A Short History of Islam & the West


Chapter 1:Introduction and Overview


During the period known as the Early Middle Ages, two civilisations were born which were destined to dominate the world: the Islamic and Western civilisations. Their story begins with the eruption of two hardy and energetic peoples: the Bedouin tribes from the Arabian peninsula, and the seafaring Vikings from lands of the far North.

Inspired and emboldened by the possession of a new Divine revelation, the Arabs fanned out deep into the Asian and African continents and, within a generation, brought the great Persian and Roman empires to their knees.

Meanwhile, the pagan Viking hordes from Scandinavia relentlessly plundered and settled the lands of Northern Europe for more than two centuries. Their project of colonisation and military domination was continued by their descendants: the Normans in the West, and the Rus in the East.

From the ashes of these mighty eruptions, the civilisations of Islam and the West were to emerge.

The history of these civilisations goes back about 1,400 years; but to keep things in perspective, human history extends back much further in time. Human beings have been around for at least 200,000 years (the first true humans as we think of them), or perhaps even around two million years (based on archaeological evidence of tool-making).

In the 19th century, Britain, France and Germany, having become global powers, set about writing the history of their civilisation. The result was a mixture of fact and fantasy. There was a desire to portray Europeans as having the credentials and the right to rule others, so a search was made to find evidence of an ancient pedigree. Europe’s history began with Ancient Greece, or so the story went. According to this narrative, the Greeks were unique among the Ancients in their pursuit of rational thought and science. This heritage passed to the Romans, who were a little oppressive and imperialistic but, nevertheless, a great civilisation which valued the rule of law. Then there was an unfortunate period called the Middle Ages in which Europe was backward and feudalistic, but things got better with the Renaissance and the rediscovery of the Greek and Roman heritage, eventually leading to European enlightenment, progress, science and military triumph over the rest of the world. This became the standard story taught at home and in colonial schools around the world.

One myth that should be laid to rest at the outset is the claim of the West to be inheritors of the ancient civilizations of Greece and Rome. Ancient Rome and, even more so, Greece, were Mediterranean civilizations with their main locus around Asia and North Africa. The core nations that formed Western civilization – Britain, France and Germany - descend primarily from Germanic and Nordic tribes who emerged from outside the Roman or Greek worlds.

We often read that the Roman Empire came to an end in the 5th century CE (in this book, all dates are given in CE form unless otherwise indicated) with the sacking of Rome by the Barbarians. In reality, only the western half of the Empire was defeated. The capital had moved from Rome to Constantinople (‘the New Rome’) in 330, and the Empire endured another thousand years until its fall to the Ottomans in 1453. In western textbooks, the Eastern Roman Empire mysteriously becomes known as ‘Byzantium’, or ‘the Byzantine Empire’ from some unspecified date, a name unknown to the Eastern Romans themselves.

A heavy Eurocentric bias is evident in many standard textbooks and received versions of historical events and processes. Fortunately, in recent decades this western triumphalism has begun to subside, and more balanced studies are being produced by western historians. Nevertheless, many examples of the former persist, particularly in school textbooks, and subtle biases are impossible to remove completely. My outlook on the history of the period no doubt contains its own biases. I hope to remain as objective as possible and, in any case, help to rebalance and provide fresh perspectives that may be missed from the standard western account.

Another myth developed by the colonial empires was that of the European ‘continent'. There is no reason to imagine Europe as a continent; it is merely an extremity of Asia, a sub-continent perhaps. In addition, the map of the world was turned upside down to place Europe at the top, and distorted to make the Northern countries appear much larger in proportion to the rest.

The nineteenth century also saw the spread of the 'evolution’ myth. Based on a combination of 'scientific' theory and racism, white Europeans saw themselves (the 'Rational White Man') as the pinnacle of an evolutionary journey. In this view, human beings had gradually progressed from primitive savages through various stages, finally arriving at the European climax, characterised by rational thought, democracy, industrialised economies and science.

The West has told its story. Now it is time to tell ours. And it is up to intelligent readers to decide for themselves which version corresponds more closely to reality.


The writing of history

History is not neutral. Conquerors will present history from their own viewpoint. The European global empires of the nineteenth century and today's American empire are certainly no exceptions to this rule. A best-selling modern book on European history, ‘The Penguin History of Europe’ by J. M. Roberts is a good example of Eurocentric history writing.  For example, the author dismisses the oppression and virtual genocide of the inhabitants of a whole continent (Native Americans) as "one of the costs of the opportunities which English America...offered to thousands of poor Europeans." Fortunately, in recent decades more balanced and culturally respectful authors have emerged, though subtle biases sometimes persist which the author may not perceive.

The history of Islamic civilisation is particularly skewed and full of distortions which go back to the Middle Ages. It is our job to rediscover and re-present our history in a way that it deserves. Muslims led the world, intellectually, culturally and militarily, for over a thousand years - until at least the 18th century. This great historical reality is fragmented in standard western textbooks, often presented as many separate histories: those of the Moors, Arabs, Turks, Mughals, Mongols etc . The unity of the civilisation is noted by only few authors. In this way, the common ‘Islamic’ part of our history is downgraded and minimised. Often we find the whole of Islamic history relegated to a few pages in a book on world history. It is time to reclaim and also rename our history.

Our story begins in the year 622 CE, year 1 of the Islamic Age, with the emigration (hijra) of the Messenger of God, Muhammad (peace and mercy be upon him). This year falls in what are known as the Early Middle Ages, or Medieval Period. We will call it the beginning of the Islamic Age, or Islamic Millennium. 'Middle Ages'/'Medieval' is often seen as a negative term, an age in which Christian Europe was sunk in darkness and superstition. Eurocentrics tend to assume the whole world was in darkness. But in fact, this period was a golden age of the Islamic civilisation which spanned a large part of the world and was based on the supremacy of one book, the Quran. All Islamic empires and emirates throughout the Islamic Age have shared a belief in the supremacy of the Quran, even if they often fell short of its lofty teachings. The laws of these Muslim lands were invariably based on this Holy Book and the Prophet’s teachings.

In our scheme, the Islamic Age, or Islamic Millennium, extends from the Hijra until 1707 CE (well into the Early Modern period). We mark 1707 as a symbolic end to the Islamic era due to the death of the last great Mughal emperor, Aurangzeb, signalling the beginning of the decline of Muslim global ascendency. Also, in 1707, England and Scotland unified to form Great Britain, the nation destined to eclipse Islamic domination and lead the world into the Modern Age.

The Islamic Millennium is divided into three main periods: the High Caliphate Period (622-1066), in which most of the Muslim world is united under one caliph; the Middle Period (1066-1500) of Islamic sultanates, emirates and khanates, in which myriad polities and dynasties come and go but which form the "Muslim Commonwealth", united by a common language, religion and culture; and the Gunpowder Period (1500-1707), dominated by three great empires in the Muslim world, the Ottoman, Mughal and Safavid, and the spread of gunpowder weaponry.

After 1707, then, the European Age begins.[1] We witness the continued rise of the European colonial empires which come to dominate most of the world by the end of the 19th century. Following the momentous and destructive power struggles between these powers in the 20th century - the two World Wars - the mantle of Western civilisation is taken on by the new superpower, the United States of America, which proceeds to fashion a new world order.

[1] I use the terms ‘European’ and ‘Western’ civilization synonymously. I consider the United States of America and other European settlements to be essentially part of White European civilization.


Overview of the history of the Islamic and European civilizations

High Caliphate Period (622-1066). The advent of the final and greatest of all God's prophets, Muhammad (upon him be peace), had been foretold and awaited since the very dawn of humanity. The followers of the Prophet quickly relegated the vast and ancient Persian Empire to the dustbin of history, and seized a large part of the East Roman Empire for Islam. After the Rashidun (Righteous/Good) caliphs, it was left to the Umayyad and then the Abbasid dynasties to consolidate and expand, forming the largest and most powerful empire of its time, leading the world in learning, culture, arts and science . Europe during the High Caliphate Period was composed of many small Christian kingdoms which had emerged from the settling of the Barbarian tribes. Their relative peace was shattered in the 9th century by the arrival of the Viking hordes. These pagan warriors from Scandinavia invaded, plundered, colonized and settled the lands of Northern Europe for over two hundred years.

The Middle Period: Age of Islamic sultanates, emirates and khanates (1066 – 1500) sees the slow break-up of the united caliphate and proliferation of multiple autonomous Muslim empires and emirates. The separate Islamic polities are united by the common thread of language, religion, shari‘a law and culture. There were no barriers to trade or movement and they constitute, in effect, a Muslim commonwealth. In Europe during the Middle Period, the Normans (Viking descendants) become a dominant force. Feudalism and serfdom emerge during this period. Attempts to invade Muslim lands around the Mediterranean - the Crusades - take place and Western Christendom begins to see itself as a single civilization for the first time. The pagan Mongol hordes under Genghis Khan erupt from the Eurasian steppe and overrun much of Eurasia, sacking many major Muslim cities and ending Abbasid rule. Eventually, the Mongols convert to Islam, and a huge expansion of the Muslim world takes place with a trebling of the total area under Islam during this period.

The Gunpowder Period (1500 – 1707). Three great empires emerge in the Muslim world, the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal, which dominate a large part of the world during this period. The Ottomans put a final end to the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453 by taking Constantinople and dominate Eastern Europe and (for 150 years) the Mediterranean. Western Europeans embark on the voyages of discovery; Spain invades South and Central America, kills vast numbers of the inhabitants, and loots huge reserves of silver; and so the colonial project begins. A new spirit of learning and rationalist thought is spreading in Europe leading to the Renaissance and Reformation. Catholic doctrines are denounced by the new Protestant movement as irrational and corrupt.

The European Age (1707 – 2000). Europe moves ahead of the Muslim world in science and technology, the frantic search for more advanced weaponry partly driven by the endless wars between European kingdoms. The Enlightenment philosophers develop rational ideas, including notions of popular sovereignty, which are evident in the French Revolution and the Americans’ declaration of independence from the British Empire. The rule of monarchs, aristocracy and the church is overturned and democratic nations emerge in Europe. The European colonial empires, led by Britain, France, and Russia, compete and take over much of the world between them, with the Ottoman Empire remaining the last major Islamic power until its defeat in WW1. In the 20th century, the German empire rises rapidly in its own bid for domination, resulting in two world wars and the triumph of the Allies. After 1945, there is a stand-off between the USA (with its new super-weapon) and the communist Soviet Union. The USSR finally collapses in 1991, leaving some to claim ‘the end of history’ itself, and the formation of a ‘new world order’.


Figure 1: General timeline of Islamic and Western civilizations 622 - 2000




Chapter 2: The Beginning

The Prophet and the Rashidun Period (622-662)


The Apocalypse

The advent of the final and greatest of all God's prophets, Muhammad (upon him be peace and blessings), had been foretold and awaited since the ancient times.

At the dawn of the 7th century of the Common Era (CE), when the Prophet Muhammad (upon him be peace and mercy) received his first Revelation, the world was dominated by two great and ancient empires. The Romans ruled North Africa, Syro-Palestine, Anatolia and the Balkans from their capital in Constantinople, while the Persians commanded a vast expanse to the East. Further east still, the civilizations of India and China maintained their own ancient traditions. The northerly regions, which are today called ‘Europe’, were then inhabited by wandering barbarian tribes who had mostly converted to Christianity and were settling to form myriad small kingdoms, often at war with each other. The American and Australian continents, with their own native populations, had been largely cut off from the rest of the world for millennia, unaware of the technological advances of the Afro-Eurasian world.

Ancient empires were preoccupied with securing their frontiers from the incursions of nomadic tribes that roamed the inhospitable steppes of Central Asia and the deserts of Arabia and Africa.

The Arabian Bedouins were a typical nomadic tribal people, endlessly occupied in blood feuds and raiding missions between clans and tribes. They had no law, but lived according to a tribal code of honour, vengeance, asylum, and respect for certain sacred times and places, which provided at least a degree of order. Unlettered though they were, the Arabs however exulted in their language, a particularly rich and eloquent classical tongue which found expression in eloquent and sophisticated poetry. Poets were celebrated, and the right verses could move a whole tribe to war or peace. Several Jewish settlements dotted Arabia, and three Jewish clans lived in the oasis town of Yathrib, which they shared with the Arab Aws and Khazraj tribes. Christianity was also well known to the pagan Arabs, a few of whom had converted.

Christian prophecies foretold the coming of a prophet, the ‘Paraclete’, who would bring down the oppressive and tyrannical empires of the earth and usher in a ‘Kingdom of God’ wherein peace, justice and divine law would prevail. Some said that the anticipated kingdom would endure a thousand years.

Muhammad   grew up in the desert town of Makkah, considered sacred by all Arabs as it contained the Ancient House built by the prophets Abraham and Ishmael. He was born into a noble family but had a relatively impoverished childhood, working as a shepherd in his youth. Later, he worked as an agent for a wealthy businesswoman by the name of Khadija and eventually married her.

Muhammad was a contemplative man who shunned the idol-worship of his townsmen, and liked to spend time by himself in prayer and meditation in a cave on a mountain near the town. It was here, at the age of forty, that he received his first Divine revelation. He began to tell those closest to him about the messages that he was receiving, and called them to belief in the One God, who commanded believers to establish regular prayer, feed and protect the poor and needy, take care of orphans, refrain from lying, cheating, cruelty and injustice, and to beware the reckoning of a Day of Judgement to come.

Many, especially from the poorer classes, responded to his call, but the wealthy elite of Makkah were concerned about losing their prestige and economic advantage among the Arabs. They tried to bribe him and, in the end, stop him by violence and persecution. After 13 years of preaching in Makkah, the Prophet  was forced to emigrate to the town of Yathrib, many of whose Arab residents had already converted to Islam.

The Emigrants from Makkah, the Muhajirun, were united in new bonds of Islamic brotherhood with their Yathribi Helpers, the Ansar, and together they formed the first Islamic polity, ruled by the Prophet and the laws of the Quran. A treaty was concluded with the Jewish tribes of Yathrib, each community being permitted to live according to their own faith, customs and law, but recognising the Prophet as the overall authority.

As Islam consolidated and continued to spread, several battles took place between the Muslims and Arab tribes who still opposed the new faith. The Jews arrogantly rejected the Final Prophet and decided to align with the idol-worshippers. Both were defeated by the Muslims, and the Prophet was strong enough to march into Makkah within a few years and reclaim the town of his birth for Islam.

By the time of the Prophet’s death in 632, most of Arabia had become united under him, and tribes from all over Arabia sent delegations to Yathrib, now known as al-Madina (The City), to pledge their allegiance to the Final Prophet.


The First Caliph: Abu Bakr the Truthful

Sayyiduna Abu Bakr (may Allah be pleased with him) was two years junior to the Prophet  and had been his closest friend and companion since before the Revelation. He was a wealthy merchant from the Taym clan of Quraysh, but spent most of his money after embracing Islam in charity and freeing Muslim slaves who were being persecuted. The Prophet later said that everyone had paused and considered when invited to Islam, except for Abu Bakr who had immediately accepted the Truth. Abu Bakr remained devoted to his companion throughout the early trials and tribulations and the later victories, and provided assistance and counsel whenever required. He was honoured to be mentioned in the Quran itself as “the second of the two, when they were in the cave…”. The Prophet said that the faith of Abu Bakr outweighed the faith of all other Muslims combined, and instructed that he should lead the communal prayer as Imam in his absence.

The death of the Prophet  was a great shock for many Companions. Umar stood in the masjid with drawn sword and shouted out that the Prophet had not died, but had gone to visit his Lord and would return, like Moses had done. The Muslims fell into confusion until Abu Bakr arrived on the scene. He went into the house of Aisha where the Prophet lay, kissed his forehead, and said, “Let my father and mother be sacrificed for you. By Allah, Allah will never cause you to die twice. As for the death which was written for you, it has come upon you." Abu Bakr went into the masjid and the Muslims gathered around him. After praising God, he said: “If anyone amongst you used to worship Muhammad, then Muhammad has died, but if (anyone of) you used to worship God, then God is Alive and shall never die.” He then quoted from the Quran: “And Muhammad is but a messenger; messengers have come before him; if then he dies or is killed will you turn back upon your heels?...” When Umar heard the words of Abu Bakr, his legs gave way under him and he collapsed, finally realising that the Prophet had died.

