Chapter 3: Social and Moral Conditions

This was the plight of the great religions sent by God, from time to time, for the guidance of humanity. In the civilized countries, there were powerful governments and great centers of arts and culture and learning but their religions had been garbled so completely that nothing of their original spirit and content was left in them. Nor were there any reformers or divinely inspired guides of humanity to be found anywhere.

Crushed under vexatious and burdensome taxes levied by the Byzantine Empire(22), the allegiance to any alien ruler was considered by the populace as less oppressive than the rule of Byzantium. Insurrections and revolts had become such a common feature that in 532 A.D., the public voiced its discontent most dramatically in Constantinople by the Nika (win or conquer) revolt which took a toll of 30,000 lives.(23) The only diversion of the chiefs and nobles was to squeeze wealth, on different pretexts, from the harassed peasantry, and squander it on their pleasure and amusement. Their craze for merriment and revelry very often reached the depths of hideous savagery.

The authors of the Civilization, Past and Present have painted a lurid picture of the contradictory passions of the Byzantine society for religious experience as well as its love for sports and recreation marked by moral corruption.

“Byzantine social life was marked by tremendous contrasts. The religious attitude was deeply ingrained in the popular mind. Asceticism and monasticism were widespread throughout the empire, and to an extraordinary degree even the most commonplace individual seemed to take a vital interest in the deepest theological discussions, while all the people were much affected by a religious mysticism in their daily life. But, in contrast, the same people were exceptionally fond of all types of amusements. The great Hippodrome, accommodating 80,000 wide eyed spectators, was the scene of hotly disputed chariot races which split the entire populace into rival factions of ‘Blue’ and ‘Green.’ The Byzantine people possessed both a love of beauty and a streak of cruelty and viciousness. Their sports were often bloody and sadistic, their tortures horrible, and their aristocratic lives were a mixture of luxury, intrigue, and studied vices.(24)

Egypt had vast resources of corn and shipping on which Constantinople largely depended for its prosperity, but the whole machinery of the imperial government in that province was directed to the sole purpose of squeezing profits from the ruled for the benefit of the rulers. In religious matters, too, the policy of suppressing the Jacobite heresy was pursued relentlessly.(25) In short, Egypt was like a milking cow whose masters were only interested in sucking her milk without providing any fodder to her.

Syria, another fair dominion of the Byzantine Empire, was always treated as a hunting ground for the imperiousness and expansionist policy of the imperial government. Syrians were treated as slaves, at the mercy of their master, for they could never pretend to have any claim to a kind or considerate behavior upon their rulers. The taxes levied upon them were so excessive in amount and so unjust in incidence that the Syrians had very often to sell their children for clearing the government dues. Unwarranted persecution, confiscation of property, enslavement and impressed labor were some of the common features of the Byzantine rule. (Kurd ‘Ali, Khutat Sham, Vol. i, p.101)

Zoroastrianism is the oldest religion of Iran. Zarathushtra,the founder of Zoroastrianism, lived probably about 600-650 B.C. The Persian empire, after it had shaken off the Hellenistic influence, was larger in size and greater in wealth and splendor than the Eastern Roman or Byzantine empire. Ardashir I, the architect of Sasanian dynasty, laid the foundation of his kingdom by defeating Artabanus V in 224 A. D. In its heyday of glory the Sasanid Empire extended over Assyria, Khozistan, Media, Fars (Persia), Azarbaijan Tabaristan (Mazandaran), Saraksh, Marjan, Marv, Balkh (Bactria), Saghd (Sagdonia), Sijistan (Seastene), Hirat, Khurasan, Khwarizm (Khiva), Iraq and Yemen, and, for a time, had under its control the areas lying near the delta of the river Sind, Cutch, Kathiawar, Malwa and few other districts.

Ctesiphon (Mada’in), the capital of the Sasanids, combined a number of cities on either banks of the Tigris. During the fifth century and thereafter the Sasanid empire was known for its magnificence and splendor, cultural refinement and the life of ease and rounds of pleasure enjoyed by its nobility.

