An Abridged Version of the 1927 Lecture


Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall
(Introduction and Abridged Version Prepared by Dr. A. Zahoor)
Copyright © 1999 Dr. A. Zahoor, All Rights Reserved.

Books and E-Books
On Muslim History and Civilization

The 'Ulama were no blind guides, no mere fanatics. The professors of those universities were the most enlightened thinkers of their time. In strict accordance with the Prophet's teaching, it was they who watched over the welfare of the people and pointed out to the Khalifah anything that was being done against the rights of man as guaranteed by the Qur'an. It was they, indeed, who kept down the fanatic element, discouraged persecution for religious opinion, and saved Islamic culture from deterioration in a thousand ways. They even forced ambitious Muslim rulers, in their un-Islamic strife, to refrain from calling on the people to assist them, to fight only with the help of their own purchased slaves and to respect all crops and cattle and non-combatants. They were able, by the enormous weight of their opinion with the multitude, to punish even rulers who transgressed the sacred law, in a way which brought them quickly to repentance; and they exacted compensation for transgression.

  Introduction      An Abridged Version of the Lecture  


Muhammad Marmaduke Pickthall (1875-1936) was an Englishman, an orientalist, and a Muslim who translated the meaning of the Holy Qur’an. His translation was first published in 1930 partly through the patronage of the Nizam of Hyderabad, ruler of Deccan in south India. Pickthall traveled to several Muslim countries, including Syria, Palestine, Turkey, Egypt, Arabia and India. He spent fifteen years (1920-35) in India, initially as Editor of the Bombay Chronicle beginning in 1920, then for the Nizam of Hyderabad Deccan during 1925-35.

Pickthall gave eight lectures on several aspects of Islamic civilization in 1927 at the invitation of The Committee of “Madras Lectures on Islam” in Madras, India. A summary and an abridged version of his second lecture on the "Causes of Rise and Decline" is presented here. He used quotations from the Holy Qur’an to emphasize many points and to support his analysis and conclusions. The major theme of his lecture is retained in the abridged version prepared by Dr. A. Zahoor. An abridged version of his fifth lecture is also available: Tolerance in Islam.

An Abridged Version of the Second Lecture

The particular cultural aspect of Islam of which I have to speak today is its humanity, by which I mean not only its goodwill and beneficence towards all men, but also, and especially its world-wide outlook. There is not one standard and one law for the Muslim and another for the outsider. In the Kingdom of Allah (SWT) there are no favorites. The sacred law is one for all, and non-Muslims who conform to it are more fortunate than professed Muslims who neglect or disobey its precepts... The test, as I have said before, is not profession of a creed, but conduct. All men are judged by conduct both in this world and the next. ...There are many other texts [of the Qur’an] that I could quote to prove that Muslims are forbidden to use violence towards anyone on account of his opinion, and I can find not a single text to prove the contrary. Whatever may have happened later on in Muslim history, such injunctions were not likely to be disobeyed in days when the Qur’an was the only law - a law obeyed alike by great and small with passionate devotion, as the word of God.

It was not the warlike prowess of the early Muslims which enabled them to conquer half the then known world, and convert half that world so firmly that the conversion stands unshaken to this day. It was their righteousness and their humanity, their manifest superiority in these respects of other men.... The tidings of our Prophet's embassies to all the neighboring rulers, inviting them to give up superstitions, abolish priesthood and agree to serve Allah (SWT) only. And the evil treatment given to his envoys, must have made some noise in all those countries; still more the warlike preparations which were being made for the destruction of the new religion. The multitude were no doubt warned that Islam was something devilish and that Muslims would destroy them...

In the whole history of the world till then, the conquered had been absolutely at the mercy of the conqueror, no matter how complete his submission might be, no matter though he might be of the same religion as the conqueror. That is still the theory of war outside Islam. But it is not the Islamic theory. According to the Muslim laws of war, those of the conquered people who embraced Islam became the equals of the conquerors in all respects. And those who chose to keep their old religion had to pay a tribute for the cost of their defense, but after that enjoyed full liberty of conscience and were secured and protected in their occupations.

