I thought that having read volumes on Seerah and history of Islam, I would not have missed the essential points on these subjects. But the only unsurprising thing in life is that there will always be a surprise. Apparently there is one essential point which I have terribly missed, namely that Islam was actually spread with gold.
Who says so? Mankind the Story of All of Us, a 12 hour, 6 series, of the History channel.
I happened to watch part of the third series, titled Empires, the other day. It tells of the story of a gold miner, an Arab, allegedly from the tribe of the Prophet, an obscure name, who had found riches in the form of gold in his gold mine. Apparently there were a lot of gold mines in Arabia. According to the series, this gold, in current value, would be USD2 billion.
After showing the story of this gold miner, whose name I cannot recall from any Seerah material, but supposedly an ancestor of the Prophet, because both belonged to the same tribe, the show quickly moved to the advent of the Prophet. With the help of this USD2 billion worth of gold, Islam was spread to the world, and supplanted the two superpowers of that time, the Persian and the Byzantium empires. This is the impression the series tries to suggest.
I must say that I find it rather amusing, and it is news to me, as it would have been to many others who are familiar with the story of Islam.
The Muslims always pride themselves with the assertion that it is the faith, embodied in the Quran, and the Traditions of the Prophet, that had transformed the brute Arabs, the sons of the desert, to become the conquerors of the more civilized nations. We believe it was the beauty of the Islamic teachings, embodied in the Quran and the Sunnah, and displayed by the early Companions, that had attracted others to join the fold of Islam.
The non Muslim observers, meanwhile, say that it was not just the faith, but the sword as well, that had assisted in the quick spread of Islam, as the much celebrated historian, Edward Gibbon, had beautifully put it in his monumental work, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire: “Mahomet, with the sword in one hand and the Koran in the other, erected his throne on the ruins of Christianity and of Rome.”
It is difficult to dismiss Gibbon’s assertion completely, for in the beginning at least, the Roman and the Persian empires did not submit to Islam by entering into this religion. They submitted only after they lost major wars. And wars were not fought with words, but with swords.
But to suggest that Islam was spread with gold, that sounds ridiculous and highly contentious to me.
Curious, I searched the net. There were not many hits on the topic, but one write up stands out. It is titled, Gold Mining in Arabia and the Rise of the Islamic State, a thirty two page article written by Gene W. Heck. (1)
In the abstract, Heck states the purpose of his study is to explore “the role of precious metals—gold and silver—in lending vitality to the economy of Western Arabia in the formative years of the Dar al-Islam.”
He then chronicles the existence of many gold mines in Arabia before and after the time of the Prophet, suggesting that gold was abundant in this desert. Quoting various sources, including the saying of the Prophet, which says “whoever finds something, it is for him; and the twenty percent tax is to be levied on precious metals,” and that this precious metal was often a source of revenue to the state, and that the Arabs used gold and silver coins in their transactions, he tries to assert the role of gold and precious metals in the nascent Islamic state established by the Prophet.
As if those are not enough, he even goes to the extent of making himself looks ridiculous, quoting Quranic verses about gold, some of which as follows:
Coincident with the rise of Islam, the Quran too speaks of them as esteemed precious metals. Surat Ali ‘Imran, for instance, asserts: Fair in the eyes of men is the love of things they covet; women and sons; heaped up hoards of gold and silver . . .
Surat al-Kahf promises the Righteous: For them will be Gardens of Eternity; beneath them, rivers will flow; they will be adorned therein with bracelets of gold . . .
And many more verses. How these verses have anything to do with the availability of gold, and its role in the expansion of Islam, would be anyone’s guess.
But that is not all. He writes,
Indeed, among the Arabo-Islamic [sic] sources, there are quite incredible claims of widespread precious metals availability, suggesting that they permeated medieval Hijazi lifestyles. Ibn Hanbal, in discussing the entrepreneurial prowess of famed Companion of Prophet Muhammad, Abd al-Rahman b. Awf, for example, asserts that it was impossible for him to lift a stone in the Hijaz without finding gold and silver.