Zoroastrianism was founded, from the earliest times, on the concept of universal struggle between the ahuras and the daevas, the forces of the good and the evil. In the third century Mani appeared on the scene as a reformer of Zoroastrianism. Sapor I (240-271) at first embraced the precepts uttered by the innovator, remained faithful to them for ten years and then returned to Mazdaism. The Manichaeism was based on a most thorough going dualism of the two conflicting souls in man, one good and the other bad. In order, therefore, to get rid of the latter, preached Mani, one should practice strict asceticism and abstain from women. Mani spent a number of years in exile and returned to Iran after the accession of Bahram I to the throne, but was arrested, convicted of heresy, and beheaded. His converts must have remained faithful to his teachings, for we know that Manichaeism continued to influence Iranian thought and society for a long time even after the death of Mani. (Iran ba ‘Ahd-i-Sasaniyan, pp.233-269)

Mazdak, the son of Baudad, was born at Nishapur in the fifth century. He also believed in the twin principle of light and darkness but in order to put down the vile emanating from darkness, he preached community of women and goods, which all men should share equally, as they do water, fire and wind. Mazdakites soon gained enough influence, thanks to the support of Emperor Kavadh, to cause a communistic upheaval in the country. The rowdy element got liberty to take forcible possession of wives and property of other citizens. In an ancient manuscript known as Namah Tinsar the ravages done to the Iranian society by the application of the communistic version of Mazdaeism have been graphically depicted as under:

“Chastity and manners were cast to the dogs. They came to the fore who had neither nobility nor character, nor acted uprightly, nor had any ancestral property; utterly indifferent to their families and the nation, they had no trade or calling; and being completely heartless they were ever willing to get into mischief, to mince the truth, vilify and malign others; for this was the only profession they knew for achieving wealth and fame.”(26)

Arthur Christensen concludes in Iran under the Sasanids:

“The result was that the peasants rose into revolt in many places, bandits started breaking into the houses of nobles to prey upon their property and to abduct their womenfolk. Gangsters took over the possession of landed estates and gradually the agricultural holdings became depopulated since the new owners knew nothing about the cultivation of land.” (Iran ba ‘Ahd-i-Sasaniyan, p.477)

Ancient Iran had always had a strange proclivity to subscribe to the extremist calls and radical movements, since, it has ever been under the influence of irreconcilable political and religious concepts. It has often been swinging as if by action and reaction, between epicureanism and strict celibacy; and at others, either yielded passively to despotic feudalism and kingship and preposterous priesthood, or drifted to the other extreme of unruly and licentious communism; but has always missed that moderate, poised and even temper which is so vital for a healthy and wholesome society.

Towards the end of the Sasaniyan Empire during the sixth century, all civil and military power was concentrated in the hands of the Emperors who were alienated from the people by an impassable barrier. They regarded themselves as the descendants of celestial gods; Khosrau Parviz or Chosroes II had lavished upon himself this grandiose surname: “The Immortal soul among the gods and Peerless God among human beings; Glorious is whose name; Dawning with the sunrise and Light of the dark eyed night.” (Iran ba ‘Ahd-i-Sasaniyan, p.604)

The entire wealth of the country and its resources belonged to the Emperor. The kings, grandees and nobles were obsessed with amassing wealth and treasure, costly gems and curios; were interested only in raising their own standard of living and luxuriating in mirth and merriment to an extent that it is now difficult for us to understand their craze for fun and festivity. He can alone visualize their dizzy rounds of riotous living who has studied the history, literature and poetry of the ancient Iran and is also well informed about the splendor of Ctesiphon, Aiwan-i-Kisra(27) and Bahar-i-Kisra,(28) tiara of the emperors, the awe striking court ceremonials, the number of queens and concubines, slaves, cooks and bearers, pet birds and beasts owned by the emperors and their trainers and all.(29) The life of ease and comfort led by the kings and nobles of Persia can be judged from the way Yazdagird III fled from Ctesiphon after its capture by the Arabs. He had with him, during his flight, one thousand cooks, one thousand singers and musicians, and one thousand trainers of leopards and a thousand attendants of eagles besides innumerable parasites and hangers on but the Emperor still felt miserable for of having enough of them to enliven his drooping spirits.(30)