As preparations for the Holy Burial were taking place, news reached the Muhajirun that the Ansar had gathered to appoint a successor to lead the ummah.[1] Realising the urgency of the situation, several leading Muhajirun headed for the meeting. The ensuing discussions became heated, voices were raised and a clamour arose. Umar, recognising the delicacy of the situation, urged Abu Bakr to stretch out his hand and swore allegiance to him. Seeing this action of the two foremost Companions, others quickly followed suit and Abu Bakr was declared the first caliph of Islam.

He proved to be the man for the job. The loss of the Prophet, who had been his closest friend, proved devastating for Abu Bakr, his health gradually declined and he lived only two years; it was said that he died of a broken heart. Those two years, however, proved to be of the utmost importance for the new ummah.

News had begun to arrive in Medina of whole tribes reneging on their allegiance to Islam, and others demanding that they no longer pay zakat to the caliph. The Companions strongly advised Abu Bakr to be lenient with the demands of the latter, as they still confessed to Islam, and to call back the army led by Usama that had been dispatched by the Prophet shortly before his death against the Romans. Even the normally severe Umar counselled restraint. But Abu Bakr was solid and uncompromising. He refused to reverse the last order that had been given by the Prophet and commanded the army of Usama to proceed as planned. He also insisted on the tribes paying zakat and declared that he would fight anyone who differentiated between the obligations of prayer and zakat.

The situation in Medina was looking dire. Every day, news of tribes raising the cry of rebellion reached the capital, and false prophets in the far reaches of the peninsula began to claim allegiance to themselves. Abu Bakr himself led the first campaigns to bring the tribes nearest to Medina back to submission, but was later persuaded by the Companions to stay back as the loss of his life would be devastating to Muslim morale. Seeing the wisdom of their counsel, Abu Bakr reluctantly agreed.

He arranged the Muslim forces into eleven separate contingents, each with a commander and a standard, and sent them against the rebelling tribes. One by one, although outnumbered, the Muslims were victorious and the tribes were brought back into the fold of the ummah. The Battle of Yamamah against the tribe of the false prophet, Musaylima, was perhaps the most difficult encounter and many leading Companions were martyred, including a large number of huffaz[2].

The loss of the huffaz prompted Abu Bakr to issue instructions for the Quran to be collected together as a written copy for the first time, and this was duly completed by Zayd ibn Thabit, constituting one of the many legacies and services of Abu Bakr for Islam.


The Second Caliph: ‘Umar the Just

Another great legacy of Abu Bakr was his appointment of Sayyiduna ‘Umar (may Allah be pleased with him) as his successor. The ten-year caliphate of ‘Umar would see the dar al-Islam (Abode of Islam) spread across the lands of Syria, Iraq, Persia and into North Africa, quickly becoming the largest empire of its time. The Persian Empire would fall to the Muslims and the Eastern Roman Empire would survive only after losing three-quarters of its lands.

‘Umar was an imposing, muscular man, physically towering above others in height, renowned for his bravery and strength even before Islam. The Prophet praised him often, on one occasion saying, “If there were to be a prophet after me, it would have been Umar”, and “When ‘Umar walks on one side of the road, the devil takes the other”.

‘Umar took his place as caliph at the time when a huge Roman army had gathered in the valley of Yarmouk (Syria) with the intent of dealing a decisive blow to the advancing Muslim forces. The Emperor Heraclius had called forth his greatest generals and mustered forces from all over the empire, with estimates varying around several hundred thousand Roman troops. The Muslims numbered around 30,000 but were fired up with the enthusiasm of faith and the presence of many Companions among them.

The Battle of Yarmouk was the turning point in the Muslim campaign against the Roman Empire, raging for several days before the Romans were routed and began to flee. Many were drowned in the Yarmouk River and others were pursued by the victors.

The emperor had retreated to Constantinople, leaving the Roman provinces of Syria, Judea and Egypt to fall to the Muslims. The Patriarch of the holy city of Jerusalem refused to surrender the city unless the caliph came in person to take the keys. In view of the significance of the ancient city, ‘Umar complied. The Companions entered the city, granting safety to all its inhabitants and guaranteeing the security of their places of worship and their freedom to live according to their own customs and religion.

In fact, this was the general policy wherever the early Islamic conquests spread. When the fertile land of Iraq was taken from the Persians, Muslim commanders asked for the conquered territory to be distributed among the soldiers but Umar refused. He gave the order for the native peasants to be left free on their lands and not to be interfered with.

‘Umar decreed for two new garrison towns to be built, Kufa and Basra, where Muslim soldiers were to be stationed. The conquered populations were treated with magnanimity, free to practice their own religion and live according to their own laws, only required to pay a fair tax on their agriculture and the jizya[3]. Despite the difference in religion, many peasants and ordinary people preferred the light rule of Islam to the imperial oppression that they had endured for centuries.

With the ancient land of Mesopotamia captured, the Muslim armies began their advance deeper into the Persian heartlands. City after city fell to the new faith. The great victory at the Battle of Qadisiyya, in which Muslims faced a huge imperial army, including war-elephants, led by the renowned general, Rustam, resulted in the capture of Ctesiphon, known as the greatest city on earth.

The fabled riches of Persia’s imperial capital brought great wealth to the conquerors; a fifth of the booty was sent back to Medina as demanded by Islamic Law, and it is said that Umar wept as he saw the prophecies he had heard from the Messenger of God fulfilled. When asked why he was weeping on such a joyous occasion, he replied: “I weep because riches cause enmity and mutual bitterness. A nation which has these evils loses its respect.”

With his capital city taken, the Emperor Yezdgird was on the retreat but by no means defeated. The decisive moment came at Nahavand, where the Muslims once again defeated a numerically superior force. The battle became known to Muslims as ‘the Victory of Victories’ and was the death blow that ended the once mighty and ancient Persian empire.

The ancient world had been transformed and lands that had for centuries known only Roman or Persian rule were now under the governance of Islam and Umar, the second of the Righteous Caliphs.

‘Umar was murdered in Medina whilst leading the prayer by a slave, for unclear motives. Before his last breath, he appointed a panel of six leading Companions to decide the matter of succession and ordered that it be completed within three days of his death. His final request was to ‘A’isha, daughter of Abu Bakr and wife of the Prophet, that he be buried in the space next to his two companions, the Prophet and Abu Bakr. ‘A’isha said that she had saved the space for her own final resting place but would gladly give it up for Umar.

Some Companions spoke of an ominous prophecy from the Messenger of God, who had once foretold that ‘Umar was ‘the door’ holding back the Tribulations from the Muslim community. Now he was gone, and the Companions knew that the Prophet’s words would not be undone.


The Third Caliph: ‘Uthman son of ‘Affan

The forces unleashed by ‘Umar had, within a decade, brought down the mighty empires of the earth. Sayyiduna ‘Uthman (may Allah be pleased with him) continued the expansion of the Abode of Islam and began laying down important infrastructural and administrative foundations for the new caliphate.

‘Uthman had been a close and beloved friend and son-in-law of the Prophet. He had been given the honorific title, dhun-nurayn, Possessor of Two Lights, as he had been married first to the Prophet’s daughter, Ruqayya, and, after she died, to another daughter, Umm Kulthum. Uthman was known in his youth for his striking good looks and his modesty. The Prophet once sent Usama on an errand to Uthman and Ruqayya and, when he returned, asked him “Have you ever seen any couple more beautiful?” On another occasion, the Prophet sat with Abu Bakr and Umar with his leg partly exposed. When Uthman approached, the Prophet covered his leg, saying “Even the angels feel shy in front of Uthman!” When the Muslims were making preparations for a major expedition against the Romans, Uthman had demonstrated his commitment to the cause by donating three hundred fully-equipped camels, a colossal sum for the time. Seeing this act of sacrifice and charity, the Prophet remarked, “Nothing is to be held against Uthman after this day”.

Uthman is thought to have been around seventy when he was appointed emir al-momineen, Commander of the Believers. He was a softer man than Umar and relied upon the energetic and capable chiefs of his clan, the Banu Umayya, to discharge many of his responsibilities in governing the vast domain under his rule. However, this reliance on family members would later lead to rumours and accusations against him, particularly as Umar had been well-known for disregarding ties of kinship when making his appointments.

For the meantime, however, the first half of Uthman's twelve years in office was a time of unity, peace and prosperity for the young Islamic caliphate. Uthman was a wealthy trader himself and set about consolidating the empire and taking measures to encourage trade and commerce.

Infrastructure, crucial to business, was significantly developed. Uthman himself rode out to the west coast of the Hijaz to identify a suitable location for a new port for trade coming to Makkah and Medina. He carried out expansion of the Prophet's masjid in Medina, and made interest-free loans available from the public treasury for small businesses. He continued most of his predecessor’s policies; he affirmed the right of peasants in conquered territories to retain their freedoms and their possessions.

The caliphate now covered an expanse much larger than either the Romans or Persians had commanded, and immense amounts of wealth were flowing into Medina. Uthman continued the precedent of distributing public funds among the Muslim community. Careful registers had been kept, since the time of Umar, and offices established for registering the names of citizens and the stipends allocated to them. Often the distribution of wealth would be informal, with the caliph simply calling out in public for anyone in need to come and collect food and provisions. The expansion of Islamic lands also continued under Uthman and he ordered his clansman, Muawiya, governor of Syria, to construct the first Muslim navy in order to take on the Romans in the Mediterranean.

About six years into his period in office, Uthman lost the Prophet’s ring which carried the official seal and had been handed down from one caliph to the next. It fell into a well and, despite desperate efforts to find it, the ring had disappeared. This event marked the beginning of internal fracturing of the Muslim community and the coming of the Tribulations.

Malicious rumours had begun to spread about Uthman in the provinces. He was accused of favouring his relatives and giving them huge handouts from the pubic treasury. Uthman was quick to defend himself and sought repeatedly to maintain the peace, replacing unpopular governors and acceding to demands. But the rumours persisted and dissension grew, like a slowly spreading sickness, until rebellion reared its ugly head.

A group of unhappy Muslims led by Muhammad son of Abu Bakr came from Egypt to demand the removal of their governor. Ever-eager to assuage ill feelings, Uthman complied with the request and appointed Muhammad as the new governor. On the way back to Egypt, Muhammad’s party intercepted a slave making haste in the same direction and found a letter in his possession addressed from the caliph to his old governor in Egypt, ordering him to execute Muhammad and his party on their arrival. This apparent act of treachery inflamed passions and the group headed straight back for Medina.

A council of the leading Companions was summoned and the letter revealed to them. All were stunned. “If Uthman has done this”, said one, “we will remove him from office”. However, upon questioning, Uthman admitted that the seal on the letter was his but denied any knowledge of the letter, and swore a sacred oath to that effect. The Companions knew that the pious Uthman would not swear a false oath by God, and suspicions turned to his nephew, Marwan, who held the caliph’s seal.

Marwan sought asylum in the caliph’s residence and refused to come forth for trial, and Uthman would not hand him over. Thus, a stalemate ensued. Arming themselves, the party of Muhammad surrounded the caliph’s residence and demanded that Marwan be handed to them.

After some days, the mood began to turn ugly, devilish ideas entered the heads of the besiegers, and flames of hatred were fanned by malicious elements. A whisper that the caliph himself should pay with his life began to circulate. Sunni sources say that when Ali was appraised of this ominous turn of events, he said, “We only want Marwan from him, as for the killing of Uthman, no!” According to some reports, he sent his sons, Hasan and Husayn, to guard the front door of Uthman’s residence.

Offers of assistance came to Uthman from the powerful Banu Umayya but he refused to take up arms against the rebels, stating “I will not be the first caliph of the Messenger of God in his ummah to shed their blood”. He was then advised to flee to Makkah or Syria but refused also.

The rebels were growing impatient. They began firing upon the house, and an arrow struck Hasan causing his face to bleed. Muhammad decided it was time to act: “If the clan of Banu Hashim come and see blood on the face of Hasan, they will remove these people”. He recruited two helpers and decided on a plan to enter Uthman’s residence unseen and assassinate him. As the elderly, peace-loving caliph was reading the Quran, the three assailants, weapons drawn, burst into his private quarters. Only his wife was nearby. Muhammad grabbed hold of the caliph’s beard. Uthman looked at him and said simply, “By Allah, if your father could see you, your behaviour towards me would cause him great distress”. The words struck Muhammad’s heart and he stepped back, uncertain, but his accomplices struck the righteous caliph with their swords, as his wife cried out for help. Thus ended the life of the son-in-law and beloved friend of the Prophet.


The Fourth Caliph: ‘Ali son of Abu Talib

Al-Hasan Al-Basri said: No doubt, I heard that Abu Bakra said, "Once while the Prophet was addressing (the people), Al-Hasan (son of 'Ali) came and the Prophet said, 'This son of mine is a chief, and Allah may make peace between two groups of Muslims through him."

- Narrated by al-Bukhari

The murder of the caliph sent shock waves around the Muslim world. With the bloodied shirt of the martyred caliph and the severed fingers of Uthman’s widow, Marwan fled at full gallop to his clansman Mu‘awiya in Syria. Two of the most respected Companions, Talha and Zubayr, left Medina making haste to Makkah. Rumours spread that they had been forced to pledge allegiance to Ali, who had been proclaimed the caliph in Medina. In Makkah, they joined with Aisha, daughter of Abu Bakr, to lead a popular call for the punishment of Uthman’s murderers.

Sayyiduna ‘Ali (may Allah be pleased with him) was from the close family of the Prophet, brought up in his household from an early age, and married to his daughter, Fatima. The sons of Ali and Fatima, Hasan and Husayn, would be the sole heirs for the transmission of the Prophet's bloodline to future generations and, together with their father, in time came to be considered the first three Imams in Shi'ite doctrine.

Even with the Sunni majority, Ali held a position of utmost veneration. Had not fate decreed his six year caliphate to be filled with quelling internal rebellions, it can only be speculated how huge his impact on the world would have been at the head of a united ummah. Extremely pious, ascetic, handsome and a famed warrior, Ali commanded intense loyalty and love from any who joined his company. In addition, his eloquence, knowledge and wisdom were legendary. None compared to him at the time he was appointed caliph, and his credentials could not be disputed even by his enemies. The Prophet had famously declared him as being “to me as Aaron was to Moses”; had given him the standard on the Day of Khaybar; declared him to the be wisest of the Companions in judgement; and kept him close by his side throughout his life. It would later be said by the Sufis that the Prophet was the ‘city of knowledge’ and Ali was its ‘gate’. His spiritual authority and respect was only enhanced when he stood with his sons, Hasan and Husayn - the sole inheritors of the prophetic bloodline - by his side.

Despite the undeniable precedence of Ali, the tragic murder of the Caliph Uthman was not going to be easily forgiven or forgotten. A call came forth from Makkah from the ‘Mother of the Believers’, Aisha, for Ali to deliver the traitors or have them punished for their sins. Cries for clan vengeance were issuing from Syria as the bloodied shirt and severed fingers were paraded in front of the people.

The events that followed are known as the First Fitna, (lit. ‘tribulation’) or Civil War, in Islam. Much was written, many eye-witness reports recorded and, as to be expected, often contradictory versions of events circulated. Fabrications supporting one camp or another no doubt proliferated. Later generations of scholars and historians of Islam would have the painstaking job of trying to filter the facts and uncover what had really occurred. Some looked back with their own Sunni or Shi’ite biases, but many were concerned to maintain objectivity and search for the truth, as dictated by the scholarly culture of the Muslim madrassas. It is to these scholars, such as Tabari, Suyuti, Ibn Taymiyya and Ibn Kathir, that we can look to find at least the outlines and most reliable accounts of these events.

We know that an army came forth from Makkah, led by Aisha, Zubayr and Talha. We know that Ali did not punish the murderers of Uthman on the grounds that their identities were not known to him. Muhammad son of Abu Bakr had denied striking Uthman and the caliph’s widow affirmed this, though she said that he had led the murderers in. As for the rebels that had besieged the caliph’s residence, they had dispersed throughout Medina and Ali’s camp maintained that it was impossible to bring them to justice given the volatile state of affairs. We know that Muhammad was in the army of Ali that met the Makkan force. We know that Ali’s position was that he had nothing to do with the murder of Uthman but, as the caliphate had been bestowed on him, it became incumbent upon all Muslims to pledge him allegiance. This was what Islamic law dictated and the imperative of unity of the caliphate trumped all other considerations.

