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A Message to the Enlightened Thinkers
Surah al-Rum - The Romans

Part 3

Dr. Ali Shariati


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At the time of the revelation of Surah al-Rum in the seventh century, the Arabs in general were impoverished. The followers of the Prophet were in still worse conditions. Yet, even under such circumstances, the Prophet told Muslims that if they had strong faith, were righteous and fought for the cause of Allah, they would conquer the world. He was not alluding to the Quraysh or Mecca, but to the entire world (including the governing powers). Ridiculing his claim, the intellectuals asked which world, which power the Prophet referred to. They argued that Mecca was situated in the middle of the superpowers, which had divided the world between themselves and controlled everyone. In addition, they maintained that even if all Arabs supported the Prophet and acted as weapons, they could not do anything to harm the Eastern or Western powers. The intellectuals wondered how Muslims who could not even resist Abu Jahl and Umayyat Ibn Khalaf expected to stand any chance against the powers of the East and the West.

The message of the Qur'an was for both the careless and sophisticated intellectuals who were well-acquainted with the East and West as well as the responsible enlightened souls who were among the followers of the Prophet.

The enlightened Muslims were forced to endure severe torture, but they nevertheless undertook the responsibility of defending the rights of the poor and deprived people who were the prisoners of the East and the West. The Qur'an addresses both groups: ''Alif, Lam, Mim. The Romans have been defeated in the nearer land." (30 : 1-2). It was during 624-625 CE that the Persians fought and defeated the Romans. They occupied the Middle East. Due to the death of their emperor and changes in their internal system and external affairs, the Romans lost the battle with the Persians. In turn, they had to retreat and leave the areas of dispute for the Persians. The surah predicted the victory of the West over the East in a period of less than ten years. It happened when the Eastern Roman Empire once again attacked the Near East and recaptured the lost territories; the soldiers reached the vicinity of Ctesiphon.

"And they, after their defeat, will be victorious within ten years. Allah's is the Command in the former case and in the latter" (30 : 3-4). Ayah 4 was revealed immediately after the prediction in Ayah 3 in order to warn the intellectuals and dogmatists who considered themselves to be experts in international politics, capable of analyzing and commenting on the causes and consequences of world affairs. The Qur'an says: "Allah's is the command." Neither the East nor the West rules the world, but Allah does. Authority is not the responsibility of the Western Empire (Caesar) or the Eastern Empire (Khusrow).8 The superpowers do not control the strength, life, death, future and fate of nations. "Allah's is the Command" in all cases. It has never been and will never be that superpowers control the world. Everything is dictated by Allah; He is the Omnipotent.

Although the West was defeated by the East, it was predicted that the West would soon be victorious. How? Because the power to rule the world lies in the hands of Allah. (This has always been and will continue to be the case). The Qur'an states: "And on that day, believers will rejoice." (30 : 4). But, what did the success or failure of the superpowers have to do with the poor believers who were being tortured in Mecca? Some commentators on the Qur'an have interpreted the verse to mean that it was better for the Byzantines to be victorious since they were Christian, or "the people of the book" (ahl al-kitab) than the Persians who were Zoroastrian. What a misleading explanation! After all, what would the believers who were dying under the tortures of Umayyat Ibn Khalaf gain if the Byzantines were victorious? Why should they feel happy? Their happiness would have been like the delight of certain Iranians over John Kennedy's election in 1960.

Another example of misleading comments was the account regarding the birthday of the Prophet: "The Prophet was born during the time of the 'just king'." Do people really know how "just" king Anushirvan was? After all, he was the king of Persia both when the Prophet was born in Arabia and later when his followers were tortured by Abu-Sufyan. Besides, what kind of privilege was it for the Prophet to be born when there was a just king in some other part of the world? This coincidence lacks any significance. Some commentators considered the Byzantines to be the "believers" because they were Christian and had a divine book. Such commentators, too, make a mistake by overlooking the fact that after the Prophet and the declaration of Islam, Christianity, which until then had been genuine and respected, became outdated. This development was applicable to the Byzantine-Christians who were called polytheists (mushrikun) by Islam and the Prophet. How could the Byzantines be true believers (Mu'minun) when they believed in the "Trinity?"

The Qur'an addressed the poor and oppressed followers of Muhammad in Mecca. Unable to migrate, they had nowhere to go, not even to Medina, their hometown. Nevertheless, it assured them that they would be free and happy. Clearly, the Qur'an presented a universal law, a law that was lettered in the surah. It included God's Command (amr), that is, a declaration that Allah's will would prevail. That was to be the destiny of history. The latent effect of imperialistic schemes of the superpowers to oppress others, expand areas of control and confiscate the natural resources of other nations is self-deterioration and decadence. It is inevitable that imperialism and colonialism will breed their own enemies. The more oppressive and aggressive the exploiting powers become, the closer they get to self-decay and destruction. Eventually, but shamefully, they will release what they have captured and will escape. Remember what happened to the United States, a contemporary superpower, not too long ago in Vietnam. It was forced to withdraw and abandon all of its interests in the area.

