Book Name: A History of Medieval Islam
Publisher: Toutledge, London & New York.
Price: $ 15
A History of Medieval Islam by. J.J. Saunders is an
objective and pleasing account of West-Asian history from 500 AD to 1260 AD.
Serious students of Islamic history will probably find the book a bit brief,
while casual readers will definitely enjoy its easygoing and highly readable
nature. On the whole, it must be noted that Islamic history is a sadly
under-represented field that is in great need of such works.
Saunders begins this history with an account of
Pre-Islamic Arabia - a backward, weak and divided entity that existed on the
periphery of the mutually antagonistic Empires of Sassanid Persia and Byzantium.
These colossi were locked in perpetual conflict with one another, often
enlisting a Northern Arabian tribe as an ally with the purpose of breaking the
deadlock – only to suppress the tribe if it got out of hand. The settled
inhabitants of Southern Arabia (modern day Yemen and Oman) did not fare much
better than their nomadic cousins in the north during the sixth century AD. The
dislocation engineered by Axumite and Sassanid rivalry caused agricultural
production to fall, which in turn precipitated de-urbanisation. In the light of
such unfavorable objective conditions, it is not surprising that Arabs regard
the sixth century as a Dark Age. The question that arises from such an analysis
is that if Arabia was regressing economically and politically from 500-600 AD,
what was it that transformed this waterless waste into the heart of the greatest
empire the world had ever seen?
In discussing the Prophet (sws) and his role in the rise
of Islam, Saunders is very objective. He does not try to delve into the vagaries
of character analysis as many other western scholars tend to. Instead, he simply
places the accomplishments of the Prophet Muhammad (sws) before the reader and
relates them to the objective conditions prevalent at that time. Such an
approach leads Saunders into defending the Prophet’s integrity, honesty, and
Saunders points out that the campaign the first caliph,
Abū Bakr (rta), launched in order to crush the ‘false prophet’ (Musaylimah)
founded the basis of the Islamic military tradition. The Muslims learned to cope
with the problems of war management such as logistics, tactics, organisation,
formations, and cartography. The sheer scale of the war effort turned Arabia
into a disciplined, tough, and highly motivated armed camp, ably led by fearless
(and intelligent) commanders. In the light of such factors, it was most wise of
the first caliph to keep his restless minions gainfully occupied. The decision
to divide the army into three corps, and send it into Syria, Palestine and
Mesopotamia was truly ingenious. Saunders pays rich tribute to the manner in
which the caliph ‘Umar (rta) tackled the problems of civil administration
through a series of regulations, tolerant government, and impeccable strategic
decisions. He notes that the Muslims were more tolerant towards the various
Christian sects than the were to one another and that the much-criticised tax
put on non-Muslims can be thought of as a substitute for military service. By
644 AD, the Islamic Empire stretched from Egypt to Iran, when the second
caliph’s untimely death at the hands of an assassin precipitated a war of
succession a dozen years later.
The civil wars that followed the murder of the third
caliph ‘Uthmān (rta) in 656 AD and ‘Alī’s controversial ascension to the post of
caliph are all dealt with in a dispassionate and detached manner by Saunders. He
simply puts the facts before the reader, and lets one draw one’s own
conclusions. Indeed, as far as he is concerned, the conflict between the two
sects that emerged from the civil wars was essentially between those who wanted
hereditary succession and those who didn’t. For the casual reader, however,
going through the countless intrigues which characterised the period between 656
AD and 684 AD will be quite vexing.
Between 684 - 750 AD, the Umayyads launched an offensive
which almost managed to turn their dreams of universal empire into a reality. By
712 AD, the Islamic empire stretched from Spain to Sindh. This expansion was
truly remarkable in light of the fact that the Arabs actually managed to digest
their conquests – till this day, the territories occupied by the Umayyads remain
the heartland of the Islamic world. By 750 AD, however, the empire of the
Umayyads had reached the limit of its territorial expansion and no Islamic state
has since then unified so large an expanse. Saunders notes that the abolition of
the seven hundred year old Roman/Persian frontier created a massive free trade
zone, whilst the conquest of Spain and North Africa during this period flooded
the treasury with specie. As the mighty Imperial Navy guarded the commercial
interests of the empire, the organization of the government along Persian lines
greatly enhanced the efficiency of the administration.
