols instead of the worship of God. To make permissible what we used to consider permissible of the evils.

فلما قهرونا وظلمونا، وشقوا علينا، وحالوا بيننا وبين ديننا خرجنا إلى بلدك، واخترناك على من سواك، ورغبنا في جوارك، ورجونا أن لا نظلم عندك أيها الملك

So, when we were oppressed and wronged, burdened, and divisions were created among us, and they intervened between us and our faith, we left for your land. We chose you above all others, desired to be near you, and implored that we not be wronged in your presence, O King.

This was the speech of Ja'far ibn Abi Taleb (RA) to Al-Najashi, the title of the Christian king of Abyssinia. He gave this speech during the second, larger migration to Abyssinia after delegates from the Quraysh came to slander them. After this speech, Najashi asked Ja'far to share with him some of what Allah sent to the Prophet (SAW). So Ja'far read to him Surat Maryam, sharing the stories of Zakariya (AS), Maryam (AS), and Isa (AS). After Ja'far completed, Najashi was in tears – he was crying so hard that his beard was soaked. All the priests around him were similarly in tears too. 

The structure of Ja'far's speech is really good. He goes back and forth between what was and what they have changed to be, eventually reaching a point where he flatters the Negus, saying they have come to seek refuge in him. 

The Prophet instructed the Muslims to go to Abyssinia because Abyssinia was known to have some semblance of law and order, which was not something found in Makkah. When Ja'far spoke about the ignorance of the Quraysh, those were things that actually happened. I don't know how the Prophet knew this, but it seems plausible that he heard from people about foreign lands. 

Settling down as a bedouin in the time of the Quraysh was a bit of a challenge, because power in the Arabian peninsula was difficult to come by. Per Karen Armstrong's book Muhammad, it was usually derived in one of three ways. First, by being very rich. This is unlikely to do in the dry desert. Second, by taking over an oasis. Again, unlikely — most oases are already occupied and the occupants are not friendly. Third, by becoming a client for powerful kingdoms in the region, usually the Byzantines or the Persians. 

Quraysh were allied with the Byzantines, but this was a mostly unimportant connection. More important on the structure of the relative mess that was Arabian geopolitics was the fact that there was a powerful kingdom in Southern Arabia, now Yemen. We saw the power of this group earlier in the Seerah, when Abraha tried to destroy the Kaaba (and failed). Abyssinia and the Christian Yemeni kingdom were both powerful, but the thing that is often omitted in discussions of Seerah is the reason why it makes sense that Najashi had to keep his Islam hidden. Habasha, the Arabic word (of shared Semitic origin) for Abyssinia, does not refer to a single people. Rather the Negus was the leader of a mixed group of peoples, making his leadership partially fraught. Regardless, the point is that the Quraysh successfully positioned themselves as a useful intermediary between the economically dominant areas of Syria and Mesopotamia and the strong kingdoms in Southern Arabia. 

As a result of this, Quraysh was a known powerful tribe, and very dominant. I don't know how big the population of Makkah was, but it given the population of the world was 200M people, it was probably not that big. Stewardship of the Kaaba added to their prestige amongst the Arabs. Despite their lack of monotheism, hajj and tawaf were still activities done by the Arabs. The Arabs, although mostly polytheistic, knew they had some relation to the Abrahamic religions and to the Christians and Jews in Arabia. Quraysh's position as a central place in the difficult steppe of the Arabian peninsula mostly protected it from the geopolitical squabbles of the major empires of the time, so the coming of the Prophet Muhammad (SAW) made for a big rock on their party boat. 

What is interesting to me about the migration to Abyssinia is the rhetorical choices Ja'far made to capture the intrigues of the Negus. Da'wah is audience-specific, and the techniques used with a Christian king then would certainly not work now. But it points out that it is challenging to find a way to make da'wah now because the universal, timeless values of the Muslims do not sound even remotely similar to the Enlightment values focused on today. Modern society is very interested in happiness, and making ourselves feel good. We should do things if we want to do them, and we have the tools to rationalize what is immoral or moral based on our own critical thinking. The tools used to explain Islam to many like Negus simply do not make sense to modern day liberal-thinking people. 

I am reminded of the recent Economist leader, "Can you have a healthy democracy without a common set of facts?" It is probably difficult. They explain that disruption in the news industry has made it difficult for the structures that allowed for the wide dissemination of equal information to exist in the same matter they have since the invention of the penny press. The article is not about sharing philosophies. But it is a good question. Can you share a religion with people whose philosophy completely rejects the concept of any higher order? I do not know. 