It is said that Ali and Aisha were keen to avoid confrontation, but matters got out of hand and a battle ensued. Zubayr and Talha were killed, and Ali’s side were victorious. Ali forbade any taking of prisoners or booty as the vanquished were fellow Muslims. Aisha was received with full honour and given an escort to Medina under the guard of her brother, Muhammad, and the Prophet’s grandson, Hasan.

With the Makkan force defeated, Ali still had to contend with the Syrians. He moved his capital from Medina to the garrison city of Kufa in Iraq. It is said that he did not want bloodshed on the sacred soil of the Prophet’s city. Western historians, of course, will attribute more worldly motives to his decision.

The two armies met at Siffin and battle soon ensued. Ali’s forces were on the verge of victory. In a desperate attempt to avoid outright defeat, the Syrian soldiers came out with pages of the Quran tied to their spears requesting a truce. Ali was not willing to accept anything short of surrender but, at the sight of the Quran, his own troops refused to continue the fight.

Muawiya proposed to end the civil war by appointing an arbitrator from each side with the task of finding a resolution to the dispute. It was agreed to meet one year later to hear the verdict of the arbitration. However, at the agreed time, the situation broke down, as Muawiya’s delegate was accused of trickery, and no resolution was reached between the two factions.

A group of warriors broke away from Ali’s army and formed a camp at Harura. They opposed the arbitration, claiming that it went against the statement of the Quran “Judgment belongs to God alone”, and declared that Ali and Muawiya and all those who supported them had apostatized from Islam. Thus the Harurites, later known as Kharijites, were the first sect to arise in Islam that differed from the Companions on points of doctrine. Followers of Kharijite teachings would rise up throughout Islamic history to challenge and fight the Muslim rulers of their time, declaring them to be apostates for one reason or another, and propagating their own rigid and misguided interpretations of the scripture.

Their appearance had been foretold by the Prophet himself, who had severely warned in many hadiths about the dangers of this group. Ali was now forced to deal with them, as well as with the Syrians. Apart from challenging their religious doctrines, Ali spent most of his remaining years in office in a series of battles against this troublesome sect, and succeeded in destroying their main strongholds.

Although Muawiya never pledged his allegiance to Ali, there was no appetite in either camp for further shedding of Muslim blood and no further fighting took place.

The Kharijites had declared war on both Ali and Muawiya and, one morning in the year 661, as Ali stood to lead the faithful in the dawn prayer, a Kharijite assassin leapt out and stabbed him fatally (may Allah have mercy on him).

The people of Iraq chose Hasan as the next caliph but, in the interests of Muslim unity, the Prophet’s grandson abdicated his position and handed the dominion of the world’s greatest empire over to Muawiya, thus fulfilling the prophecy at the head of this section. The Rashidun period had come to an end, and the Age of Dynasties had begun.

[1]ummah’: term used to denote the collective Muslim community, sometimes translated as ‘nation’.

[2] Huffaz: pl. of hafiz, a person who has memorised the entire Quran

[3] A tax levied on non-Muslim citizens in return for the protection of the state.


Chapter 3 The High Caliphate Period (661-1066)

The Umayyads and the Abbasids

After the glorious conquests of the Rashidun Caliphs, it was left to the Umayyad and then the Abbasid dynasties to consolidate and expand the Empire. Experiencing a bright fluorescence in learning, culture, arts and science, the empire of the Muslims was now the great superpower of the age.

Mu‘awiya’s clan, the Umayyads, held the Caliphate for almost a hundred years before being overthrown by the Abbasids. Although they produced some capable rulers, and enjoyed strong support in Syria, the Umayyads earned unpopularity among Muslims due to their conflicts with the Family of the Prophet, in particular the killing of his grandson, Husayn.

Mu‘awiya had a relatively long and prosperous reign of fifteen years, during which time he successfully challenged the Romans at sea, capturing Cyprus. In 674 CE Constantinople, the capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, came under direct assault from Umayyad forces. But the Romans’ time had not yet come, and the Muslims were eventually repulsed by a deadly invention, ‘Greek Fire’, which was used to burn down the Muslim fleet.

Muawiya’s successor, his son Yazid, was to have the misfortune to go down in history as the caliph responsible for killing the Prophet’s grandson. Husayn had responded to calls to go to Kufa and re-establish the caliphate in the name of the Family. But when his small band of followers met an Umayyad army en route to Kufa, the Kufans did not come to their aid and they were abandoned to their enemy. Husayn was ordered to surrender but refused, preferring martyrdom to the humiliation of a grandson of the Prophet being taken captive. A massacre and bloodbath ensued in which many of the Family were killed along with Husayn, whose head was sent as a trophy to Yazid in Damascus. “How many times I saw the lips of the Messenger of God touching this face!” remarked one Companion on seeing this terrible sight.

The martyrdom of Husayn and his family created tremors throughout the Islamic domains that not only eventually brought down the House of Banu Umayya, but have reverberated down the centuries in the Shi’ite practices of passion plays and self-flagellation, symbolising grief at the betrayal and murder ofHusayn and his family, abandoned in their hour of need.

Following these tragic events, the people of the Hijaz[1] rallied around ‘Abd Allah son of Zubayr and, for a time, a rival caliphate was established. But the strongman of the Umayyads, Hajjaj ibn Yusuf, was dispatched to crush it, and he soon succeeded in restoring Umayyad rule.

Thereafter, apart from sporadic Kharijite rebellions and a short-lived uprising led by Husayn’s grandson, Zayd, much of the Muslim world was united again, and Umayyad armies continued their conquests abroad.

Under the prosperous reign of ‘Abd al-Malik, son of the same Marwan who had once fled Medina, a Muslim army moved through North Africa, crossed the Straits of Gibraltar into Spain. Another moved far eastward into central Asia, and across the mountains of Afghanistan into India. A vast realm lay under the command of the Caliph. ‘Abd al-Malik minted Islamic coins for the first time, and built the magnificent ‘Dome of the Rock’ that adorns the holy city of Jerusalem to this day. The Arabs had progressed from their Bedouin tribal roots to become builders of a new civilisation.

The Umayyads continued to rule in tribal fashion. The Caliph was viewed as ‘first among equals’, and succession went to a member of the clan, but not necessarily to any of his sons. The Umayyad Era was overall a period of peace, prosperity and great advancement for the Islamic empire, but pious scholars, ulema and the Muslim public were increasingly critical of the worldliness of the caliphs and those around them with all their splendour and riches. One exception was the Caliph ‘Umar ibn ‘Abd al-‘Aziz, who reigned only two years, but was a man of integrity and piety who temporarily restored a more Islamic direction to the caliphate. He is widely credited with being the caliph who first ordered the religious scholars to preserve the orally-transmitted Islamic tradition in writing.

But time was running out for the Umayyads.  A secret movement was spreading in the provinces, calling for the caliphate to be brought back into the hands of the Family. The Umayyads were seen as usurpers of the rights of ‘Ali and his descendants. Many Muslims longed to see a return of a pious caliphate, and their aspirations revolved around scions of the House of the Prophet.

An enigmatic figure called Abu Muslim was the mastermind behind the Abbasid movement. After many months of planning and secret propagandising, he led an army flying black flags from the eastern land of Khurasan[2]. They swept into the heartlands of Islam, scattered the Umayyad army at the Battle of the Zab, and succeeded in putting a descendant of ‘Abbas (an uncle of the Prophet), Muhammad al-Saffah, in power. The Umayyad caliph was killed, and the entire clan was hunted down and executed to prevent any future revival of their claim to the caliphate.

One member of the Umayyad clan, Abdul-Rahman, managed to escape to North Africa and ended up in Spain, where he founded a new Umayyad caliphal dynasty independent from the Abbasids.


Harun Rashid and the Abbasids

After two civil wars and several failed uprisings, the Prophet’s descendants were now leaders of the Muslim world. However, there was a small glitch. Although Al-Saffah was a descendant of the Prophet’s uncle, ‘Abbas, through his son, ‘Abd Allah, a close ally of Ali, he was not a direct descendant of Hasan or Husayn. Extremist supporters of the Family therefore opposed ‘Abbasid rule and continued to pose problems for them for generations. Many Muslims, however, came to admire and even venerate the Abbasid rulers, especially in the times of great prosperity that followed. Some Abbasid caliphs took pains to mend the rifts with the Family, often with a good degree of success, and the Abbasids were keen to appease the ulema by portraying themselves as a more ‘Islamic’ alternative to the previous Umayyad dynasty.

The Abbasids had a long and glorious reign, and their period is usually described in Western textbooks as Islam’s ‘Golden Age’. During the first two centuries of their reign, the caliphate remained largely united and the caliphs ruled the world from their capital, the fabled city of Baghdad. By around 950, the Abbasid caliphate had begun its slow and gradual process of disintegration and, by 1066 (the end of the High Caliphate Period), a range of successor states had emerged, although almost all paid nominal allegiance to the caliph. The end of the dynasty came in 1258 with the Mongol invasion of Iraq and the fall of Baghdad.


"Did you not see how the sun came out of hiding on Harun’s accession and flooded the world with light?"


Harun al-Rashid came to power at the height of the Abbasid era. His grandfather, Mansur, known by some as ‘the Penny-pincher’, the second Abbasid caliph, had built the city of Baghdad, its site carefully chosen between the two great rivers of Iraq, the Tigris and Euphrates. Following the death of his father, Harun had not contested his brother Hadi’s accession to the throne, being content to pursue a private life and devoted to his beautiful and charming wife, Zubayda.

Hadi was a rough, military man who became infamous for being the first caliph to have an entourage of club-baring bodyguards precede him wherever he went. He fell out with his mother, the powerful and wealthy widow, Khayzuran, as he resented her popularity and political influence, and tried to have her food poisoned. Khayzuran suspected foul play and fed the dish to a dog who died immediately. “Lovely dish you sent me”, she is reported to have remarked to her son the following day. Hadi died soon afterwards in mysterious circumstances, and Khayzuran made sure that her younger son, Harun, was quickly given the Oath of Allegiance[3].

Harun proved to be a wise, just and popular ruler. Aided by an efficient and organised civil administration led by the renowned Persian Barmakid family, the Empire enjoyed an unrivalled period of peace, prosperity and progress in arts, culture and science.

At that time, the Abbasids still maintained a military structure based upon a general call-to-arms i.e. there was no standing army. The core power base of the caliph consisted of the wider Abbasid clan itself and the Abna, descendants of the original Khurasani forces that had brought the Abbasids to power and had settled with the caliphs in Iraq. Apart from this core, Muslim citizens from all regions of the Empire could be relied upon to answer the call of the caliph, particularly in the cause of Jihad (Holy War) against disbelievers.

During this period, the Abbasid Empire faced no credible external threat, but the favourite enemy of the Muslims were the Romans. Once the world’s greatest superpower, the empire of the Caesars had seen better times.[4]

Harun al-Rashid took up the jihad against the Romans with great enthusiasm and, towards the end of his life, spent most of his time in Raqqa, close to the border, to lead the efforts himself.

Following one of Harun’s jihad expeditions against Constantinople, the Empress Irene had sued for peace and agreed to pay an annual tribute to Baghdad. Her successor, Nicephorus, however was not inclined to bow to the ‘Saracens’ (Roman term for Muslims), and wrote to the Caliph: ‘Nicepheros King of the Romans to Harun King of the Arabs. The queen who reigned before me… paid you sums of money which in reality you should have paid her…send back the money you received from her…ransom yourself out of trouble by paying the sums you are required to restore to me. If you do not, the sword shall decide between us.’ Upon reading the letter, Harun flew into such a rage that no-one dared look at him, let alone speak to him. Even the Grand Vizier could not decide whether to approach him. Eventually the Caliph called for a pen and, on the back of Nicepheros’s letter, wrote in his own hand: ‘In the name of Allah the Clement the Merciful. From Harun Commander of the Believers to Nicepheros Dog of the Romans. I have read your letter, O disloyal son. My answer will reach you sooner than you wish. Greetings!’ The Caliph immediately issued the call-to-arms and an impressive army gathered. Two columns crossed the border into Roman lands, one led by Harun himself. Roman towns were besieged, and soon Nicepheros was forced to sign another treaty and concede to pay the tribute.

Annual expeditions against the Romans were the rule, often led by the Caliph in person. Following one such jihad, in which Harun was successful, Nicepheros sent an envoy requesting Harun to release a captive, a patrician’s daughter who was betrothed to marry the Emperor’s son: ‘This request can do no harm to your religion or to you. If you see fit to agree, then do so.’ Harun had the lady placed on a throne and sent to Nicepheros, along with valuable gifts.

Exchange of gifts between caliph and emperor was not uncommon. For good measure, in addition to freeing the captive, Nicepheros had requested perfumes, dates, khabis (a type of pastry), raisins and treacle. In return, he sent Harun 50,000 dirhams, 300 silk/brocade robes, 12 hawks, 4 hounds and 3 thoroughbred horses.


Baghdad and city life in the High Caliphate period

“Baghdad, in the heart of Islam, is the city of well-being...In it to be found is the best of everything and all that is beautiful. From it comes everything worthy of consideration, and every elegance is drawn towards it. All hearts belong to it, and all wars are against it.”

- Muqaddasi

Baghdad was undoubtedly one of the greatest cities on earth. With a population of perhaps a million, few cities of the time could compete with its prosperity and splendour. For comparison, some of the largest cities of Western Christendom, the Italian city states, had populations of around 20,000 to 40,000.

The city sat between the two great rivers and was interspersed by a network of canals. Much travel within it was by boat, and caliphs, princes and other important personages owned processional barges that would be illuminated and decorated on special occasions. The city was full of artists, scientists, scholars and poets, drawn from all over the Islamic world, seeking patronage for their skills and learning. Apart from the Caliph and the royal family, the Barmakids were particularly renowned as patrons of arts and science, and other wealthy citizens vied with them.

The city was the centre of fervent speculation and international trade in what has been described as the ‘economic miracle’ of the Abbasid era. Once a Roman envoy from Constantinople stopped suddenly in the middle of a tour of the city. “This is the ideal spot for a business investment”, he said, “Kindly go and ask the caliph to lend me half a million dirhams. I am sure I can double it in a year.” The Caliph (always eager to impress the Romans) ordered for him to be given a million dirhams, and for the profits from his venture to be sent to Constantinople every year.

Baghdad, like other Muslim cities of the time, was a multi-ethnic but structured place, with quarters loosely arranged by ethnic, religious or tribal affiliations. According to French historian, Andre Clot, ‘racism was unknown’ in Abbasid society. Many caliphs were born of Greek Christian mothers or, like Harun, ex-slaves.

Slaves were a feature of Muslim society, as in all pre-modern civilisations but, under Islamic law, they were treated much better than the victims of the horrific slavery that was later practised in the trans-Atlantic system. The Prophet had insisted that slaves be treated well, fed and clothed to a comparable standard to their masters’, and given full access to the independent justice of the qadi, like free men. Some slaves ran booming business ventures for their masters, controlling large amounts of wealth, and enjoying a much better quality of life than the poor freemen and women who did menial jobs in the city.

There was a large middle class of traders, craftsmen, professionals, landlords and officials. Successful poets and teachers living off income from patrons and students would also fall into this class. The most wealthy merchants and traders were the equals of princes, often ship-owners involved in import and export, trade in grain and oil, and jewellers. Some even loaned money to caliphs and viziers, and gained considerable influence. Jews were well represented among the wealthy elite, especially involved in money-exchange and banking. Jewish rabbinical teaching also flourished, with Baghdad one of the major centres of Judaic learning in the world.

The people of Baghdad had many days in their calendar set aside for holidays and festivals. And such occasion as a caliph’s accession, birth of a royal baby, a prince’s circumcision, or an army’s return from a victorious jihad would be an excuse for a celebration and the scattering of largesse in the streets. Caliphs would scatter gold and silver coins and other precious stones and hand out thousands of gifts. Citizens would also send gifts to the caliph on special occasions, such as the Eid festivals, and all would be carefully recorded by palace officials.

A proliferation of sports and games became popular in Baghdad, and the people turned out with great enthusiasm to participate and spectate. Polo, horse racing, archery, and wrestling all drew huge crowds. Pigeon races and betting on them became so popular that it became a social problem. Racing pigeons commanded high prices, and Harun himself was an avid fan.


 Intellectual trends in the High Caliphate period

A culture of learning was evident in Islam from the earliest time. The Quran itself begins with the command to ‘Read!’, encourages human beings to rational and intellectual pursuit, and honours those who possess knowledge and wisdom.

