From roughly 540 to 629 A.D. the Byzantine and Sasanian Empires engaged in a series of devastating wars for control of the Near East. At their highest point the Sasanian shahs ruled the great cities of Antioch, Alexandria and Jerusalem.1 The Byzantines, under the capable leadership of Emperor Heraclius, struck back in the 620s, eventually capturing the Persian capitol at Ctesiphon. Though ending in Pyrrhic victory for the Byzantines, the prolonged conflict left both empires exhausted and weary of further bloodshed.2 Unbeknownst to either of them as they fought for dominance a new, vibrant power was taking shape in the backwater of the Arabian Peninsula. In time these followers of Mohammed would smash both of the former giants of the old world and usher in a new age with a distinctly “Islamic” character, the primary feature of which was and continues to be militant expansion.
Mohammed – the Prophet of God
Any discussion of Islam must begin with the personality of Mohammed. He is the central human figure of the religion and, according to Muslims, the final and supreme prophet of God. Sometime around 613 A.D Mohammed began to take issue with the myriad polytheist faiths fashionable in the merchant city of Mecca situated in the Hijaz area of Arabia. Mohammed told those who would listen of his visions in which the angel Gabriel commanded him to preach the will of God or Allah to his pagan brethren.3 Despite his high reputation, Mohammed’s teaching inevitably led him into conflict with the natives of Mecca, most notably the Quraysh tribe. The Quraysh held responsibility for the maintenance of the Kaba, a shrine to countless pagan gods and the focal point of Meccan religious life. Mohammed’s denunciation of polytheism naturally raised the ire of those charged with the care of the Kaba, even though the Quraysh were in fact Mohammed’s own tribe. Animosity towards Mohammed’s beliefs eventually manifested itself in full-scale persecution. These attacks, including repeated assassination attempts against Mohammed, compelled the incipient Muslim community to emigrate to Medina where Islam had received a more positive reception.4
In Medina Mohammed found a mixed polity of Jews and Arabs. This diversity most likely facilitated his introduction into the city as the population believed they could look to Mohammed to serve as an arbitrator in their local disputes. His rule in Medina was not without contention though. Various political factions opposed his growing religious power and the Jewish community was not as receptive as Mohammed had hoped they would be. Mohammed’s adoption of several Jewish practices, including the fast of Kippur and ritual prayer towards Jerusalem, failed to convert the Jewish community. In his agitation Mohammed abandoned the Jewish rites and altered the direction of prayer from Jerusalem to Mecca.5 Furthermore, Mohammed and his followers forcibly dislocated the Jewish community in Medina after which they seized and redistributed the former Jewish property. Expansion of the Muslim faithful followed and left Mohammed searching for new areas of enrichment. He found this room in another Jewish settlement located north of Medina. The Muslims captured and subdued this oasis without much difficulty, but chose now tax rather than forced expulsion as their modus vivendi with the unconverted. Under the established system the Jews and other “peoples of the Book” could keep their religions as long as they paid the required tribute, to be dispersed among Mohammed’s devoted adherents. This arrangement would come to typify Muslim relations with their non-believing subjects for some time.6
The Muslims of Medina, economically detached due to separation from their Meccan roots, turned explicitly to warfare as the means to maintain expansion both religiously and materially. Raiding caravans bound for Mecca was the most obvious and effective form of this warfare. It had the dual benefit of strengthening Mohammed’s reputation as a war leader and strangling the mercantile activity upon which Mecca depended. The repudiation of Jerusalem and the elevation of Mecca as the religious locus of the new faith lent greater strength to Mohammed’s desire to conquer his former home. This economic warfare found ultimate expression at the Battle of Badr in 624 A.D. Several hundred Muslims, led personally by Mohammed, attacked a Meccan convoy, capturing much plunder and suffering few casualties. This seminal event, celebrated in the Koran, marked the real beginning of Muslim military achievement and led the nascent Islamic society (the Umma) to associate victory in arms with providential favor.7
Although the Muslims suffered at least one defeat at the hands of the Meccans, Islamic power remain undimmed. The Meccan siege of Medina in 627 A.D. ended in failure for the attackers and precipitated the Muslim eradication of the last remaining Jewish tribe in Medina. The Banu Qurayza, accused of collusion with the Meccans, saw their men butchered and their women and children condemned to slavery. The defeat of the Meccan offensive and the consolidation of his position in Medina granted Mohammed the freedom of action to pursue a more openly expansionist policy towards Mecca. The resistance would not last for long.8
Eager to placate the powerful Muslims and anxious to regain their lucrative tribal alliances, the leaders of Mecca surrendered to Mohammed in 630 A.D.9 The capitulation of Mecca brought about Mohammed’s suzerainty over the greater part of the Arabian world and established his authority well beyond the confines of the oasis cities.10 From his capital in Medina Mohammed exercised a dominance in the Arabian world most aptly described as a cult of religio-political personality. He did not fashion any formal governmental organs, choosing rather to rule through personal relationships and tribal treaties.
The end of the Prophet’s life came in 632 A.D. following a brief bout with some undetermined illness. Before dying Mohammed visited Mecca to deliver what would be his last and perhaps most definitive message: “know that every Muslim is a Muslim’s brother, and that the Muslims are brethren; fighting between them should be avoided, and the blood shed in pagan times should not be avenged; Muslims should fight all men until they say, â€˜There is no god but God.’11
Significant aspects of Mohammed’s life
The true magnitude of Mohammed’s accomplishments can only be understood in terms both political and religious. In fact, our notion of a difference between the two is completely alien to Arabic and subsequently Islamic thought. Mohammed, through political savvy and religious zeal, welded the disparate Arabic tribes and cities into a unified culture capable of impressive concerted action and, due to the universalizing nature of Islam, possessed of a nearly unlimited potential for growth.