The common people were, on the other hand, extremely poor and in great distress. The uncertainty of the tariff on which each man had to pay various taxes gave a pretext to the collectors of taxes for exorbitant exactions. Impressed labor, burdensome levies and conscription in the army as footman, without the inducement of pay or any other reward, had compelled a large number of peasants to give up their fields and take refuge in the service of temples or monasteries.(31) In their bloody wars with the Byzantines, which seemed to be never ending and without any interest or profit to the common man, the Persian kings had been plying their subjects as a cannon fodder.(32)

The remarkable achievement of the ancient India in the fields of mathematics, astronomy, medicine and philosophy had earned her a lasting fame, but the historians are agreed that the era of her social, moral and religious degradation commenced from the opening decades of the sixth century.(33) For shameless and revolting acts of sexual wantonness were consecrated by religion, even the temples had degenerated into cesspools of corruption.(34) Woman had lost her honor and respect in the society and so had the values attached to her chastity. It was not unusual that the husband losing in a game of chance dealt out even his wife.(35) The honor of the family, especially in higher classes claiming a noble descent, demanded that the widow should burn herself alive with the funeral pyre of her dead husband. The custom, upheld by society as the supreme act of fealty on the part of a widow to her late husband,(36) was so deep-rooted that it could be completely suppressed only after the establishment of the British rule in India.

India left behind her neighbors, or, rather every other country of the world, in evolving an inflexible and callously inhuman stratification of its society based on social inequality. This system which excluded the original inhabitants of the country as exteriors or outcasts, was formulated to ensure the superiority of conquering Aryans and was invested with an aura of divine origin by the Brahmins. It canalized every aspect of the people’s daily life according to heredity and occupation of different classes and was backed by religious and social laws set forth by the religious teachers and legislators. Its comprehensive code of life was applicable to the entire society, dividing it into four distinct classes:

(1) The Brahmins or priests enjoying the monopoly of performing religious rites;
(2) The Kshatriyas of nobles and warriors supposed to govern the country; and,
(3) The Vaisyas or merchants, peasants and artisans;
(4) The Sudras or the non Aryan serfs meant to serve the first three castes.

The Sudras or the dasas meaning slaves (forming a majority in the population), believed to have been born from the feet of Brahma, formed the most degraded class which had sunk socially to the lowest level. Nothing was more honorable for a Sudra, according to, the Manu Shastra, that to serve the Brahmins and other higher castes.

The social laws accorded the Brahmin class distinctive privileges and an honored place in society. “A Brahmin who remembers the Rig Veda”, says the Manu Shastra, “is absolutely sinless, even if he debases all the three worlds.” Neither any tax could be imposed On a Brahmin, nor he could be executed for any crime. The Sudras, on the contrary, could never acquire any property, nor retain any assets. Not allowed to sit near a 1Brahmin or touch him, the Sudras were not permitted to read the sacred scriptures!(37)

India was drying up and losing, her vitality. Divided into numerous petty states, struggling for supremacy amongst them, the whole country had been given to lawlessness, mal-administration and tyranny. The country had, furthermore, severed itself from the rest of the world and retired into her shell. Her fixed beliefs and the growing rigidity of her iniquitous social structure, norms, rites and customs had made her mind rigid and static. Its parochial outlook and prejudices of blood, race and color carried within it the seeds of destruction. Vidya Dhar Mahajan, formerly Professor of History in the Punjab University College, writes about the state of affairs in India on the eve of Muslim conquest:

“The people of India were living in isolation from the rest of the world. They were so much contented with themselves that they did not bother about what was happening outside their frontiers. Their ignorance of the developments outside their country put them in a very weak position. It also created a sense of stagnation among them. There was decay on all sides. There was not much life in the literature of the period. Architecture, painting and fine arts were also adversely affected. Indian society had become static and caste system had become very rigid. There was no remarriage of widows and restrictions with regard to food and drink became very rigid. The untouchables were forced to live outside the towns.”(38)

The idea of virtue, of morals, was unknown to the ancient Bedouin. Extremely fond of wine and gambling, he was hardhearted enough to bury alive his own daughter. Pillage of caravans and cold blooded murder for paltry gains were the typical methods to still the demands of the nomad. The Bedouin maiden, enjoyed no social status, could be bartered away like other exchangeable goods or cattle or be inherited by the deceased’s heir. There were certain foods reserved for men which could not be taken by women. A man could have as many wives as he liked and could dispose of his children if he had not enough means to provide for their sustenance.(39)

The Bedouin was bound by unbreakable bonds of fidelity to his family, blood relations and, finally, to the tribe. Fights and forays were his sport and murder a trifling affair. A minor incident sometimes gave rise to a sanguine and long drawn warfare between two powerful tribes. Oftentimes these wars were prolonged to as many as forty years in which thousands of tribesmen came to a violent end.(40)

At the beginning of the Middle Ages the torch of knowledge flickered dimly and all the literary and artistic achievements of the classical past seemed destined to he lost for ever under the young and vigorous Germanic races which had risen to political power in the northern and western parts of Europe.(41) The new rulers found neither pleasure nor honor in the philosophy, literature and arts of the nations outside their frontiers and appeared to be as filthy as their minds were filled with superstition. Their monks and clergymen, passing their lives in a long routine of useless and atrocious self-torture, and quailing before the ghastly phantoms of their delirious brains,(42) were abhorrent to the company of human beings. They still debated the point whether a woman had the soul of a human being or of a beast, or was she blest with a finite or infinite spirit. She could neither acquire nor inherit any property nor had the right to sell or transfer the same.

Robert Briffault writes in the Making of Humanity:

“From the fifth to the tenth century Europe lay sunk in a night of barbarism which grew darker and darker. It was a barbarism far more awful and horrible than that of the primitive savage, for it was the decomposing body of what had once been a great civilization. The features and impress of that civilization were all but completely effaced. Where its development had been fullest, e. g. in Italy and Gaul, all was ruin, squalor and dissolution.”(43)

The Era of Darkness and Depression:
The sixth century in which the Prophet of Islam (Peace Be Upon Him) was born was, to be brief, the darkest era of history: it was the most depressing period in which the crestfallen humanity had abandoned all hopes of its revival and renaissance. This is the conclusion drawn by noted historian, H. G. Wells, who recapitulates the condition of the world at the time when Sasanid and Byzantine Empires had worn themselves out to a death like weariness:

“Science and Political Philosophy seemed dead now in both these warring and decaying Empires. The last philosophers of Athens, until their suppression, preserved the texts of the great literature of the past with an infinite reverence and want of understanding. But there remained no class of men in the world, no free gentlemen with bold and independent habits of thought, to carry on the tradition of frank statement and inquiry embodied in these writings. The social and political chaos accounts largely for the disappearance of this class, but there was also another reason why the human intelligence was sterile and feverish during this age. In both Persia and Byzantium it was an age of intolerance. Both Empires were religious empires in a new way, in a way that greatly hampered the free activities of the human mind.”(44)

The same writer, after describing the events leading to the onslaught of the Sasanids on Byzantium and eventual victory of the latter, throws light on the depth of social and moral degradation to which both these great nations had fallen. In these words:

“A prophetic amateur of history surveying the world in the opening of the seventh century might have concluded very reasonably that it was only a question of a few centuries before the whole of Europe and Asia fell under Mongolian domination. There were no signs of order or union in Western Europe, and the Byzantine and Pe rsian Empires were manifestly bent upon a mutual destruction. India also was divided and wasted.”(45)

To be brief, the entire human race seemed to have betaken itself to the steep and shortest route to self destruction. Man had forgotten his Master, and had thus become oblivious of his own self, his future and his destiny. He had lost the sense to draw a distinction between vice and virtue, good and bad; it seemed as if something had slipped through his mind and heart, but he did not know what it was. He had neither any interest nor time to apply his mind to the questions like faith and hereafter. He had his hands too full to spare even a moment for what constituted the nourishment of his inner self and the Spirit, ultimate redemption or deliverance from sin, service to humanity and restoration of his own moral health. This was the time when not a single man could be found in a whole country who seemed to be anxious about his faith, who worshipped the One and only Lord of the world without. associating partners to Him or who appeared to be sincerely worried about the darkening future of humanity. This was the situation then obtaining in the world, so graphically depicted by God in the Qur’an:

“Corruption doth appear on land and sea because of (the evil) which men’s hands have done, that He may make them taste a part of that which they have done, in order that they may return.” [Qur’an 30:41]

[22] The eastern Roman or Byzantine empire, which was known to the Arabs as Rum, held, with its capital at Constantinopole, Greece, Bulgarian, Turkey, Syria, Palestine, all Island in the Mediterrenean Sea, Egypt, all the coastlands in North Africa during the period. It came into existence in 395 A.D. and ended with the capture of Constatinopole by the Turks in 1453.

[23] Historians History of the World, Vol. VII, p. 73.

[24] T. Walter Wallbank and Alstair M. Taylor, Civilization, past and Present (Scott, Foresman & Co. 1954), pp. 261-62.

[25] The Arab Conquest of Egypt, pp. 32, 42 and 46

[26] Namah Tinsar, Tab’e Maynwi, p. 13 (Quoted from Iran ba ‘Ahd-I-Sasaniyan, p. 477).

[27] White palace of Chosroes. For details see Iran ba ‘Ah-I-Sasaniyan.

[28] Carpet of Silk, sixty cubits in length and as many in breath; a paradise or garden was depicted on it, the flowers, fruits, and shrubs were imitated by the figures of golden embroidery and the colours of the precious stone; and the ample square was enriched by a variegated and verdant border.

[29] Shahin Mikarios, Tarikh Iran, (1898), p. 98.

[30] Iran ba ‘Ahd-I-Sasaniyan, pp. 681 and 685.

[31] Shahin Mikarios, Tarikh Iran, p. 98.

[32] Iran ba ‘Ahd-i-Sasaniyan, Chap. V

[33] R.C. Dutt, Ancient India, Vol. III

[34] Dayanand Sarswati, Satyarth Prakash, p. 344.

[35] Bernier, F, Travels. Edited by Constable, 2 Vols. Ed. 1914

[36] For details see the Manu Shastra, Chap. 1, 2, 8 & 11

[37] Vidya Dhar Mahajan: Muslim Rule in India, Delhi, 1970, p. 33.

[38] See the Qur’an, the books of Hadith and the poetical collections on Ash’ar ‘Arab like Hamasah, Sab’a Mu’allaqat, etc.

[39] Details can be seen in the poetical collection of pre-Islamic era and the books on Akhbar-I-Arab.

[40] Frank Thilly, History of Philosphy, New York, 1945, pp. 155-58.

[41] Leckey, W.E.H., History of European Morals, London, 1930, Part II, p. 46.

[42] Robert Briffault, The Making of Humanity, p. 164.

[43] H.G. Wells, A Short History of the World, London, 1924, p. 140

[44] H.G. Wells, A short History of the World, London, 1924, p. 144.

[45] Lit. “the helpers” is the name of given to the Medinian followers of the Prophet used in contradiction to those earliest Muslims who migrated to that city with the Prophet.

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