Chapter 4. The Central Islamic Lands

The Rise of Islam in Arabia: Faith, Community, and Politics
• During 612-32, Prophet Muhammad preached worship of a single God, Allah, & membership of a single community of believers (Umma).
• Sixth-century Arab culture was largely confined to Arabian Peninsula and areas of southern Syria and Mesopotamia.
• The Arabs were divided into tribes (qabila), each led by a chief who was chosen partly based on his family connections but more for his courage, wisdom, & generosity (murawwa). Each tribe had its god or goddess, who was worshipped as an idol (Sanam) in a shrine.
• Muhammad’s own tribe, Quraysh, lived in Mecca and controlled main shrine there, a cube-like structure known as Kaba, in which idols were placed.
• Around 612, Muhammad declared himself to be messenger (rasul) of God who had been commanded to preach that Allah alone should be worshipped.
• The worship involved simple rituals, such as daily prayers (salat), and moral principles, such as distributing alms and abstaining from theft.
• The community would bear witness (shahada) to existence of religion before God as well as before members of other religious communities.
• Muhammad’s message particularly appealed to those Meccans who felt deprived of gains from trade and religion and were looking for new community identity. Those who accepted doctrine were known as Muslims.
• The Muslims soon faced considerable opposition from affluent Meccans who took offence to rejection of their deities and found new religion a threat to status and prosperity of Mecca.
• In 622, Muhammad was forced to migrate with his followers to Medina. Muhammad’s journey from Mecca (hijra) was a turning point in history of Islam.
• The umma was converted into a wider community to include polytheists and Jews of Medina under political leadership of Muhammad.
• Muhammad now insisted on conversion as sole criterion for membership of community.
• Medina became administrative capital of emerging Islamic state with Mecca as its religious centre. The Kaba was cleansed of idols as Muslims were required to face shrine when offering prayers.

The Caliphate: Expansion, Civil Wars, and Sect Formation
• After death of Muhammad in 632, no one could legitimately claim to be next prophet of Islam. As a result, his political authority was transferred to umma with no established principle of succession.
• The biggest innovation was creation of institution of caliphate, in which leader of community (Amir al-Muminin) became deputy (Khalifa) of Prophet.
• The twin objectives of caliphate were to retain control over tribes constituting umma and to raise resources for state.
• Following Muhammad’s death, many tribes broke away from Islamic state. Some even raised their prophets to establish communities modelled on umma.
• The first caliph, Abu Bakr, suppressed revolts by a series of campaigns. The second caliph, Umar, shaped umma’s policy of expansion of power.
• Realising that rich booty (Ghanima) could be obtained from expeditionary raids, caliph & his military commanders mustered their tribal strength to conquer lands belonging to Byzantine Empire in west and Sasanian empire in east.
• The Byzantine Empire promoted Christianity and Sasanian empire patronised Zoroastrianism, ancient religion of Iran.
• In three successful campaigns (637–642), Arabs brought Syria, Iraq, Iran, & Egypt under control of Medina.
• Military strategy, religious fervour, and weakness of opposition contributed to success of Arabs.
• Further campaigns were launched by third caliph, Uthman, to extend control to Central Asia.
• In all conquered provinces, caliphs imposed a new administrative structure headed by governors (Amirs) and tribal chieftains (Ashraf).
• The central treasury (bait al-mal) obtained its revenue from taxes paid by Muslims as well as its share of booty from raids.
• The caliph’s soldiers, mostly Bedouins, settled in camp cities at edge of desert, such as Kufa and Basra, to remain within reach of their natural habitat as well as caliph’s command.
• The non-Muslim population retained their rights to property and religious practices on payment of taxes (Kharaj and Jizya). Jews and Christians were declared protected subjects of state (dhimmis) and given a large measure of autonomy in conduct of their communal affairs.
• Political expansion and unification did not come easily to Arab tribesmen.
• The rifts among Muslims deepened after Ali (656- 61) fought two wars against those who represented Meccan aristocracy.
• Ali (the fourth caliph) established himself at Kufa and defeated an army led by Muhammad’s wife, Aisha, in Battle of Camel (657). He was, however, not able to suppress faction led by Muawiya, a kinsman of Uthman and governor of Syria.
• Ali’s second battle, at Siffin (northern Mesopotamia), ended in a truce that split his followers into two groups: some remained loyal to him, while others left camp and came to be called Khariji.