The life of Mohammed and his companions served as an example for later generations of Muslims and set the precedents that would come to govern and give motive to countless Islamic power brokers. Through his actions Mohammed gave credence to the use of violence for religious purposes and set the Umma on the path of military conquest. Mohammed also legitimized the tendency of Arabic culture toward hyper-masculinity. The Prophet himself married no less than ten times, his youngest bride being six at the time of their wedding and a mere nine for the act of consummation. Additionally, apart from his juvenile wife, the rest of his spouses were widows, many of which were made as such during Mohammed’s punitive raids.12
Successors to the Prophet – the Caliphs
The word caliph can be translated in one of many ways, including â€˜lieutenant,’ â€˜deputy ruler,’ or sometimes as â€˜successor.’13 All of these renderings, however, denote transference of power and authority in some form or fashion. The death of Mohammed and the issue of succession posed serious questions for the fledging Islamic community. Mohammed had left little or no instruction for his religious progeny, making confusion the order of the day. The dispute that arose over the issue of succession to leadership of the Umma would later lead to the Islamic schism between Sunni and Shia, but we shall address that later. For the time being, the Medina notables gathered to elect a new leader, much as tribal sheiks had been chosen before the advent of Islam.14
Their choice was one of Mohammed’s earliest converts and the father of the Prophet’s puerile third wife. The election of Abu Bakr marked the beginning of an institution known to posterity as the Caliphate. Bernard Lewis described the caliphate as thus: “The community of Islam was Church and state in one, with the two indistinguishably interwoven; its titular head, the Caliph, was at once a secular and religious chief.”15 This combination of the secular and the religious is fundamental to any correct understanding of Islamic culture.
Leadership of the Umma did not constitute a continuation of the prophetic tradition however. The caliph’s position was certainly one of religious importance, but he could not claim direct revelation from Allah. That gift ended with the Prophet. Abu Bakr, as caliph, found himself called upon to manage the complex affairs of the Umma on earth and to uphold the traditions laid down by Mohammed.16
His first challenge was to suppress rebellions that had broken out following Mohammed’s death. Several tribes of the Hijaz and Nejd regions rose in revolt against the hegemony of Medina and sought to capitalize on the confusion surrounding the Prophet’s passing. Some of these tribes rejected Islam altogether; others simply refused to pay tribute to the Umma. The campaigns mounted by Abu Bakr and his fearsome general Khalid bin Walid against this “apostasy” were collectively dubbed the wars of the ridda.17 Fierce tribal resistance proved no match for the onslaught of the Muslim armies. Victory over the Bedouin was followed seamlessly by raids into the periphery of the adjacent empires, both Byzantine and Sasanid. Successful marauding turned readily into outright conquest. Byzantium’s Egyptian and Syrian provinces along with a sizable portion of the Sasanian Empire rested in Islamic hands at the end of the reign of the second caliph, Umar ibn Abd al-Khattab.18
A leader of the powerful Ummayad family of Mecca, named Uthman ibn â€˜Affan, succeeded Umar after his assassination in 644 A.D. It appears that the leaders of the Quraysh chose Uthman in the hopes that he could reconcile the intense internal factionalism that threatened to tear the Islamic empire apart.19 These hopes proved illusory. Uthman’s policies were overtly nepotistic; a fact that was not overlooked by the disenfranchised members of competing clans. A bloody alliance of Medina natives and Egyptian soldiers killed Uthman in 656 A.D.20
With Uthman’s death the period of tenuous Islamic unity abruptly ended. The faction that assassinated Uthman viewed the death as a legitimate act of tyrannicide. Uthman was an immoral usurper and his deposition was a necessary judgment of the faithful. The contrary position saw Uthman’s death as a murder, a criminal misdeed directed at the rightful head of the Umma. This divergence in opinion over the question of Uthman’s death and concerning the succession of Ali ibn Abi Talib to the caliphate came to define the two major branches of Islam. Those who supported Uthman and bemoaned his death became what we understand as Sunni Muslims, while the opposition group eventually became known as the Shia, the partisans of Ali.21
Ali ibn Abi Talib was a cousin of Mohammed and the husband of Mohammed’s daughter, Fatima. After Uthman’s demise, Ali ascended to the caliphate but did not benefit from universal support. The Ummayad clan disputed the selection, as did other members of the Medina elite.22 Ali created new enemies by removing many of Uthman’s political appointees and by failing to pursue the former caliph’s murderers. Some of these enemies, including Mohammed’s widow Aisha, removed themselves to Mecca where they began to call for war against Ali. This faction then moved to Basra, in modern Iraq, to muster forces against the caliph. Ali, in turn, raised an army and in 656 A.D. began his disciplinary expedition northwards.
Ali marched to Kufa, which he established as his capital. He then moved on Basra and defeated the shaky alliance that opposed him. This victory notwithstanding, Ali’s position was growing ever more precarious. In Syria the governor Mu’awiya ibn Abi Sufyan, nephew of Uthman, was advancing demands for justice in the case of his uncle. He furthermore implied that Ali at least condoned of Uthman’s murder, if not being directly complicit.
