Chapter 8 Summary
By the mid-9th century, the Abbasids were losing control over their vast Muslim empire. Despite the political decline, Islamic civilization reached new cultural heights, and Islam expanded widely in the Afro-Asian world through conquest and peaceful conversion. The extensive Islamic world stimulated the exchange of ideas and commodities among its peoples and neighbors.
The Islamic Heartlands in the Middle and Late Abbasid Eras. The Abbasid Empire disintegrated between the 9th and 13th centuries. Peasant revolts and slavery increased, and the position of women eroded. Signs of decline were present during the reign of Caliph al-Mahdi (775–785). He failed to reconcile moderate Shi’a to Abbasid rule. Moreover, Al-Mahdi abandoned the frugal ways of his predecessor and surrounded his court with luxury. He failed to establish a succession system resolving disputes among his many sons, leaving a lasting problem for future rulers.
Imperial Extravagance and Succession Disputes. One son, Harun al-Rashid, became one of the most famous Abbasid caliphs. The luxury and intrigues of his court were immortalized in The Thousand and One Nights. The young ruler became dependent on Persian advisors, a trend followed during later reigns as rulers became pawns in factional court struggles. Al-Rashid’s death led to the first of many civil wars over the succession. The sons of the winner, al-Ma’mun, built personal retainer armies, some including Turkic-speaking nomads, to safeguard their futures. The armies became power centers, removing and selecting caliphs; their uncontrolled excesses developed into a general focus for societal unrest.
Imperial Breakdown and Agrarian Disorder. The continual civil violence drained the imperial treasury and alienated subjects. Caliphs increased the strain by constructing costly new imperial centers. Imposing tax burdens, often collected by oppressive tax farmers, were forced upon peasants. Agricultural villages were abandoned and irrigation works fell into disrepair. Bandits and vagabonds were everywhere; they participated in peasant rebellions often instigated by dissident religious groups.
The Declining Position of Women in the Family and Society. The freedom and influence possessed during the 1st centuries of Islam severely declined. Male-dominated Abbasid society imagined that women possessed incurable lust and therefore needed to be segregated. The harem and the veil symbolized subjugation to males. The seclusion of elite women, wives and concubines, continued, and the practice of veiling spread to all. Abbasid wealth generated large demand for concubines and male slaves. Most came from non-Muslim neighboring lands. Poor women remained economically active, but the rich were kept at home. They married at puberty and spent their lives in domestic management and childbearing. At higher political levels, women intrigued to advance their sons’ careers.
Nomadic Incursions and the Eclipse of Caliphal Power. By the mid-10th century, breakaway former provinces began to challenge Abbasid rule. The Buyids of Persia captured Baghdad in 945. The caliphs henceforth became powerless puppets controlled by sultans, the actual rulers. The Seljuk Turks defeated the Buyids in 1055 and ruled the remnants of the Abbasid Empire for two centuries. The Seljuks were staunch Sunnis who purged the Shi’a. For a time, Seljuk military power restored the diminished caliphate. Egyptians and Byzantines were defeated, the latter success opening Anatolia, the nucleus of the later Ottoman Empire, to settlement by Turkic nomads.
The Impact of the Christian Crusades. West European Christian knights in 1096 invaded Muslim territory to capture the biblical Holy Land. They established small, rival kingdoms that were not a threat to the more powerful surrounding Muslim leaders. Most were recaptured near the close of the 12th century by Muslims reunited under Saladin. The last fell in 1291. The Crusades had an important impact upon the Christian world through intensifying the existing European borrowing from the more sophisticated technology, architecture, medicine, mathematics, science, and general culture of Muslim civilization. Europeans recovered much Greek learning lost after the fall of Rome. Italian merchants remained in Islamic centers after the crusader defeat and were far more important carriers of Islamic advanced knowledge than the Christian warriors. Muslim peoples were less interested in aspects of European civilization.
An Age of Learning and Artistic Refinements. The political and social turmoil of late Abbasid times did not prevent Muslim thinkers and craftsmen, in states from Spain to Persia, from producing one of the great ages of human creativity. Rapid urban growth and its associated prosperity persisted until late in the Abbasid era. Employment opportunities for skilled individuals remained abundant. Merchants amassed large fortunes through supplying urban needs and from long-distance trade to India, southeast Asia, China, north Africa, and Europe. Artists and artisans created mosques, palaces, tapestries, rugs, bronzes, and ceramics.
