No you can’t compare Western imperialism with ‘Muslim colonialism’

Istanbul skyline

Roshan Muhammed Salih argues that Muslims should not fall into the trap of comparing our glorious Islamic history with the crusading imperialism of the West.

There has been an increasing trend among some Muslims to compare the Western rape and pillage of the world to the long era of Islamic supremacy when Muslim civilisation spread far and wide – sometimes through peaceful means and sometimes through force.

This trend has no doubt been influenced by the many British Muslims who have been indoctrinated by leftist ideas over the past few decades, as Muslims have allied with leftist non-Muslims to oppose the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan or to support Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign to become Prime Minister.

The anti-imperialist Left is rightly incandescent about the West’s role in invading, occupying and exploiting foreign nations and all the death and destruction which goes along with that. But far too many Muslims have extrapolated this to tar our own history with the same brush.

The argument goes that Muslims are also guilty of colonialism because we invaded and occupied non-Muslim territories, killed non-Muslims, changed the demographics and so on.

But, as I will argue, this argument displays an ignorance of Islamic history and does a huge disservice to the giants of the past who achieved so much for Islam.

The light of the world

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First and foremost, as Muslims we believe that Islam is a light to the world, so can we really view the spread of Islamic civilisation as a negative thing when it gave so many more people the ability to see that light?

For instance, Al-Andalus was indeed invaded by Muslims but the 800 years of Muslim rule there is widely acknowledged (even by non-Muslims) to have been a high point of European civilisation in terms of multicultural tolerance, governance, architecture, intellectualism, culture, civilisation and so on.

In contrast, the West’s colonial expansions brought nothing but darkness and were embarked upon to rape and pillage. Wherever the West went they destroyed, plundered and subjugated.

The Alhambra in Granada

Secondly, we have to acknowledge that without this so-called Muslim colonialism hundreds of millions of us would not be Muslims today. For example, Indian Muslims, and those of Indian origin, should realise the simple fact is that if Muhammad bin Qasim’s army had not invaded Sindh in 712 they would probably still be Hindus.

Thirdly, so-called Muslim colonialism occurred at a time when the world had no fixed borders and nation states did not exist. The world was comprised of empires which sought to expand because if they didn’t another empire would swallow them up. It was the law of the jungle; take offensive action or die.

On the other hand, Western empires expanded in an era when there definitely were fixed borders and when other nations posed no existential threat to them. The imperial wars they launched were wars of choice and aggression, not wars of necessity.

Finally, while we must admit that offensive jihad did result in vast swaths of territories coming under Muslim control, this was not true all of the time. For example, West Africa and places like Malaysia and Indonesia became Muslim largely through the efforts of Muslim Sufi merchants and missionaries.

And of course Islam was not imposed on the conquered peoples. Rather, they were allowed to follow their own beliefs although when they witnessed Islamic civilisation for themselves many decided to convert.

The human element of history

That said, there is an exception to every rule and I’m sure my detractors will be able to find examples from Islamic history which contradict what I’ve said above. Remember, Islam is divine but Islamic history is very human, and we have to acknowledge that Muslims did bad stuff in the past.

So yes, some Muslim rulers were more motivated by power and wealth than by Islam; some Muslim generals did commit atrocities that they will have to answer to Allah SWT for; and some Muslim dynasties did indeed murder, subjugate and oppress.

But as Muslims we are not obliged to defend every single aspect of Islamic history. We must defend Islam, our Prophet (pbuh) and the Sahaba, but not every ruler or general who came thereafter. Remember, for every Salahudeen there was a Yazid ibn Muawiyya.

So let’s keep the big picture in mind. If we look back at the contribution that so-called “Muslim colonialism” left to the world – in both a religious and secular sense – the legacy is overwhelmingly positive.

Not only did we give the world the true message of Islam and numerous benefits from healthcare and sciences to medicine and art, we did it in a relatively humane way that eschewed massive death and destruction.

And to compare this to the legacy of Western civilisation – war on an unheard of scale, materialism, consumerism, moral degradation, atheism – is quite frankly a disgrace.

You can follow Roshan on Twitter here.

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