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A General History of the Middle East


750 to 1055

This chapter covers the following topics:

The Abbasid Caliphate In Its Prime
The Early Wars of the Abbasids and The Power Behind the Caliphal Throne
Commerce Under the Abbasids
Arab Science
Arab Education
The Arts
The Mu'tazilites
The Shi'a
The Ismailis
The Yezidis
Political Dissolution
The Fatimids and the Druze
Enter the Turks
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The Abbasid Caliphate in its Prime

Once in power, Abu al-Abbas began wiping out the rest of the Umayyads with a thoroughness that earned him the nickname al-Saffah (the bloodshedder). A Persian general named Abdullah invited 80 members of the Umayyad clan to a banquet, treacherously attacked them, and ordered their bodies covered up while he and his aides finished their meal.(1) The Abbasids took their revenge even on Umayyad caliphs who were already dead, digging up and destroying their bodies. Only one tomb was not violated--that of Umar II, considered the only pious caliph among the Umayyad rulers.

Next Abu al-Abbas turned against anyone who might oppose Abbasid rule, even among those who had supported him. Since most of his subjects were Sunnis, he declared himself and his family Sunni, to the great dismay of his Shiite backers. Then he ruthlessly eliminated the individuals who had helped him gain office, dispatching them with ingenious cruelty. Abu Muslim, his military commander, was hacked to pieces when he came to speak to the caliph, and his head was thrown to his supporters outside. The Persian general who had slaughtered the Umayyads at his banquet later made the mistake of trying to make himself caliph, and was imprisoned. Seven years later they released him, and led him with great pomp to a house built just for him. Unknown to him, the house had foundations made of salt, which dissolved slightly every time it rained. One day the house crashed down on the unsuspecting would-be caliph, becoming his tomb.

In the Central Asian province of Khurasan (modern Turkmenistan), a pro-Umayyad revolt was launched with Chinese assistance. It was promptly put down, and the Arab general Ziyad ibn-Salih marched northeast to teach the Chinese a lesson. They met at the Talas River, in modern Kazakhstan, in 751; they utterly routed the pro-Chinese Turks and all of Central Asia entered the Moslem sphere of influence.

All of the conquests made by the Abbasids took place at the beginning of their rule; the only one besides Central Asia was Tabaristan, which they annexed in 765. The fanaticism that had insisted on world conquest had disappeared from the Arabs by this time, so the Caliphate ceased to expand, and began to enjoy a long period of peace and prosperity. Islam was introduced to new areas during the period covered in this chapter--the Mediterranean islands, West Africa, the Volga Bulgars of Russia, and Indonesia--but usually an invading army did not spread it; Moslem traders now became the leading missionaries.

Abu al-Abbas moved the capital from Damascus to the east, since most of his support had come from there. He made his headquarters at Hashimiya, near Kufa in Iraq. When smallpox cut him down in 754, after only four years in office, his brother and successor, al-Mansur (754-775), had to put down a new series of rebellions, led by rivals who wanted his job and disillusioned Shiites who still wanted a descendant of Ali on the throne. Once he put them down, he started looking for a new capital. Hashimiya's location had two major drawbacks: it had no economic or strategic value, and it was too close to Kufa, which now had a reputation for being a center of rebellion. The caliph wandered up and down Iraq before he selected an ancient village about twenty miles northwest of Ctesiphon, the former Persian capital.

The site was an ideal choice. It was on a narrow strip of land between the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, putting it no more than twenty miles from either. A series of canals dug between the rivers gave it access to seaborne commerce; in addition, the canals stopped an invader who lacked ship or bridge. The ruins of nearby Ctesiphon provided plenty of building material for the caliph's projects. Finally, the site enjoyed two assets that could not be found in southern Iraq: cool nights and freedom from mosquitoes. al-Mansur named his new capital Madinat al-Salam, the City of Peace, but his subjects continued to call it by its original name: Baghdad.

They laid the first stones of the new Baghdad in August 762, and al-Mansur pitched his tents there the following May, although most of the construction continued until 766. Every city of the empire was ordered to send its most skilled craftsmen to work on Baghdad. They built the city as a circle nearly two miles across, possibly copied from older Persian cities. Three concentric walls surrounded it; the largest was 112 feet high, 164 feet thick at the base, and 46 feet wide at the top. Four gates pierced each wall, one for each cardinal direction. Inside were placed gardens, bazaars and mosques, to make the city an attractive place to visit. At the very center the caliph placed his palace, a striking building with a golden gate and a 120-foot-high green dome.(2) On top of the dome was a statue of a lancer on horseback; later, legends would claim that the statue turned to point in the direction where the empire's greatest danger lay.