Mu’awiya’s discontent became direct hostility when Ali sent a replacement for the position of Syrian governor. Mu’awiya refused to be deposed and armed conflict ensued. At the battle of Siffin Mu’awiya’s forces demanded arbitration after the opening engagements went poorly for the Syrian army. Ali, under pressure from the pious element in his own following, acquiesced. By agreeing to negotiation however, Ali alienated the hard-line element of his camp. These Kharijites, as they came to be known, withdrew their support from Ali, leaving him much diminished. Mu’awiya took advantage of the convoluted parlay to seize Egypt from the Caliph, thus cutting off Ali from his wealthiest province.23 In 661 A.D, while perhaps preparing for a fresh attack on Mu’awiya, a Kharijite assassin killed Ali, the fourth caliph, in Kufa.24
With all serious contenders removed, Mu’awiya captured the caliphate for himself. Mu’awiya attempted to legitimize his position by securing the official abdication of Ali’s son, Hasan. Hasan, likely dubious of his ability to keep control of an empire so recently torn by civil war, agreed to Mu’awiya’s elevation on the condition that the caliphate would return to Ali’s family following Mu’awiya’s death. Hasan would not live long enough to see his bargain upheld. In 669 A.D. Hasan was poisoned, reportedly at the behest of Mu’awiya. Mu’awiya himself died in 680 A.D., but did not pass the caliphate back to the family of Ali. Before dying Mu’awiya ensured that his son, Yazid, would succeed him as caliph.
Freed from the agreement with the Ummayads, Husayn, the younger brother of Hasan, left Mecca for Kufa where a faction had declared its willingness to oppose Yazid and accept Husayn as leader. En route to Kufa Husayn and his party were surrounded by a military force sent by the governor of Basra, an official loyal to Yazid. On the plains of Karbala after days of failed negotiations, the forces of Ibn Ziyad, governor of Basra, attacked and killed all members of Husayn’s entourage, sparring only the women and children. Husayn’s head was delivered to Yazid at his capital in Damascus.25
The Two Halves of Islam
At this point we will depart from the narrative in order to explain certain salient features of the two major sects of Islam. Though Islam contains more than two divisions, the rift between Sunni and Shia is by far the most important distinction in Islamic theology. What originally may be seen as a dispute between two political leaders quickly developed deep religious significance. As we have seen, Islam recognizes no distinction between the secular and the religious. Therefore a political argument will naturally have consuming religious accretions lest the original confrontation lose all validity. The nature of Islamic society forced this issue of succession to be ultimately expressed in theological terms.
Shia Islamic thought came to reject the caliphate as a corrupted institution after the death of Ali and his sons. While Sunni Muslims recognized the caliphate as a valid position based upon the consensus of the Umma, the Shia came to reckon religious authority in terms of heredity. In place of the caliph the Shia submitted to the authority of successive generations of holy teachers descended from the Prophet, or more accurately from Ali. This institution is collectively known as the Imamate. The Imam is the spiritual head of the Islamic community and though he exists somewhere below the Prophet he still holds preeminence over all other men. He is infallible and, like the Prophet, God chooses him.
There are numerous sects within Shia Islam itself. These groups disagree as to the number of true Imams.26 The largest group within the Shia world is the Ithna Asharia, more commonly known as the “Twelvers.” The numeric descriptor refers to the number of Imams recognized as legitimate by the group. Another sect, the “Seveners” or Ismailis, recognized the elder son of the sixth Imam, Ismail, as the true and final Imam. Twelvers believe the succession passed on to the younger brother. The Ismailis would achieve infamy as the radical Assassins of Syria and Iran during the Crusades.27 The last sect of Shia Islam is the Zaiddiyah or “Fivers.” Zaidis broke away from the mainstream Shia fold over the issue of the fifth Imam.28
With some notable exceptions, the Shia community has formed an opposition group to orthodox Sunni rule. Ismaili assassins cut short the lives of many Sunni rulers and Safavid Persia waged long and bloody wars against the Sunni Ottoman Empire. This is not to say that all Shia personalities have fomented violence against established authority. The sixth Imam, Jafar al-Sadiq, preached passive resistance to the Sunni caliphate. His school of thought, quietism, still has powerful adherents in the 21st century.29
Despite its internal differences, Shia Islam is united by the notion that all authority of this world, including Sunni government is somehow flawed and unjust. Some schools of Shia thought require a Shiite to pay a tax if he insists on sullying himself with government work.30 This seditious philosophy has caused many governments to distrust their Shia populations. It has also meant that Shia communities are generally handicapped in terms of political organization. Shiites, even now, wait for the advent of the Hidden Imam or Mahdi.31 They believe that this man of the house of Ali will come to “fill this world with such justice and fairness, just as it initially was filled with oppression.”32 Until such time, when the Hidden Imam is no longer hidden, all government, even Shia government, is tainted.33
The majority of Muslims, some 85%, are considered Sunni. The term Sunni is a derivative of Sunna, the practice of the Prophet. Sunnis base their theology on correct interpretation of the Koran and the Sunna.34 Sunnis hold the Hadith, the book in which the sunna is recorded, in high esteem as it is, in their minds, their most pure access to the erudition of the Prophet. Intense study of the Koran and the Hadith evolved in various schools of jurisprudence. Among these are the Hanafi, the Maliki, the Hanbali, and the Shafi’i. The nuances of each school lead their respective scholars to interpret Islamic law (sharia) in slightly different fashions. Each school, however, respects the learning of the others and many Islamic universities instruct students in multiple veins of Sunni understanding.35
The most pertinent feature of Sunni Islam, as it relates to the Shia variety, is the acceptance of governmental authority as long as said government upholds Islamic law and can reasonably be considered just. The great majority of Islamic empires were Sunni, just as most Islamic countries today profess Sunni devotion. Iran and Yemen are obvious exceptions. In the main though Islamic relations with the outside world have been carried out under Sunni auspices; Shiites have long been constrained by Sunni overlords. In this respect Sunni Islam seems more readily understandable to Western observers, comfortable as we are with political authority. This specious cognition, however, is based upon mistaken assumptions carried over from our conception of Western government. Submission to political authority does not mean that Sunni states are somehow less religious than their Shia counterparts. In the Islamic world the existence of political authority in no way corresponds to secular administration. On the contrary, religious fervor has ever been the defining affection of Sunni statecraft.
