Golden Ages and Theories of History

Whenever an excited young Muslim discovers history for the first time, it often sparks a debate. The young person may be impressed by the accomplishments of the Muslim Empires of past and talk proudly about the Muslim Golden Ages. At some point, he may encounter Muslims who take offense to the term Golden Age for referring to any period past the first generation. They insist that the first generation of Muslims were the only Golden Age and it was all downhill from there. This can often leave the youngster confused, not understanding why someone would take offense to the existence of Golden Ages.

I believe these two groups are speaking past each other, because they are both looking at history from different, yet equally valid, angles. History is a touchy subject as there are so many ways to analyse history that people can often look at the same events in radically different lights. It may be, and I believe this to be the case, that both groups are right in their own way. The peak of the Abbasid and Ottoman Empires was on one hand a Golden Age for that empire, but also spiritually weak compared to the first generation. To understand this, let us look at some perspectives from which people analyse history. We will analyse three perspectives; the common Theory of Progress model pushed by schools today, the Theory of Spiritual Regress model, and the Cycles of Power model.

The Theory of Progress

Schools around the world today are based on the Western School System that emerged during Colonization. This model is designed to push forward a colonial model of history that is radically different from the Islamic model. I only raise it here because many readers may have grown up on this model and never questioned it. We need to unlearn this myth about history before studying Muslim History. The theory of progress suggest that the world is moving forward for the better. Past civilizations and systems are deemed to be backwards or barbaric, while new ideas are considered progressive and logical.

This theory paints a distorted view of Muslim History. It categorizes the Shariah as a barbaric outdated system of governance. Anyone who is clinging onto the Shariah is viewed as backwards and uncivilized. The idea is that all nations must let go of their past models and adapt new (Western) models in all aspects of life. Sadly, many Muslims hold on to this theory. This can be noticed in their speech patterns when they make statements like “get with the times” and “we know better now than they did then” indicating that they view the Muslims of the past as less enlightened and civilized than them.

Not only is this theory false, but it is also unislamic and borderline blasphemous. Believing that we know better than the Muslims of the past or are more morally upright than them is an insult to the Prophet and his companions. It also distorts the way Muslims view their own history. Instead of looking to the past for role models, such Muslims look at the past as something to be avoided. To counter this mindset, I propose we study history utilizing two distinct theories. For our spiritual history, I propose we analyse it from a Theory of Regress perspective, and politically, I suggest we understand it as cycles of power.

The Theory of Spiritual Regress

The theory of regress simply means that spiritually, this nation peaked with its first generation. The most pious human beings, as a collective, were the Prophet ﷺ and his companions. After that, with each passing generation, Muslims as a whole grow spiritually weaker and distant from the ideal. This does not mean that individuals cannot reach high levels of piety, or that they may be bubbles of pious communities. It simpler means that there is no comparison spiritually between the first generation and those that come after them, and they will always remain our role models of piety.

This theory is based on the hadith in which the Prophet ﷺ said, “The best people are those of my generation, then those who come after them, then those who come after them…” (Ṣaḥīḥ al-Bukhārī 6429, Ṣaḥīḥ Muslim 2533). It is also supported by the verses in the Quran that indicated that the pious will be many in the early generations but few in the latter generations. (Qur’an 56:13-14) When some Muslims claim that the first generation was the only Golden Age of Islam, they are referring to spiritual greatness, and this is true.

Spiritually, our Golden Age was the first four decades of Islam. It was during this time that piety was the norm, and the righteous led the nation. Spiritually, no empire that came after them could ever match them. No king, sultan of Caliph could ever match the spiritual greatness of Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, or Ali (RA). It was the best of times, and the most important period of history for any Muslim to study. This does not mean that later empires could not have their own Golden Age. To understand how that is possible, let us look at the theory of cycles of power.

Cycles of Power

The cycles of power theory was made popular by Ibn Khaldun, who proposed that every nation goes through a similar cycle. First it rises to power, it eventually hits a peak, then the decline begins, and eventually it collapses. This theory can also be deduced from the Quran in which it is stated “Such days We alternate between the people.” (Quran 3:140) This verse was revealed after the first military setback faced by the companions in the Battle of Uhud. It created realistic expectations regarding war and power, Muslims would not always emerge victorious, and victory was not guaranteed. Based on this concept, it is also possible for Muslim nations to fall and lose their power as has happened many times in our history. Because of this verse, military defeat and loss of political power does not affect our faith in Allah or the truth of this religion.

As every nation has its rise and peak, it makes sense to describe the peak as a Golden Age. The Golden Age of the Abbasids does not mean that they were more pious than the companions. I do not think any historian would suggest that. It simply means that in the cycle of power of the Abbasid Empire, it peaked during that period. It was the time when the Abbasid Empire produced its best leaders, scholars, inventions, and contributions to society. Likewise, stating that the Ottoman Empire experienced a Golden Age during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent does not mean that people at the time were more pious than the companions. It simply means that the Ottoman Empire peaked during this period.

This is what I mean by both groups are speaking past each other. Those who claim that the only Golden Age was the first generation are looking at history from a spiritual perspective, and that is a valid reading of history. Those who are discussing the Golden Ages of the Abbasids or Ottomans are looking at it through a cycles of power perspective and are amazed at the heights of political and civilizational greatness that Muslims reached during the peak of these might empires. Both perspectives are valid.

In terms of practical application, the theory of regress gives us realistic expectations of Muslims today. While we strive to revive Islam and educate our communities, we are realistic about the levels of piety we could attain as a collective. But the cycles of power theory gives us hope politically. It gives us hope that a new Muslim Empire could emerge during our lifetime and that another Golden Age for a Muslim civilization is still possible. This hope inspires us to work hard, dream big, and remain optimistic about the future of the ummah.

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Posted by Ismail Kamdar

Ismail Kamdar is the Founder of Islamic Self Help and Izzah Academy, author of over a dozen books, and the operations manager of Yaqeen Institute.