I had a friend, may Allah bless him with health, who was spending his days with cancer treatment. He is a graduate of Political Sciences. He asked me one day: “Why do we say “the conquest of Istanbul”, while the others say occupation? Regardless of the reason and for whatever justification; righteous or unrighteous, eventually the land of the people, who were living in their homes, was attacked and captured. And then it is called conquest. Could you please explain this to me?” I must admit; I could not manage to provide a satisfactory answer back then. It was a topic I had never thought about. The Conquest of Istanbul was amongst the truths we had been forced to memorize.
A paragraph I have seen recently during some readings made me think about this matter once again. That is why I remembered and mentioned the anecdote above. Seriously, why do we call it the “Conquest of Istanbul”? Why do we get angry at the people who call it “the occupation, seizure, invasion of Istanbul”? Let’s go back some more; why do we call it “the period of conquest” to the period of wars which had ended with the expansion of territory throughout the first three centuries of Islam, which we could call the early periods of Islam? For example; the conquest of Mecca. Why not “the battle of Mecca”? There were no such battles like the Badr or Uhud, however, a ten-thousand-man strong army marched to Mecca in order to fight.
I will try looking at the matter from two different perspectives. First one is about the word “religion”; both concerning its revelation process and also the meaning and content attributed to the word throughout the later periods. When we analyze the verses of the Quran through an integrative aspect, where the words “Din” (Religion) and “ed-Din” are mentioned, it is obligatory to differentiate Mecca and Medina. Because, the lexical meanings of the word “religion” are debt, punishment, responsibility, provision, customs, tradition, obedience, reckoning, domination, sultanate and so forth in the verses revealed in Mecca, and it is mainly used under the meanings of Allah’s rulership over the universe and all existence, doomsday, and day of reckoning. However, in the verses revealed in Medina, together with our Prophet (PBUH) bringing social, political, and economic rules in order to regulate life, the meaning of the word “religion” changed and gravitated under a more political content. The meaning we just mentioned is more predominant in these verses which focus more on the subjects such as jihad, combat, jizya, peace, and tax, which all show up during the natural flow of life. If you wish, you are welcome to analyze these verses, which regulate the relationship between the heretics and the people of the book, and you will only see realpolitik thematic regulations which centralize the metadata-focused situation without any theological results.
I will try to explain with an example: The verse “And fight them until there is no fitnah and [until] the religion, all of it, is for Allah” was interpreted as the Islamization of all mankind living in the world due to the fact that it was perused textually; without considering how the Prophet (PBUH) had acknowledged and inherited into practice; the purpose of Allah; the context; revelation reason; relationship with other verses; the verses before and after and its sequence which forms the content integrity of the verse. Since the verse had been interpreted like this, shirk and blasphemy, meaning disbelief to the religion of Islam was accepted as a reason for war. And as a natural result of this understanding, every single fight towards removing shirk and blasphemy in the world was named and evaluated as a conquest in the name of Islam. In other words, one of the main reasons for the battles, which had resulted in territorial expansion during the spread of Islam in the early periods, to be called conquests, and for the periods to be called conquest periods originates from this understanding. However, we need to underline the fact that this realpolitik situation had a composition which justifies such interpretations.
And the second one is about the realpolitik situation, which I have explained above in a sentence. Back in that period, the war was a way of communication both for the tribes and the relationships between the states. Resorting to hand to hand combat or drawing swords immediately is a very simple practice in order to provide a solution for collective disputes, expanding the territories, strong states or the powerful ones attacking the weaker states or the feeble. In addition, it is a commonly accepted practice for the victorious to capture and enslave the local people, and seize any assets or estates in the conquered territories.
And the Islamic states, which had the sense of the dominating political understanding of the related period, conquered countless territories after going to many wars whether it was based on religious, economic, or security reasons. However, the Muslims treated the people who had lived in these conquered territories differently compared to other similar states. Furthermore, this difference did not only stand out about the way of treatment after the war but also before and during the wars too.
The law of war was established where humanitarian and moral values were prioritized. The law of war perceived war as a last resort after all of the diplomatic ways were exhausted. It also did not kill civilians, women, children, elders, and religious functionaries who are not combatants of the war, and disaffirmed every kind of torture. It also organized the distribution of the estates and assets based on the affairs of the local people. Because the spirit of the Quran commands likewise.