The Muslims intermarried freely with the conquered people of Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia and all North Africa - a thing none of their conquerors (and they had known many in the course of history) had ever done before. The advent of Islam brought them not only political freedom but also intellectual freedom, since it dispelled the blighting shadow of the priest from human thought... The result was what might be expected from so great a liberation of peoples who had never really had a chance before - a wonderful flowering of civilization which in the after generations bore its fruit in works of science, art and literature. [Quotations from Famous Historians of Science]. In spite of its incessant wars, this is the most joyous period in history. In judging of it you must not take literally every word that you may read in European writers. You must make allowance for enemy propaganda then as now...

...Yet even from written history, with a little research, you will discover that fanaticism towards Christians is hardly found in orthodox Islam till after the Crusades, though the Christians were not always easy subjects for toleration. Many of them thought it a religious virtue to insult the religion of Islam in public, and so court martyrdom from the natural indignation of the rulers. There were epidemics of this kind of religious mania at various times in different countries, and the sensible, calm manner in which the Muslim rulers dealt with them is one of the great things in Muslim history...

It is important for the student of history to remember that the Khilafat of Bani'l-Abbas represented a compromise between the out-and-out Sunnism of the Umayyeds and the out-and-out Shi'ism of the Fatemites. For the Umayyeds, the Abbasids themselves were Shi'a. When in the Spanish Muslim chronicles you read of Shi'as, they are not those whom we call Shi'a but the people whom we regard as Sunnis, the followers of Bani'l-Abbas, opponents of Bani Umayya; and it is important also to remember that the Khilafat of Bani'l-Abbas represents a betrayal - nay, a double betrayal. On the one hand they had persuaded Ahl-ul-Beyt (i.e., our Prophet's family) that they would set out of them upon the throne of the Khilafat; and on the other they had persuaded many earnest Sunnis, who till then had been supporters of Bani Umayya but objected to the dynastic Khilafat, that they would restore the original custom of electing the Khalifa from among the Muslims most distinguished for their public service. They did neither. They set up their own dynasty, they massacred the whole house of Bani Umayya, except one member [The Falcon of Andalus] who fled to Spain, because that house had made itself beloved in Syria, Najd, Egypt and throughout North Africa, and any member of it left alive would have been a formidable rival! And they persecuted Ahl-ul-Beyt on account of their standing claim to the Khilafat. It is a mistake to impute a religious character to the strife between those factions. It was a tribal quarrel of north Arabia against south Arabia, dating from pre-Islamic times.

The simple, rational, Arab character of Muslim government passed with the last of the Umayyeds to Spain; the Khilafat of the East was transferred to Bani'l-Abbas, who were already under Persian influence, and the capital was removed from Syria to Mesopotamia. The city of Baghdad - a much more glorious Baghdad than the present city of the name, a triumph of town planning, sanitation, police arrangement and street lighting - sprang into existence.... In the words of Mr. Guy Le Strange, at that period (9th century CE) of the world's history, “Cordova, Cairo, Baghdad and Damascus were the only cities in the world which had police regulations and street lamps”... [The Muslim Capitals and Major Cities].

... The people, in a long period of uninterrupted prosperity, became unwarlike. There were little wars within the empire now and then, but they did not affect the mass of the people for reasons which I shall explain when I address you on the laws of war... The defense of the frontiers was confined to the fighting tribes, chiefly to the Turks, who also formed the bodyguard of the Khalifa. These people, from the guardians, soon became the masters, of the nominal rulers. They were men of simple, downright, brutal character, of energy and common sense, who did not hide their contempt of the luxurious and feeble princes who succeeded one another on the throne of the great Mamun and Harun-ar-Rashid. One after another, they murdered or put them away with every circumstance of ignominy, but they did infuse some manhood into the declining empire, which would have perished but for them, and keep at least its central provinces together in good order. Over the outlying provinces the Khalifa's rule was now purely nominal...

