The Age of Discovery and European Colonialism

The Great Mosque or La Mezquita, in Cordoba, Spain. Shutterstock

Shahzad Ahmed, London, UK

The great Muslim historian, Ibn Khaldun, considered to be one of the most eminent scholars in sociology and economy, proposed the cyclical theory of the rise and fall of sovereign powers and empires in his famous Muqaddimah, considered to be one of the most classical works on world history [1]. Conquest, followed by consolidation, expansion and ultimately, degeneration, were recurring features of every empire that succeeded its predecessor and ‘Ibn Khaldun felt that in this pattern he had discovered the underlying pulse of history.’ [2] And so, no matter what era of history one delves into, they will often find themselves either having an empire, or under the rule of someone else’s.

This month, The Review of Religions proudly publishes, for the first time in the English language, the translation of a historic treatise, penned by the late Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad (ra), the Second Successor of the Promised Messiah, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), and then-worldwide head of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, titled, ‘Extraordinary Display of Morals by Muslims During Their Rule.’ We provide a brief historical context to some of the main themes highlighted in this remarkable and profoundly insightful treatise.

The Age of Discovery and Western Colonialism

Towards the end of the 15th century, a combination of factors led to the emergence of the Age of Discovery. These factors included the development of navigational instruments, the quest for quicker trade routes, and religious concerns, but chief among them was necessity. For centuries, the Silk Road was the essential means through which Europe acquired many of its products from the East, such as silk, spices and pottery. However, the rise of the Ottomans and the weakening state of the Mongol Empire placed this traditional land route under serious threat, since the Ottomans controlled key routes that made it difficult for Europeans to bring in goods from the East. Recognising the importance of establishing their own trade links with Asia as well as having a desire to find new wealth, the Europeans exerted all their energy and effort towards improving shipbuilding and navigation. Thus, ‘it was new routes rather than new lands that filled the minds of kings and commoners, scholars and seamen.’ [3]

Among the European countries, Portugal led the exploration of the world with the conquest of Ceuta, located on Morocco’s northern coast, by King Joao I in 1415 [4]. For almost a century, the Portuguese faced little competition from their European counterparts and by the end of the 16th century, they had conquered and settled in areas spanning South America to Africa and even as far as Asia, establishing trading rights and also enjoying political control. Portugal’s empire, which lasted for more than six centuries, ‘was the first of the great European global empires and outlasted all others as well, surviving until 1999’, [5] when Macau was transferred to China. It was only towards the end of the 15th century that Spain also began to explore the sea routes and ‘were eager to share in the seemingly limitless riches of the “Far East.”’ [6] Subsequently, in 1492, sponsored by the Spanish monarchs Ferdinand of Aragon and Isabella of Castile, Christopher Columbus sailed westward across the Atlantic in hope of reaching Asia. After travelling for twelve weeks, he finally sighted land – what he believed to be India. But in fact, Columbus had unintentionally landed upon the Americas, which turned out to be a completely ‘new world’. It is said that ‘this unintentional discovery was to change the course of world history’ and despite initially having friendly relations with the natives, ‘indigenous populations all over the New World were soon to be devastated by their contact with Europeans.’ [7]

As the Portuguese and Spanish empires continued their exploration and expansions of its empires, other European nations, namely the British, French, Dutch and Germans, also joined in this venture and established their own empires across the continents. The French and Dutch greatly challenged the Portuguese and Spanish, while the British ‘were always playing catch up or were merely picking up the scraps.’ [8] However, of all the European nations, Britain ultimately went on to become the greatest empire of all. The expansion of the empire was largely due to the East India Company. Having been granted a Royal Charter from Queen Elizabeth on December 31, 1600, to pursue trade with India, the British East India Company established its first trading station in India in 1612. But what started as a small group of businessmen and investors who wanted to benefit from the riches in Asia eventually became so powerful and dominant that by the 18th century, it ‘acted as an agent of British imperialism in India.’ [9] Moreover, it boasted an army of around 260,000 men [10] to protect British interests and also to fend off competition from its fellow Europeans colonial powers. The Battle of Plassey (1757), in which the British East India Company defeated the Nawab of Bengal and his French allies, was a key event in this respect and although the battle lasted only a few hours, it established ‘British dominance in Bengal and the Carnatic, the two most profitable regions of India for European traders.’ [11] Thereafter, ‘the East India Company gained control of territories across India from Indian rulers and the other colonisers, mostly by means of wars and dewanees (land grants with authority to collect revenue).’ [12]

