Even the Western media remained short-sighted in declaring Sadiq Khan as “the first mayor of a major European City”. Media usually remains myopic and it’s left to academics to delve deep into history.
Sitting elected Muslim mayors in Europe include Erion Veliaj of Tirana, Ahmed Aboutaleb of Rotterdam, and Shpend Ahmeti of Pristina. By contrast, Muslim-majority Sarajevo elected Ivo Komšic, a Christian, in 2013.
Peering into history, it will be found that parts of Spain, and often quite a lot of it, were under Muslim rule 711 to 1492. So for example, Abd al-Rahman I was proclaimed Emir of Cordoba in 756. Of course, we’re talking of major Western European city here. In the 900s Cordoba was the most populous city in the world.
The Arab Muslim emirate of Sicily lasted from 831 to 1072. For example, Jafar al-Kalbi (983–985) was emir of Sicily, and therefore mayor of Palermo, the capital.
The insights have been provided by Juan Cole, Prof of History at the University of Michigan. For three decades, the professor has sought to set right the record regarding the West and the Muslim world in the historical context.
The Ottoman Empire ruled most of what is now Greece 1458-1832. Ottoman ruler appointed a Muslim governor of Athens in 1815 (a decade and a half before the Greeks won independence). Athens counts as a major European city. It was under Ottoman control for nearly 400 years.
The Ottomans also ruled much of Hungary 1541 to 1699, and Buda (half of the later twin city of Budapest) was the capital of this province of the empire. While there, the Ottomans supported the Protestant movement in Hungary. Abdurrahman Abdi Pasha the Albanian, e.g., became the military governor of Buda in 1682. Budapest has to count as a major European city.
Serbia was under Ottoman rule 1402–1878 (later in that period as a vassal); for instance, Haci Mustafa Aga was appointed the military governor of Belgrade in July 1793. Of course, mayors were appointed, not elected then. Even the first London mayor was elected in the year 2000.
This is the recorded history. Muslims would have fared better in Europe had they not become too rigid and extremist in views and continued inclusive tradition of involving other religions in social, cultural and academic aspects of life. Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) employed Jews to teach Muslim children and granted them special concessions.
Much later, the part of Spain that was ruled by liberal Muslims, Cordoba, survived for two and half centuries more. The existing Muslim heritage in Spain belongs to that part mostly.
The British philosopher-historian Bertrand Russell pays the richest tributes to Muslims for transferring the knowledge of famous ancient Greek philosophers to Europe during the Middle Ages. “It’s Greek to me”, still survives as an idiomatic expression for not understanding something. Europe would have remained oblivious of the great Greek philosophers like Socrates, Plato, Aristotle and many more if Muslims hadn’t translated their works from Greek into Latin/English for the benefit of Europeans. It was by creating such awareness that Europeans scholars, who were widely influenced by Muslim intellectuals like Avicenna (Ibne Sina) (980-1037) and Averrros (Ibne Rushd) (1126-1198), carried on further research work and became leaders of the world. How tragic it was that works of the two great Muslim scholars were burnt by extremist and illiterate Muslim clerics. The scholastic race of the world, the pursuit of knowledge, was taken over by Europeans after that. It just so happened that at the turn of 20th century the flame was passed on to the more inquisitive Americans who took technological and scientific development, even political and sociological development to dizzy heights. They are still the leaders. It looks too queer to find that once Damascus and Baghdad were like Ivy League of American Universities and students from Paris and London travelled to those cradles of learning. Look at Damascus and Baghdad today!
In this context, if we look back at our own history in South Asia we will find that the Mughal empire in India started crumbling when an extremist, Aurangzeb, killed his more liberal brothers. Mughal empire lost its grip when other nations lost their faith in Muslim leadership.
The election of a Muslim as London’s mayor is, therefore, no cause célèbre for biased and bigoted Muslims. He carries the soft image of Islam, the real Islam in the service of humanity, not religion. He will not toe the cause of Muslims anyway. His election by multi-cultural Londoners that includes more Christians, more Jews and more Hindus than Muslims, proves one thing only: Europeans are ready to embrace Muslims and even accept them even as leaders if they are liberal, accommodating, all-embracing, sharing, fraternal, humanitarian, compassionate and inclusive.
His election is a slap on the face of extremists. It is their way to answer what extremists did in Paris, Brussels, New York and elsewhere.
The large hearted Londoners rejected a rich Jewish competitor only to show to the world that a Muslim, who truly believes and follows the spirit of Islam, is their leader.
The lesson is worldwide as London happens to be the epicenter of co-existence, cosmopolitans and fair-minded citizens. Pakistani leaders should follow in his footsteps and set their house in order before it is too late.