In the first few centuries of Islam, as various sects arose whose ideas differed from the mainstream, the orthodox majority who claimed to faithfully follow the religion as taught by the Companions came to be known as the ahl al-sunnah wal-jama‘ah, or ‘Sunnis’.

The earliest and most dangerous of the deviant sects, the Khawarij, rose in rebellion against the fourth caliph, Sayyiduna Ali, and continued for centuries to rebel against Muslim rulers from time to time. Their danger lay in their intolerance of all who disagreed with their narrow interpretation of Islam, and their habit of declaring Muslims to be disbelievers and murdering them. The Khawarij themselves splintered  into factions, each believing that it alone was the ‘saved sect’ and that all others were disbelievers. According to Imam Nawawi, the deviant belief which all Khawarij groups share is that a Muslim who commits major sins is a disbeliever. Such was the destruction and disorder they caused that great scholars, such as Imam Bukhari, considered it an obligation on all Muslims to fight them.[5] The Prophet Muhammad (upon him be peace and mercy) himself had warned his Companions about this sect on many occasions and, according to one report, even said “if I were to come across them, I would destroy them like the destruction of ‘Ad”.

The Mu`tazilites, another sect, were rationalists and sought to explain the Divine Attributes intellectually. This led to them denying that God could be seen in the Afterlife or that the Quran was literally the speech of God. According to their Sunni critics, they were guilty of putting ‘Reason above Revelation’. The Shi‘is’ theological doctrines resembles those of the Mu‘tazilites in many respects, such as their denial that Allah is responsible for the evil aspects of destiny.

The Abbasid period witnessed a great fluorescence in learning in Islamic, philosophical and scientific fields. It was the age of the great Imams of jurisprudence and Hadith, and the birth of the kalam-theology tradition. Nascent schools of jurisprudence formed around the Four Imams, as their legal opinions became recorded and codified, and later refined under the critical gaze of the Hadith experts. By the 12th century, Sunni orthodoxy had come to be defined by the triad of kalam (theology), fiqh (jurisprudence of the Four Schools), and tasawwuf (Sufi spirituality).

Under Abbasid patronage, hundreds of texts of the Greeks, Indians and others were rendered into Arabic. Greek rational philosophy, in particular, enjoyed popularity among Muslim thinkers, and entered into a reflective debate with theology that would persist throughout the centuries. Rational enquiry and scientific method became standard, and Muslims made great advances in mathematics, science, astronomy and medicine.

The scions of the House of the Prophet had always been venerated by the majority of Muslims, but gradually among a section of their supporters a fanatic doctrine developed which claimed the infallibility of Ali and the ‘Imams’ after him. These fanatic followers of the Prophet’s family (ahl al-bayt) began, at some point, to reject the first three caliphs and claim that they had prevented Ali from taking his position as the rightful caliph after the Prophet. Sunni sources, however, point out that great scions of the ahl al-bayt, such as Imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq, (who is claimed by Shi’ites as the 6th Imam but is also respected by Sunnis), did not approve of the rejection (rafd) of the first caliphs by some of his followers. The Shi’ite factions became convinced that a ‘Hidden Imam’, or Mahdi, would one day return to claim power in the name of the Household.


The Christian world 661-1066

During the High Caliphate Period, the northern regions of Eurasia were made up of western (Latin) and eastern (Greek) Christian kingdoms. After the western part of the Roman Empire had fallen to the Barbarian invaders, the Bishop of Rome broke away from the Orthodox Church in Constantinople, re-styled himself as ‘the Pope’, and claimed to be the supreme head of Christianity. The Roman Catholic Church, as it became known, was obsessed with getting everyone to follow its particular version of Christian doctrine and would not tolerate any difference in matters of creed. Followers of different interpretations were declared to be heretics and often faced persecution and death, unless they repented.

With respect to learning, Europe at this time was going through its ‘Dark Ages’, with little in the way of intellectual progress. As the Barbarians, and later the Vikings, gradually converted to Christianity, learning mainly remained within the Church, and the masses were largely illiterate.

The western regions of Europe, apart from Islamic Spain, were inhabited by the Barbarian tribes who, after generations of migrations, had eventually settled to form small kingdoms. Apart from the most northerly regions, by the start of the High Caliphate period the tribes had converted to Christianity. To the east of Europe, the Eastern Roman Empire covered the Balkans and Anatolia (modern-day Turkey).

Charlemagne, king of the largest of the Barbarian tribes, the Franks, who had settled in what is today France and Germany, agreed to offer the Pope his protection, and, in return, the Pope declared him to be the ‘Holy Roman Emperor’ in a direct snub to the true emperor in Constantinople. The Holy Roman Empire was, as one writer put it, ‘neither Holy nor Roman’, but it symbolized the Barbarians’ new aspirations to civilization. The new ‘Emperor’ of the Franks sent envoys to Baghdad bearing gifts for Harun Rashid, and there was a friendly exchange between the two. For a long time, all western Europeans would be known in the Muslim world simply as Ifranji, ‘the Franks’.

England at the time was composed of several feuding Anglo-Saxon Christian kingdoms, descended from Angle and Saxon tribal groups who had crossed over from the mainland a few centuries earlier.   In 793, monks on a remote monastery on the island of Lindisfarne were surprised to see strange ships appearing out of the mists of the North Sea. Their astonishment soon turned to fear as burly, muscular warriors armed to the teeth came ashore and headed menacingly in their direction. The sacred space was desecrated, church treasures were looted and the monks were massacred. Western Christendom had just had its first taste of Viking terror.

For almost 300 years, the Vikings poured out of their homelands of Scandinavia and invaded, plundered, settled and terrorized Northern lands from Ireland to Russia. Viking fleets travelled as far south as Spain, sacking Seville before being expelled by the Muslims, and east to form the settlements of the Rus (part of present-day Russia). Their unbounded lust for new lands to explore and exploit even took a group of them to North America.

Charlemagne put up resistance on the mainland but, after his death, the Franks’ unity was broken and the Viking incursions intensified. Around 845, the monk Ermentarius wrote in despair:

“The number of ships grows. The endless stream of Vikings never ceases to increase. Everywhere Christians are the victims of massacres, burnings, plunderings. The Vikings conquer all in their path and no one resists them. They seize Bordeaux, Perigeux, Limoges…Toulouse. Angiers, Tours, and Orleans are annihilated and an innumerable fleet sails up the Seine and the evil grows in the whole region.”      

The North of France became a major Viking settlement, England and Ireland had sizeable colonies, and Kiev and Novgorod formed the fledgling Rus kingdom. The Northmen, or ‘Normans’ as they became known in France, had their own style of government and social structures which they brought to many of their colonies. They liked hierarchy, with landowning freemen and women at the top, and slaves or ‘thralls’ at the bottom who were considered mere possessions, no different from animals. An assembly of freemen, known simply as ‘the Thing’, would take place periodically in which matters of importance to the community would be decided and disputes resolved. Judgements were given by a jury of peers. Each community of freemen would give allegiance to a jarl (earl) who led them in their frequent raiding and plundering missions. Fiercely independent and self-confident, Vikings did not like the idea of bowing to any man, but from time to time a strong jarl would emerge who was able unite the ever-warring clans under one banner as their king.

The Viking life was one of raiding in the summer and hibernating in the winter. It is a mystery why they poured out of Scandinavia at this particular juncture in history. Explanations have been suggested but none quite fits the evidence. They set out in their fleets in all directions, primarily motivated by greed for wealth and glory. Their sagas recorded their exploits and celebrated their heroes. They were particularly passionate about land ownership and trade opportunities, and were prepared to use coercion where required. The Viking colony of Dubh Linn (Dublin) boasted the largest slave market anywhere in the West, with local Irish providing a good supply of human chattels that could be sold as far afield as the lucrative markets of al-Andalus and the Muslim world.

Renowned warriors, tough and hardy, the Northmen were hired as mercenaries by kings and dukes wherever they went, and often ended up seizing power for themselves when the opportunity arose. They even came to form the Eastern Roman emperor’s elite troops, the Varangian Guard.

Wherever they settled, the Vikings soon consolidated their power and assimilated by marrying into local nobility and taking on the religion and languages of their hosts. They became Christians - those in the west embracing the Catholic faith, and the Rus in the east entering the Orthodox Church. The Normans were soon portraying themselves as Frenchmen, taking noble titles such as ‘duke’, and adopting the language.

History textbooks tell a story of how, after 300 years, the Viking hordes suddenly decided to return to Scandinavia and disappear from the pages of history. This 19th century attempt to brush away an important part of European genetic heritage is now untenable and, as a more honest recent writer has stated, the Vikings did not just go away, “they became us”.

In 1066, a Viking descendant, William the Bastard (or The Conqueror) of Normandy, crossed the Channel and invaded England. The Normans were feared wherever they went for their brutality and violence. Ruthlessly efficient and ever eager to learn new military techniques, they ruled their new dominion with their characteristic iron grip. The old Anglo-Saxon lords were either killed or reduced to peasantry, and a Norman elite was installed in their place. England would never be successfully invaded by an outside power again. The Normans were invincible.


Economies of the Muslim and Western worlds

Before modern times, both Islamic and European civilisations had agrarian economies. The vast majority of the population worked the fields as peasants, and the economy was based on agricultural surplus. Although both civilisations valued and encouraged trade and commerce, it was not until the 19th century that Britain, made the transition to an industrialised  economy in what is known as the Industrial Revolution, increasingly based on factories and manufacturing rather than agriculture. Soon other European and North American countries would follow, and eventually the rest of the world.

During the High Caliphate and Middle periods, there were notable differences in the economic structures of the Islamic and Western Christian societies. Catholic Europe was in its medieval feudal phase. The majority of peasants were in various degrees of enserfment. Many different arrangements existed, but in general serfs were not free to leave the lord's service, had to pay various 'dues', and had no recourse to justice outside the lord's own 'court'. Thus, the vast majority of the population in Western Europe lived in a state of 'virtual slavery'.

In Islamic lands, peasants were free men and women. They paid their taxes to whomsoever happened to hold power at the time, and life changed little for them as empires and emirates rose and fell, one dynasty replaced by another. Peasants in the Muslim world had recourse to the cost-free justice of the local qadi (judge), like anyyone else.

From the High Caliphate period onwards, great cities formed economic hubs in the major capitals of the ‘Muslim Commonwealth’, with a flourishing of local and international trade and fervent commercial activity, especially during the many extended periods of peace.

[1] The region in the west of Arabia which contains Mecca and Medina

[2] Present day Central Asia

[3] a new caliph was appointed by being given the ‘Oath of Allegiance’ by the notables of the empire, a practice going back to the Prophet ﷺ

[4] Back at the turn of the 4th century, Constantine, the first emperor to convert to Christianity, had moved the capital of the Roman Empire to a new city strategically placed at the convergence of two continents. He named his new capital after himself, Constantinople. Later, the Roman Empire divided into two empires, each with its own ruler. Constantinople remained the capital of the Eastern Empire which was Greek speaking, and Rome became the capital of the Latin-speaking western half. The Barbarian tribes of the North sacked Rome in the fifth century, and the Western Empire was destroyed. The Eastern Roman Empire, however, was destined to endure another thousand years until its final fall to the Ottoman Turks in 1453.

[5] See Saheeh al Bukhari, Chapter on Killing of the Khawarij and heretics, in Book of Seeking repentance of apostates and deviants and fighting them. (USC-MSA web (English) reference: Vol. 9, Book 84, Hadith 64)




Chapter 4. The Middle Period 1066 – 1500: Age of Sultanates, Emirates and Khanates


Introduction to the Middle Period

The Middle Period was a long and prosperous age in which the Islamicate realms were divided into numerous autonomous regions, ranging from city states to empires. Rulers of Muslim polities were given titles of ‘Emir’ or ‘Sultan’. Later, the Mongol rulers were referred to as ‘Khans’. Very few, such as the Fatimids of Egypt, arrogated to claim the title of ‘Caliph’ after the Abbasids.

The first two centuries of the Middle period witnessed the gradual breakup of the Abbasid Empire and the emergence of the ‘Successor States’. During the latter half of the period, the dramatic outpouring of the Mongol hordes took place, the weary Abbasid caliphate was destroyed, and Eurasia became dominated by the Mongolian Khanates.

In time, most of the Khans converted to Islam, and a huge expansion of the Muslim world took place. By the end of the Middle Period, the total lands under the sovereignty of Muslim rulers had trebled in size.

Almost all of the autonomous states and empires in the Muslim world were united by a common thread of Islamic culture, based on the supremacy of the Quran and the orthodox triad of kalam-theology, Sharia law, and Sufi spirituality. Borders were open, and trade and commerce flourished in what was essentially a ‘Muslim commonwealth’.  The writings of the great traveller-scholar Ibn Battuta show that a Muslim could travel all over the Muslim world from the Maghrib (Morocco) to the Far East and live, study, work and marry wherever he chose. Ibn Battuta also went on to visit neighbouring non-Muslim lands such as China which had friendly relations with the Muslims.

In Europe, the Normans (descendants of the Vikings) became a dominant force, and feudalism and serfdom emerged during this period.

A series of military expeditions, called the Crusades, were launched under the banner of the Catholic Church, which attempted to invade Muslim lands around the Mediterranean coast. As knights from around Western Europe flooded in, Western Christendom began to see itself as a single civilisation for the first time. Thus, in the violent bloodshed of the Crusades, ‘Europe’ was born.

The Roman Catholic Church, led by the Pope, was intolerant of any deviation from its own version of Christian creed, and violently enforced its teachings throughout Western Europe, launching fearful ‘inquisitions’ and killing those it deemed to be heretics.

Extensive intercourse with the Muslim world, through Spain, Sicily and the Crusader Kingdoms, however, was leading to major changes in the West. The teachings of Ibn Rushd (Averroes) and other Muslim intellectuals began to spread in Western Europe. These ideas, which based knowledge on Reason, led in Europe to medieval scholasticism (which tried to place Christian doctrine on a rational basis), and the opening of the first universities in the Christian West. For a long time, Western historians trumpeted the rise of universities as an exceptional historical development, unique to Europe. However, more recent scholarship by historians like George Makdisi has convincingly shown that the university was the direct result of influences from the great colleges of the Muslim world. (Reference: George Makdisi, the Rise of Colleges).  Ultimately, it was the light that shone from the Muslim East that brought Europe out of its Dark Ages.


Figure 2: Major Muslim empires of the Middle Period



Normans, feudalism and the Crusades

For Western Christendom, the Middle Period was the age of Norman power; feudal society with the emergence of serfdom, heavy-armoured knights and castles; and the Crusades.

Interesting similarities can be noted between the Islamic and Western civilisations during this period. Both were composed of myriad sultanates/kingdoms with the rise and fall of numerous ruling dynasties; and endless power struggles and feuds between rival contenders. Both civilisations had a uniting faith with a central spiritual figurehead (caliph/pope) who was recognised by the various kings and warlords as religious leader, but not necessarily obeyed in worldly matters. There was also the reinvigoration of each civilisation by fresh and energetic elements from the wild peripheries, the barbarian borderlands. In Europe, it was the Vikings and their descendants, the Normans, and in the Muslim world waves of Turkic and Mongolian tribes from the Steppes. Just as the Northmen came to dominate many parts of Western and Eastern Christendom, the Turks and Mongols gradually became the ruling classes of the Asian Muslim empires (Saharan nomads played a similar role in Africa).

Serfdom in Western Europe

Differences between the two civilisations are also important. Feudalism emerged during this period in Western Europe. The vast majority of people (over 90 per cent) in pre-modern settled societies were peasants who worked the land, and economies were based on agricultural surplus.

Before the coming of serfdom to the western realms, peasants were mostly free men and women, as in the Muslim world. Farming life was, of course, tough and taxes were paid to the local lord, but peasants had large areas of ‘common’ land, plentiful forests and rivers, where they could forage for plants and hunt for game. Around the beginning of the Middle Period, however, some greedy lords were seeking ways to maximise the productivity of their lands. By closing off the common lands (privatising them), the lords forced the peasants to devote their time to farming alone, thus improving annual yields and profits. Through various mechanisms, peasants were gradually ‘enserfed’, i.e. their freedom was stripped away, they were forced to stay on the land and obliged to work for their lord. In addition, they were made to pay various ‘dues’ to the lord, and in places could not even marry without his permission. They had no access to independent justice, only the lord’s own ‘court’. Thus, the peasant masses of the West had their freedoms stripped away and were reduced to the misery of virtual slavery to the lord and his iron-clad knights, ruling over them from fortified castles that were springing up everywhere.