However, both the Christians and the people belonged to other religious and belief groups did not adopt the same principles; they regarded massacring the people as their indispensable and non-assignable duty without caring whether they were babies in cradles and acting as brutal as possible in the occupied territories. They pillaged their goods, raped women, and enslaved men who had the strength to work.
With regards to the order established after the war, these two mentalities took very different actions. The Muslims had started to build a new civilization in the occupied territories. First of all, they had never hesitated to provide fundamental human rights for the people, particularly freedom of religion and belief. From the architectural structure of the cities to the environmental cleaning, and the scientific opinion being the dominating aspect of life thanks to the established schools and madrasas, they realized the changes needed in order to live humanely and freely by raising the standards of living. If we need to give it a modern name, it was possible to see many elements of the sense of a “social state” throughout the communities in question such as tax regulation in the administrative system, land and property planning, economic progress, and the closure of the gap between the rich and the poor. It would be correct to say that just because of these reasons, there had been people who had wished to be saved from the cruel governments and live under the flag of the Muslims, and secretly desired the Muslims to conquer their own cities.
For one reason or another, the differences between the treatments during and after the war; changes in the system, providing peace, justice, comfort, and freedom all caused the actions of occupation, abuse, exploitation, seizure, and invasion to be called as conquests. For example, you can reevaluate the conquest of Mecca, which I mentioned above, from this point of view. When you review the outcomes of Mecca being captured by the Muslims, you would really call it the conquest of Mecca. Forgiveness of the polytheists, who had caused great distress to the Muslims for 22 years, not seizing their assets or estates, not holding anybody as captives, and aside from all, forgiving all of them are clear indications towards this. Moreover, even though Uthman ibn Talha, who had had the key of Kaaba, was not a Muslim, giving him the keys back and allowing him to continue his work is a great single example on its own. I am not a historian, but I believe this is the underlying mentality for the denomination of “Conquest of Istanbul”.
In addition, the peacetime experienced after the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah and naming the Quran verse revealed right after this treaty “Conquest” (Surah Al-Fath) actually confirm the facts I have tried to explain above. Attention please, there had been no war after Hudaybiyyah. On the contrary, the Muslims, who had taken the road to circumambulate the Kaaba, had their names dragged through the mud, had been degraded, dishonored, discredited and had been forced to return back. The conditions of the treaty are against the Muslims when considered from an ostensible point of view. Nevertheless, Allah commanded “Indeed, We have given you, [O Muhammad], a clear conquest” in the first verse of this surah, and called this treaty, which seemed to be derogatory, a clear conquest.
As a matter of fact, during the 2-year time between the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah and the conquest of Mecca, achievements had been made which had not been possible during the period of Medina. These achievements were actually not material, but towards having the hearts and minds of the people embrace Islam and the values and facts offered by Islam. Therefore, this peaceful environment had been called as a conquest by Allah. Otherwise, it does not bear the meaning of capturing the territories of others, killing hostages, and forcing the people to convert to Islam like ISIS and other similar organizations acknowledge.
The important question after these explanations should be the following; was the outcome of all the conquests throughout the 15-century Islamic history was similar? Even though the people lost their lands, did they gain their freedom and recover from living under oppressive and cruel environments? Did they claim way better rights and blessings compared to their pasts, have better standards of living, and witness their level of civilization reaching the ninth heaven?
If you would like me to provide a yes or no answer to these questions, my answer is quite clear; no. Unfortunately, the Muslims could not manage to preserve their sincerity and innocence as it had been in the early periods. The idea of interests literally caused the wars, which should have been called as “conquests”, to be called pillages, loots, and seizures both for themselves and the other parties. They had also adopted the widespread form of the accepted interstate relations. Expanding the territories and providing a solution to the disputes with the sword precluded being content with what they had, and using diplomacy. While the people had expected to embrace their freedom in a real sense, they had lost their freedoms and even their lives.
So, what did we do wrong and keep doing it wrong? The answer to this question is way above both the author of these sentences and the article itself. However, I can provide the following statement with a popular point of view; the question above should be answered by all of the Muslims individually. Because “we did” implies an action taken by “us”. And “us” consists of many “I”s. Since the “I” is a piece that forms “us”, the question must be changed to “Where did I do wrong?” and start searching the answers from here. Really, where did you do wrong? You must have done something so all of these conquests became occupations, pillages, and loots, or maybe they just disappeared?
Dr. Ahmet Kurucan is an author and expert in Islamic Law.
Turkish version of this article appeared at TR724.COM