Because of their size and their competition, the two superpowers are in conflict constantly. Their pride and military strength force them into militarism, exploitation and savagery. Such a direction causes their productive qualities and capacities to deteriorate internally. As a result, the youth of these nations, who should be involved in productivity and building the economy, are obliged to fight in distant foreign lands. There, they will kill or be killed and contribute to mutual weakening and destruction.

History reveals that Khashayarsha (Xerxes), one of the kings of Achaemenid dynasty, sent thousands of young Persian troops to Greece to destroy Athens. Motivated by the pride of militarism at its peak, the Persian youth sailed on the Mediterranean Sea in order to set Athens ablaze and conquer the capital. It is hard to imagine the amount of energy, money, art and technology the Persians employed to achieve their goal. But alas, they were all wasted. Thousands of young, productive farmers who had been expected to support the older family members, and many thousands more who had to work hard to finance those fighting in the battlefield (eight or nine individuals for each fighting soldier), were all diminished. Their energies and potentials were converted into weapons which were destroyed in the distant foreign deserts. What emerged was a confrontation between enemies who did not know each other, nor did they know the cause of their fighting. (Max Weber has a special and unusual definition for armies. He describes them as "groups of individuals who do not know each other but fight one another for the sake of those who know each other but do not fight one another".) Beside the hundreds of thousands of human resources, Khashayarsha (Xerxes) sent along thousands of boats and ships to transport them across the Mediterranean Sea. Most of them encountered a major storm which interrupted their journey and drowned the young soldiers. Upon receiving the report of the disaster, Khashayarsha (Xerxes) ordered other soldiers "to go and punish the storms for not being polite with the Persian soldiers." Imagine even though the best human resources, energy and techniques were buried deep in the sea, the king demanded a repetition of the previous disaster.

Another king who abused thousands of Persian youth was Nadir shah [the founder of Afshar dynasty]. He sent them to conquer India and dethrone Muhammad Shah [the Mogul emperor]. However Muhammad Shah's crown was soon returned and the Persians bade him farewell. The venture was undertaken solely for the purpose of demonstrating Nadirshah's power. What a high price to pay just to show one's power and prestige! One man, Nadirshah, was responsible for the loss of so many human lives.

The Byzantines were not in a better position. They had invested great time and energy in the East in order to prove that they could reach Ctesiphon. What were their losses? What was the level of degeneration that the Byzantine youth experienced during their battles in foreign lands? Did they know what they were fighting for? They were in the same category as the Persians. And finally, the soldiers returned home with many psycho-emotional disturbances.
Exactly thirty years after the events relating to the Byzantines, the same poor Arabs, organized in groups of a few thousand, circled the Arabian Peninsula and attacked the Persian bases. Before the [Persian] Royal Army could complete its preparatory measures for war, including organizing its weapons and armaments, as well as repairing the golden ornamentation for their combat horsesythe Arab army conquered the Persian Empire. The same destiny befell the Byzantine Empire also. Before the Byzantine army could arise from its slumber to consider its logistics and assign officers to its ranks, the Arabs entered and conquered their empire.

The circumstances of the two great powers were such that thirty to thirty-five years after the revelation of the Surah al-Rum, Musallib ibn Kharijah, along with the limited assistance he received from 'Umar of Medina, was able to defeat the Persian Empire." One of the world's greatest bases, near Isfahan, was the central camp of the Persian army. According to al-Tabari, the officer in charge of the camp came out of his tent and appeared before the Muslim army, which consisted of about three thousand soldiers dressed in simple white shrouds and carrying swords. The commander of the world's most advanced army, which possessed the most sophisticated contemporary weapons and technology available, confronted the Muslim army and demonstrated his readiness to fight. The officer of the Muslim army volunteered to start the dual but the Persian officer, who was in no condition to accept the offer, refused. Instead, he suggested that each of them should count his or his forefathers' victories, and whoever had the higher number starts the dual. The Muslim officer accepted the proposal. Addressing the poor Muslim officer, the Persian officer asked him who he was. The Arab replied that he was "the son of his father." Then, the Persian officer proudly recalled the long line of most of his ancestors and traced his ancestors back to old Persian warriors. It was obvious that the Persian should be the one to begin the dual.

The Persian officer threw his spear toward the Muslim. Although the Arab fell off his horse, he immediately stood up and grabbed his sword. He jumped back onto his horse and announced that it was his turn to fight. The Persian officer retorted that both of them should sit down and negotiate their differences. He claimed that the problem could not be solved by warfare, and therefore advocated a political solution. The Arab consented to the Persian's suggestion. Two hours later, the Persian officer met with the Islamic army and signed an agreement which was unique in history. When was the agreement concluded? Only eighteen or nineteen years after hijrah, which was also about eight years following the death of the Prophet. How fascinating! The great Eastern empire yielded to a group of poor Arabs who had been of no significance during those days.

