Today’s American political landscape can be quite a confusing and frightening place. The ideas of the Founding Fathers are commonly cited as the foundation of the nation. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution are seen as the infallible documents on which American life are based. Freedom, democracy, and liberty are the cornerstones of political and social ideas in the United States.
At the same time, however, the rising tide of Islamophobia is making its presence felt. Politicians support the characterization of Islamic life as incompatible with American society. Media “pundits” decry the supposed influence Muslims are having on destroying the basis of American political and social ideas.
The truly ironic part of this is that Muslims in fact helped formulate the ideas that the United States is based on. While this article will not argue that Islam and Muslims are the only cause of the American Revolution, the impact that Muslims had on the establishment of America is clear and should not be overlooked.
Islamic Philosophy and the Enlightenment
The political and social ideas that caused the American colonists to revolt against the British Empire were formulated in a movement known as the Enlightenment. The Enlightenment was an intellectual movement that argued that science and reason should be the basis of human society, not blind following of monarchs and church authority. On July 4th, 1776, in Philadelphia, the American revolutionaries signed the Declaration of Independence, a document written by Thomas Jefferson and heavily influenced by the Enlightenment, which made official their break from Great Britain and the establishment of the United States of America.
The Enlightenment was driven by a group of European philosophers and scientists who were going against the prevailing ideas of governance in Europe at the time. Among these thinkers were people such as John Locke, René Descartes, Isaac Newton and Montesquieu.
John Locke, an Englishman who lived from 1632 to 1704, promoted some of the most influential ideas of the Enlightenment. He pioneered the idea that humans are naturally good, and are corrupted by society or government to becoming deviant. Locke described this idea in his An Essay Concerning Human Understanding as the tabula rasa, a Latin phrase meaning blank slate. The idea was not original to him, however. In fact, Locke directly took the idea from a Muslim philosopher from the 1100s, Ibn Tufail. In Ibn Tufail’s book, Hayy ibn Yaqdhan, he describes an identical idea about how humans act as a blank slate, absorbing experiences and information from their surroundings.
The same idea manifests itself in the life of Prophet Muhammad (Peace Be Upon Him). He stated that “No child is born except on the fitra.” Fitra here can be defined as the natural, pure state of a person. According to Islamic thought, all humans are born in a natural state of purity, with belief in one God, and that as they grow older, they adopt the ideas and beliefs of the people around them, particularly their parents. This is the intellectual forerunner of the tabula rasa that Locke learned from Ibn Tufail.
Through Locke, this concept would influence the political idea that humans should not be constrained by an oppressive and intolerant government. His ideas, which he borrowed from Ibn Tufail, would end up forming a cornerstone of America’s revolutionary ideas that the colonists in America would be much better off if they were not under the oppressive British government. Locke further expanded on the subject by describing something he called the social contract. In this social contract theory, the people must consent to be ruled by a government that in turn agrees to protect the natural rights of its citizens.
This same concept is also seen in 1377 in the Muqaddimah of the great Muslim historian and sociologist, Ibn Khaldun. In it, he states, “The concomitants of good rulership are kindness to, and protection of, one’s subjects. The true meaning of royal authority is realized when a ruler defends his subjects.” Here Ibn Khaldun is explaining one of the main political ideas of the Enlightenment, 300 years before Locke proposes the same argument: that a government must defend, not infringe on, the rights of its citizens. Later, in 1776, the preamble of the Declaration of Independence stated a similar argument: “Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”
John Locke also pioneered the concept of natural rights: the idea that humans all have a set of God-given rights that should not be taken away by any government. In the Declaration of Independence, this is stated as “…they [men] are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
While most American and European textbooks promote this as a unique “Western” idea, the truth is that it is far older than John Locke and Thomas Jefferson. Again, in the Muqaddimah, Ibn Khaldun explains: “Those who infringe upon property commit an injustice. Those who deny people their rights commit an injustice.” He goes on to explain that this leads to the destruction of a state, and cites examples from the life of the Prophet (Peace Be Upon Him) where he forbade injustice. The concepts that a Muslim government should not infringe upon rights was very clear in Islamic law and was a well-accepted idea throughout Muslim empires.