In the Muslim world, there was no serfdom. Peasants were free men and women, who owned their land, or worked as tenants or hired labourers . All had access to the free and independent justice of the local qadi.

The Crusades

In 1099, thirty-three years after the Norman conquest of England, Pope Urban called for all Christians to join together in a Holy War against ‘the saracens’ (Roman term for Muslims), who were threatening the Roman Empire to the east, and to liberate the holy city of Jerusalem from the infidels.

Although the western Christians were generally despised by the Romans, Emperor Alexis Komnenos had, in desperation, called upon the Pope for assistance, as his domains were rapidly falling to Muslim advances. The Romans tended to think of the western Europeans as little more than barbarians, but they were in a fragile situation and had no choice but to appeal to them in the name of common religion.

The massive response to the Pope’s call-to-arms was astonishing. Even the Pope himself was probably not expecting it. Several factors came together in Europe at that juncture that may help explain this huge Crusader Movement, that would persist for several centuries, one crusade after another. One factor was the rise and spread of the Normans, an energetic people always hungry for adventure and opportunity. Another was the emergence of primogeniture, i.e. all inheritance passes to the eldest son. The result was large numbers of men of noble birth who had no inheritance and no land of their own. Thus, they were compelled to seek their fortunes elsewhere. Another factor was the Catholic Church’s creation of a massive culture of guilt, which may have led to desperate desire for a quick route to Heaven.

The Crusades were a mess. The first group to emerge were a ragtag group of enthusiastic poor people led by Peter the Hermit and Walter the Penniless. Their conviction that they were guaranteed forgiveness of all sins led them to indulge in a few along the route. Horrible massacres and disturbances occurred, with Jewish communities particularly targeted. The People’s Crusade, as it became known, never reached Muslim lands, but started fighting the Romans instead. Peter the Hermit blamed the participants’ lack of true faith as the reason for their dismal failure.

The next group, the ‘official’ First Crusade, consisted of serious soldiers and knights from all over Western Europe. Komnenos was vary of their intentions and made their leaders swear the most sacred oaths, upon all manner of holy relics, that they would hand over any town they captured from the Muslims to the Roman Empire. Antioch was the first town to be captured, and the Crusaders immediately reneged on their oaths. Bohemund ‘the crafty Norman’ argued that the oaths were no longer binding as Komnenos had broken his side of the bargain by not sending reinforcements.

Edessa, Jerusalem and Tripoli were all captured and small Crusader Kingdoms were established right in the heart of dar al-Islam. The Muslims, for the time being, were too busy fighting each other to pay much attention to the uncouth arrivals, and in fact some formed alliances with the Crusaders against Muslim rivals.

The fame, glory and success of the First Crusade spread far and wide in Europe. So, for the Second Crusade, kings and princes set out. This time the Muslims had managed to unite under a new strongman, Salah al-Din al-Ayyubi, and they defeated the Christian armies and took back Jerusalem. In contrast to the massacre inflicted by the Crusaders when they took the city a century earlier, Salahudeen treated the entire ‘Frankish’[1] population with toleration and magnanimity.

The Third Crusade, led by Richard the Lionheart, failed to re-capture Jerusalem but took the town of Acre.

The Fourth Crusade, in 1206, was a particular embarrassment as the crusaders decided to attack the Romans again and besieged Constantinople. They managed to get into the city, and sacked and looted it in a particularly nasty and barbaric fashion. Initially. the Pope was shocked to hear of the attack on the Roman capital and strenuously denied any involvement. But later, when news of success filtered back, he gave it his blessing calling it a ‘miraculous event’.

Constantinople was later won back by the Roman forces, and eventually the Muslims also took back all the lands that they had lost to the Crusaders.

But the crusading spirit had taken root in Europe. For many centuries, almost all foreign military expeditions by the kingdoms of Western Europe would be described as ‘crusades’. The idea that propagation of the Catholic faith could be used as a justification for conquest and subjugation of non-Christians had arrived.

Throughout the Middle Period, there was extensive contact and cultural exchange between the West and the Muslim world, whether through the crusader kingdoms, Norman Sicily, Islamic Spain or the trading empires of the Italian city states. Historians are uncovering many of the influences of this contact with Muslims upon the West. The Muslim world’s rational and scientific spirit would gradually seep into the West, undermining the teachings of the Catholic Church in the process.


Intellectual trends in the Islamic world during the Middle Period

In 945, a warrior tribe from south of the Caspian mountains, the Buyids, invaded Baghdad. They did not completely overthrow the Abbasid Caliph, but kept him as a puppet so that they could rule in his name. It was the first time that the Caliphate in Baghdad completely lost its independence.

Like the Fatimids in North Africa, the Buyids were Shi’a and so the heartlands of the Muslim world was dominated by Shi’ite dynasties, leading historians to refer to 945-1055 as the “Shi’ite Century”. Even though the majority of the general Muslim population remained Sunni, Shi’a learning was patronised by these rulers.

The century concluded with the arrival of a Turkish tribal group from the Steppe, the Sunni Seljuks, to Baghdad in 1055, overthrowing the Buyids and causing something of a “Sunni revival”. Although they re-established the centrality of the Abbasid Sunni Caliphate, they, like the Buyids, saw themselves as the warlords who were really running the Empire. This Middle Period, then, witnessed the rise of pastoralist Turks as rulers, a trend that continued for several hundred years.

The effect of this was the dissolution of united political rule, and the emergence of numerous smaller states each with their own ruler. By 1300, some ulema writing at the time did not even mention the Caliph, referring instead to the various Sultans. This trend was reversed with the coming of the Gunpowder Period, as large, unifying powers arose once more.

The changes in political structure during the Middle Period affected people’s way of life and experiences. Prior to these changes, the political unity of the Muslims, nominally at least, under one caliphate ensured a unified social, cultural zone. With the fragmentation into small, separate states, new social institutions arose which took on the role of creating a unified cultural zone. Through this, a type of Sunni internationalism emerged. For example, a student living in Andalusia could master Maliki law and then go to India and have a career there as a Maliki judge. The social institution of the Maliki madhhab[2] ensured this.

Madhhabs were one of the main social institutions arising from this period; by social institution we mean a body of people who agree on certain procedures for doing something, and this was recognised internationally.

Tariqas[3] were another example. ‘Abd al-Qadir al-Jilani founded one of the first Sufi tariqas in Baghdad in the 12th century. Tariqas allowed people to unite internationally around certain spiritual teachings led by a Sufi sheikh.

This period also saw the growth of “brick and mortar” institutions, such as madrasahs (colleges/universities) and khaniqahs (Sufi lodges).

Madrasahs were the first institutions set up with the specific purpose of training scholars. Before this, learning would occur in multi-purpose places like masjids. Students from all different social classes and backgrounds came there to learn, with endowments ensuring basic provisions would be met. Before this, students would travel through different cities to study with individual scholars. With madrasahs, they gathered in one place to learn. Whilst they began as colleges of law, within a hundred years there were madrasahs where several different subjects were taught like Qur’anic and hadith studies, theology, law and Arabic grammar. By the end of the Middle Period, new complexes were developing where one endowment covered a single, institution similar in some ways to a modern university- within which were different colleges for specific subjects, as well as a khaniqah and other features.

Khaniqah were the gathering-places for many Sufi tariqa circles. Like madrasas, they were funded by endowments. Whilst the madrasas were chiefly for full-time students, Sufi lodges were mainly frequented by ordinary people, some of whom were illiterate, and who were learning for the sake of benefiting their own faith. However, the scholars teaching in madrasas were often the same ones teaching in the lodges. It was common for teachers to teach both the academic and the spiritual sciences. Indeed, during this period figures like Imam al-Ghazali who were involved in several realms such as the political, academic, and spiritual were not uncommon. Moreover, the same scholars would travel to different madrassas to teach different disciplines, which shows that within the academic realm too, they were expected to know something of multiple disciplines.

There is a narrative that the Middle Period saw the start of a long decline in Islamic learning. According to this view, after original, great works by scholars like Ghazali and Ibn Sina, a “commentary culture” emerged where the only works produced were commentaries on these pre-existing texts. However, some of these commentaries contain abundant originality, developing completely new ideas and even entire new disciplines. But they must be viewed in the context of a civilisation which valued its past. Islamic society has always been culturally conservative, concerned with preserving the intellectual output of the past.

Another significant intellectual achievement was the development of an ‘Adab literature’. This new discipline, on the etiquette of seeking knowledge, emerged with the new social institutions of this period. It created a metatheory about epistemology (how we arrive at what we know and how we know what we know), underlying the common metaphysical first principles of all the different realms of knowledge. This transformed the approaches of scholars and led to a greater integration of different fields of knowledge. Tasawwuf (Sufism) for example was seen as having an impact on other fields and vice versa; no branch of knowledge could be viewed entirely in isolation from the others.

In conclusion, the Middle Period saw the replacement of the political caliphate as cultural unifier with a Sunni internationalism, reflected in the cultural sphere spreading from North Africa to China, allowing for movement and integration of culture across numerous lands. The artistic and architectural output from this period was the most prolific it had ever been, with Chinese artistic influences in decorative art demonstrating the Islamic link even to China. Intellectually, it witnessed the rise of natural science and philosophy, with leading scholars like Imam al-Ghazali and Ibn Sina.


The Steppe nomads

The vast expanse of grassland known as the Eurasian Steppe was, throughout antiquity and the Middle Ages, the breeding-ground of wild pastoralist hunter tribes. They wandered from place to place in search of grazing-grounds for their flocks. The steppes stretched from the easternmost reaches of Mongolia to the plains of Hungary in Europe. It was from these immense grasslands that waves of migrating nomadic tribes emerged to harass the Chinese, Persian and Roman empires in ancient times.

The harsh environment and their habit of endless warring and feuding conditioned the steppe-dwellers into formidable warriors. They were feared by settled civilizations whose borderlands they roamed. On the rare occasion that a warlord emerged who was strong enough to unite them, they would become an unstoppable force. Fortunately, for the settled peoples, it was almost impossible for the ever-feuding tribes to put aside their differences and unite under one leader. It had last happened in distant memory when Attila (d. 453) had led the Huns in an avalanche that swept westward along the Steppe and crashed upon Europe and the Roman Empire.

Lesser tribal migrations from the Steppe had been absorbed by the Muslim world over the centuries of Abbasid rule. The Turkic tribes had been incorporated into the Empire as mercenaries and later as paid military units. Eventually, they had risen to prominence and became the controllers of caliphs. The Seljuk Turks had come desperately looking for pasture for their flocks. When they were denied access, they took up the sword and invaded the Abbasid heartlands, creating the great Seljuk Empire in the process. In Egypt, Turkic ‘slave-soldiers’ overthrew their Fatimid masters  to form the Mamluk Empire.

But at the dawn of the 13th century, a new and more ominous threat was growing, festering deep in the steppe lands to the East. An eruption was about to occur the like of which history had not yet witnessed. A young warrior had emerged who had the strength, ambition and charisma to unite the tribes. The great civilisations of Eurasia - Chinese, Muslim and Christian – all would feel the impact of the explosion.


The Mongolian Irruption

The pagan Mongol hordes swept across the great Eurasian continent in the 13th century to establish one of the largest land empires ever known. The heartlands of Islam, the mainland of China, and the northern steppes as far as Russia and Hungary were all brought under Mongol rule within a few decades.

The Mongols were a typical barbarian people of the deep steppe lands, related closely in language and culture to the Turkic tribes that had migrated in waves before them.

Temuchin was born into a chiefly family, but was orphaned and had an impoverished and difficult childhood. He soon rose to prominence as a respected warrior and led his clan to victories against their rivals on the Steppe.

By 1206, he had united the Mongol tribes and become the undisputed ruler, calling himself Chingiz Khan. The steppe peoples had always coveted the Chinese empire and it was no different for the Mongols, who immediately began their plans for conquest. Chingiz had no intention to attack the Muslim world, but this changed when the neighbouring Shah of Khawarizm, lord of a vast Islamic empire, dishonoured peaceful envoys of the Khan and had one of them beheaded. Chingiz Khan was enraged and prepared his forces to move against the Shah.

The devastation was immense. The Mongolian expansion to the west proceeded in three phases, until most of the Eurasian continent was under their rule. In the first phase (1219-22) the Khwarazmian Empire was overrun, despite the Shah’s forces having superior numbers. Conquering the great city of Bukhara, Chingiz Khan is reported to have proclaimed, “O people, know that you have committed great sins and the great ones among you have committed these sins…because I am the punishment of God. If you had not committed these sins, God would not have sent a punishment like me upon you”.

Cities that resisted the Mongol advance were treated without mercy and often all their inhabitants were put to the sword. City after city fell to Chingiz’s armies, with horrific massacres often numbering hundreds of thousands. Many believed that the Last Days had arrived. Chingiz died in 1227 leaving his empire in the hands of his four sons, with Ogedei as supreme ruler.

Chingiz’s grandson, Batu, initiated the second phase (1238-41) of conquest. With the aid of the famous general, Subudei, Mongol armies penetrated deep into present-day Russia and Eastern Europe into Hungary. The heavily armoured Christian knights were no match for the mounted archery of the Golden Horde.

In 1256 (phase 3), the new Great Khan, Mongke, led his armies to complete the conquest of China while sending his brother, Hulegu Khan, against the Muslim world. Hulegu captured major territories of Iraq and Syria and sacked Baghdad in 1258, killing the caliph and ending Abbasid rule.

For a time it seemed that the Mongol avalanche was unstoppable and the rest of the Muslim world would soon fall to the hordes. It was at this time, when fear and despair had befallen upon the Muslims everywhere, that the Mamluks of Egypt took up the banner of Islam and came forward to face the advancing armies of the Great Khan. It was at the oasis of ‘Ayn Jalut in Palestine that the forces met, and the future of the Muslim world was decided. Finally, the Mongols fell back, defeated for the first time. The Mongol advance into Muslim lands was thwarted.

With the death of Great Khan Mongke, the vast Mongol domain split into four great empires. A major part of the Muslim world remained under non-Muslim Mongol rule for two generations, until eventually the conquerors embraced the religion of the conquered. The Mongols, formerly the nemesis of the Muslims, now became some of the greatest defenders of the Faith.

[1] Western Christians were known in the Muslim world as ‘Franks’ (Ar. ‘Ifranji’).

[2] Madhhab: the term usually refers to a school of Islamic law, the four main schools being the Hanafi, Maliki, Shafa’i, and Hanbali.

[3] Tariqa: fellowships organized around and named for the ṭarīqah (“way” or “path”) of given Sufi masters.




Chapter 5.The Gunpowder period 1500 - 1707

Introduction to the Gunpowder Period

Three great empires emerged in the Muslim world, the Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal, which dominated the world during this period. The Ottomans put a final end to the Eastern Roman Empire in 1453 by storming Constantinople, and moved on to dominate Eastern Europe and the Mediterranean.

Europeans began their Age of Discovery, across the oceans in search of material gains, and into the past in search of ‘classical’ Roman and Greek culture (the Renaissance). Spanish explorers discovered the Americas and found huge reserves of silver, and thus the Spanish empire began its expansion in South and Central America. Other Western European nations begin to compete for domination of the trade routes to the Far East and the colonisation of the Americas. The colonial empires were born.

A new spirit of learning and rational thought spread through Europe. Catholic teachings were denounced as irrational and corrupt by the new Protestant movement (the Reformation).

Martin Luther, the father of the protestant movement, led the way and encouraged all believers to read the Bible for themselves and made translations of the text available to the masses for the first time. An impulse towards rational thought and scientific enquiry was beginning to find fertile soil in the lands that had broken free of the Catholic yoke.

During this period, the rise of a capitalist economy can be seen in Western Europe. Capitalism was criticised for concentrating wealth in the hands of a few, while exploiting the poor. The practice of primogeniture in Western Europe (all inheritance passes to eldest son) contributed to the increasing concentration of wealth. In addition, the traditional prohibition on usury was reversed by Protestant leader, Calvin, in the early 16th century, opening the way for the usury-based capitalist system, which would later became globalised under the colonial empires.

In the Muslim world, Islamic law tended to ensure wealth distribution through mandatory inheritance laws, the zakat system, strict prohibition of usury, and the obligation on extended families to support vulnerable members. With power focussed in the hands of an individual, the caliph or sultan was able (and duty-bound) to intervene if market forces were causing problems in the supply of basic essentials for the people.