Nominally the Abbasid Khilafat of Baghdad lasted for full five hundred years, but for the last three hundred and fifty years of its nominal duration the real sovereign power had passed already to the Turks, and its political prestige was that of Turkish chiefs: first of the Seljuks - Tughrul Beg and Alp Arslan and Malik Shah – then of the Zenghis: Imad-ud-din and his son Nur-ud-din, and then of the Ayubis: Salah-ud-din (the Saladin of the crusading period), Malik Adil, Malik Kamil and the rest. There was change of rulers, but the civilization remained that of the Abbasids. Indeed it hardly if at all deteriorated, and the condition of the common people throughout the Muslims empire remained superior to that of any other people in the world in education, sanitation, public security and general liberty.

Its material prosperity was the envy of the Western world, whose merchant corporations vied with one another for the privilege of trading with it. What that prosperity must have been in its prime, one can guess from the casual remark of a modern English writer with no grief for Muslims, with regard to Christian Spain: “Notwithstanding the prosperity which resulted from her privileged trade with the New World in the sixteenth century, her manufactures, and with them her real prosperity began to decline under the Catholic kings, and continued to do so in fact, if not in appearance, until the expulsion of the Moriscos, i.e., the last remaining Muslims, by Philip III, completed the destruction begun by Isabel in the supposed interest of religion.” [From the expulsion of the Moriscos dates the degradation and decline of Spain.].

In other countries, even in Europe, in the same period, the peasantry were serfs bound to the land they cultivated, the artisans had still a servile status, and the mercantile communities were only just beginning, by dint of cringing and of bribery, to gain certain privileges. In the Muslim realm the merchant and the peasant and the artisan were all free men.

It is true that there were slaves, but the slaves were the most fortunate of the people. For the Holy Prophet's command to “cloth them with the cloth ye yourselves wear and feed them with the food which ye yourselves eat, for the slaves who say their prayers are your brothers” was literally obeyed, and so was the divine command to liberate them on occasions of thanks-giving, and as a penalty for certain breaches of the sacred law; so that slavery would early have become extinct but for the spoils of war, and there was no such thing as a condition of perpetual hereditary servitude. [Liberate, Emancipate and Marry Slaves]. The slave was regarded as a son or daughter of the house, and in default of heirs inherited the property. In the same way the slaves of kings have often in Islam inherited the kingdom. [Mamluk rulers of Egypt (Bahri, 1250-1390) and India (1206-1290) successfully repelled numerous Mongol invasions and defeated them. Later, the rule of Burji Mamluks in Egypt (1390-1517) was marked with disarray. All except two Burji Mamluks were of Circassian origin and the remaining two were of Greek origin]. It was no unusual thing for a man who had no male descendant to marry his daughter to his slave who took his name and carried on the honor of his house. The devotion of the slaves to their owners and the favor which the master showed the slaves became proverbial... The slave-trade was a horror which had no Islamic sanction. I do not say that there were no abuses in the Muslim world, but I do say that they were not what Europeans have imagined, and had no analogy with things similarly named in Christendom; just as the slavery which existed in the Muslim world had no analogy with that of the American plantations.

No color or race prejudice existed in Islam. Black, brown, white and yellow people mingled in its marts and mosques and places upon a footing of complete equality and friendliness. Some of the greatest rulers, saints and sages in Islam have been men as black as coal, like Jayyash, the saintly king of Yemen in the period of the Abbasid decline, and Ahmad Al-Jabarti, the great historian of Egypt in the time of Mohammad Ali, founder of the Khedivial dynasty. And if any one thinks that there were no white people in that mighty brotherhood, be it known that there are no men whiter than the blond Circassians and the mountain folk of Anatolia who very early found a place in the Islamic confraternity. It was a civilization in which there were differences of rank and wealth, but these did not correspond to class distinctions as understood in the West, much less to Indian [Hindu]caste distinctions.