Other Enlightenment philosophers were heavily influenced by earlier Muslims and Islamic ideas. Without going into great detail, the following are some examples:
Isaac Newton was greatly influenced by Ibn al-Haytham, the Muslim scientist who pioneered the scientific method, optics, and the laws of motion. In Europe, Ibn al-Haytham was well known, as were his ideas about science and philosophy. Isaac Newton borrowed from Ibn al-Haytham the idea that there are natural laws that run the universe (an idea first proposed by Caliph al-Ma’mun as his rationale for establishing the House of Wisdom in Baghdad). Later Enlightenment philosophers used the idea of natural laws to support concepts of natural rights, the government’s role, and economic systems. All of these ideas influenced the Founding Fathers of America who cited them as the basis of the United States.
Montesquieu is usually cited as the first to propose the ideas of separation of government into several branches. During his time in Europe, monarchs held absolute power and shared control of the state with no one. The Muslim world had historically never run in such a way. While caliphs in the Umayyad and Abbasid Empires held most of the power, there also existed the idea of shura, which was a council whose job it was to advise the caliph. In those governments there also existed ministers who carried out tasks under the supervision of the monarch. Perhaps the most important however, were the qadis, or judges, who formed a legal system based on Islamic law and were independent of the ruling caliph. A prime example of how Islamic governments are designed to work through a bureaucracy is Imam al-Mawardi’s Al-Ahkam Al-Sultaniyyah [On the Ordinances of the Government], written in the early 1000s. In it, al-Mawardi explains how the caliph and other government officials are to carry out their roles within their individual spheres, all while staying within the framework of Islamic law.
This system of government was well known in Europe from the Muslim European states in Spain and Sicily, where many European Christians traveled to study under Muslim scholars. Al-Mawardi’s work was translated into Latin and disseminated throughout Europe, where he was known as Alboacen, a Latin corruption of his name.
All of the philosophical ideas already mentioned would not have had much effect if it were not for a curious black drink that came out of the Muslim world – coffee.
During the Middle Ages in Europe, the drink of choice was alcohol. In France and other areas that grew grapes, wine was the dominant drink, while beer and ale were popular further north. Drinking water was actually rare, as it was believed that alcoholic beverages were cleaner than water and more filling. The result of this belief was constant drunkenness among the European population.
In Yemen in the middle of the 1400s, a new drink that was made from coffee beans was beginning to become quite popular. The Yemenis were roasting and then boiling coffee beans in water to produce a drink that was rich in caffeine, a stimulant that causes the body to have more energy and the brain to think more clearly. Through the 1400s and 1500s, coffee spread throughout the Muslim world, and coffee shops began to pop up in major cities. These coffee shops became a center of urban society, as people met there to socialize and enjoy the company of others.
By the 1600s, these coffee houses had spread to Europe as well. Although there was initial resistance to drinking a “Muslim drink” in Christian Europe, the beverage caught on. The coffeehouses became a central aspect of the Enlightenment, particularly in France. Whereas previously Europeans had been drinking alcohol regularly, they now met in coffee houses, where they discussed philosophy, government, politics, and other ideas that were the cornerstones of the Enlightenment. French Enlightenment philosophers such as Diderot, Voltaire, and Rousseau were all regular customers at the coffeehouses of Paris.
Were it not for this drink from the Muslim lands, Europe might never have had the Enlightenment, as the philosophers would never have met to discuss ideas, nor had the mental clarity (due to alcohol consumption) to think philosophically.
How Did This All Lead to Revolution?
As previously stated, the American Revolution was a direct effect of the European Enlightenment. The theories of rights, government, and the human self that were the basis of Enlightenment took form in the 1700s at the hands of great minds such as Locke, Newton, and Montesquieu. They, however, borrowed their ideas from earlier Muslim philosophers such as Ibn Tufail, Ibn Sina, and Ibn Khaldun. Were it not for their ideas which were rooted in Islam, the Enlightenment may not have been as insightful, or may not have even happened. Added to this was the effect that coffee had on Europe in giving the philosophers a forum to expand their ideas and learn new ones.
Without the Enlightenment, the American colonists never would have had the intellectual backing they needed to revolt. The ideas of freedom, liberty, and human rights that America is founded on are originally Muslim ideas formulated by Muslim philosophers working with the Quran and Hadith as their basis. While it is not accurate to claim that Muslims single-handedly caused the American Revolution, their contributions and influences cannot be overlooked. Those who claim that Islamic ideas are not compatible with American society must remember that it was those Islamic ideas that helped form American society, freedom, and liberty in the first place.
Khaldūn, I. (1969). The muqaddimah, an introduction to history. Bollingen.
Morgan, M. (2007). Lost history. Washington D.C. : National Geographic Society.
Russell, G. A. (1994). The ‘arabick’ interest of the natural philosophers in seventeenth-century england. Brill Publishers.