The opportunity cost of successful imperialist expansion
was that the court at Damascus became a center of conspicuous consumption that
contracted sharply with the simplicity of the early Caliphs. The situation was
further compounded by a sharp rise in the inflation rate as a result of the
injection of so much foreign specie. The expanding bureaucracy and army required
higher taxes to be imposed, and gradually, as conquests stopped, and Islam began
to face reverses in Spain, and Berber revolts in N. Africa, the hold of the
center began to weaken. The masses, never particularly fond of the Umayyads in
any case, became alienated from their rulers and the enthronement of a weak
caliph in 744 AD set the stage for the Abbasid Revolution. Saunders, aside from
giving an informative account of the Abbasid Revolution, notes that it
accelerated the trend towards centralised despotism and the ‘Persianisation’ of
the Islamic world.
After the death of Harūn-al-Rashīd, the political unity of
the Islamic world was shattered, as successive caliphs proved unable to deal
with the centrifugal tendencies unleashed by growing resentment at Arab
colonialism. The Abbasid caliphate further sealed its fate by seeking both the
temporal and spiritual leadership of the Islamic world – and failing to gain
either. Various inquisitions were unleashed with the result that each wavering
sect was given a martyr. One of the sects was the Alid, which was suppressed in
851 AD on the orders of Mutawakkil. The shrine of Hussain at Karbala was
destroyed and pilgrimage to it was forbidden. For a while the Alid movement died
down, only to rise with great ferocity in the form of the ‘Isma‘īlian Schism’.
Unfortunately, as Saunders admits there is no
comprehensive record of the objective conditions that got the Isma‘īlian schism
and the Fatimid anti-caliphate going. The paucity of reliable data creates a
situation where objective study is very difficult to accomplish. Nevertheless,
the author tries to piece together a coherent picture through some logical
inferences. The most interesting of these is that since the series of events
which led to the establishment of the Fatamid anti-caliphate in 909 AD is so
astonishing, there must have been some sort of organised movement involved.
The conversion of many Turkish tribes to Islam in the
tenth century AD was as momentous an occasion as the conversion of the Franks to
Christianity in 496 AD. The acquisition of high posts by the Turks from the
enfeebled Abbasids paved the way for the rise to Turkish dynasties on Arab soil.
This infusion of fresh blood reinvigorated the Sunnite cause, but spelt doom for
Arab dominance and the Byzantine Empire. In 1071, Anatolia fell to the Seljuks,
thus depriving the Byzantine of their largest source of revenue and soldiers.
The Turks had arrived just in time to confront the Crusades and the Mongols.
Saunders analyses the crusades in the context of the
relative positions of the Christian World and the Islamic World in 1000 AD. At
that date, Europe had just begun to recover from the barbarism of the preceding
600 years with the conversion of the Vikings to Christianity. However, Islam had
begun to be subjected to a long series of nomadic invasions that would last
until 1269 AD. The temporary shift in the balance of power, coupled with Pope
Urban II’s propaganda, and the Byzantine Emperor’s desperate squeals for help in
the face of growing Seljuk power, set the Crusades in motion.
The Crusades were a military failure for the Christians
though they did manage to gain some initial success. Saunders, looking at the
overall strength of the Islamic world, notes that they were a nuisance more than
a threat. Nevertheless, it took the Muslims almost a century to gain a degree of
cohesion under the great Saladin who unified Iraq, Syria and Egypt and then
expelled the Crusaders from most of their strongholds. Thanks to his efforts,
Islam had recovered a great deal of its unity and prosperity by the start of the
thirteenth century. Saunders notes that trade was growing and with the caravans,
the Qur’ān too was being spread. Things seemed to have become quite tranquil.
Few could have imagined that it was just the calm before the Mongol storm that
would destroy much of the scientific and philosophical progress that the Arabs
had made over the preceding 450 years.
Saunders concludes his book with an overview of Medieval
Islam. This is very helpful if you are just a casual reader of history and are
interested in understanding the nature of Islamic history without going too much
into the detail. Saunders has written a wonderful little book that is as
refreshing as it is concise in its scope. Meaningful in its context, and
readable in its presentation.
Courtesy: The Daily Nation Dec 3, 2000