The Full Flowering of Persian Literature. Persian replaced Arabic as the primary written language of the Abbasid court. Arabic was the language of religion, law, and the natural sciences; Persian became the language of “high culture,” used for literary expression, administration, and scholarship. The development of a beautiful calligraphy made literature a visual art form. Perhaps the greatest work was Firdawsi’s epic poem, Shah-Nama, a history of Persia from creation to Islamic conquest. Other writers, such as the great poet Sa’di and Omar Khayyam in the Rubaiyat, blended mystical and commonplace themes in their work.
Achievements in the Sciences. Muslim society, for several centuries, surpassed all others in scientific and technological discoveries. In mathematics, thinkers made major corrections in the theories learned from the ancient Greeks. In chemistry, they created the objective experiment. Al-Razi classified all material substances into three categories: animal, vegetable, and mineral. Al-Biruni calculated the exact specific weight of 18 major minerals. Sophisticated, improved, astronomical instruments were used for mapping the heavens. Much of the Muslim achievement had practical application. In medicine, improved hospitals and formal courses of studies accompanied important experimental work. Traders and craftsmen introduced machines and techniques originating in China for papermaking, silk weaving, and ceramic firing. Scholars made some of the world’s best maps.
Religious Trends and the New Push for Expansion. The conflicting social and political trends showed in divergent patterns of religious development. Sufis developed vibrant mysticism, but ulama (religious scholars) became more conservative and suspicious of non-Muslim influences and scientific thought. They were suspicious of Greek rationalism and insisted that the Qur’an was the all-embracing source of knowledge. The great theologian al-Ghazali struggled to fuse Greek and Qur’anic traditions but often was opposed by orthodox scholars. The Sufis created the most innovative religious movement. They reacted against the arid teachings of the ulama and sought personal union with Allah through asceticism, meditation, songs, dancing, or drugs. Many Sufis gained reputations as healers and miracle workers; others made the movement a central factor in the continuing expansion of Islam.
New Waves of Nomadic Invasions and the End of the Caliphate. In the early 13th century, central Asian nomadic invaders, the Mongols, threatened Islamic lands. Chinggis Khan destroyed the Turkic-Persian kingdoms east of Baghdad. His grandson, Hulegu, continued the assault. The last Abbasid ruler was killed when Baghdad fell in 1258. The once-great Abbasid capital became an unimportant backwater in the Muslim world.
The Coming of Islam to South Asia. Muslim invasions from the 7th century added to the complexity of Indian civilization; by the 13th century Muslim dynasties ruled much of north and central India. Formerly, previous nomadic invaders had blended over time into India’s sophisticated civilization. Muslims, possessors of an equally sophisticated, but very different culture, were different. The open, tolerant, and inclusive Hindu religion was based in a social system dominated by castes; Islam was doctrinaire, monotheistic, evangelical, and egalitarian. Conflict predominated in the earlier period of contact, but as time passed, although tensions persisted, peaceful commercial and religious exchange occurred in a society where Muslim rulers governed Hindu subjects.
Political Divisions and the First Muslim Invasions. Muslims first came to India during the early 8th century as peaceful traders. Attacks on the merchants caused Umayyad general Muhammad ibn Qasim to conquer and annex Sind and the Indus valley. Many Indians, treated as “people of the book,” welcomed the new rulers because they offered religious tolerance and lighter taxes. Most indigenous officials retained their positions, while brahman castes were respected. Only a few Arabs resided in cities or garrison towns, and minimal conversion efforts did not change existing religious beliefs.
Indian Influences on Islamic Civilization. Although Islam’s impact in India was minimal, Islamic civilization was enriched by Indian culture. Indian achievements in science, mathematics, medicine, music, and astronomy passed to the Arabs. Indian numerals were accepted, later to pass to Europe as “Arabic” numerals. Colonies of Arabs settled among Indians, adopted local customs, and provided staging points for later Islamic expansion to island and mainland southeast India.
From Booty to Empire: The Second Wave of Muslim Invasions. After the initial Muslim conquests, internal divisions weakened Muslim rule and allowed limited Hindu reconquest. In the 10th century, a Turkish dynasty gained power in Afghanistan. Its third ruler, Mahmud of Ghazni, began two centuries of incursions into northern India. In the 12th century, the Persian Muhammad of Ghur created an extensive state in the Indus valley and north-central India. Later campaigns extended it along the plains of the Ganges to Bengal. A lieutenant to Muhammad, Qutb-ud-Din Aibak, later formed a new state, with its capital at Delhi on the Ganges plain. The succeeding dynasties, the sultans of Delhi, ruled much of north-central India for the next 300 years.