Now that we have treated, ever so briefly, with the natures of both the Sunni and Shia sects of Islam we may return to the historical context in which we find these forces at work.
Internal dissension within the Islamic community did not long or significantly hinder the march of Muslim conquest. On the central Asian front the armies of Islam took Herat, Kabul, and Bokhara.36 In the west Muslim forces, supplemented with Persian and Berber auxiliaries, carried the banner of the Prophet across North Africa and into Spain. Charles Martel managed to stem the Islamic tide in 733 A.D. by defeating the Muslim army at Tours in France, thereby holding Islam south of the Pyrenees. Muslim arrows finally met their match in Frankish mail. The army of Abd ar-Rahman, the Muslim general, lost perhaps 10,000 men during its Frankish foray.37
Muslim armies suffered more serious checks in their wars with Byzantium. Early and astonishing success had brought the soldiery of the caliphate up to the walls of Constantinople. Though besieged and cut-off from the supporting countryside, the defenders of the city held out for the better part of a year until the Ummayad generals were forced to withdraw.38 Failure or not, the wars with Byzantium left the caliphate in command of battle-hardened troops disciplined by years of long campaigning.39
In the Far East expansion became a matter of competition. The movement of the capital of the caliphate to Syria had engendered jealously and strife between that province and Iraq. In 712 A.D. the governor of Iraq, one Al-Hajjaj bin Yousef, dispatched the adolescent raider, Muhammad bin Qasim to India on a mission to punish the “idolaters” of India and seize their territory. He entered through the Sindh province of Pakistan and embarked upon a vicious expedition of slaughter and religious purgation. Qasim razed temples, smashed religious artwork, killed men and enslaved their families. After the violence of conquest Qasim attempted to ameliorate his Hindu subjects to Muslim rule by offering a modicum of religious toleration. Hajjaj in Iraq countermanded Qasim’s policy. He ordered that all men of able body be put to the sword. Children of these men should be taken as hostages. Qasim followed his master’s instructions with brutal efficiency. The fall of Brahminabad was punctuated by the slaughter of well over 6,000 men.
The Islamic conquest of India would not be complete for some centuries. Later dynasties and kingdoms would launch successive waves of invasion, all marked by intense destruction and cultural antipathy. Though certainly violent, the Islamic conquerors of the Levant, Egypt, and the Middle East demonstrated a certain degree of restraint. The Judaic religions of the conquered, in this case, garnered some respect from the Islamic deference for “peoples of the book.” Indeed some Jewish and Christian communities looked upon their Muslim lords as delivers from Byzantine misrule. No such leniency was shown in India.
Hinduism and Buddhism have no kinship with Islam. This fact mingled with the Muslims’ disdain for the more developed culture of India produced centuries of suffering for the unfortunate inhabitants of the sub-continent. Hindu temples were converted into mosques and parishioners were sold into slavery by the thousands; all of this undertaken to prove the superiority of the Prophet’s faith.40
The End of the Universal Caliphate
The Ummayad rulers toed a delicate line in their administration of the Islamic world. The assassinations of Ali and his sons had earned them the abiding hatred of the Shia, while the orthodox families of Mecca viewed the Syrian upstarts with suspicion and resentment. For a time rapid territorial expansion consumed the energies of the Umma and wars against non-believers bolstered the position of the Ummayad in the eyes of the faithful. Checks to this expansion gave recourse to dissenters to question the justice of Ummayad governance.
Revolt again wracked the Islamic world in 744 A.D. as Shia and Sunni malefactors joined forces to topple Syrian rule. The ultimate victor in the contest was a scion of the Abbasid family of Mecca. The Abbasids transferred their capital to Baghdad in Iraq, thus showing their affinity for the Persian contingent that had so aided them in their ascension.41 The Abbasids abolished all differences between Arabs and their non-Arab subjects. They also granted the ulema (learned religious men) greater authority in the maintenance of the empire in order to escape the charges of immorality that had so undermined Ummayad dominance.