Europe and the Turks

In early 1453, from deep in the Pacific Ocean, a gigantic explosion shook the world. The volcanic island of Kuwae literally blew itself up. Eight cubic miles of molten rock were blasted into the stratosphere with a force two million times that of the Hiroshima bomb. Volcanic dust was propelled across the earth, lowering temperatures and blighting harvests from China to Sweden, and causing freak weather patterns.

In Constantinople, on the night of 26th May of that year, the citizens of the ancient city were shocked to see a strange light flickering on the roof of the St Sofia Church. Suddenly a large flame encircled the dome for a long time and, gathering into an ‘indescribable light’, took to the sky. The alarmed inhabitants of the city saw it as a bad omen that the protection of God had finally left them. Outside the city walls, camp fires of the Ottoman imperial army, who were besieging the Roman capital, scattered the ground as far as the eye could see.

Constantinople was renowned in the medieval world as having the greatest fortifications on earth. The huge, multi-tiered walls had stood for centuries and were considered unbreachable by any army. But things were about to change. The received wisdoms of centuries of siege warfare were soon to become obsolete. The young Sultan Mehmet had a new weapon that would change the face of warfare forever.

First discovered by the Chinese, but developed into weapon capability by the ever-warring kingdoms of Western Europe, gunpowder was quickly adopted by the Ottoman Turks. Mehmet managed to procure the services of a Hungarian engineer who built for him the greatest canons the world had yet seen. Under constant bombardment, the walls of Constantinople finally crumbled, and the Ottoman crescent was raised over the city. After fifteen centuries, the legendary Roman Empire had come to an end, and the momentous victory signalled the dawn of the Gunpowder Age.

The coming of gunpowder weapons had several world-changing effects. Great castles and fortresses that were typical of the medieval world were no longer of any use against the latest canons. Similarly, heavy armour became obsolete. Power now rested with those who could manufacture the latest weapons and equip their armies with them. The old arts of warfare no longer applied. From ancient times, the bedouin and pastoralist tribes of desert and steppe had threatened settled civilisations everywhere. Their harsh environment made them so tough and hardy that even professional imperial armies often could not match them in battle. Empires were forced to deal with them by buying them out (paying tributes) or co-opting them into the imperial force itself. Now, however, the time of the bedouin was coming to an end. The transition would take centuries, but slowly it became clear that those hardy warriors were unable to match the new gunpowder armies. No longer would they threaten the empires whose borders they circled. The sultans and kings with the greatest resources were able to manufacture and obtain the best weapons. This meant that smaller kingdoms and emirates could not survive for long unless they were allied to a greater power. This explains why the Gunpowder Period witnesses the emergence of three mega-empires in the Muslim world (Ottomans, Safavids, and Mughals), whereas previously numerous great and small polities had been the pattern. Similarly, western Europe sees the emergence of the Absolute Monarchies with power concentrated with the monarch rather than spread among the aristocracy.

The war between Muslims and Romans had been going on ever since the birth of the very first Islamic state. Now the age-old enemy was gone. But, unknown to the Muslim world, the same year that Constantinople fell, 1453, saw the end of a “hundred years’ war” that had raged between the distant kingdoms of France and England. Unbeknown to anyone at the time, it was these unlikely Christian powers that would grow one day to become the Muslims’ ultimate nemesis.

For now, the fall of Constantinople meant that the eastern front of Christendom had been terribly breached, allowing Muslim Ottoman forces to pour into Europe.

While the Ottomans were advancing into Eastern Europe, Muslim Spain in contrast was suffering its final death blows. In 1492, the final Muslim stronghold in the Iberian peninsula, the Kingdom of Granada, was destroyed by Catholic forces. The glorious history of Islamic Andalucia had come to an end.

In the same year, 1492, Spanish explorer Christopher Columbus, in his search for an oceanic route to India and the Spice Islands, stumbled quite by accident upon the Americas. The colonial project was poised to begin. The Christian kingdoms of western Europe started competing, often violently, for exploitation of the ‘New World’ and for control of the trade with the Far East.

In addition to gunpowder, the compass and the printing press transform the world. The spirit of rational thought and scientific curiosity was taking root in Europe. Luther rejected the irrational and superstitious beliefs of the Catholic Church, and the Protestant movement was born.

As the Spanish began to colonise the lands of Central and South America, they forced the natives to work in silver mines. The natives died off rapidly due to diseases brought by the Europeans and by being overworked in the mines. The immense reserves of silver (maybe doubling or trebling the entire global supply) flooded into Europe and caused economic shockwaves throughout the world. The race between Western European powers to dominate the Atlantic and the trade routes around Africa to the Far East had begun.

Companies were formed by the Dutch (who ruthlessly colonised the Indonesian archipelago) and the English in order to send out military trade expeditions, and large profits began to flow in. The population of natives in Central America dropped dramatically. In Mexico alone, the native population dropped by 90 percent in the first 75 years of Spanish colonisation. The natives, who had always lived free in the open land, were not able to tolerate the forced labour of the mines and plantations. The depletion of natives meant that there was not enough labour for the colonists to draw upon. The solution was to import slaves from abroad. England led the way in bringing shiploads of slaves, purchased or kidnapped from West Africa, across the Atlantic to labour in Caribbean and American plantations. The largest and most cruel forced migration of human beings in history had begun.

In time, millions of miserable and humiliated Africans would make this dreaded journey. The slaves, some of them Muslims, were forced to convert to Christianity and worship the image of a white god, and in time many forgot their roots. Meanwhile, the slave-driven plantations producing cotton, sugar, coffee and tobacco are making the colonists rich beyond their wildest dreams. Besides all the human misery, the land itself was over-farmed and the soil exhausted by plantation owners with an eye only on quick profit, not sustainability.

The rapidly growing economies and technological advancement of the Western kingdoms was yet no match for the great Islamic empires to the East. Suleiman the Magnificent ruled in splendour over three continents from his capital, Constantinople. The Mediterranean was an Ottoman lake; and the discipline of Ottoman armies and efficiency of imperial administration inspired awe across European lands.

Further East, the high culture of Safavid Persia and the might and wealth of Mughal India soon became legendary. The patronage of learning, arts and architecture in all three realms led to a second classical age in Islamic history. Mimar Sinan created magnificent masjids for Sultan Suleyman I, and Shah Jahan in India built one of the great architectural wonders of the world, the Taj Mahal, in memory of his beloved wife.

A unified Islamic teaching formed by the triad of rational kalam-theology, madhhab jurisprudence, and spirituality embodied in the great Sufi Orders, pervaded Dar al-Islam. The power of great empires ensured that peace and security was prolonged for the majority of the population.

Meanwhile in Europe, kings and queens were engaged in unceasing rivalry and warfare, culminating in the Thirty Years War (1618-1648) which drew in many of the powers of Europe and resulted in massive bloodshed and destruction until finally an uneasy truce was reached.

During the two centuries of the Gunpowder period, the Muslim world experienced relative stability and peace under the three great empires which, between them, covered the majority of the Islamic domains. Apart from the inevitable succession disputes upon the death of a sultan, the Ottoman, Mughal and Safavid dynasties remained firmly established in authority, allowing a new cultural and intellectual fluorescence to take place.

Sufi spirituality was widely popular. Sufi Masters were venerated by rich and poor alike, and sultans and emperors surrounded themselves with Sufi poets and dervishes. Sufi Orders pervaded society. In Ottoman society, each professional guild was linked to an Order, and even the elite troops, the Janissaries, were members of one.

It was great philosopher-theologians and Sufi Masters, such as Ghazali, Rumi, Mulla Sadra, Shihab al-Din Suhrawardi and Ibn al-‘Arabi who had made the final synthesis between philosophy and theology, mapping out the relations between intellect and soul, logic and love, reason and faith. ‘Love is reckless; not reason’, Rumi wrote, ‘Reason seeks a profit. Love comes on strong, consuming herself, unabashed.Yet, in the midst of suffering, Love proceeds like a millstone, hard surfaced and straightforward.Without cause God gave us Being; without cause give it back again.

The mature Islamic civilisation of the Gunpowder period was strong in its faith and confident of its rational foundations. The Sufis stressed the temporary and transitory nature of this worldly life, and sought tranquillity and ecstasy through meditation, dhikr and devotional practices. The highest station in the Path was Arrival in the Divine Presence and attainment to the Love of God.

Greek rational philosophy and science had been enthusiastically received by Muslim scholars during the High Caliphate age, and many, over the centuries that followed, had grappled with the ideas. But philosophy had never resulted in unbelief in the Muslim world. Faith in the Quran as the final revelation was as firm as ever.

The intellectual path would take a different direction in the West. The Bible was unable to withstand the unrelenting historical and scientific critique to which it now became subjected. Thus, scientific enquiry eventually lead to agnosticism and relativism in the West; and the Bible ceased to be seen as the infallible source of truth.

But during the Gunpowder period, this process was only just beginning. The first challenges to the Catholic Church were appearing. Martin Luther was able to reject some teachings of the Catholic Church that he felt were not grounded in the Bible and were irrational. Copernicus challenged the notion of the Earth being at the centre of the solar system. In the European Middle Ages, learning and literacy had been the exclusive preserve of the Catholic Church. But things were changing. Luther translated the Bible into German to make it accessible to people for the first time, and the printing press encouraged and spread literature of all types. Western Europeans came to be split between Protestants and Catholics.

The Ottoman sultans were keeping a close eye on developments in the West. Sultan Mehmed II had followed up the conquest of Constantinople by capturing Greece and the Balkans, and had raided deep into Italy, and Sultan Yildirim Bayezid and others after him continued the empire’s westward expansion. Suleyman I (the Magnificent) continued the Ottoman advances into Europe, reduced the proud Hungarian kings to vassalage, and reached the gates of Vienna. The ‘Great Turk’ was feared and reviled throughout Christendom, and calls for a new crusade were banded about. But the western kingdoms had begun their voyages of discovery westwards, across the Atlantic, and abandoned hopes of adventure to the East…for now.


Life in the Ottoman Empire

The Ottomans were true inheritors of the Romans. Suleyman I, ‘the Magnificent’ was known as ‘the Lawgiver’ to his people. An obsession with due process and an organised, centralized administration was a hallmark of the empire.

The Ottoman army, probably the leading military force of the day, was ordered and efficient. European observers were left amazed at the highly disciplined, regulated movement of thousands of soldiers in formation. The army was divided into several contingents. The Janissaries, making up around one-tenth of the force, were the elite troops, intensely loyal and attached personally to the sultan. Their number varied between 20,000 to around 100,000 at their height. Building on the experience of many centuries of previous Muslim dynasties, the Janissary system was based on the recruitment and training of ‘slave-soldiers’, many were taken from conquered Christian lands. The recruits, starting young, were put through an extensive training for several years which included an excellent education, martial arts, and spirituality. The rest of the army was made up of cavalry sipahis (fief-holding nobility from around the empire), palace cavalry, the akinji (raiders and irregulars who formed the vanguard), and the mehteran, or military band.

Ottoman society consisted of town and country dwellers. Peasants made up the vast majority of the population, as in all pre-modern societies. They largely lived simple and self-sufficient lives making their living from the earth, and rarely venturing beyond the nearest market town, except for the Hajj pilgrimage. Their only obligation to the local fief-holder was to pay their taxes, and these were fixed by the central authority in Constantinople. They owned their land and were free to sell it, with permission from the government.

The Ottoman Empire was a multi-ethnic, multi-cultural zone, like most other Muslim empires. Numerous Christian and Jewish communities were spread throughout the empire, and were given complete autonomy to regulate their own communities, living by their own customs and laws. All the state demanded was that they paid their taxes to the Sultan. Indeed, the Ottomans, keen to encourage trade and commerce, had positively encouraged Jewish immigration due to the Jews’ reputation as great traders and financiers. During the fall of Islamic Spain to Catholic armies, Jews as well as Muslims had found themselves persecuted, and many had fled and found refuge in Ottoman lands. Ottoman expansion into Eastern Europe improved the lot if many Christian peasants who had hitherto been subject to feudal oppression (Reference: Andre Clot, Suleiman the Magnificent).

A typical farmer’s house was a simple hut made of earth or straw, with carpets of goat hair or felt, and a hanging to separate the women’s area from the ‘main room’. Each family owned a herd and kept a kitchen garden for vegetables. The ‘cow shed’ was joined to the main residence; the warmth of the animals was useful in winter months. There would be a cauldron above the fire (fuelled by straw or manure) for warmth and cooking. Sitting and sleeping was on the ground, using cushions or mats. There was no furniture. Clay jars or chests were used for storage. Honey was widely used and bee-keeping very popular. Cereals were the staple food and rice was considered a luxury. The monotony of daily village life was lifted by regular religious festivals, local town fairs, and visiting musicians, poets and story-tellers.

New Ottoman cities were organized according to a strict plan. The Great Mosque would be in the centre, surrounded by the bazaars which were arranged with the most noble trades (perfumery, jewellery, etc.) at the centre and lesser trades at the periphery. Markets were supervised by a government inspector. Further out were residential districts with gardens, and finally the more humble dwellings. Outside the city were the graveyards. Professions were organised into guilds, which provided regulation and accountability. The guild masters were responsible for collecting taxes from their members for the sultan. The Janissaries provided policing for medium and large towns, while small towns were looked after by the local sipahi fief-holder.

By the end of the 17th century, however, the tide of civilization was turning Europe was moving ahead with new wealth, energy, and culture of scientific progress. The age of Muslim ascendency was drawing to a close.


The Mughals


During the ancient and early medieval period, India was a land of advanced civilisation, high culture, learning and science. The teachings of Buddhism had spread from India across the Far East in the first and second centuries CE, and many Indian manufactures were unrivalled in the world. Indeed the Prophet (upon him be peace and mercy) was once described by a poet as ‘an Indian sword’, which shows us that Indian swords were considered the finest, even by the dwellers of distant Arabia.

Already during the lifetime of the Companions, Muslims had reached the borders of India, and the first armies soon began subduing parts of the subcontinent.

Before the Mughal period, various Muslim dynasties ruled over parts of India: for example, the Ghaznavids, and then the Mamluk-founded Delhi Sultanates. With this long history, Islam in India often had an eclectic side to it: interacting with local religious traditions; giving birth to Hinduism as marker of religious identity; and powerfully shaping, through sufism, the Bakhti poetical tradition, even before Babar ventured into the Subcontinent.

Pre-Mughal India was divided into several kingdoms, often at each other's throats. The Indian population did not conceive of themselves as part of a single nation; it was the Mughals that were largely responsible for establishing the idea of a unified  .

Six great rulers

The founder of the Mughal Empire, Babur, who claimed descent from Timur (Tamerlane), invaded India in 1526, from the Khyber Pas . He established his rule in the North, then looked to expand into the rest of India. One of the reasons his armies were successful is that they had good horses, which, being swifter and leaner, could easily outmanoeuvre the elephants used by the Indians. Additionally, Babur used guns, muskets and artillery, including canons, against the Lodhis, the last of the Delhi Sultans. Despite Babur’s army being outnumbered 100,000 to 12,000, they defeated the Lodhis, allowing Babur to seize Delhi, and then Aligarh. Before settling in India, Babur had lived in Kabul, a place he deeply loved for its bracing climate and beautiful gardens. Whilst in India, he continued to dream of Kabul, building gardens to remind himself of it, and, even though he died in Delhi, at his request he was buried in Kabul.

Even after he had established himself as ruler, Babur’s hold on his empire remained tenuous, as did his son, Humayun’s, after him. Babur and Humayun attempted to cement their rule against threats, for example the Rajputs, powerful Hindu warlords from Rajasthan in northern India. Babur pacified many of them by besieging their desert forts, using muskets. Another of his tactics was to build mines under the forts and set off gunpowder explosives in them.

Humayun’s rule was threatened when he was displaced from the throne by Sher Shah Suri after Babur died. Humayun was exiled and, destitute, wandered the Rajasthan desert with his family for a time. His wife, Hamida Begum gave birth to Akbar in the desert, during this period. However, after the Safavid emperor agreed to help him, Humayun regained control of the throne and returned to India. To consolidate Mughal power and prestige, he began the construction of grand buildings; it was a way of celebrating their power and convincing the local population that the Mughals would take the country forward and achieve great things.