From the start Baghdad was an immediate success. The population grew so quickly that before the century was over suburbs were built outside the city walls, and soon they spread to the other side of the Tigris. In the tenth century most of the marketplaces had to be moved to the suburbs to keep traffic in the hub manageable. By this time, the population had swollen to an awesome one and a half million, making it the largest city of its day. By contrast, the largest city in Medieval Europe, Constantinople, never had more than 600,000.

Baghdad became both a commercial and cultural center, "a Paris of the ninth century," as the explorer Richard Burton called it. We can see something of what Baghdad was like in the exotic tales known as One Thousand and One Nights. Here Baghdad is a city full of glamorous rulers, cunning ministers, powerful magicians and wise philosophers, magic carpets and flying horses in the air, genies, harems guarded by eunuchs wielding scimitars, and marvelously skilled mathematicians, astronomers and storytellers. Harun al-Rashid, the greatest of the Abbasid caliphs, is a character in these tales, along with Aladdin, Ali Baba, Sinbad the Sailor, and Scheherazade the concubine. No single author wrote this marvelous work; much of it is actually older fairy tales, legends and romances drawn from Persian, Indian, Arabic and Egyptian literature, polished up to reflect Moslem values and ideals. Ever since then Baghdad has been a city of wonder to the rest of the world.

Under the Abbasids the empire retained the religion and language of the Arabs, but in other aspects it became a society where all races were equal. Non-Arabs, especially Persians, now became officers and administrators. The very meaning of the term Arab became irrelevant, because the Arabs often went native and married the local women wherever they happened to be. The Abbasids themselves set an example by proudly reminding people of their Arab heritage, but of the 37 caliphs produced by the dynasty, only a few had Arab mothers.

Another change came from the moving of the empire's capital to former Sassanid territory. The Abbasid caliphs now imitated the Sassanid Persians, and reigned as semi-divine beings who represented God on earth and had total control over their subjects. Elaborate ceremony now filled their public lives, shielding them from the people and creating an aura of mystery. They lived in awesome splendor, and al-Mansur commanded that his family and courtiers never go out in public unless they wore costly silken garments and perfumes. The caliph himself was all but inaccessible, and those who saw him had to get past many guards and chamberlains first. When visitors reached the throne, which a curtain concealed, they had to prostrate themselves and kiss the floor before the caliph showed himself, a custom alien to the rude democracy of Arabia. The caliph also kept a grisly reminder of his power at his side: an executioner with a drawn sword, always ready to strike off the head of anyone who displeased the caliph. An Arab historian later wrote: "This dynasty ruled with a policy of mingled religion and kingship; the best and most religious of men obeyed them out of religion, and the remainder obeyed them out of fear."

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The Early Wars of the Abbasids and The Power Behind the Caliphal Throne

As the caliph withdrew from day-to-day affairs of state, a new figure took on his functions, the vizier (from the Arabic word wazir). Standing between the ruler and the ruled, the vizier became very powerful, second only to the caliph himself. The first viziers of note came from a remarkable family, the Barmakids(3), who served the first five Abbasid caliphs with distinction.

The first Barmakid minister, Khalid ibn Barmak, was a recent convert to Islam; his father was a Buddhist priest from eastern Iran. Appointed finance minister by Abu al-Abbas, he served so well that he governed various Iranian provinces under the next caliph, al-Mansur. In this job he further distinguished himself by crushing a rebellion against the Caliphate; his son Yahya was schooled to become the next vizier. Yahya in turn served ably under first al-Mansur, then his son, Mohammed al-Mahdi.

Meanwhile, the yearly raids into Asia Minor escalated into the Seventh Byzantine-Moslem War (778-783). Byzantium threw back the initial invasion at the battle of Germanicopolis, and thousands of Moslems were killed. Mahdi prepared for a rematch, assembling a large army of Iraqis, Syrians and Central Asians, and leading it northward in 780. His Byzantine opponent, Leo IV, died in that year, and because the next emperor, Constantine VI, was only nine years old, his mother Irene became regent and ordered her forces to stop and annihilate the Moslems. However, the Moslems had a superior general in the caliph's second son, Harun al-Rashid. After winning several battles, Harun reached the coast and captured Nicomedia. Irene sued for peace and agreed to pay tribute in return for a three-year truce.