Not all of the new caliph’s constituents were so lucky. The Shia were undoubtedly important to Abbasid success, but took issue with Abbasid succession when Mansur, the second of the family, failed to make the Shia Imam ruler of the Islamic community.42 Mansur was forced to suppress a general Shia rebellion during his rule. Violence only subsided during the reign of his successor.43
The emergence of the Abbasid caliphate represented a radical new step in Islamic development. As we have already mentioned the Abbasids tore down the ethnic legal constructs that had held Arab apart from non-Arab under the Ummayads. In this sense the Abbasid caliphate can be said to be the first truly Islamic empire, putting religion ahead of blood. Previously, under the Ummayads, non-Arabs were forced to bear a higher tax burden and received a smaller salary for their service in the army. Under the Abbasid system Arab ancestry became less important. In fact, a great many Abbasid caliphs were, at most, half Arab. Of course this equality applied only to Muslims. Adherents to other faiths maintained a decidedly second-class status.44
The incorporation of a larger segment of the population into privileged society allowed for the second major feature of the Abbasid dynasty – the cultivation of luxury, the arts, and that necessary evil of all civilization, bureaucracy.45 The caliph became less of a tribal chief and more of a royal autocrat fashioned in an almost Persian style. In place of unmanageable Arabs satraps and their complement of Bedouin raiders Abbasid leadership relied on a relatively complex system of salaried administrators and appointed imperial agents. The Abbasid caliphs, increasingly detached from direct involvement in the details of empire, created the position of wazir (vizier) to control the bureaucratic magnificence of the Islamic state.46
The greater efficiency and egalitarianism of the new dynasty belied serious problems that were developing within the Islamic sphere. Abbasid rule was not recognized universally throughout the former Ummayad domains. In North Africa, Morocco, Tunisia and Egypt all established independent kingdoms. Iran played host to the rise of several local dynasties and Spain, under the control of a deposed Ummayad prince, threw off Abbasid loyalty and became the separate emirate of Cordoba.47 By the 10th century Cordoban pretension had grown so much that Abd-ar-Rahman III felt comfortable enough to trade his title of emir for that of caliph.48
As control slipped in Arabia as well, the Abbasid caliphs found themselves masters of an ever-shrinking empire centered in Iraq but with peripheral power in Syria, Anatolia, and Persia. The lip service paid to the spurious concept of Abbasid preeminence by local potentates quickly found expression within the empire as well. Abbasid monarchs had long employed Turkish slaves (mamluks) as soldiers and palace guards. By the middle of the 9th century these erstwhile servants began to openly control court politics. Over time real power within the caliphate came to reside with the palatial mayor, a military commander of Turkish or Iranian origin.49 The caliph was given formal respect and retained his title of Commander of the Faithful, but could not seriously effect the affairs of state.50 The Abbasid dynasty was further diminished by peasant and slave revolts too numerous to recount here.51
Unfortunately for Islam the fissiparous decline of the caliphate coincided with a period of military unity in the West. Undertaken to retrieve the Holy Land from the “infidels,” the Crusades represented the West’s first attack into Muslim territory. Military conflict between Western Christian and Muslim was certainly not new in 1095 A.D. when Pope Urban II preached the First Crusade. As we have already noted Islamic armies had conquered the larger part of Christian Spain under the Ummayads. Additionally, Muslim armies of primarily North African stock had overrun Sicily and Southern Italy, advancing as far as the environs of Rome herself.52
The proximate cause of the Crusades was the apparent danger posed to Constantinople by the advancing Islamicized Seljuk Turks. The deeper, more robust motive can only be found in the powerful Christian faith of Europe at the time. The reconquest of the Holy Land had become a religious prerogative. It is true that some men embarked for the East hoping for profit or land, but to deny the driving religious zeal of the Crusaders is naÃ¯ve and disingenuous. The knights, peasants, and, at times, children, of Europe advanced into the Muslim world to fulfill what they perceived to be a religious duty undertaken to one day warrant access to heaven.53
By the time the armies of the First Crusade reached the Levant the power of the Seljuks had substantially waned. An Ismaili assassin killed Nizam al-Mulk, the chief minister and architect of Seljuk administration, in 1092, thus precipitating the dissolution of the Seljuk Empire.54 The abortive People’s Crusade notwithstanding, the First Crusade met with remarkable success. Jerusalem fell to Crusader arms on 15 July 1099.55 The Frankish host followed up their triumph by slaughtering most of the Muslim population.
The First Crusade marked the advent and the apogee of the Crusading movement. The Latin kingdoms formed in the Levant after the Crusade suffered steady losses following the victory of the 11th century. Setbacks to the Latin kingdoms prompted numerous subsequent crusades that ranged in accomplishment from mediocre gains to abject failure. For the next several centuries Europe episodically embarked for the East to salvage the Latin kingdoms or fight Muslim powers. Beyond these endeavors, Latin Christendom also waged Holy war against Islam in Spain and in Sicily. From 1061 to 1091 the Norman lords of southern Italy retook Sicily. The Spanish Reconquista took much longer, lasting in fits and starts up until 1492 and the fall of Granada.56
The most important facet of the period of the Crusades was certainly not the evanescent Latin kingdoms, nor the political disorder of the Muslim principalities. Across the broader stretch of time the Crusades came to define relations between the West and Islam, lending common parlance to the derogatory term used by each side in reference for the other. As the result of the Crusades the idea of “infidel” gained prominence and context throughout both societies.
The concept of Jihad
It is perhaps now appropriate to break again from our story and pursue an explanatory topic – Jihad. The idea of Jihad or “striving” certainly predates the Crusades, in fact it finds its roots in Mohammed, but the introduction of a militant West into the preserve of Islam gave voice to a series of Muslim thinkers who set about defining and explaining Jihad to the untutored. One such religious exhortation is the Bahr al-Fava’id, composed by an unknown Persian of Aleppo as a tract outlining the many functions, attributes, modes, and methods of Jihad.57
Islamic thought divides the world into two rival camps. The first is the Dar al-Islam rendered approximately in English as the house of submission. The other realm is the Dar al-Harb, or the house of war. Muslims, their communities, and Muslim governments reside in the first fold, everyone else abides in the house of war.58 It is a central tenet of Islam that the former must be expanded at the expense of the latter. Sunni Islam appoints the caliph as the leader of Jihad against the unbelievers.59 With this in mind Abbasid caliphs declared the wars against Byzantium as Jihad. They did likewise with their conquests of pagan Turks and Hindu India. The Bahr makes it clear that a ruler would be better off dead than to make peace with “infidels.”
