Let’s stop romanticising the past. Like any other culture or civilisation, Muslim history is characterised by both brilliant golden periods and periods of immense darkness, and of course everything in between. It is not necessary to go to either extreme of celebrating the good and ignoring the bad or of denying any positive contributions to the history of the world at all. There is a middle ground which recognises that Muslim history is extremely diverse.
We have and have always had those groups which seek to destroy, as much as we have those which seek to preserve and create anew. The mercenary army in Syria is no aberration on the landscape of history. Groups like this have been seen before and will be seen again. Hippy artists, preaching love and peace, have also been seen before and will equally be seen again. Our history — like all history — is diverse.
So of course it is absolutely true that we have profoundly merciful rules of engagement in war — unmatched even in modern times — based directly on the traditions of our Prophet, peace be upon him. Do not chop down fruit trees; do not destroy places of worship; do not target civilians; do not destroy wells. What an antidote to the doctrine of collateral damage that has found such widespread sway over the past century!
Yet tragically in our books we also find rulings such as the doctrine of perennial offensive war, developed in later Hanafi and Shafi fiqh and practised for centuries, which are anything but merciful — and quite contrary to Quranic edicts. Indeed we find many rulings with respect to conquered peoples, slaves and their properties which fly in face of the rules of engagement mentioned in my previous paragraph above.
Let’s stop romanticising the past and our inheritance. There is the good and the bad and everything in between. Let’s be balanced.