By now Yahya, the Barmakid vizier, was powerful enough to be a kingmaker in his own right. Mahdi's son Hadi became the next caliph, but Mahdi left specific orders in his will that if Hadi died before his younger brother, Harun al-Rashid, Harun would succeed him as caliph. Naturally Hadi wanted his own son to be the heir, but Yahya made sure that Harun did not give up his claim.

One day in 786 Yahya advised his young master to go hunting and stay away for a long time. Hadi learned what Yahya had done and threw him into jail, placing him under a death sentence. However, Yahya had seen a horoscope cast at Hadi's birth and knew that the caliph did not have long to live. Sure enough, on the night that Yahya was supposed to be executed, Hadi fell ill and died. Harun was promptly declared the new caliph, and he freed and reinstated Yahya. Now Yahya and his two sons, Fadl and Ja'far, handled affairs of state.

Harun's next act was to rebuild and fortify the city of Tarsus, which had been destroyed around 700. In 797, he started the Eighth Byzantine-Moslem War by advancing and taking the cities of Ephesus and Angora. Empress Irene had been an unpopular ruler, and she deliberately kept the Byzantine forces weak to prevent a coup against her; consequently the army she had was no match for that of the caliph. She promptly renewed the tribute paid after the last war, and the Moslems went home richer.

Though they were excellent ministers, the Barmakids came to a tragic end. Yahya served as vizier for 17 years under Harun; his sons became tutors to the sons of Harun, and Ja'far became Harun's best friend. Indeed, Harun was so fond of Ja'far that he gave his sister to him in marriage. He did not seem to think anything would come of the marriage, but they had a son, and could not conceal it from the caliph. For this reason, or possibly because Harun had begun to fear the growing power of the Barmakids, the caliph now saw a threat in Ja'far. In 803 he sent a eunuch to get Ja'far's head. After he had a good cry over putting his friend to death, Harun had Yahya and Fadl imprisoned, where both died. The vast fortune accumulated by the Barmakids was confiscated and the survivors were ruined, their power at an end.

Meanwhile in the west, the next Byzantine emperor, Nicephorus I, ended the truce bought by Irene. Certain of victory, Nicephorus wrote an extremely insulting letter to Harun al-Rashid, who responded by leading an army across the Taurus mts. and seizing the Byzantine city of Heraclea Cybistra. Nicephorus sued for peace, but almost immediately after agreeing to the terms he broke the truce. Harun began a second invasion, plundering and burning cities wherever he went. Again Nicephorus called for a truce, and again he broke it. This time the Moslems attacked on both land and sea, capturing Tyana and Angora and making successful raids on Rhodes and Cyprus. Finally fortune turned in favor of the Byzantines, and a counteroffensive swept the Moslems back to their side of the Taurus. They arranged a third truce in 809, and this time the emperor kept it; so did Harun, who was now busy dealing with a more serious problem in Central Asia, and thus the Ninth Byzantine-Moslem War ended in a draw.

The Central Asian crisis had started a few years earlier when Harun went there to investigate complaints against a heavy-handed local governor, Ali ibn Isa b. Mahan. Harun received many gifts and heard nothing about wrongdoing, decided that the first reports were false, confirmed Mahan in his post and departed. In 806 Moslem rebels launched a revolt against the governor, defeating his army in Transoxiana (modern Uzbekistan) and setting up an independent Moslem state there. The governor fled, and the caliph promised to replace him with a more sympathetic ruler if the rebels desisted, but to no avail. In 809 Harun personally led an army east to put down the rebellion, but died before he got there, and the army returned to Baghdad without a battle.

Years before his death, Harun al-Rashid had declared that two of his sons would jointly rule the empire after him. One son, Mohammed al-Amin, became caliph, while the other, Allah al-Mamun, became governor over all of the eastern provinces. Of course this arrangement was unworkable, and al-Mamun promptly revolted, backed by the Central Asian rebels and a Persian general, Tahir ibn Hussein. Tahir won the first battle in Khurasan, marched to Iraq, and took Baghdad after a two-year siege (811). Al-Amin surrendered in 812 but tried to escape and was killed the following year. Al-Mamun reigned for the next twenty years as caliph (813-833), but the civil war had weakened central authority considerably, and al-Mamun had to spend his early years recovering it.