The Bahr al Fava’id elucidates many other telling features of Islamic Jihad. The author tells us that there are two distinct types of Jihad. One is in internal to the individual and represents his struggle with his own personal failings. The other is external and represents Islam’s assault on unbelievers in the Dar al-Harb. This concept is in turn subdivided again into offensive and defensive wars. Although all Muslims are not required to become active participants in offensive Jihad, they are compelled to contribute to it either financially or morally. The case of defensive Jihad – that is war to retake land once considered Muslim- is less ambiguous. All Muslims who are capable must prosecute the war.60 The author of the Bahr had not far to look for a source of authority to justify his teachings:
Fight those who believe not in God and the Last Day and do not forbid what God and His Messenger have forbidden – such men as practice not the religion of truth, being of those who have been given the Book – until they pay tribute out of hand and have been humbled. (Koran IX.29)
A minority of medieval Muslim jurists attempted to present Jihad in defensive terms only. Their view was never popular and Jihad continued to be viewed as a legitimate offensive tool to be used until such time as all men submit to the rule of Islam.61 Interestingly enough this submission does not mean that all men must convert to Islam. Islamic law forbids forced conversion.62 These two concepts therefore merge and create a system whereby Islam can exist within a plurality of faiths, but only as the dominant religious identity. Any other arrangement places that community back within the house of war and makes it subject to Jihad.
The ascendancy of the Turks
The last and perhaps the greatest of the Islamic empires was that of the Ottoman Turks. Rising from the shards of Seljuk failure, the Ottomans would grow, overthrow the inveterate opponent Byzantium, and carry Islam, on the point of a spear, into the very heart of Europe.
The Mongol invasions had finished what an Ismaili dagger had started. The break-up of the Seljuk sultanate and the sack of Abbasid Baghdad had left the Islamic world in shivers. The Ayyubids of Saladin for a time ruled Egypt, to be followed by the Mamluks. In Syria, Persia, and Iraq local potentates and Turkish beys exercised regional power and little more, often seeking empire beyond their ability.
In Bursa, a province of Anatolia, however, a change was underway. Unlike many other beylicates (principalities) Ottoman territory here buffeted against the Byzantine Empire and was therefore the scene of much ghazi activity. Ghazis were holy warriors committed to Jihad and drawn from throughout the Islamic world. Fired by fanaticism, these soldiers gave a jihadist zeal to Ottoman expansion and indelibly bound Turkish imperial ambitions to holy war. This Jihad was preached throughout Anatolia by Sufi mystics, thus spreading the militant fervor wherever they traveled.63
Ottoman victories came one after another in quick succession. The ghazi armies defeated an expedition sent by Byzantium in 1301 at the battle of Baphaeon. Success drew more recruits to the Ottoman Jihad. The Turks captured Bursa itself in 1326 to be followed by the fall of Iznik and Izmid in 1331 and 1337 respectively. In 1336 the Ottomans assimilated the Emirate of Karasi into their realm, thus bringing the Ottoman soldiery to the coasts of the Aegean and the Marmara.64
With his fledging corps of Janissaries, Christian slaves raised as Muslim warriors, Murad I catapulted the Ottoman Empire into Europe.65 A coalition of Christian rulers met defeat at Ottoman hands at the Battle of Kosovo in 1389. Murad’s son Bayezid I completed the victory and took control of Bulgaria. The reactionary Christian Crusade against the Turks was defeated at Nicopolis at the end of the 14th century. Christendom’s temporary reprieve came not as the result of European efforts, but at the hands the infamous Turco-Mongol war chief, Tamerlane. In 1402 he crushed Bayezid at the Battle of Ankara ushering in a brief period of Ottoman withdrawal.66
The stay did not last long indeed. In 1453 a resurgent Ottoman Empire captured ancient Constantinople from its last tragically heroic emperor, Constantine. The city had long lived under the Muslim shadow, but its fall marked the end of an age and the transfer of the Ottoman capital to the seat of former Byzantine glory represented Islam’s final transcendence over all eastern culture.67 In the West, Christendom trembled, but did nothing.
In less than seven years after the capture of Constantinople the Turks had overrun the whole of Greece and more of the Balkans. Turkish expeditions against Rhodes and southern Italy failed, much to the chagrin of Mehmed II, however the Ottoman advance was once again stymied not by the West, but by the East.
In 1501 Shah Isma’il I emerged from the Caspian Sea to conquer Sunni Persia and replace it with a new and virulent Shia state. Isma’il and his Safavid successors fought the Turks sporadically for many years with Mesopotamia and Baghdad hanging in the balance. The Twelver Safavids and their Shia Empire would constantly draw men and material from the wars of Ottoman expansion in the West.68 Shia and Sunni tension in the Middle East still finds its source in this 16th century development.