However, it was only after the Indian Rebellion of 1857 that the British Crown took direct control, which officially began the era of the British Raj. India, with its huge population, strong military and limitless riches, became the jewel in the crown of the British Empire. It is said that at the height of the British empire, which consisted of colonies, protectorates, dominions, and mandates, its total population was 412 million people, covering almost a quarter of the earth’s total land surface and 23% of the world’s population [13], [14], [15]. The British Empire was undoubtedly the largest empire in history and famously known as ‘the empire upon which the sun never sets.’

The Legacy of Western Colonialism

The history of western colonialism is undoubtedly marred by its infamous involvement in the slave trade. The trans-Atlantic slave trade, which began from the 15th century till the 19th century, forced around 12-15 million Africans to be subjected into a life of slavery far from their homelands [16]. The proponents of slavery argued that slavery propelled the economy of their countries and allowed for increasing levels of consumption in the UK. [17] But what is even more deeply shocking is that slavery was not only seen as a commercial venture, but was also endorsed by the Church at the time. In 1452, Pope Nicholas V granted Portugal and Spain the legal right, through a series of Papal bulls, ‘to invade, search out, capture, vanquish, and subdue all Saracens and pagans whatsoever…[and] to reduce their persons to perpetual slavery, and to apply and appropriate to himself and his successors the kingdoms, dukedoms, counties, principalities, dominions, possessions, and goods, and to convert them to his and their use and profit…’ [18]

Tightly packed in the trading ships, many lost their lives in the extremely treacherous and inhumane journey of the notorious ‘middle passage’. Those that did survive would be destined to spend their entire lives working on plantations, primarily in the Caribbean and the Americas, in scorching heat. Degraded and stripped of their humanity, the slaves ‘were seen not as people at all but as commodities to be bought, sold and exploited.’ [19]

During this period of western colonialism, oppression and discrimination was not just limited to those forced into a life of slavery – the indigenous populations of the newly colonised lands also suffered a great deal. The native population predominantly vanished after contracting diseases that were brought by the new European settlers. And those who did survive were forcefully displaced and ‘many were pushed onto smaller parcels of land, obliged to culturally assimilate and abandon their traditions or left to die off in territories with few resources.’ [20]

The Muslim Empire and Khilafat-e-Rashidah

In the treatise, ‘Extraordinary Display of Morals by Muslims During Their Rule’, Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad (ra) highlights the injustices perpetrated by the Europeans on the natives and indigenous population of the lands they colonised and compares it to how the Muslim rulers’ conduct was in stark contrast. This indeed was a result of the noble example of the founder of Islam (sa) and its superior teaching, which provides comprehensive guidance on all matters of life, including the principles of governance and the relationship between the rulers and their subjects. During the era of the Khulafa-e-Rashideen [The Rightly Guided Caliphs], which lasted for approximately thirty years, the Muslim empire expanded from North Africa to Asia and it was owing to this sublime teaching and their perfect training that the Muslims of the time established such peerless examples of their treatment of the non-Muslim inhabitants. For example, when neighbouring powers and regions feared the growth and strength of Islam, Muslims were compelled to engage in purely defensive wars. And so, when Hazrat Umar (ra) conquered Jerusalem in 636 AD, he entered into a treaty with all its inhabitants, declaring:

‘In the name of Allah, the Most Gracious, Most Beneficent. This is a covenant of peace granted by the slave of Allah, the commander of the faithful Umar to the people of Jerusalem. They are granted protection for their lives, their property, their churches, and their crosses, in whatever condition they are. All of them are granted the same protection. No one will dwell in their churches, nor will they be destroyed and nothing will be reduced of their belongings. Nothing shall be taken from their crosses or their property. There will be no compulsion on them regarding their religion, nor will any one of them be troubled.’ [21]

The British Empire

The debate surrounding the legality of western colonialism, its impact and legacy continues to this day, but ‘while they all shared a desire for wealth and power, their motivations for colonisation differed somewhat, and thus the pattern and success of their colonies varied significantly.’ [22]

Thus, whilst highlighting the slavery, oppression and exploitation of the European colonisers in his treatise in general, Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad (ra) also mentioned certain qualities of some of the European nations, namely the British Empire, such as the upholding of justice and strict observance of the laws they enacted. Thus, whilst providing a brief historical context of the rise of western colonialism, it is important to also provide a broader context to this particular aspect as well, which has been mentioned in various writings of the founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community, Hazrat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad (as), the Promised Messiah and Mahdi, and his successors in various times.

For example, prior to British rule in India, the sub-continent was a hotbed of religious intolerance and the Muslims in particular were facing extreme discrimination and persecution at the hands of Sikh rule. Describing the circumstances of the time, the Promised Messiah (as) stated, ‘Many who lived under Sikh rule are still with us today. They should come forward and tell others about the circumstances of Islam and the Muslims at that time. The adhan [call for prayer], which is a mandatory tenet of Islam, was considered a crime. No one who called the adhan could survive the hatchets and spears of the Sikhs.’ [23] However, with the arrival of British rule, complete religious freedom was granted to all its citizens and protection was afforded to all religious communities. In relation to this, the Promised Messiah (as) states, ‘The British Government permitted complete religious freedom as soon as it entered the Punjab. Gone is the time when we were assaulted for even whispering the adhan. Nobody will stop you if you now proclaim the adhan from minarets, and perform salat [formal obligatory prayers] in congregation. Muslims lived like slaves in the time of the Sikhs, but their dignity has been restored by the British administration. Their life, property, and honour are now safe. The doors of Islamic libraries are re-opened. Has the British Government been benevolent or oppressive?’ [24]

Similarly, when Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad (ra) travelled to England for the first time in 1924, he visited Brighton in order to visit the Chattri, a war memorial built to honour the Indian soldiers who fought for the British Empire during World War I, as well as the Indian Memorial Gateway at the Royal Pavilion. In a historic address, which was reported in the Sussex Daily News, His Holiness (ra) stated,

‘The British Empire is the real League of Nations, and I trust that this fact, which, though understood before the war, was fully brought home only during that war, will not now be permitted to be lost sight of. India, the country to which I have the honour to belong, has arrived at the threshold of maturity, and it’s longing and ideals must now be viewed from a standpoint different from that which have hitherto been adopted. The British Empire is the greatest experiment of its kind which has ever been tried in this world, and on the success of this experiment does, to a large extent, depend the future progress and prosperity of the world. Every one of us should therefore be willing and prepared to sacrifice their personal and individual objects and prejudices to make the Empire a success…the Holy Founder of the Ahmadiyya Movement, the Promised Messiah (on whom be peace and blessings of God) has laid down as one of the cardinal principles of the Movement that we should render full assistance and co-operation to the Government to which we owe allegiance, and that while serving our country we should give our love and sympathy to all mankind. I believe that all other communities in India are, despite certain differences, also at heart supporters of the Empire.’ [25]

With this brief historical context, we present the fascinating treatise of Hazrat Mirza Bashiruddin Mahmud Ahmad (ra) as the special feature in this month’s edition.

About the Author: Shahzad Ahmed is Associate Editor of The Review of Religions. He also serves as an imam of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community.

He has a BA degree in English from University of Greenwich. He appears regularly as a panellist on various programmes on Muslim Television Ahmadiyya International (MTA) including Islamic Jurisprudence.


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