In what way Abdul Rahman’s entrepreneurial ability has to do with gold being abundant defies logic. Perhaps Gene Heck takes the tradition narrated by Ibn Hanbal a bit too literally.
It is probably to the article like the one penned by Heck that the series Mankind the Story of All of Us takes as their sources. The series tries to simplify the story of mankind, but in doing so, it sometimes appears to be too simplistic. What the heck, if they want to use Heck and his kinds as their sources, so be it. Otherwise, the series is very interesting.
If you read the article as given in the link below, you would find that even Gene Heck finds it very difficult to assert his thesis. Like Ralph Olsen, as we have seen in the previous installment, Heck does not categorically say that Islam was spread with the help of gold. He only tries to suggest that such might be a case.
And I must say his case does not hold water.
It seems to me, therefore, that I have not been oblivious to the important essential in the Seerah and Islamic history. Mankind the Story of All of Us, being an interesting series, simply tries to bring something interesting to make the series more interesting. In this case, its suggestion that Islam has been spread with the help of gold is only interesting, but false. Why? Because facts tell otherwise.
To suggest that Islam was spread with gold would be to say that the Muslims, in their nascent years, were wealthy. We know for a fact that such is not right. The Muslims were poor. The Arabs of those years were in general poor people. The Makkans were relatively wealthy, because they were merchants, but only relative to other Arab tribes, who were mostly poor. We have at our disposal wealth of materials indicating their poverty. The Prophet and his Companions often went without filled stomachs for many consecutive days.
Edward Gibbon captures their condition very well when he writes:
The measure of [Arab] population is regulated by the means of subsistence… Along the shores of the Persian Gulf, of the ocean, and even of the Red Sea, the Icthyophagi, or fish eaters, continued to wander in quest of their precarious food. In this primitive and abject state, which ill deserves the name of society, the human brute, without arts or laws, almost without sense or language, is poorly distinguished from the rest of the animal creation. Generations and ages might roll away in silent oblivion, and the helpless savage was restrained from multiplying his race by the wants and pursuits which confined his existence to the narrow margin of the seacoast. (2)
And Gibbon narrates that their situation slightly improved before the advent of Islam, where pastoral lives and trades became their new occupations. But to suggest that gold brought them riches is completely out of place.
In fact, before his huge empire crumbled to the feet of Muslim soldiers, the King of Persia regarded the Arabs as no more than the poor desert brutes. When the Muslim delegates met him before the decisive war took place, the King of Persia told them to go back to the desert. The Arabs were not wanted in their civilized country. The King even offered to send them food, or clothes, or the basic necessities, if those were the reasons they came to Persia.
What the above suggests is that the Muslims did not come to Persia with gold; it was with their faith, along with their swords.
Furthermore, after the Romans were driven out of Sham, an area that currently makes Syria, Jordan, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine, the celebrated general, Khalid al Walid, was quoted as saying: “Even if we do not come here for the reward of Jihad, the material rewards we find here are good, for here we find good food, clothes and comforts not found in our land.”
In short, gold, defined as wealth, was not used as an instrument to spread Islam. It was the reverse. Gold was what the Muslims found after they spread Islam. After they conquered the Persian and Roman empires, the Muslims suddenly found themselves with great wealth. There was so much wealth that it bothered the Spartan Umar, the Chief of Believers who had annihilated these two superpowers.
When Umar visited Syria, he found that Khalid was dressed elegantly. The Caliph Umar was angry with the way his general dressed, and beat him, for forgetting where he had come from. Khalid simply answered, “Had you taken this cloak out, instead of hitting me, you will see that internally I am still the same Arab.”
And it was gold, defined as wealth, that weakened the Islamic Empire a few centuries later, for gold was not a source of the Muslims’ strength, but rather a cause to their weaknesses.
Mankind the Story of All of Us, while highly entertaining, tries to rewrite history too far in this particular case.