The spasmodic nature of Safavid opposition to Sunni Ottoman dominance was incapable of holding Turkish expansion in check. Ottoman sultans found a more dangerous enemy in the Mamluk sultanate of Egypt. Superior military technology and organization allowed Ottoman armies to dispatch the last remnant of Mamluk resistance in 1517. Soon thereafter the Barbary states of North Africa declared their submission to Ottoman rule, as did the cities of Arabia.69
Under their tenth ruler, Suleyman the Magnificent, the Ottoman military captured Belgrade, took Rhodes from the Knights of St. John, and crushed Hungarian resistance at Mohacs. Suleyman failed to capture Vienna in 1529, but he did succeed in carrying the banner of Islam all the way to the doorstep of the Hapsburg Empire. In almost anachronistic glory the Knights of St. John, transplanted to their new home in Malta, succeeded in overcoming immense odds to defeat the Ottoman invasion of that island. Suleyman died in frustration a year later, but would be forever remembered as the greatest of the Ottoman sultans and the master organizer of the Turkish realms.70
From the death of Suleyman onward the history of the Ottoman Empire can be seen as a story of decline. In 1571 a Christian naval league destroyed the grand Muslim fleet at Lepanto and though the Turks advanced to Vienna again in 1683 their effort was overly ambitious and ended in complete disaster. Poor administration and wasteful fiscal policy steadily degraded the Turkish position in the world. Ottoman ineptitude reached such a nadir that the sultans traded the title “the Sublime Porte” for the epithet, “the sick man of Europe.” Decline continued until the Ottomans’ final defeat by the Allied powers in World War I.71
The modern age was one of dramatic reversal for the fortunes of Islam. Once the cultural, scientific, and military epicenter of the world, Islam found itself denigrated by the “barbarians” of the West. In the space of a few hundred years Europe had undergone radical technological and organizational changes. The rise of the nation-state gave European rulers unprecedented military force, while sail and steam carried Western entrepreneurs to every corner of the world. In a historical blink of the eye the West broke free from its geographic confines to stand astride the world like a colossus.
This subordination forced Islam to reexamine itself and question its validity with respect to the tangible and perceptible superiority of Western arms and culture. After the end of the First World War the West granted at least nominal independence to most of its Islamic territories. Full independence would come only after the Second World War. European powers began carving out rather arbitrary states from the remnants of the Ottoman provinces. Many of the nascent Muslim countries, enamored with Western success, aped after European political organization. It is during this time that we find the idea of nationalism emerging in the Islamic world. Countries like Egypt, Syria, and Turkey all formed definable polities and sought to inculcate a sense of national pride among their citizens. Places like Iraq suffered in their attempts to form a cogent government, having little tradition of unity to rely on.
In some instances Muslim countries, seeking to be modern, tried to divorce Islam from secular government, e.g. Turkey and Egypt. In other cases, such as Saudi Arabia, the formation of a country coincided with a new wave of religious expression. The puritanical form of Sunni Islam known as Wahhabism to its detractors found favor with the Saud family. The movement had come to life much earlier under Ottoman rule, but had been suppressed by the Pasha of Egypt. In the 20th century Wahhabi thought reemerged to give a religious credo to the Saudi state.72 This religious jurisprudence based in radical Hanbali thought has also become the official philosophy of many modern terrorist organizations, such as al-Qaeda, which seek to restore the universal Caliphate.73
The secularization of Islamic society coupled with the failure of the western political experiments on eastern soil fostered much exasperation and even consternation in the Muslim world. The superficial westernization of Islamic society prompted a violent backlash in many circles. Both secularization and nationalism are contrary to various aspects of Islamic belief. The failure of the perceived Western values to bring success to Muslim countries left many looking for answers.
In most cases this search for validation has led Muslim societies to reassert the value of their religious heritage. The introduction of the Jewish homeland in Israel created further problems for the Islamic world. Once again non-believers gained a foothold in traditionally Islamic territory, at the expense of Muslim residents. United in their opposition to Jewish encroachment, the Arab nations began expressing an ideology of Pan-Arabism in place of tepid nationalism. In 1945 seven nations formed the â€˜League of Arab states.’ By 1992 this coalition had grown to 22 countries, not all of which could claim Arab descent.74 The series of wars launched against Israel over the latter half of the 20th century and the commensurate series of Muslim defeats have only added to this sense of common purpose among the general population, if not among the leadership of these Muslim countries.
Pan-Arabism, it would seem, like nationalism and socialism is giving way to more transcendent notions of political identity. A sense of religious universalism has taken hold of the Muslim world, reviving older and deeper notions of cultural affiliation. Increasingly the governments of Islamic countries must give much deference to Islamic ideology or face violent overthrow. This process has found its most dynamic and violent expression in international terrorism. Though the agendas of terrorist organizations may differ remarkably, there is a general outrage concerning the West’s support for Israel. As in earlier days the domination of Muslim populations by non-Muslim rulers has proved completely unacceptable to religious sensibilities.
Divested of its ability to pursue open conventional war against its foes, Islam has taken increasingly to acts of seemingly random and chaotic violence. Israel has become the scene of nearly perpetual carnage, as has Russia in the case of Chechnya. In India Islam chafes in its subordinate position and Islamic minorities in Great Britain have, of late, called for the overthrow of democratic rule and the establishment of Islamic theocracy. The cultural war currently being waged in the Sudan is another poignant example.
It would seem, as Samuel Huntington has argued, that relations between Islam and the West suffer from fundamental, irreconcilable ideological differences.75 This is a disconcerting, but nonetheless true assessment of a long-standing historical condition. It is perhaps also correct to extend this model to cultures besides the West. In fact, Islam continues to war with every other culture it meets, much as it did under the Ummayad caliphate.
Inside many Western countries Islamic thought has coalesced with disenfranchised populations to form potentially dangerous sub-cultures. If these groups pursue Islamic jurisprudence to its traditional conclusion, they too will seek to achieve dominance at the expense of the controlling community. If we accept the premise that Islam is irrevocably bent on expansion, as has been its historical precedent, then there exists the very real possibility that Islamic communities within non-Muslim societies will conspire with the wider Jihadist movement to rend all competing polities.