... A noble feature of this civilization was its cleanliness at a time when Europe coupled filth with sanctity. In every town there was a hammam, public hot baths, and public fountains for drinking and washing purposes. A supply of pure water was the first consideration wherever there were Muslims. And frequent washing became so much associated with their religion that in Andalusia in 1566 the use of baths was forbidden under severe penalties, because it tended to remind the people of Islam, and an unfortunate gardener of Seville was actually tortured for the crime of having washed while at his work. I myself in Anatolia have heard one Greek Christian say of another: “The fellow is half a Muslim; he washes his feet.” The public food and water supplies were under strict inspection in all Muslim cities; and meat and other damageable food exposed for sale had to be covered with muslin as a protection from the dust and flies. Intercourse was free between all classes of society, so was intermarriage, and everybody talked to everybody. I am speaking now of something I have seen and known, for that civilization still existed in essentials when I first went to Egypt, Syria and Anatolia... But when I saw it, it was manifestly in decay. What struck me even in its decay and poverty was the joyousness of that life compared with anything that I had seen in Europe. These people seemed quite independent of our cares of 1ife, our anxious clutching after wealth, our fear of death. And then their charity! No man in the cities of the Muslim Empire ever died of hunger or exposure at his neighbor's gate.... [Quotations on Islamic Civilization and Moorish (Islamic) Civilization].

Now let me go on with my story and tell you how the Muslim civilization came to decay. We have seen how it survived the decadence of the Abbasid Khilafat, upheld by the strong arms of Turkish slaves; for such was their position when they entered the Khalifa's service, though their chiefs soon gained the title of Amir-ul-Umara and later of Sultan and Malik. You may wonder how it happened that, for centuries the civilization of Islam was altogether unaffected by this transfer of power from a cultured race to a race of comparative barbarians - nay, continued to progress in spite of it. The comparative barbarians were ardent Muslims. If they treated the Khalifa's person often with a brutal disrespect, born of intense contempt for such a worthless creature, it was not as the Khalifa that they so ill treated him but as a wretched sinner quite unfit to bear the title of Khalifa of the Muslims.

... But the Khalifa was not the Khilafat. Though the Khalifa might be worthless, the Khilafat as an institution was still redoubtable, and commanded the respect of every Muslim, particularly of the simple minded Turkish soldiers. The civilization of the Muslims had another guardian whom the Turkish warders treated with most grave respect. This was the opinion of the 'Ulama, the learned men, expressed in the convocations of half a hundred universities, of which the delegates met together when required in council. You must not think of them as what we now call “Ulama”, by courtesy. The proper Arabic term for the latter is fuquaha, and it had hardly come into general use in those days when the science which we now know as fiqh was still in its infancy.

The Muslim universities of those days led the world in learning and research. All knowledge was their field, and they took in and gave out the utmost knowledge attainable in those days... They were probably the most enlightened institutions that have ever been a part of a religion.

The German Professor Joseph Hell, in a little book on the Arab civilization which has lately been translated into English by Mr. S. Khuda Bukhsh, thus writes of them:

“Even at the Universities religion retained its primacy, for was it not religion which first opened the path to learning? The Qur’an, tradition, jurisprudence therefor - all these preserved their pre-eminence there. But it is to the credit of Islam that it neither slighted nor ignored other branches of learning; nay, it offered the very same home to them as it did to theology - a place in the mosque. Until the 5th century of the Hijrah [12th century CE] the mosque was the university of Islam; and to this fact is due the most characteristic feature of Islamic culture “perfect freedom to teach.” The teacher had to pass no examination, required no diploma, no formality, to launch out in that capacity. What he needed was competence, efficiency, mastery of his subject.”

The writer goes on to show how the audience, which included learned men as well as students, were the judges of the teacher’s competence and how a man who did not know his subject or could not support his thesis with convincing arguments could not survive their criticism for an hour, but was at once discredited. These teachers of the Arab universities [Muslim universities with Arabic as the medium of instruction] were the foremost men of learning of their age; they were the teachers of modern Europe. It was one of them, a famous chemist, who wrote: “Hearsay and mere assertion have no authority in Chemistry. It may be taken as an absolutely rigorous principle that any proposition which is not supported by proofs is nothing more than an assertion which may be true or false. It is only when a man brings proof of his assertion that we say: Your proposition is true.” [Hospitals and Medical Schools].

