The Arab world of the seventh century was one of tribal loyalties and conflict. Lineage was everything and a person was known from his tribe and genealogy before he was known as an individual. Loyalty to one’s tribe was paramount and wars between tribes were frequent and fundamental.
A similar picture could be seen in many parts of the world including Africa, Europe and Asia. In Britain, the 7th century saw the invasion of the Angles, the Saxons and the Jutes each taking different parts of the country. Kings of different regions were expected to be constantly at war and their power was only as strong as their abilities in battle. Thus there were kings of Wessex, Mercia and Northumbria to name but a few. Ultimately they were invaded by the Vikings and the Normans.
It was in this tribal society that Islam emerged. It rapidly gained followers from different tribes and different races, each adopting the new Islamic identity that overtook tribal allegiances. Tribes that had for years been at war with each other embraced the new religion and old feuds were abandoned in the spirit of brotherhood. Over just 20 years from the emergence of Muhammad (صَلَّىٰ ٱللَّٰهُ عَلَيْهِ وَآلِهِ وَسَلَّمَ) as a Prophet, almost all the tribes of the Arabian Peninsula had been united as one nation and by 100 years this unity had extended to India, Africa, central Asia, China and Europe. This melting pot of tolerance was governed by statements from the Qur’an and the Prophet’s last sermon before he died in which he stated:
All mankind is from Adam (AS) and Eve (RA) , an Arab has no superiority over a non-Arab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no superiority over a black nor does a black have any superiority over white except by piety and good action.
These words are sacred to Muslims.
But weren’t Muslims complicit in selling slaves to the West?
Unfortunately, there were some Muslims involved in the slave trade. However, Islam began the movement to liberate slaves by making it praiseworthy to free slaves and compulsory in some cases.
Slavery in the Arab world was very different from that in Western Europe and North America. The image of the slave trade portrayed by Alex Haley in Roots of poor illiterate black men being whipped while picking cotton or laying down railways while their women were raped and abused, is a real experience. But slavery existed in the Arabian peninsula, as elsewhere in the 7th Century, but was not necessarily an issue of racial discrimination. Arabs enslaved Arabs, Romans enslaved other Europeans.
Islam approached it in a completely different way. At the time of the Prophet Muhammad (صَلَّىٰ ٱللَّٰهُ عَلَيْهِ وَآلِهِ وَسَلَّمَ) people freed their slaves and later these slaves married their old Masters own daughters! Imagine a white farmer during the times of slavery freeing their slave and marrying them to their daughter. This was happening in Islam more than 1000 years ago. Moreover being from a slave background did not place one in a social class restricted ones opportunities once freed. There were “slaves” under Islamic states who were generals of armies or even political leaders.
But if Islam unites people, why is there so much division within the Islamic World?
It is sadly true that today, the Muslim world is divided and in many cases there is distrust and conflict between Muslims of different regions. This is under the influence of nationalism and secularism, not Islam. It is in fact the remnants of Islam that exist within these countries that bridge the divisions that have crept in.
During the Islamic era, Arabs settled in Zanzibar, Tanzania, Central Asia and India. People intermarried and there was certainly no question of double standards between people of different races. Compare this with the lack of integration and later massacres when the French landed in Algeria, the Italians in Libya and the British in India.