The Umayyads and Centralisation of Polity
• The Umayyads implemented a series of political measures which consolidated their leadership within umma.
• The first Umayyad caliph, Muawiya, moved his capital to Damascus and adopted court ceremonies and administrative institutions of Byzantine Empire.
• The Umayyad state was now an imperial power, no longer based directly on Islam but on statecraft and loyalty of Syrian troops.
• The Umayyads always appealed for unity and suppressed rebellions in name of Islam. They retained their Arab social identity.
• During reign of Abd al-Malik (685-705) and his successors, both Arab & Islamic identities were strongly emphasised. Among measures Abd al-Malik took was adoption of Arabic as language of administration and introduction of Islamic coinage.
• The gold dinar and silver dirham that had been circulating in caliphate were copies of Byzantine and Iranian coins (denarius and drachm), with symbols of crosses and fire altars and Greek and Pahlavi (the language of Iran) inscriptions.
• A well-organized movement, known as Dawa, brought down Umayyads and replaced them with another family of Meccan origin, Abbasids, in 750.
• The Abbasids portrayed Umayyad regime as evil and promised a restoration of original Islam of Prophet.
• The Abbasid uprising broke out in distant region of Khurasan (eastern Iran), a 20-day journey from Damascus on a fast horse. Khurasan had a mixed Arab-Iranian population which could be mobilized for various reasons.
• The civilian Arabs of Khurasan disliked Umayyad regime for having made promises of tax concessions and privileges which were never fulfilled.
• The Abbasids, descendants of Abbas, Prophet’s uncle, mustered support of various dissident groups and legitimised their bid for power by promising that a messiah (Mahdi) from family of Prophet (Ahl al-Bayt) would liberate them from oppressive Umayyad regime.
• The Abbasids established their capital at Baghdad, near ruins of ancient Iranian metropolis, Ctesiphon.
• The Abbasid rulers strengthened religious status and functions of caliphate and patronised Islamic institutions and scholars.

Break-up of Caliphate and Rise of Sultanates
• The Abbasid state became weaker from ninth century because Baghdad’s control over distant provinces declined, and because of conflict between pro-Arab and pro-Iranian factions in army and bureaucracy.
• In 810, a civil war broke out between supporters of Amin and Mamun, sons of caliph Harun alRashid, which deepened factionalism and created a new power bloc of Turkish slave officers (mamluk).
• Several minor dynasties arose, such as Tahirids and Samanids in Khurasan and Transoxiana (Turan or lands beyond Oxus), and Tulunids in Egypt and Syria.
• The Fatimids belonged to Ismaili sub-sect of Shiism and claimed to be descended from Prophet’s daughter, Fatima, & hence, sole rightful rulers of Islam. From their base in North Africa, they conquered Egypt in 969 and established Fatimid caliphate.
• The old capital of Egypt, Fustat, was replaced by a new city, Qahira (Cairo), founded on day of rise of planet Mars (Mirrikh, known as al-Qahir).
• Between 950 and 1200, Islamic society was held together not by a single political order or a single language of culture (Arabic) but by common economic and cultural patterns.
• Unity in face of political divisions was maintained by separation between state and society, development of Persian as a language of Islamic high culture, and maturity of dialogue between intellectual traditions.
• The identity of Islam as a religion and a cultural system separated from other religions became much sharper, which made conversion possible and meaningful.
• A third ethnic group was added to Arabs and Iranians, with rise of Turkish sultanates in tenth and eleventh centuries.
• Turks were nomadic tribes from Central Asian steppes (grasslands) of Turkistan (north-east of Aral Sea up to borders of China) who gradually converted to Islam.
• The caliph was willing to support Sunni Ghaznavid as a counterweight to Shiite power.
• The Seljuq Turks entered Turan as soldiers in armies of Samanids and Qarakhanids (nonMuslim Turks from further east).
• The Seljuqs next turned their attention to western Persia and Iraq (ruled by Buyids) and, in 1055, restored Baghdad to Sunni rule.
• The caliph, al-Qaim, conferred on Tughril Beg title of Sultan in a move that marked separation of religious and political authority. The two Seljuq brothers ruled together following tribal notion of rule by family as a whole. Tughril (d. 1064) was succeeded by his nephew, Alp Arsalan.

The Crusades
• In medieval Islamic societies, Christians were regarded as People of Book (Ahl al-Kitab) since they had their scripture (the New Testament or Injil).
• Christians were granted safe-conduct (aman) while venturing into Muslim states as merchants, pilgrims, ambassadors and travellers.
• Jerusalem was conquered by Arabs in 638, but it was ever-present in Christian imagination as place of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection.
• Hostility towards Muslim world became more pronounced in eleventh century. Normans, Hungarians, and some Slavs had been converted to Christianity, and Muslims alone remained as main enemy.
• There was a change in social and economic organisation of western Europe in eleventh century which contributed to hostility between Christendom and Islamic world.
• The Peace of God deflected aggressive tendencies of feudal society away from Christian world and towards ‘enemies’ of God.
• In 1095, Pope joined Byzantine emperor in calling for a war in name of God to liberate Holy Land.
• In first crusade (1098–99), soldiers from France and Italy captured Antioch in Syria, and claimed Jerusalem. Their victory was accompanied by slaughter of Muslims and Jews in city, chronicled by both Christians and Muslims.
• The Outremer survived well for some time, but when Turks captured Edessa in 1144, an appeal was made by Pope for a second crusade (1145–49).
• The Mamluks, rulers of Egypt, finally drove crusading Christians from all of Palestine in 1291.
• The Crusades left a lasting impact on two aspects of Christian-Muslim relations. One was harsher attitude of Muslim state towards its Christian subjects and other was greater influence of Italian mercantile communities (from Pisa, Genoa & Venice) in trade between East and West even after restoration of Muslim power.