These 'Ulama were no blind guides, no mere fanatics. The professors of those universities were the most enlightened thinkers of their time. In strict accordance with the Prophet's teaching, it was they who watched over the welfare of the people and pointed out to the Khalifah anything that was being done against the rights of man as guaranteed by the Qur’an. It was they, indeed, who kept down the fanatic element, discouraged persecution for religious opinion, and saved Islamic culture from deterioration in a thousand ways. They even forced ambitious Muslim rulers, in their un-Islamic strife, to refrain from calling on the people to assist them [in 'Jihad'], to fight only with the help of their own purchased slaves and to respect all crops and cattle and non-combatants. They were able, by the enormous weight of their opinion with the multitude, to punish even rulers who transgressed the sacred law, in a way which brought them quickly to repentance; and they exacted compensation for transgression.

The hosts of Chenghiz Khan, in their terrific inroad, destroyed the most important universities and massacred the learned men. This happened at a time when the eastern boundaries of the Empire were but lightly guarded, the forces of the Turkish rulers having been drawn westward by the constant menace of the Crusades. Once the frontiers were passed, there was practically no one to oppose such powerful invaders. Then it was seen that another command, which is implicit in the Shari'ah, had been forgotten or neglected; that every Muslim must have military training....

The Empire was apparently progressing but it was progressing on the wave of a bygone impulse. The 'Ulama who sought for knowledge “even though it were in China” were no more. In their place stood men bearing the same high name of 'Ulama claiming the same reverence, but who sought knowledge only in a limited area, the area of Islam as they conceived it - not the world-wide, liberating and light-giving religion of the Qur’an and the Prophet, but an Islam as narrow and hidebound as religion always will become when it admits the shadow of a man between man's mind and God. Islam, the religion of free thought, the religion which once seemed to have banished priestly superstition, and enslavement of men’s minds to other men, for ever from the lands to which it came, had become - God forgive us! - priest-ridden....

But before I come to my conclusion, I must mention one great assertion of the universal nature of Islam which occurred in the darkest hour that Muslims ever knew. ...when Sultan Hulaqu (Hulegu) had taken Baghdad [in 1258 CE] and held the unfortunate but worthless person of the Abbasid Khalifa at his mercy, he put a question to the 'Ulama who had assembled at his bidding at the Mustansiriyah - a question calling for a fatwa of the learned, a question upon the answer to which depended the fate of the Khilafat.

“Which is preferable (according to the Shari'ah) the disbelieving ruler who is just or the Muslim ruler who is unjust?”

The 'Ulama were sitting all aghast, at a loss what to write, when Rizauddin Ali ibn Tawas, the greatest and most respected 'Alim of his time, arose and took the question paper and signed his name to the answer: “The disbelieving ruler who is just.” All the other signed the answer after him. All knew that it was the right answer, for the Muslim cannot keep two standards, one for the professed believer and the other for the disbeliever, when Allah (SWT), as His messenger (pbuh) proclaimed, maintains one standard only. His standard and His Judgment are the same for all. He has no favorites. The favored of Allah (SWT) are those, whoever and wherever they may be, who keep His Laws. The test is not the profession of a particular creed, nor the observance of a particular set of ceremonies. It is nothing that can be said or performed by anybody as a charm, excusing his or her shortcomings. The test is conduct. The result of good conduct is good, and the result of evil conduct is evil, for the nation as for the individual. That is the teaching of Islam, and never has its virtue been more plainly illustrated than in the history of the rise and decline of Muslim civilization.

The last Abbasid Khalifa and his family were put to death most horribly, and for a little while the Mongol conquerors established their dominion over Western Asia. But in less than a generation, troubles in Persia called away the Mongols; the Turkish chiefs revived their principalities which the Sultan of Qonia tried in vain to bring back to their old dependency. It was then that the Osmanli Turks first came upon the scene.