When Akbar came to power, he had to deal with the threats from the Rajputs, which had survived on since Babur’s reign. He carried out sieges against them, and was involved in the battles, at the front line. Akbar used marriage as a way of cementing political ties, marrying several Rajput princesses. His patronage and keen interest in different religious views has made him something of an icon for religious pluralism.  Reinforcing this reputation is the fact he appointed a high number of Hindus to his political administration. By way of comparison, up to twenty percent of his holders of high office (Mansabdars) were Hindu, whereas under British rule there was not a single Muslim or Hindu at such a high level of government.

On the other hand, Akbar took this tendency to tolerance to the extreme, by creating his own new religion, called the Din-i-Ilahi (‘Divine Religion’). Whilst Akbar was fairly uneducated and also illiterate, his venture was supported by the capable Abul-Fazl, Akbar’s main counsellor and historian.

Akbar was succeeded by his son Jahangir. Succession had been smooth overall up till then, but the years to come would see different sons competing for the throne, killing each other, rebellions, and so on, all of which contributed to the Mughal decline. Jahangir is painted as a religious fanatic by some, and he is a hated figure amongst the Sikhs, because he had their sixth Guru, Arjan, drowned in a river. However, others point out that the killing of Arjan was not due to religious intolerance but rather political motivations; Arjan favoured Jahangir’s son, Khusraw, over him. Moreover,  Jahangir was was far from being a religious fanatic; he was given to drunkenness and there are several paintings of him enjoying wine, some of which appeared on coins. He was inclined towards a lavish lifestyle and hedonism, and his wife, Nur Jahan, was the real power behind the throne.

Shah Jahan, who assumed the throne after Jahangir, is perhaps best known for his building of the Taj Mahal, a monument of his love for his wife Mumtaz Mahal. His son Awrangzeb succeeded him, a target for many Hindu nationalists today. Unlike his brother Dara Shikoh, who was an advocate of the Sufi mystic Ibn ‘ , Awrangzeb leaned more towards the conservative Ulema of India. He introduced the  , one of the reasons he is disliked by many Hindus. Some Sikhs turned against him, as did the Hindu Marathas. Aurangzeb defeated them, and also conquered part of southern India, with huge and costly campaigns, making him very unpopular with some parts of the population. The Marathas were never completely quelled, and would cause more problems in the future, becoming one of the reasons for the rise of the British presence in India.

Despite charges of religious intolerance, under Aurangzeb the number of Mansabdars who were Hindu rose to a third, even more than under Akbar. Some have argued that Aurangzeb did not implement Jizya due to religious discrimination, but because he needed the extra money to carry out massive campaigns in the south against the Shi‘a kingdoms,. Contrary to popular belief (propagated nowadays by Hindu nationalists), Aurangzeb did not destroy thousands of Hindu temples, nor did he perpetrate a quasi-genocide of Hindus, or instigate a mass conversion programme. (Reference: Audrey Truschke, Aurangzeb: The Life and Legacy of India's Most Controversial King).

Wealth in Mughal India

Mughal India was possibly the richest country in the world; indeed, its fabulous wealth was its defining feature. It is estimated that a quarter of the world’s economic activity or more was in India during this period. Indian travelers in the Arab world were assumed to be extremely wealthy.

A major source of this wealth was the extensive trade developed with China. The trade between the two powers was peaceful, with neither side requiring a navy to secure their sea transport. Additionally, the size of the population in India meant a huge tax yield which enriched the state. By Jahangir’s reign, India had surpassed Persia in wealth.

Learning in Mughal India

In Jahangir’s reign, India started becoming a centre of hadith studies, especially after Shaykh ‘Abd al-Haqq al Muhaddith travelled from Delhi to the Hijaz and returned  as a scholar and teacher of the sciences of Hadith. Just as Aurangzeb was dying, Shah WalI Allah Dihlawi was born, who became one of the greatest scholars of Hadith and other Islamic sciences. He also attempted to reconcile the ideas of Ibn al-‘Arabi and his critics. India has remained a major centre of Hadith studies into the modern age.


Sufism was very important during this period, as it had been from the early days of Muslim rule in India. When the Mughals first took India, Sufis were the major force which brought Islam to the local populations. The love and compassion characteristic of Sufism, exemplified by Nizam al-Din Awliya and other saintly figures helped reach out to Hindus and other religious groups. Moreover, Sufis helped legitimise Mughal rule in the eyes of ordinary people. In being blessed by a Sufi sheikh, the Mughal ruler was implicitly recognised as head of the spiritual hierarchy. Sceptics point to this as one of the reasons that Mughal rulers patronised Sufi sheikhs. However, it is clear that there was also a genuine reverence for the Sufi masters among all sections of the population, including the rulers. The same was true of the Ottoman Empire and much of the Muslim world during this period.


Managing the great religious diversity in India was a real challenge for the Mughals  . The desire to be tolerant to other religions, most notably Hinduism, ran up against the Islamic condemnation of idol-worship. Even so, and as surprising as it may first seem, the very idea of tolerance was something the Muslims brought to India. For instance, it used to be thought that Buddhism was effaced from the Subcontinent due to Muslim presence, but now historians have shown the faith was extirpated from the land due to Brahmin hostility. Whilst Brahminism could successfully cultivate a diversity of local cults under its own religious rubric, it has never really shown it can square with a spiritual allegiance that does not fit within its own framework. It is, thus, not a complete aberration that Ghandi, who understandably tried to cultivate a spirit of tolerance, was shot by a Hindu nationalist, hailed as the true hero by the current political administration.


One of the reasons behind the Mughals’ decline is that they never significantly developed their naval power, unlike the Europeans. Indeed, at the  , the only real Muslim naval power was the Ottoman  .

Another weakening factor was the Mughals’ move towards being highly autocratic. It brought with it tensions over succession which weakened Mughal power. Although Islam, especially when compared to Christianity, is not a hierarchical religion, this period saw the Muslims becoming increasingly imperialistic and monarchic, whilst Europe was simultaneously becoming less so.

From Akbar’s reign on, the first movement of Europeans into India emerges. The Portuguese Jesuits visited the court of Akbar, and desired to convert Indians, however they were despised there for their intolerance, and so did not have much of an effect. The early British in India, on the other hand, were not ideological or missionary. A few of them   into the Mughal populations and won the hearts of some of the locals. Only as British power rose in India, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, missionaries started arriving and began creating a sharper division between white Europeans and the native population.

After the death of Aurangzeb (d.1707), Mughal power in India began its slow decline, and the fortunes of the ‘mother of all corporations’, the British East India Company, began to shine. The year of Aurangzeb’s death also witnessed the union of two distant kingdoms, England and Scotland, under one parliament to form the kingdom of Great Britain.

For our purposes, the year 1707 (1119 H) signals the transition of civilisational ascendency from the Islamic to the Western world. The Muslim world was in decline, and the peoples of the North, who had patiently bided their time, were now poised to take over the world.



Chapter 6.The European Age 1707 – 2000


The Eighteenth Century: Enlightenment & Revolution

The 18th century saw the beginning of global ascendancy of Western European civilization. Enlightenment ideas of liberty, sovereignty of the people, and equality, spread through Europe during this century culminating in the United States’ declaration of independence from Britain (American Revolution), and political revolution in France with the  abolition of the old feudal order and the declaration of a new republic (French Revolution).

However, the ideas of equality, liberty and democracy that were spreading through Europe only applied if you were white, male and owned property. Furthermore, these ideals seemed to be confined to the home nation. Overseas, the process of colonization and exploitation of distant lands for profit continued. The great empires of the Muslim world and China were still out of reach of European ambitions, but the American and Australian continents, inhabited by less technologically advanced ‘natives’, were prime and easy picking.

Europe moved ahead of the Muslim world in science and technology, the frantic quest for ever-more advanced weapons, driven by the endless warring between European kingdoms.

The seeds of rationalism and science led to a string of Enlightenment philosophers in the 18th century in Europe who expounded philosophical theories based on Reason, covering the five classical subject areas of philosophy: metaphysics; epistemology; ethics; politics; and aesthetics. The early Enlightenment philosophers tended to accept the rational necessity of a creator, or ‘First Cause’, but were not interested in the anthropomorphic Christian concept of God. Isaac Newton’s (d. 1727) ideas of physical laws which govern the universe reinforced the concept of a ‘creator’ who was its ultimate Cause, but was not involved in the day-to-day running of the universe. The universe began to be thought of as similar to a huge clockwork mechanism, in all its complexity ultimately proceeding according to well-defined laws. This radical shift from belief in an active and personal God to an impersonal and distant one set the stage for an eventual transition to outright atheism.

Enlightenment philosophers, such as John Locke, argued that kings and queens do not have a ‘divine right’ to rule. Rather, the monarch’s role is to represent, and work for the welfare of, his subjects. He is entrusted to fulfil this role by the people. Hence, the idea of ‘popular sovereignty’ (i.e. that sovereignty belongs to the people) began to spread in Europe. In time, these ideas led some nations to discard their monarchy altogether (e.g. France, America), and others to severely restrict its power (e.g. Britain). People felt allegiance their nation (nationalism) rather than to a monarch.

Enlightenment ideas of popular sovereignty were evident in 1776 when the vast British Empire split into two, as had the Roman empire before it. Some of the British colonies in North America were not happy about taxes imposed on them from London, and declared, and fought for, their independence. They called themselves the United States of America.  The new ‘republic’ was based on a written constitution and a democratic form of government. The French people too ended the rule of their monarchy, abolished hereditary aristocracy and church rule, and declared a constitution and democratic rule. The rule of monarchs, aristocracy and the church (the ‘Old Order’) was also under threat elsewhere in Europe.

The 18th century saw a massive increase in wealth in Western Europe, through the exploitation of distant lands. It saw the continuation of the transatlantic slave trade, with black West Africans forcibly deported to work in inhumane conditions on plantations in the Caribbean and the Americas. The British, French, Dutch, Spanish and Portuguese continued to fight for control of trade routes to the Far East and for colonisation of the ‘New World’ (America), but during this century the British emerged as the foremost power, followed by their age-old rivals, the French.

Following the lead of Britain, where parliament had already limited the power of the monarchy, the idea that ‘the People’ are the ultimate authority in society spread in Western Europe. Eventually, this powerful idea would lead to the toppling of the old order (monarchy, aristocracy and church) in many places, and its replacement with the new ideal of democracy. From now on, even kings and dictators would have to justify their rule based on the ‘will of the People’.

The dramatic revolution and the murder of the king in France led to massive political instability in the fledgeling republic, until a military officer, Napoleon Bonaparte, seized power and declared himself Emperor of France. He proceeded to lead French armies in a rapid sweep of conquest of the European mainland from Spain to Italy (even occupying Egypt for good measure). However, Britain and other powers eventually managed to unite and defeat him; but revolutionary ideas opposing the old order had taken root everywhere.

In the Muslim world, the Ottoman Empire continued to maintain a flexible and strong economy, society, and military. However, its military fell behind that of its main European rivals and consequently suffered severe defeats in the 18th and 19th centuries. This eventually prompted one Sultan to initiate a partially successful process of reform and modernization along European lines known as the Tanzimat.

In the Mughal Empire, the British East India Company had been allowed to set up trading posts, but it had begun recruiting Indian soldiers, giving them European military training, and exploiting local rivalries to seize Muslim territory for itself. Mughal power was in rapid decline.

The Indian scholar, Shah Wali Allah, sought to identify the causes of Muslim decline and work for revival. He responded to the European intellectual challenge by demonstrating the rational basis of Islamic teachings, and exhorted Muslim leaders to resist non-Muslim rule. In Arabia, a new Kharijite preacher, Muhammad ibn ‘Abd al-Wahhab, taught that the Muslims had gone astray by indulging in major sins, innovations and idol worship. His followers, who became known as ‘Wahhabis’ destroyed tombs and places of worship and killed those Muslims whom they considered to be polytheists. He gained the support of a tribal leader, Ibn Sa‘ud, and rose in rebellion against the Ottomans, declaring them to be disbelievers. After initial successes, the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance was eventually defeated by Ottoman-Egyptian forces (1818).


The Nineteenth Century: European World Empires

Various political ideologies developed from the violent events of the French Revolution. Conservatives supported the Old Order, in opposition to Radicals who called for an end to aristocratic privileges and social inequalities. Liberals sought a middle way. They agreed that the Old Order needed to change, but the opposed the violent methods of the Radicals. They called for reforms through peaceful means and a gradual transition to democratic and egalitarian ideals.

By the end of the 19th century, Western philosophy had largely discarded metaphysics. There was no longer any space for God or religion amongst ‘enlightened’ thinkers in Europe. Western philosophers came to diverge between those who argued that it was possible to have certainty of knowledge through science and mathematics (Positivists), and those who held that even science was not truly objective, and that no ‘real’ objective truth was possible (Relativists).

Meanwhile, the European colonial empires, led by Britain, France, and Russia competed with each other and gradually took over  a large part of the world between them, with the Ottoman Empire remaining the last major Islamic power (until its defeat in WW1).

After the defeat of Napoleon (1815), Britain became the controller of the world's oceanic trade routes, ushering in the ‘Pax Britannica’ and promulgating the ‘doctrine’ of 'free trade', meaning the importing and exporting of goods without tariffs. The Germans protested that ‘free trade’ was simply a ruse intended to serve the interests of Britain, as Britain was able to produce manufactured goods most cheaply, and wished to export them around the world.

Britain’s main rival was now imperial Russia. The USA, having claimed the Americas for herself (the Monroe Doctrine), systematically and gradually expanded from Atlantic to Pacific, ruthlessly wiping out vast numbers of Native Americans in the process.

The Romantic philosophers, poets and thinkers opposed the dry rationalism of the Enlightenment and cultivated the expression of emotion, energy and folklore, through art, music and literature.

In minds of Europeans, kings and queens no longer enjoyed the ‘divine right’ to rule. Sovereignty now belonged to ‘the People’. New ideas of what constitutes a ‘people’ or a ‘nation’ emerged. Loyalties that were previously for kings or religion were now directed to the nation-state, which was defined on an ethnic or linguistic basis.

The old feudal hierarchies (lords and serfs; aristocrats and commoners) were replaced by new ones based on nation and race. The white race was considered superior to all others, justifying the continuing and increasingly aggressive imperialism of European powers as they competed for global dominance. In the middle of the century, Darwin’s theory of evolution added a pseudo-scientific basis to the idea of the superior race. The ‘Rational White Man’ was seen as the culmination of the evolutionary process. The ideas of equality, liberty and democracy could not be applied to ‘inferior’ races as they had not reached that stage of ‘enlightenment’ and, moreover, might take many generations to do so. In the meantime, it was the “White Man’s burden” to rule over them, like a benevolent father.

Scientific advancements gathered pace, now  focused entirely on the observable universe. Religion was now considered a private concern with no place in social or political affairs. By the end of the century, Nietzsche was able to claim that religion in Europe was dead. The only faith left was in Science and Progress.

And indeed the scientific advancements were such that the world was left gasping in wonder. Led by Britain, scientists and engineers transformed the world beyond recognition. Instant long-distance communication became possible for the first time by telegraph; and the movement of people and cargo over land and sea was revolutionized by steam-powered ships and trains.

Manufacturing innovations led to the Industrial Revolution in Britain, and agrarian society that had existed from time immemorial was transformed into an industrial, manufacturing economy. Vast numbers of people moved from the countryside to rapidly growing cities to find new work as wage-labourers, a process that continues to this day.

In time, the old tensions that once existed in Europe between the ruling aristocracy and the common people were transformed into a new struggle between the owners of capital (the ‘bourgeoisie’) and the working classes (the ‘proletariat’). The old socialist call to overthrow the tyranny of kings and aristocrats was replaced by a new call, articulated by Karl Marx and others, for revolution against the capitalist classes.

As the Western powers begin to industrialize at home, the project to seek out more lands to colonize and exploit continued. The driver was capitalist greed for accumulation of wealth. Lands in the ‘New World’ (i.e the Americas) and Australia were sought to colonize for the planting of high-profit ‘cash crops’ (coffee, sugar, cotton, tobacco), cattle breeding, and to provide raw materials for industries based in the ‘mother’ nation. Peoples of the ‘old’ world of North Africa and Asia were subjugated by the Western powers and forced to ‘open up’ for trade i.e. to buy Western goods…or face the consequences.

The East India Company, with its private armies, started trading in India with the permission of the Mughal emperor, but gradually began annexing and establishing its rule over parts of the Mughal domains. Eventually, Muslims and Hindus rose up in rebellion against the expanding British rule, rallying to the last Mughal emperor in Delhi (1857). But the rebellion was crushed and the emperor imprisoned. The British government took over direct rule of India from the Company, and Victoria added to her title of ‘Queen’ that of ‘Empress of India’.