Economy: Agriculture, Urbanisation, and Commerce
• Agriculture was principal occupation of settled populations in newly conquered territories.
• In Iraq and Iran, land existed in fairly large units cultivated by peasants. The estate owners collected taxes on behalf of state during Sasanian as well as Islamic periods.
• The state had overall control of agricultural lands, deriving bulk of its income from land revenue once conquests were over.
• The lands conquered by Arabs that remained in hands of owners were subject to a tax (Kharaj), which varied from half to a fifth of produce, according to conditions of cultivation.
• When non-Muslims started to convert to Islam to pay lower taxes, this reduced income of state. To address shortfall, caliphs first discouraged conversions and later adopted a uniform policy of taxation.
• In many areas, especially in Nile valley, state-supported irrigation systems, construction of dams and canals, and digging of wells (often equipped with waterwheels or noria), all of which were crucial for good harvests.
• Islamic law gave tax concessions to people who brought land under cultivation.
• At heart of city were two building complexes radiating cultural and economic power: congregational mosque (Masjid al-Jami), big enough to be seen from a distance, and central marketplace (souk), with shops in a row, merchants’ lodgings (fanduq) and office of money-changer.
• Political unification and urban demand for foodstuffs and luxuries enlarged circuit of exchange.
• For five centuries, Arab & Iranian traders monopolised maritime trade between China, India & Europe.
• Towards eastern end, caravans of Iranian merchants set out from Baghdad along Silk Route to China, via oasis cities of Bukhara and Samarqand (Transoxiana), to bring Central Asian and Chinese goods, including paper.
• The fiscal system (income and expenditure of state) and market exchange increased importance of money in central Islamic lands.
• The greatest contribution of Muslim world to medieval economic life was development of superior methods of payment and business organisation.

Learning and Culture
• For religious scholars (ulama), knowledge (Ilm) derived from Quran and model behaviour of Prophet (Sunna) was only way to know will of God and provide guidance in this world.
• The ulama in medieval times devoted themselves to writing ‘tafsir’ and documenting Muhammad’s authentic ‘hadith’.
• The sharia guided on all possible legal issues within Sunni society, though it was more precise on questions of personal status (marriage, divorce & inheritance) than on commercial matters or penal and constitutional issues.
• A group of religious-minded people in medieval Islam, called Sufis, sought a deeper and more personal knowledge of God through asceticism (Rahbaniya) and mysticism.
• Pantheism is idea of oneness of God and his creation which implies that human soul must be united with its maker.
• The study of new subjects promoted critical inquiry and had a profound influence on Islamic intellectual life. Scholars with a theological bent of mind, such as group called Mutazila, used Greek logic and methods of reasoning (Kalam) to defend Islamic beliefs.
• In medieval Islamic societies, fine language and creative imagination were among most appreciated qualities in a person.
• By time Arabs conquered Iran, Pahlavi, language of sacred books of ancient Iran, was in decay.
• At beginning of eleventh century, Ghazni became centre of Persian literary life. Poets were naturally attracted by brilliance of imperial court. Rulers, too, realised importance of patronising arts and learning for enhancing their prestige.
• The catalogue (Kitab al-Fihrist) of a Baghdad bookseller, Ibn Nadim (d. 895), describes a large number of works written in prose for moral education and amusement of readers.
• From ninth century onwards, scope of adab was expanded to include biographies, manuals of ethics (akhlaq), Mirrors for Princes (books on statecraft) and, above all, history (Tarikh) and geography.
• In two major historical works, ‘Ansab al-Ashraf’ (Genealogies of Nobles) of Baladhuri (d. 892) and ‘Tarikh al-Rusul wal Muluk’ (History of Prophets and Kings) of Tabari, whole of human history was treated with Islamic period as focal point.
• Geography and travel (rihla) constituted a special branch of adab (literature). This combined knowledge from Greek, Iranian & Indian books with observations of merchants and travellers.
• The exact position of each city was determined astronomically. Muqaddasi’s (d. 1000) descriptive geography, ‘Ahsan al-Taqasim’ (The Best Divisions) is a comparative study of countries and peoples of world and a treasure trove of exotic curiosities.
• By tenth century, an Islamic world had emerged which was easily recognisable by travellers. Religious buildings were greatest external symbols of this world. Mosques, shrines & tombs from Spain to Central Asia showed same basic design – arches, domes, minarets & open courtyards – and expressed spiritual and practical needs of Muslims.
• The Umayyads built ‘desert palaces’ in oases, such as ‘Khirbat al-Mafjar’ in Palestine and Qusayr Amra in Jordan, which served as luxurious residences and retreats for hunting and pleasure.
• The history of central Islamic lands brings together three important aspects of human civilization: religion, community & politics.

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