Ja'far's speech spends zero time philosophizing. He focuses entirely on the real world implications of Islam. This is similar to the comfort that Khadijah (RA) offered the Prophet after he first received revelation. "By Allah, Allah will never disgrace you," she said to the Prophet. She continued, extolling the virtues of the Prophet's character: "for by Allah, you keep good relations with your Kith and kin, speak the truth, help the poor and the destitute, entertain your guests generously and assist those who are stricken with calamities." Similarly, Ja'far focuses on the positive character traits that Islam brought to the Arabs. Before the religion, we were bad people. Now that we have the religion, we are significantly better. Yet simply explaining that your character has improved is not an incredibly convincing statement. Explaining that that character improvement brought your exile from your homeland adds to it. But the Negus needed more in order to accept Islam.

And then Ja'far shared the Qur'an with Negus, which moved him to the point of belief, despite the Negus not being an Arabic speaker. Perhaps this speaks to our modern underrating of the power of the Qur'an and our reluctance to use it in public or for the sake of da'waa, choosing to instead share English translations in hopes the meanings of the words will persuade. There are certainly elements of Islam that align with things in Western society, at least in the optimistic sense. The poem on the Statue of Liberty posits the U.S. as a home for all those outcast and abused:

Give me your tired, your poor
Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free
The wretched refuse of your teeming shore
Send these the homeless tempest-tost to me
I lift my lamp beside the golden door!

Islam certainly accepted those poor, old, marginalized members of society. By the fourth year of the caliphate of Omar (RA), there remained no poor people to give zakah too. The Quran and Sunnah repeat many times the virtue of helping the needy and supporting them until they can support themselves. Yet even Americans seem to have forgotten the implications of this poem on their nation. 

The struggle of explaining Islam to others is that while the practical implications of Islam are to have upstanding character and the spiritual implications are to get closer to God and His Prophet, the base of the matter is significantly deeper than that. You are making a trade with Allah:

۞ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ ٱشْتَرَىٰ مِنَ ٱلْمُؤْمِنِينَ أَنفُسَهُمْ وَأَمْوَٰلَهُم بِأَنَّ لَهُمُ ٱلْجَنَّةَ ۚ يُقَـٰتِلُونَ فِى سَبِيلِ ٱللَّهِ فَيَقْتُلُونَ وَيُقْتَلُونَ ۖ وَعْدًا عَلَيْهِ حَقًّۭا فِى ٱلتَّوْرَىٰةِ وَٱلْإِنجِيلِ وَٱلْقُرْءَانِ ۚ وَمَنْ أَوْفَىٰ بِعَهْدِهِۦ مِنَ ٱللَّهِ ۚ فَٱسْتَبْشِرُوا۟ بِبَيْعِكُمُ ٱلَّذِى بَايَعْتُم بِهِۦ ۚ وَذَٰلِكَ هُوَ ٱلْفَوْزُ ٱلْعَظِيمُ ١١١

God has purchased the persons and possessions of the believers in return for the Garden- they fight in God’s way: they kill and are killed- this is a true promise given by Him in the Torah, the Gospel, and the Quran. Who could be more faithful to his promise than God? So be happy with the bargain you have made: that is the supreme triumph. (Tawbah 9:111)

The trade is not so simple, either. 

۞ قَالَتِ ٱلْأَعْرَابُ ءَامَنَّا ۖ قُل لَّمْ تُؤْمِنُوا۟ وَلَـٰكِن قُولُوٓا۟ أَسْلَمْنَا وَلَمَّا يَدْخُلِ ٱلْإِيمَـٰنُ فِى قُلُوبِكُمْ ۖ وَإِن تُطِيعُوا۟ ٱللَّهَ وَرَسُولَهُۥ لَا يَلِتْكُم مِّنْ أَعْمَـٰلِكُمْ شَيْـًٔا ۚ إِنَّ ٱللَّهَ غَفُورٌۭ رَّحِيمٌ ١٤

The desert Arabs say, ‘We have faith.’ [Prophet], tell them, ‘You do not have faith. What you should say instead is, “We have submitted,” for faith has not yet entered your hearts.’ If you obey God and His Messenger, He will not diminish any of your deeds: He is most forgiving and most merciful. (Hujarat 49:14)

To be a Muslim, it is not simply enough to say that you have believed or that you do good things so you are automatically a good person. The base of the matter is that you must submit your life and all that is with it to Allah with no partners. Only once you have completely submitted can you claim to have truly accepted Islam. Submission is difficult. The ability to allow control over us and our actions to be doled out to something other than ourselves is not fun. Giving this control to some government or intermediary certainly feels terrible, and is a big driver for the different philosophical movements of the West. 

I think that one of the superpowers of the Muslim is the ability to submit their affairs to Allah (SWT). All people have a direct contact to Allah, it is simply up to them to activate it. Allah is close to the believer, the believer just needs to go towards Him.