The complicity of native Muslim terrorists in countries such as the United States would undoubtedly cause deep fissures to open in democratic societies. If pursued with adequate virulence these fissures could, in fact, force host cultures to choose between survival and the many rights that have become a part of liberal democratic society. That is to say that native terrorism of Islamic ilk may compel Western states to discard the idea of “freedom of religion” as a luxury they can no longer afford. The prospect is at once terrifying and readily apparent. This historical inertia is not easily overcome.
1 A. Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples (The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press 2002), p. 11
2 see Heraclius available online at http://www.worldhistory.com/wiki/H/Heraclius.htm
3 W. McNeill, The Rise of the West: A History of the Human Community (A Centennial Publication of the University of Chicago Press), p. 421.
4 See Muhammad available online at http://www.worldhistory.com/wiki/M/Muhammad.htm.
5 B. Lewis, The Arabs in History (Oxford University Press, 1993), p. 41.
6 McNeill, 424.
7 Lewis, The Arabs in History, p. 41.
8 Ibid, 42.
9 Hourani, 19.
10 McNeill, 424.
11 Hourani, 19.
12 See Muhammad available online at http://www.worldhistory.com/wiki/M/Muhammad.htm.
13 F. Braudel, A History of Civilizations (Penguin Books, 1987) p. 70.
14 Lewis, The Arabs in History, p. 49.
15 Ibid, 13.
16 Hourani, 22.
17 See Abu Bakr available online at http://www.worldhistory.com/wiki/A/Abu-Bakr.htm
18 Hourani, 23.
19 McNeill, 428.
20 Hourani, 25.
21 B. Lewis, From Babel to Dragomans: Interpreting the Middle East (Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 100.
22 Hourani, 25.
23 Lewis, The Arabs in History, p. 61-64.
24 See Ali ibn Abi Talib available online at http://www.worldhistory.com/wiki/A/Ali-ibn-Abi-Talib.htm
25 Y. Nakash, The Shi’is of Iraq (Princeton University Press, 1994), p. 141.
26 See Shi’a Islam available online at http://www.worldhistory.com/wiki/S/Shi’a-Islam.htm
27 B. Lewis, The Assassins: A Radical Sect in Islam (Basic Books, 2003) p. 26.
28 See Zaiddiyah available online at http://www.worldhistory.com/wiki/Z/Zaiddiyah.htm
29 Hourani, 36.
30 Nakash, 206.
31 The concept of the Mahdi exists in Sunni eschatology as well, but does not necessarily represent the same Shia individual.
32 See Mahdi available online at http://www.worldhistory.com/wiki/M/Mahdi.htm
33 Shia thought has worked around this problem through the creation of Marjas and Ayatollahs, but the discussion of this arrangement is perhaps beyond the scope of this modest article.
34 Hourani, 37.
35 See Sunni Islam available online at http://www.worldhistory.com/wiki/S/Sunni-Islam.htm
36 B. Lewis, The Arabs in History, p. 67.
37 V. D. Hanson, Carnage and Culture: Landmark Battles in the Rise of Western Power (Anchor Book, 2002), p. 141.
38 McNeill, 428.
39 B. Lewis, The Arabs in History, p. 67.
40 See Islamic invasion of India available online at http://www.worldhistory.com/wiki/I/Islamic-invasion-of-India.htm
41 McNeill, 431.
42 See Al-Mansur available online at http://www.worldhistory.com/wiki/A/Al-Mansur.htm
43 McNeill, 432.
44 B. Lewis, The Arabs in History, p. 85-86.
45 See Abbasid available online at http://www.worldhistory.com/wiki/A/Abbasid.htm
46 B. Lewis, The Arabs in History, p. 88-89.
47 Ibid, 104.
48 See History of Spain available online at http://www.worldhistory.com/wiki/H/History-of-Spain.htm The Fatimid dynasty (an Ismaili sect) of Egypt also claimed the title caliphate in opposition to the orthodox notion.
49 B. Lewis, The Arabs in History, p. 105.
50 Ibid., 106.
51 Ibid., 110-121.
52 Ibid., 127-128.
53 J. Riley-Smith, The Oxford Illustrated History of the Crusades (Oxford University Press, 2001), p. 29.
54 B. Lewis, The Arabs in History, 163.
55 J. Riley-Smith, 36.
56 Ibid., 16.
57 Ibid., 227.
58 See Dar al-Islam available online at http://www.worldhistory.com/wiki/D/Dar-al-Islam.htm
59 Shia Islam teaches that only the Imam may proclaim Jihad. As all Shia sects believe that the Imam is in hiding, the call for Jihad is difficult, if not impossible.
60 J. Riley-Smith, 227.
61 Ibid., 227.
62 See Jihad available online at http://www.worldhistory.com/wiki/j/jihad.htm
63 J. Riley-Smith, 250.
64 N. Itzkowitz, Ottoman Empire and Islamic Tradition (University of Chicago Press, 1980), p. 11.
65 See Janissary available online at http://www.worldhistory.com/wiki/J/Janissary.htm
66 J. Riley-Smith, 252.
67 S. Runciman, The Fall of Constantinople 1453 (Cambridge University Press, 2003), p. xiii.
68 J. Riley-Smith, 255.
69 B. Lewis, The Arabs in History, 176.
70 J. Riley-Smith, 256.
71 See Ottoman Empire available online at http://www.worldhistory.com/wiki/O/Ottoman-Empire.htm
72 B. Lewis, The Arabs in History, 191.
73 See al-Qaida available online at http://www.worldhistory.com/wiki/a/al-Qaida.htm
74 B. Lewis, The Arabs in History, 196.
75 S. Huntington, The Clash of Civilizations: Remaking of the World Order (A Touchstone Book, 1997), p. 212.
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