Islam dates back to the year 610 AD. At that time there lived in the Arabian town of Yathrib (later known as Medina) two tribes – the Aws and the Khazraj – who were constantly at war with each other. However, when they be¬came aware of the truth of the religion revealed to the Prophet Mohammed, and entered the fold of Islam, they stopped fighting altogether, and these once deadly enemies now became close allies. Formerly the lust for gain had led these tribes to adopt a warlike stance towards each other, but now, imbued with higher ideals, they joined hands with each other in the quest for human progress.
How was it that such a great change came about in the attitude of these two tribes? The reason is that, prior to the advent of Islam, they had thought only of their own great¬ness. The Aws were bent on asserting their supremacy over the Khazraj, and vice versa. This inevitably led to conflict between the two tribes, with no prospect of their ever being reconciled to each other, or living together in harmony. Now, having one common object of worship which they could both revere, their concept of individual greatness merged into a shared consciousness of the greatness of One God. This, more than anything else, is the source of the spirit of universal brotherhood which Islam gives to the world.
It is in teaching the oneness of God, that Islam teaches the brotherhood of man. This one God of Islam created the world, and He it is who sustains it and controls its affairs. Everything man owns is a gift from God. If God chooses to withhold His bounty, there is no other being who can give it. God is infinite, while all other things are finite. This is the concept which makes Islam both a monotheistic and a universal religion.
When a man fully accepts tawheed (monotheism) as his creed, he cannot but attribute all greatness to God Al¬mighty. All other creatures then become lesser beings in his sight, and the hierarchies and forms of discrimination which exist in society appear to him in their true colours, as things of man's own making. The distinctions which have been set up amongst men on the basis of caste, creed, colour, race or nationality become meaningless to him, for all human beings take on the same humble status as servants of God, owing their allegiance to one Lord and Master.
Before a man has discovered God, he views human beings in relation to himself, and to one another. This su¬perficial way of looking at human affairs leads to a dis¬criminatory attitude which takes account of who are weak and who are strong, who are rich and who are poor, who are great and who are lowly. These distinctions are no doubt valid when one views human beings in relation to one another, but they disappear altogether when one views human beings in relation to their Maker; no man is great, strong or wealthy when compared to God Almighty.
God is the Maker and Master of the entire universe. In comparison to Him, the strong and the weak are all the same, for, before Him, no one possesses any strength. So great is the power of God that all human power dwindles to nothing before His might. It is like the light of a lantern which appears quite radiant in pitch darkness, but which appears to give forth no light at all when the sun rises. Even a searchlight, which is of blazing intensity in the dark, is reduced to the dimmest of rays before the majesty of the sun. There is, in fact, no difference between the lantern and the searchlight after the sun has risen.
Just as the dawn opens man's mind to a new and more powerful source of light, so does tawheed broaden the individual's vision to the point of seeing all human beings in one light. When God appears in all His might, human strength in comparison pales into insignificance.
For believers, He becomes the sole focus of human en¬deavour, and this gives them a sense of human equality, for just as one man strives to please God, so does his neighbour work towards the same goal. Just as one man gives up all claims to greatness for the sake of God, so do all men do so in equal measure. Without tawheed, people set their sights on separate goals. With tawheed, all men have a superior goal for which to strive. There can be no greater unifying factor than this. It is tawheed and tawheed alone which will bring about the oneness of mankind.
For thousands of years prior to the advent of Islam, the Arab people had inhabited the Arabian Peninsula, yet, in all that long period, had accomplished nothing worth recording in history. They were noted only for their poetry, and for their readiness to go to war with one another over trivial issues. Sometimes when such fighting broke out, it would continue from generation to generation.
However, when they came under the influence of Is¬lam, such a revolution took place in their thinking that these same feuding Arabs, who had no livelihood outside their own limited sphere, were able to lay the foundation of a great world civilization. Spreading far beyond their former geographical boundaries, they dispersed among the countries of the globe. A people, who had previously been dismissed as intellectually negligible, progressed beyond all other nations in every contemporary field of knowledge. The Arabic language, which had enjoyed no greater status than that of a local dialect, was transformed into an inter¬national language. Those who had previously been members of a closed society became masters of a great new world.
The reason for this transformation was the universal nature of Islam. Previously, these people had worshipped the phenomena of nature, but then Islam brought en¬lightenment to them: it taught them that nature is but a part of God's creation, having no power of its own. Thus, minds, which had formerly been closed, were opened up by Islam. People learned from it that only God is worthy of being worshipped; it is God and God alone who has control over all mankind and all creation.
Now instead of seeing nature as an object of worship, the Arabs came to see it as a subject of research. It now became something which could be investigated and made use of. In¬stead of being served, it could now be harnessed to serve man.