Patterns of Conversion. Although Muslims came as conquerors, early interaction with Indians was dominated by peaceful exchanges. The main carriers of Islam were traders and Sufi mystics, the latter drawing followers because of similarities to Indian holy men. Their mosques and schools became centers of regional political power, providing protection to local populations. Buddhists, low-caste and untouchable Hindus, and animist peoples were the most numerous converts. Muslim raids on Buddhist temples and a spiritual decline that had debased Buddhist practices turned interest to the vigorous new religion of Islam. Others converted to escape taxes or through intermarriage. Muslim migrants fleeing 13th- and 14th-century Mongol incursions also increased the Islamic community.
Patterns of Accommodation. In most regions, Islam initially had little impact on the general Hindu community. High-caste Hindus did not accept the invaders as their equals. Although serving as administrators or soldiers, they remained socially aloof, living in separate quarters and not intermarrying. Hindus thought the Muslims would be absorbed by Hindu society, as had earlier invaders. Muslim communities did adopt many Indian ways; they accepted Hindu social hierarchies, foods, and attitudes toward women.
Islamic Challenge and Hindu Revival. Muslims, despite Indian influences, held to the tenets of Islam. The Hindu response led to an increased emphasis on devotional cults of gods and goddesses (bhakti). The cults, open to men, women, and castes, stressed the importance of strong emotional bonds to the gods. Mira Bai, a low-caste woman, and Kabir, a Muslim weaver, composed songs and poems in regional languages accessible to common people. Reaching a state of ecstatic unity brought removal of all past sins and rendered caste distinctions meaningless. Shiva, Vishnu, and the goddess Kali were the most revered gods. The movement helped to stem conversion to Islam, especially among low-caste groups.
Stand-off: The Muslim Presence in India at the End of the Sultanate Period. Similarities in style and message between Sufis and bhaktic devotees led to attempts to bridge the gaps between Islam and Hinduism. The orthodox of each faith repudiated such thought. Brahmins denounced Muslims as temple destroyers and worked for reconversion to Hinduism. Muslim ulama stressed the incompatibility of Islam’s principles with Hindu beliefs. By the close of the sultanate period, there were two distinct religious communities. The great majority of the population remained Hindu. South Asia remained the least converted and integrated of all areas receiving the message of Islam.
The Spread of Islam to Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia had been a middle ground where the Chinese part of the Eurasian trading complex met the Indian Ocean zone. By the 7th and 8th centuries, southeast Asian sailors and ships, especially from Malaya and Sumatra, were active in trade. When Muslims gained control of Indian commerce in the 8th century, Islamic culture reached Southeast Asia. The 13th-century collapse of the trading empire of Shrivijaya, ruled by devout Buddhists, made possible large-scale, peaceful Muslim entry.
Trading Contacts and Conversion. Peaceful contacts and voluntary conversion were more important to the spread of Islam than conquest and force. Trading contacts prepared the way for conversion, with the process carried forward by Sufis. The first conversions occurred in small northern Sumatran ports. On the mainland, the key to the spread of Islam was the city of Malacca, the smaller successor to Shrivijaya. From Malacca, Islam went to Malaya, Sumatra, and the state of Demak on Java’s north coast. Islam spread into Java and moved on to the Celebes and to Mindanao in the Philippines. Coastal cities were the most receptive to Islam. Their conversion linked them to a Muslim system linked to the principal Indian Ocean ports. Buddhist dynasties were present in many regions, but since Buddhist conversions were limited to the elite, the mass of the population was open to the message of Sufis. The island of Bali, where Hinduism had become firmly based, and mainland southeast Asia, where Buddhism had gained popular support, remained impervious to Islam.
Sufi Mystics and the Nature of Southeast Asian Islam. The mystical quality of Islam in southeast Asia was due to Sufi determination. Sufis often tolerated indigenous peoples’ animist, Buddhist, and Hindu beliefs. Converts retained pre-Islamic practices, especially for regulating social interaction, while Islamic law ruled legal transactions. Women held a stronger familial and societal position than they had in the Middle East or India. They dominated local markets, while in some regions, matrilineal descent persisted. Many pre-Muslim beliefs were incorporated into Islamic ceremonies.