For Muslim students to acquire a holistic understanding of the life of Muhammad (pbuh) and a worldview of Monotheism, a brief study of the ancient civilizations of Egypt, Persia, Rome and Byzantine is important. Why? Simply because the Holy Quran and the Hadith traditions repeatedly refer to these places and even though we are now further removed from those histories, knowledge of them can enhance our understanding of the past and the present events.
Furthermore, there is a much broader aim here for Muslim scholarship to pursue beyond the mere stirring of their students’ imaginations; and it is that they rise to the challenge of sketching a historical and archeological discourse for that time in history when humanity could have been described as sharing an unified experience before God or that which is known in use today as ‘Tawheed’ and when did their breaking apart took place and thus began the period of division or ‘Shirk’.
The following pages, is a brief journey through the rise and fall of some key civilizations of the ancient world, residues which heralded the advent of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) and have shaped the identities of today.
My historiography begins in Mesopotamia, modern Iraq, (Northwest Syria, Western Iran and Southern Turkey,) at around 3500 BC. Mesopotamia has been referred to as the starting point of the first recognizable civilization, with Egypt following at about a slightly later date about 3100 BC. Other great civilizations of antiquity to have appeared in the region at later dates were the Minoan civilization in Crete, about 2000 BC, and a little slightly earlier about 2500 BC in India. The Middle East was arguably among the first regions to emerge from the glacial period thus making it an almost natural venue for the discovery and practice of the art of cultivation. (Amir Taheri, The Cauldron, 1988)
There is a tendency to debate whether Egypt or Mesopotamia was the first cradle of civilization. That is a question, among many, which I will leave for the occupational historian to resolve. However here are some details to help you form an opinion. One, what is certain is that the Nile as well as the Tigris provided for the first communities a cool climate and an abundance of fertile oases for city-states to develop. Two, I am beginning from 3500BC and this is not the start of human civilization, but it is a figure based upon artifacts retrieved from excavations. Three, there are chronologists who allocate the lands of Kush, modern day Sudan and Ethiopia to be the forerunners of civilization, beginning around 6280BC. (A.J.Rogers, 1982) Your task would be to go as far back as you can and establish what is true and false on the subject to form your own opinion. Avoid making judgments, however, upon personalities but seek to qualify your views on the basis of research.
So the first City-states to evolve were in Sumer in lower Mesopotamia, which reached its apex around 3,500 BC. The Sumerians a non-Semitic people, not related to the Aryans, had conquered the Iranian Plateau some five centuries earlier. Historians because of debate surrounding the origins of the Sumerians, they have not agreed upon a unified point of view. Were they the earliest inhabitants of the area or were they foreign tribes (from Madyan) that migrated to lower Mesopotamia? One may never know. What is definite however is that they were responsible for many artistic, scientific and technological achievements of the era.
In literature, Sumerian wedge-shaped (cuneiform) writing was done on clay tablets. These tablets show some 2,000 pictographic signs. They were also known to have written poetry. One of their earliest preserved literary documents is Pepi’s Papyrus, “Instructions to a Son”. It might have been somewhere after the conquest of Egypt by the Hyksos, “Shepherd kings” 2,200 BC, that the script changes from Sumerian style (horizontal, left to right) to Semitic style (vertical, right to left).
In science and technology, the Sumerians as well as the Egyptians are recorded to have acquired the technology of smelting gold, silver, copper and iron alloys. The use of the Potter’s wheel was common, and the manufacture of painted pottery was in daily use. Agricultural tools and supplies for the growing of wheat and others types of food was normal to their daily lives. (Bernard Grun, The Timetables of History, First Touchstone edition 1982) In the achievements of Sumer, Taheri (1988) noted that man first discovered that trade could be more profitable than marauding raids on one’s neighbors. However, this civilization appears to have been polytheists and remain predominantly so throughout the ages of prophecy. If one were to read chronologists writing from the perspective of the Western secularist tradition, mention have been repeatedly made of the impact of Mesopotamian mythology upon the ‘Abrahamic faiths.’ For instance, they cite that the story of ‘The Great Flood Myth’ found in early Sumerian texts (Gilgamesh) around the Third dynasty of Ur (2010-2000BC) as having been incorporated into Biblical and thence Qur’anic stories of Prophet Noah and the floods. What they fail to mention is the possibility of the supposed myth being true, being passed into Sumer literature through actual historical occurrence. The Holy Quran, indicates the stubbornness of the people occupying that region at the time:
“And We certainly sent Noah to his people, and he remained among them a thousand years minus fifty years, and the flood seized them while they were wrongdoers.” (C:29, V:14)
For believers, those myths are but legends that withstood the test of time. Abraham of Ur Kasdim or Chaldees, Babylonia, emerges around the time of 1800 BC and from Quranic reports he received little on no official support for Monotheism unlike his counterparts in Egypt at later dates in history, as in the case of Akhenaten (Amunhotep IV, 1352-1338 BC). If the dates of Prophet Yūsuf ibn Yaʿqūb ibn Isḥāq ibn Ibrāhīm are correct (1610 BC – 1500 BC) then it is possible that Akhenaten could have heard about the historical figure of Yusuf and romanticised an earlier period in Egyptian history when justice, peace and harmony prevailed in the kingdom (monotheistic practices). We know from the history of Akhenaten’s rule that many resented his rule and his attempts to sideline the priesthood in favour for a monotheistic God. The problem was that those dire conditions which two or three centuries earlier brought a non-Egyptian to the prestigious courts of the King, did not exist and so his experiment with Monotheism was short lived. Furthermore, Akhenaten’s brand of Monotheism was not the same as that which the Quran attributed to the Prophets and Messengers of the past, and so it is true to say that he evolved alongside it an anthropomorphic flavour in the Sun (Aten) as an emanation of the divine to appease the masses.
Continue reading Reading History as A Struggle of Tawheed vs Shirk or The Oppressor vs The Oppressed