What Pakistan and the Muslims of today can learn from the rise and fall of past empires


By Muhammad Aslam Shad

Unless and until we go deep into the study of history, it keeps agitating our mind as to how an archipelago of rainy islands off the north-west coast of Europe came to occupy nearly a quarter of the world’s landmass and succeeded in incorporating nearly a quarter of the world’s population in the British Empire which grew to be one of the very few largest ever in world history.

It is equally surprising to see the tiny Muscovite principality spread over an area of just 40 miles turn into the mighty Russian Empire which stretched from the Baltic to the Pacific Ocean and from the Arctic to the Black Sea. Even more surprising is how the Mongol army could subjugate more land and people in just 25 years under the command of Chinggis Khan than what the Romans accomplished in 400 years.

How could the Muslims of the Arabian Peninsula defeat both the Sassanids and the Byzantines and expand so far as to burst onto the Atlantic Ocean on the west and the Sind on the east mind bogging up till now! The same holds true in respect of the Incas who established a huge empire which comprised the whole of South America and ruled it from the mountain top of present-day Peru back in the early part of the 16th century.

Equally stunning and tragic is the unprecedented downfall of the grand Muslim Empires such as the Ottoman or Mughal Empires. Why did all this happen? Was it mere chance or there were some cogent factors which made some polities strong and enabled them to have a commanding position on the world scene and others to go nose down and become the trash of history? To my mind, any nation, big or small, can move up on the scale of grandeur and glory any time if it endeavours to cater to the following:

  1. a) The ones which take timely steps to establish inclusive political and economic institutions and become viable, vibrant and self-sustaining over a period of time. Inclusive, not extractive institutions are the ones which pave the way for innovation, creativity, technology, education, and a push forward in all spheres of activity.
  2. b) The ones which keep eyes open to gauge, comprehending and adapting to the changes being wrought around.
  3. c) The ones where science, learning and intellectual drive are given a high priority.
  4. d) The ones which take timely steps to secure their share of maritime and space routes.
  5. e) The ones which evolve smooth, non-disruptive systems of succession.
  6. f) The ones which govern their affairs well, minimize the gap between income and expenditure, and put in place elastic and just system of taxation.
  7. g) The ones which have strong but fair and impartial system of justice and accountability where corrupt practices are not the rule of the day and where even an ordinary person feels safe and secure.
  8. h) The ones in which the system, as such, gives full opportunity to everyone to grow, excel and rise to the highest positions of power and privilege.
  9. i) The ones in which every citizen knows and feels that he/ she is a shareholder in the rise and fall of the nation as such.

Case study of the Ottoman Empire

Did this empire fit into the aforesaid criterion? The story of the fall and disintegration of the Ottoman Empire which once was reckoned to be one of the mightiest the world had ever seen is not only tragic but eye-opening as well. This empire which was spread over an area of 23,000,411 square kilometers in late 16th Century and which at one point of time consisted of 51 countries present-day countries (total or partial) ultimately got squeezed into the Anatolian landmass after its defeat in the First World War.

Why? Because it failed to recast and restructure its decaying state institutions such as the Caliphate, the Grand Vizier, Civil and Military Bureaucracy, Millet, Guilds etc. It failed to gauge the significance of the discovery of the maritime routes by the Western European explorers too far off places such as America (by Columbus in 1492) and India (by Vasco da Gama in 1498). The Europeans not only had huge quantities of gold in their pockets but their thinking and approach too had become scientific instead of being dogmatic and fixed.

How sad and tragic that all such developments went virtually unnoticed by the Ottoman Empire which at that very moment was at its peak in Asia Minor (present day Turkey), Mesopotamia, the Levant (Syria and Palestine), the Hijaz, Egypt, North Africa and Europe . While Europe was on the rise, in the Ottoman Empire the printing press was dubbed as an infidel discovery and accordingly its use banned. Ottoman Emperor Bayezid II proclaimed death penalty in 1483 for those who read printed books.

The first clock made in the Ottoman Empire in 1561 by the astrologer of Caliph Murad III was ordered to be destroyed. As the Ottomans could not maintain their original naval lead, they not only lost their complete hold on the sea lanes from the Adriatic to the Black Sea but in the Indian Ocean also they virtually became a nullity. Incompetent Sultans, rampant corruption, inability of the Ottoman Guilds to stand competition from the European Joint Stock Companies etc. added fuel to the fire. Ironically, instead of reversing this downward slide by taking concrete measures, the Ottomans borrowed heavily from the Europeans for building high-value infrastructure projects and palaces.

It may be news for many that the last installment of these loans taken in the second half of the 19th century was paid back by Turkey in 1953.The ruling elite forgot that like an individual or a family, a country too just cannot earn an honourable place in the comity of nations unless and until it first strengthens itself from within by utilizing the potential of all of its citizens.

Where do Pakistan in particular and the Muslim World in general stand?

The least said the better. While others are engrossed in scanning the immensely vast universe, measuring the immeasurable, trying to reach the unreachable, we, the so-called chosen/ pious people, are still deeply caught up in the unending quagmire of orthodoxy, rigidity, and complete Jahalat.

Humiliation, degradation and destruction will continue to be our fate unless and until we shun this reverse-gear approach, restructure and recast our conduct and style and go for quantum jump to catch up with the fast moving world. Will we, or our generations, ever see this happen  a riddle for you all to solve.The author is a former Member of the Federal Board of Revenue, Pakistan, with an interest in writing on unknown facets of history.

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