One side of the agreements related to the Eastern Empire, while the other related to the same poor people mentioned in the surah. Ironically, those poor people, not knowing where the East or West were, had laughed when they heard about such places. It would be worthwhile to mention some of the articles of the agreement. The Arabs demanded that if they attacked a Persian village, the Persian army was obligated to assist them since they had a shortage of people and arms. The Persian officer politely agreed. The Arabs demanded that when their army needed horses, the Persians would have to provide them. The officer once again politely agreed. And something funnier. The Arab officer demanded that if one of his officers, while traveling through a Persian city, saw a Persian officer who was riding a horse, the Persian would have to dismount and give the horse to the Arab. The Persian commander agreed to all the demands and concluded the agreement with the Arabs.

Arabs concluded a similar agreement with the Western empire. At the same time that the Muslims confronted the Persians, another group of a few thousand others had entered the Byzantine territory. Under the leadership of 'Amr ibn 'As they attacked the fortress of Babylon which was the world's greatest military castle, controlled by the Byzantines. It is not clear how such a sturdy and well-protected fortress was conquered by a group of poor and hungry Muslims who reached its heart like a bullet. After losing Babylon, the Roman army lost any hope of resisting the Islamic army.
Consequently, a million well-trained soldiers with modern weapons could not confront the well-disciplined Islamic army. East and West were conquered by the Muslim believers. In the case of Persia in the battle of Dhat al-Salasil, King Yazdegerd ordered his well-trained army to be confined with heavy chains so as to stop them from deserting. How could a soldier fight under such conditions? He did not know why he had to fight or with whom. Was the enemy the person who had tied his legs with chains or the one who confronted him on the battlefield? Every soldier was confused about the battlefront. As a result, the Persian and the Byzantine armies yielded to the Muslim army as soon as they were confronted.

Alif-Lam, Mim. The Romans have been defeated, in the near land, and they, after their defeat, will be victorious within ten years. Allah's is the command in the former case and in the letter, and in that day believers will rejoice. (30 :1-4)

It is inevitable that the superpowers will confront one another, to the degree that factors such as corruption, prostitution, depression and lack of productivity will decay and destroy their administrative systems, social networks and spirit to fight. They will be so weak that minor attacks by poor and hungry Muslim soldiers will destroy them. The impoverished and miserable believers will be free and rejoice on the day when they, with the help of God, are victorious. Allah grants victory to those who deserve His help and qualify for the victory. "He helps to victory who He will. He is the Mighty, the Merciful." (30 : 5). Allah will bless the weak group of people who struggle for His cause. Furthermore, the attributions made in the above ayah are confirmed by the events discussed. "It is a promise of Allah. Allah fails not His promise, but most of mankind know not." (30 : 6).

Allah promises that every group which struggles for its rights will be victorious over the powerful masses. This is a universal law. The promise of Allah, which is applicable to all times and places, is never false, but the majority of people do not realize this.
The so-called intellectuals do not know that Allah's promise is the real fact of nature. What do they know? "They know only mere appearances of the life of the world." (30 : 7). They only know about superficial considerations including who has better administration, where the most sophisticated arms are and where the bulk of the wealth is located. In addition, the intellectuals evaluate and appraise situations, but in a superficial and short-sighted manner. "They only know mere appearances of the life of the world, and are heedless of the Hereafter." (30 : 7).

They do not know how the situation will end, because they cannot see beyond the obvious. The Qur'an calls upon politically frustrated intellectuals to adopt a better way of thinking in order to have a more optimistic outlook. It tells them not to rely heavily on their conjectures, evaluations and political analyses. To achieve a better and deeper analysis, the Qur'an calls upon the individual to think about humanity in general, the existing world system and the world's sovereignty. Instead of interpreting world news on a daily basis (i.e., "intellectualizing"), mankind should try to discover and understand the source of the world's destiny, Allah's will.

Have they not pondered upon themselves? Allah created not the heavens and the earth, and that which is between them, save with truth and for a destined end. But truly many of mankind are disbelievers in meeting with their Lord. (30 : 8).

In the first part of ayah 8 (above), the following phrases should be emphasized: "save with truth," which means based on facts, and "a destined end," which means a determined period.

Obviously, Allah created the earth, heavens, mankind, races, classes, societies, systems and powers for a specific purpose. In other words, each of Allah's creations has a role to play in this life. When pondering over the universal laws of creation, the sovereignty of societies and existence in general, one can conclude that the creation of the universe is based on certain facts. Therefore, the fate and future of mankind are subject to the same facts. The claim that an oppressor always remains in power and the fate of mankind lies in the hand of the Caesars and the Khusrows is false. They are temporary powers and the subject of daily news; they exist today and are gone tomorrow. If one appreciates the essence of "a destined end," one discovers that the ruling powers will only survive for a short period of time. Let them declare their eternity, masters of mankind and owners of the world! They are oblivious to the destiny of history whereby every power will deteriorate and perish eventually. As for the state of affairs today, even though the Western and Eastern Empires have divided the world between themselves, this situation will not last long. They are destined to decay and destruction; thus, the Muslims should be assured and hopeful of a future victory. The following ayah refers to such a destiny: "But truly many of mankind are disbelievers in meeting with their Lord." (30 : 8).

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