Hitherto, mankind had been divided into different categories: Arabs and Asians, black and white, free men and slaves, the mighty and the lowly. But Islam removed all these dividing lines and set all these distinctions at naught. It impressed upon people that if everyone was subservient to one God, and Adam was the progenitor of all mankind, there could be no difference between one human being and another. This belief kindled a universal spirit which caused people to regard all countries as their own, and to think of every nation as a member of a great world family. Before the coming of Islam, the Arabs had been a race apart, living in seclusion from the rest of the world. But once they had embraced Islam, they were led to mix with other nations and to become their companions and partners on life's journey.
Under the influence of Islam, Arab tribalism, with its straining after short-term gains, and its reverence for some and scorn for others, gave way to the kind of inter¬nationalism which had respect for the whole of humanity. The Arabs had their vision so broadened by Islam that they crossed land and sea to give full expression to their new concept of fraternal living. No mountain was too high for them to climb. No ocean was too deep for them to cross.
The Arabs now made advances in every field. In naviga¬tion, for instance, they produced men of the calibre of Ah¬mad ibn Majid. He it was who guided the famous explorer, Vasco da Gama, on his voyage across the oceans at the end of the 15th century to discover a sea-route from Europe to India. Christopher Columbus first conceived of the idea that there was a New World waiting to be discovered after studying the results of the research carried out by Abu Obaydah Muslim al-Balansy, a renowned topographer of his day. It was when Columbus set out to discover that world that he made his discovery of America.
Islamic vision extends not just to the world we know, but to the entire cosmos: Muslims can say with justice that theirs is a truly universal religion. This universality of Islam is no empty theory, for the entire history of Islam supports it as a guiding principle which has been consistently put into practice.
Nowhere have the universal principles on which Islam is founded been better expressed than in the encounter be¬tween Rabiy ibn Amir, a Muslim envoy, and the Iranian chieftain, Rustam. During the caliphate of Umar Faruq the Arabs had entered Iran and had proceeded to beat the Iranians in one battle after another, so that a stage had come when Rustam, as commander-in-chief of the Iranian armies, thought it prudent to invite an Islamic delegation to visit his court. When they arrived there to enter into dis¬cussions. Rustam, wearing a diamond-studded gold crown, reclined amidst great pomp and splendour on a magnificent throne. The leader of the Islamic delegation, Rabiy ibn Amir, who was humble in bearing and simply clad, presented a striking contrast. When Rustam demanded to know why they had invaded his territory, Rabiy replied quite simply: "God has sent us. We have been brought here by Him so that we may turn away those of His servants whom He wishes from the worship of creation, and bring them to the worship of God; so that we may extract them from the narrow confines of the world and set their feet on its broad, open paths; so that we may save them from the oppression of religions and bring to them the justice of Islam.
This statement by Rabiy, brief as it was, summed up the universal principles on which Islam is based.
When a man's thinking is revolutionized by Islamic teachings, he passes beyond the realms of creation and enters the domain of the Creator. He becomes close to God, who knows no restrictions or limitations. Previously on a human level, he now lives on the level of the divine. Before discovering God, a man is living, as it were, in a cocoon. After discovering God, he makes the vastness of the world his very own.
In normal conditions, people remain immersed – entangled even – in human affairs. Their attention is directed towards creatures like themselves, and they see no further than the ground they walk on. When a man discovers God, however, and devotes his entire life to worshipping Him, he rises far above this mundane, human level. Friendship and enmity mean nothing to him now. The passion of love and the corrosion of jealousy are no longer the mainsprings of his existence. When his soul basks in the vastness of the universe, there can be no further involvement in the petty affairs of this world.
Islam raises one above the hair-splitting arguments which are the hallmark of other religions. It enables one to leave behind all artificial forms of religion, marred as they are by false customs and empty ritual. It acquaints one with true religion, where, on the one hand, stands man, and on the other, his Lord, with nothing whatsoever in between. This is a religion which needs no prop of custom or convention. It is a religion which brings one straight to God without enmeshing one in obscure rites, argumentation and the dubious services of self-styled intermediaries. No such entanglements are necessary in the quest for the Almighty. At every moment, God reaches out to His servants; man may then find God at any moment of his seeking. No barrier stands between man and God, and there is, therefore, no need for intercession. When a man enters the eternal world of God, he finds his Maker right there before him, where he stands.
Islam, the religion of tawheed is pure and eternal. The God of Islam is one God: all divinity is invested in His Being. Those who discover the purity of tawheed find them-selves in an infinite and eternal world, where time and space are limitless, the horizon is without end, and vision knows no boundaries.