The rise of the Osmanli [Ottoman] Turks, which brought the restoration of the Muslim Empire on a larger scale than ever, has interesting analogies with the history of the House of Timur [Temur, 1369-1405] - another Turki dynasty. The Ottoman Empire, at its zenith, was not less glorious than that of Akbar [1556-1605], Shah Jahan [1628-58, Taj Mahal] and Aurangzeb [1658-1707]  Muslims in the Indian Subcontinent - Five Parts, 617-1950 CE....

The Osmanli Turks were soldiers first, poets second, politicians third, and theologians fourth. It was not their fault if they took the word of others in the matter of religion. The language of religion was Arabic, and only learned men among them knew Arabic, though all were taught to recite the Qur’an, “for a blessing”: that is, without thought or understanding of the meaning, as a sort of charm. They were soldierly in all they did, and they trusted their spiritual experts as they trusted their military experts. The people were contented in the decline as they had been in the prime of the civilization, for the decline came gradually, imperceptibly, and affected all alike: nor were they conscious of the deterioration which had actually taken place, since all the accustomed paraphernalia still existed, with a shadow of the former pomp.

The schools, primary and secondary, still existed; so did the universities, but they were now engaged in teaching, the former the Qur’an without the meaning, the latter all the hair-splitting niceties of Fiqh - religious jurisprudence - a science of great use to every Muslim, but taught in such a way as to imprison the intelligence. The machinery of justice, sanitation, police and public works still existed, only it had ceased to function properly....

If they were the leaders, all unconscious, in the decadence of Islam, they became afterwards the conscious leader's in the struggle for revival.... It is full of hope in spite of terrific ordeals the Turkish nation and the Muslim Empire had to undergo.... but the Jihad which is celebrated is no longer in defense of a dying empire, it is the true Jihad of Islam, the Jihad of human freedom, human progress, human brotherhood, in allegiance to Allah (SWT).

The Turkish revolution was the small beginning of a great revival of Islam, of which the signs can now be seen in every quarter of the Muslim world. Everyone now sees that ecclesiasticism - or scholasticism, if you prefer the word; it is more accurate - was the cause of the decline, and that Islam, as planted in the world, requires all available light and knowledge for its sustenance. The Muslims must seek knowledge even though it be in China. Islam can never thrive in darkness and in ignorance.

Allah: Allah is the proper name in Arabic for The One and Only God, The Creator and Sustainer of the universe. It is used by the Arab Christians and Jews for the God (Eloh-im in Hebrew; 'Allaha' in Aramaic, the mother tongue of Jesus, pbuh). The word Allah does not have a plural or gender. Allah does not have any associate or partner, and He does not beget nor was He begotten. SWT is an abbreviation of Arabic words that mean 'Glory Be To Him.'

s or pbuh: Peace Be Upon Him. This expression is used for all Prophets of Allah.

"The Meaning of the Glorious Koran," An Explanatory Translation by Mohammed Marmaduke Pickthall, a Mentor Book Publication. (Also available as: "The Meaning of the Glorious Koran," by Marmaduke Pickthall, Dorset Press, N.Y.; Published by several publishers since 1930).

Pickthall writes in his foreward of 1930: "...The Qur'an cannot be translated....The book is here rendered almost literally and every effort has been made to choose befitting language. But the result is not the Glorious Qur'an, that inimitable symphony, the very sounds of which move men to tears and ecstasy. It is only an attempt to present the meaning of the Qur'an-and peradventure something of the charm in English. It can never take the place of the Qur'an in Arabic, nor is it meant to do so...."

For the serious readers of the meaning of the Qur'an in English, it is recommended that it should be read along with a good commentary to comprehend the essential meaning and scope of verses. Either Yusuf Ali's or Mawdudi's commentaries are a good starting point. The former presents the meaning Ayah (verse) by Ayah with footnotes and includes a detailed index of the topics mentioned in the Qur'an, while the latter presents commentaries for each Surah (chapter) of the Qur'an.


E-Books on Islam and Muslims

Introduction and Abridged Version: Copyright © 1999 by Dr. A. Zahoor
All Rights Reserved