After the failure of the uprising, a group of Indian ulema gave up on armed resistance and turned to spiritual and educational revival of the Muslims instead, forming new colleges and organizations to this end (the Deobandi movement played a large part in this). They taught the superiority of Islam and condemned all Western influences.

In Egypt, Jamal al-Din ‘al-Afghani’, who had lived and studied in Europe, tried to formulate an Islamic intellectual response to the overwhelming Western ideological and cultural challenge. Under the patronage of the Ottoman Sultan, he asserted the superiority of Islam over all other teachings, but he also argued for the need for Muslims to incorporate useful aspects of Western learning and science.

Meanwhile, the British were making massive profits growing opium in India and selling it to the Chinese. Witnessing the destructive effects of opium on society, the Chinese emperor banned the trade altogether. The British ignored the ban and continued their narcotic trade. The Chinese military tried to stop the British, resulting in the Opium War of 1839, in which China was defeated. As part of the spoils of war, Britain took Hong Kong.

In 1856, Britain and France (supported by the US and Russia) launched the Second Opium War, bringing the Chinese to their knees again. This time the Chinese were forced to pay Britain and France 8 million taels of silver apiece; legalize the import of opium; open trade ports to Europeans; allow Christian missionaries in to their country; and give Christians the right to own property. Eventually, millions of Chinese citizens were addicted to opium, and the 19th century went down in Chinese history as the ‘Century of Humiliation’.

Elsewhere, the British and their cousins, the Americans, were accelerating the annexation of two continents: North America and Australia. The presence of hundreds of tribes of natives who had lived on these lands for thousands of years was a major irritation. However, the natives had little power to resist the advanced weapons of the white invaders. The settlement of the two continents accelerated rapidly in the latter part of the 19th century in what has been called the ‘White Deluge’. A flood of white emigrants from all over Europe poured into these vast lands, seeking opportunities to build a new life and make their fortunes.

Initial attempts to co-exist with the natives were abandoned as the greed for ‘land grabbing’ intensified, treaties were broken and the natives were massacred. Aboriginals were derogatively referred to as the ‘most primitive’ form of humans, and it was considered only right for them to make way for more advanced people. Christianity and Science (Evolution Theory) combined to lend ideological support to this tidal wave of racism and persecution.

Native American and Australian Aboriginal peoples were moved onto ‘reservations’, stripped of their traditional lands and way of life. Many turned to alcohol (supplied by Europeans) and despair. Their children were forcibly removed, not allowed to see their parents, and imprisoned in boarding ‘schools’ where they were forced to convert to Christianity and learn English in an attempt at cultural genocide. By the end of the century, both continents had become White domains, with the remaining natives concentrated in the  areas of inferior land allocated to them, and forced to live on state handouts.

Finally, with the rest of the world conquered or ‘opened up’ for European trade, the mighty European empires turned their sights on Africa. Although exploited for its supply of slaves for several centuries, Africa had hitherto largely been ignored and was thought of as a backward and ‘savage’ place. However, Europeans were now looking for new opportunities for plunder. So efficient and confident was the colonial machine by this time that diplomats from thirteen European nations, and the US, met in Berlin in 1884 to agree on the ‘rules’ for the division of the continent between them. The ‘Scramble for Africa’ had begun. In Algeria, Libya and other lands, Sufi warrior leaders like Emir ‘Abd al-Qadir and ‘Umar al-Mukhtar led their followers in heroic resistance, but the technological superiority of European weapons eventually won the day.

Faced with the global dominance of the European empires and their scientific and military advancements, the rest of the world tried to catch up. Leaders and thinkers in Muslim and non-Muslim lands sought to empower themselves by learning from and imitating the West. The Ottomans implemented the Tanzimat reforms in a radical attempt to modernize (i.e. imitate European models) their administration and army. People around the world began to take on Western ideas, and speak the language of popular sovereignty, nationalism, democracy, government by constitution, and political ideology. Religion became to be seen as backward and superstitious, and European-style science the way to a glorious future.

By the end of the century, the English-speaking world had grown from its origin in a tiny island on the north-western periphery of Eurasia to encompassing two entire continents (North America and Australia) and many parts of Africa; and Great Britain had the largest, wealthiest and most technologically-advanced empire the world had ever known.


The Twentieth Century: World Wars and US World Order

Overview of the 20th century

The 20th century was to witness unimaginable scientific and technological marvels that would further transform the way human beings live and interact with each other and the world. The early part of the century saw the emergence of mass broadcasting by radio and television, cinema, and air travel, and the latter part saw the advent of computers, mobile telecommunications, and the internet.

The growth of industries and manufacturing and the exodus of people from the countryside to rapidly expanding cities spread to all regions of the globe; and the increasing interconnectedness of the global economy meant that the first industrialised nations, such as Great Britain, transitioned from heavy manufacturing to becoming what is termed ‘service economies’.

The first half of the century witnessed the unprecedented destructive power struggles between the Western powers, known as the two World Wars. Following these global conflicts the once-mighty British and French empires, despite being on the winning side, were bankrupted and eventually disintegrated. The position of world dominance moved to the new ‘superpower’, the USA, which alone possessed the most deadly weapon ever created, the Atom Bomb.  However, the communist Soviet Union soon developed its own nuclear weapons, and for forty years the world lived under the threat (as, in reality, it still does) of total nuclear destruction during the ‘Cold War’, as the USA and USSR competed for global power. Only when the USSR dramatically collapsed in 1991 could the US finally proclaim itself the world’s undisputed master.

World Wars

The dawn of the twentieth century saw the rapid rise of German and American power. Germany, recently unified as one nation-empire under the Kaiser, challenged the global dominance of Britain, France and Russia, and aspired to have its own ‘place in the sun’ – colonies in Africa – and 'Lebensraum’ – more territory to inhabit. The German empire upset the balance of power in Europe, resulting in two world wars, the eventual triumph of the Allies, and the development of an ominous new super-weapon.

The US had been busy with expanding its control over the American continents, but it was only a matter of time before this vast and energetic new ‘Anglo-Saxon’ empire would look across the two oceans for fresh opportunities.

During the First and Second World Wars, like a clash of titans, the mighty colonial empires of Europe hurled themselves at each other in the most destructive and complete manner possible. Whole populations were mobilised, treasuries emptied and all technological means utilised to heap as much terror and destruction as possible on the enemy. Cities were ‘carpet bombed’ and the death-toll was in the tens of millions. The wonders of science were transformed into the horrors of death.

Finally, it was the US that won the technological race to develop the ultimate weapon, the like of which had never been seen before. The deployment of just two Atom Bombs incinerated hundreds of thousands of people, and flattened the Japanese cities of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, bringing the Japanese empire to its knees.

The US had taken the place of Britain as the pre-eminent global power. Meanwhile, British money had been increasingly invested in the US economy so, despite the loss of prestige, the interests of the wealthy elite on both sides of the Atlantic were mutual.

End of the Ottoman Empire (1924)

The Ottomans had entered WW1 on the side of the German Empire. The British successfully instigated Arabs within the Ottoman Empire to revolt against their Turkish brothers. The Allied victory in WW1 led to the occupation and breakup of the Ottoman Empire by Britain and France. Mustafa Kemal led the Turkish forces and managed to save the Anatolian heartland itself from Allied occupation, but could not save the rest of the vast empire. He established the new ‘Republic of Turkey’, a secular nation-state along western models, and abolished the Ottoman caliphate. After over thirteen centuries, beginning with the first Rashidun caliphs, Abu Bakr and Umar, the Islamic caliphate had finally come to an end.

With the demise of the Ottoman Empire, Jerusalem was occupied by the British, and the Saudi-Wahhabi alliance took the opportunity to seize Arabia and proclaim the ‘Saudi’ kingdom.

The powerful idea of nationalism that had spread from Europe to the world inspired some Jewish groups, calling themselves ‘Zionists’, to claim a homeland of their own too. The European empires who, by this time, considered themselves to be guardians of world order and were in the habit of carving up continents, were sympathetic and suggested several possible sites - the British particularly favoured a region of Uganda for a Jewish state. The Zionists, however, had their sights set on Palestine. The British eventually agreed to this, but later changed their minds in the face of widespread Arab opposition.

However the Zionists would not give up even without British support, and began a terror campaign against the British. Eventually the Zionists were able to use the post-WW2 situation to force the issue, and declared the State of Israel. In support of the Palestinian people whose land had been taken, the neighbouring Arab countries of Egypt, Syria, Jordan and Iraq immediately launched an invasion of the new Jewish state. But, with US (and Soviet) backing, the Israelis put up successful resistance and were able to repulse the attacks.

The 1950s and 1960s

The two decades following WW2 saw momentous changes in the global order. The great European empires had been bankrupted from the war and had to rely on US capital to prop them up. The money did not come without a price. The Americans had plans for the world, which did not involve the continuation of European colonial empires. American policymakers intended to open up the world to US capital and manufactured goods. The motivation as usual was capitalist greed, the need for endless accumulation of wealth, and control and exploitation of the world’s resources.

Oil had now become the greatest prize of the age. Literally trillions of dollars’ worth of this ‘black gold’ was buried under the earth, enough to drive anyone mad with treasure-lust. Lessons had been learnt from the colonial plundering of the last century. Direct occupation of ‘third world’ countries was costly and inefficient. The desired results could often be obtained by indirect and more subtle means of control.

The US declared herself the champion of nationalism everywhere. According to this universal principle, all ‘people’ have the right to govern themselves. What exactly defines a ‘people’ was an inconvenient question to be ignored for the time being. Under America’s approving eye, independence nationalist movements arose in all of the colonial lands and the British and French were forced to give up their overseas territories one by one. Russia, now under a communist regime, was the only European empire to retain its imperial territories and, calling itself the Soviet Union, set up a rival bloc to the US world order.

While encouraging (and sometimes twisting the arms of) the British and French to give up their colonial possessions, the US constructed a global financial system with the dollar as the world’s reserve currency, and set up the United Nations as a body for  international co-operation.

Thus, a global political and economic framework was put in place by the victorious empire which was designed to allow US capital and corporations, backed by overwhelming military strength, to spread their tentacles across the world. The basic unit of the new order was to be the nation-state, on the European model.

The Muslim lands of Africa had been carved up by the colonial powers during ‘The Scramble’, and after the Ottoman defeat in WW1 the last Muslim empire was also divided into multiple ‘nation-states’. It was important to ensure that no independent Muslim nation was large or powerful enough to be able to challenge the rules of the new global order. ‘Nations’ that had never existed in history were simply invented (e.g. Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Bahrain, UAE, Jordan, Lebanon, Tunisia, Pakistan, Libya, and most of the nations of Africa). Each new nation was given a national anthem and a flag, granted their ‘independence’, and incorporated into the UN system. Muslims had never known the idea of ‘nation-state’, but after several generations of colonial rule, a westernized tier of society was in place which spoke the language of European politics and enthusiastically led the independence movements under the banner of nationalism.

The impact of Western global domination was so profound in the Muslim world that, by the 20th century, many Muslim intellectuals had accepted the Western ideas of nationalism, popular sovereignty (i.e. democracy), government based on constitution, a faith in science, and even secularism and atheism.

But, despite the huge technological advancements of the West, a group of scholars in each generation continued to attempt to refute Western ideas that seemed to oppose Islamic teaching and, after the collapse of the last caliphate in 1924, began to preach the superiority of Sharia and Islamic government over western secular models.

The Soviet Union, loosely allied to communist China, was a thorn in the side of US-led global capitalism. States which tried to ally with the communist bloc, like North Vietnam, had to be dealt with severely, especially to discourage others from pursuing similar ideas.

When Iranian Prime Minister, Musaddiq, tried to resist Western exploitation of his country’s oil reserves, the CIA and MI6 engineered a coup and restored dictatorial power to the Shah, who was content to allow foreign oil companies. Another rich prize, Indonesia, was secured for the capitalist order and Western corporations by supporting the military coup of Suharto, in which half a million Indonesians were massacred.

Many Muslims in the new ‘independent’ nation-states recognised the ongoing exploitation that they were subjected to by the Western powers, led by the USA and its capitalist agenda. As a result, many socialist movements emerged (such as those of Bhutto in Pakistan, Nasser in Egypt, Qasim and then Saddam in Iraq, Assad in Syria, and Gaddafi in Libya), which recognised Islam as a cultural identity but talked the language of western political ideologies, and believed in western models of government and secular legal systems.

But some Muslim scholars and thinkers called for the return of the Caliphate and Islamic law. Hasan al-Banna and Syed Mawdudi influenced millions of Muslims around the world through organisations like the Muslim Brotherhood and Jamaat-i-Islami, preaching that the tyranny and imperialism of the West could only be countered by a return to full Islamic modes of government.

Meanwhile, black people in the US were finally gaining equal legal status. Particularly as the horrors of Nazi crimes became known, racism became nominally  taboo in the West. While blaming Hitler for racist crimes, the Allies sought to forget their own legacy of racial genocide by burying the past as a historical footnote. Racist and segregationist policies in the US, Australia and elsewhere were for the most part quietly abandoned, although South Africa took longer to come round to the new way of thinking.

Immigrants from former colonial lands were brought into Europe to bolster the labour force and soon sizeable Muslim minorities began to grow.

The racist Jewish state of Israel managed to win two wars with its Arab neighbours due to massive financial and military backing of the US, and continued its policies of territorial expansion, oppression and expulsion of Palestinians from their homeland.

The Neoliberal Era (1971 – present)

In 1971, President Nixon announced to the world that the US had been printing dollars, and could no longer back them with gold. The Gold Standard was dead; under the previous arrangement all world currencies were exchangeable for US dollars, and the US dollar was backed by gold in the Federal Reserve. Now, currencies began ‘floating’, their value determined only by exchange rates; and a new Neoliberal Era of global capitalism was ushered in.

President Reagan of America and Margaret Thatcher of Britain led the capitalist world in the 1980s in promoting the interests of Big Business and reversing many of the socialist policies that had been brought in after WW2. International trade and finance continued to expand, with a global capitalist elite accumulating undreamt-of wealth through profits from huge transnational corporations, global investment funds, interest on national debts, and a myriad of government policies designed to funnel tax-payers’ money into private hands.

The trading of ‘floating’ currencies with each other meant that money could literally be made out of money. A seismic shift took place in the global economy; for the first time, the capital flows and profits in the financial economy dwarfed those in the ‘real’ economy (goods and services). In 1971, 90 percent of international financial transactions were in the real economy and only 10 percent were purely ‘speculative’. By 1990, the percentages were reversed.

Anti-globalisation and anti-capitalist movements arose across the world to protest at the oppression of the world’s poor and working classes, but they were generally marginalised or even demonised by the mainstream media.

For over four decades, the world had been largely divided into two blocs, with nations allied to the capitalist USA or the communist USSR (Soviet Union); although a few nations remained ‘non-aligned’. The geopolitical rivalry and tensions between the two superpowers, known as the Cold War, kept the world under imminent threat of total destruction by nuclear war.

However, the Communist Bloc came to a dramatic and unexpected end with the economic and political collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991. The Soviet Union splintered apart, and fourteen new independent nations arose from the debris, including the Muslim states of Central Asia (Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Turkmenistan, Tajikistan) and Azerbaijan. The rest of the decade was spent making sure they were incorporated into the US-led political and economic world order. Promises made to Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, about not expanding the US-led military alliance NATO into former Soviet-bloc areas of Eastern Europe were quickly forgotten. Eastern European nations were encouraged to join the European Union and NATO, which many did.

Global capitalism had seemingly triumphed. With the close of the millennium and the defeat of its arch-enemy,  claims were being made of the US being the “world’s only superpower”, nay ‘hyperpower’. As the world moved into the 21st century, the limits of American power would be tested, but that is the subject for a new chapter.


Figure 2: Detailed timeline




وَإِذَا قِيلَ لَهُمۡ لَا تُفۡسِدُواْ فِى ٱلۡأَرۡضِ قَالُوٓاْ إِنَّمَا نَحۡنُ مُصۡلِحُونَ (١١)

أَلَآ إِنَّهُمۡ هُمُ ٱلۡمُفۡسِدُونَ وَلَـٰكِن لَّا يَشۡعُرُونَ (١٢)


When it is said to them: "Make not mischief on the earth", they say: "Why, we only want to make peace!" (11) 

Of a surety, they are the ones who make mischief, but they realize (it) not. (12)


- Quran. 2:11-12