His first challenge came from a Shiite group, the Alids. In 814 they occupied Mecca and Medina; most of Arabia and southern Iraq went over to them, and they threatened Baghdad. Forces loyal to al-Mamun prevailed, however, and in 818 they captured and beheaded the Alid leader. To pacify the Alids, al-Mamun announced that a Shiite, Ali ar-Rida, would be his successor. Angry Sunnis in Baghdad deposed al-Mamun, and proclaimed his uncle Ibrahim caliph in his place. Ar-Rida died of poisoning from unknown sources in the same year, and al-Mamun returned to Baghdad in August 819, taking control of the Caliphate and suppressing the last voices of dissent in the capital. To quell a similar uprising in Yemen, he appointed an Umayyad, Mohammed ibn Ziyad, to serve as governor of that distant province.

A stranger revolt broke out before al-Mamun was finished with the Alids. A communist-style movement, the Khurramites, appeared in Azerbaijan; it proclaimed the breakup and redistribution of all the great estates and the abolition of Islam. In 816 the Khurramites began making attacks on Moslem forces in Iran and Iraq. Al-Mamun sent four armies to deal with the problem, but they were defeated every time, because the rebels received much Byzantine support.

Instead of striking directly at the rebels a fifth time, al-Mamun turned the civil war into a two-front war by going after the rebels' benefactor, Byzantium. The Tenth Byzantine-Moslem War (830-841), started with the usual annual raids into Asia Minor. The Byzantine emperor Theophilus offered peace, but al-Mamun obstinately refused to come to terms and renewed the raids. Then the caliph died in 833, right after capturing Tyana. They agreed to a truce at that point, but it was broken in 837, when Theophilus launched an invasion to help the Khurramites. He got as far as the Euphrates river in northeast Syria, sacking the towns of Samosata and Zibatra. The new caliph, Abu Ishak al-Mu'tasim, sought revenge and launched massive assaults on both fronts simultaneously. The governor of Media, al-Afshin, led the anti-Khurramite attack, finally crushing the rebellion in 838; the Khurramite leader, Babak al-Khorrami, was killed. Against the Byzantines al-Mu'tasim personally led the largest Moslem army ever assembled, and won battles at the Halys River, Angora, and Amorium. Now he was ready to take Constantinople, but his plan fell apart when a storm destroyed the Arab fleet before it got there (839). Theophilus now took the offensive, and the two sides agreed to peace after the Moslems were pushed back to the prewar frontier (841).

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Commerce Under the Abbasids

It would take at least a whole book to properly cover the cultural achievements of the Abbasid era. For the purposes of this narrative mentioning the highlights is the best we can do, and the bulk of this chapter will be subdivided into several sections, each covering a different aspect of life under the Abbasids.

As mentioned in the last chapter, the sheer size of the empire and the number of peoples living within it provided unprecedented opportunities for trade. Caravans and dhows (merchant ships) left Baghdad to visit every part of the known world. They brought back gold from Africa, leather from Spain, trinkets and slaves from Byzantium, linens and grain from Egypt, carpets from Armenia, glass and fruit from Syria, perfumes from Arabia, pearls from the Persian Gulf and Sri Lanka, rubies and silver from India, spices and tropical hardwoods from Southeast Asia. From China came porcelain, peacocks, saddles, felt, silk, brocades, rhubarb, herbal drugs, slave girls, engineers, and eunuchs. The Vikings crossed Russia to sell amber, wax, honey, ivory, iron and animal pelts.

All this commercial traffic led to the development of banking, and under Islam it reached a level of sophistication that would not be equaled in the West until the modern era. Every marketplace had money changers to exchange and calculate the current values of all the currencies floating around. To avoid the problems that go with carrying cash, they invented the sakk, or check. An elaborate system of branch offices made it possible to write a check in one bank, travel across the empire, and have it cashed in another city. The Koran prohibited charging interest on loans, so jobs in banking/moneylending were often reserved for Jews.

As in other times, new ideas and inventions traveled with the trade goods. The Persians brought polo and backgammon to Islam, and an Indian game called chess. Cooks introduced exotic new dishes and served them on tables--a new piece of furniture for the Arabs, who usually ate while sitting on the floor. Baghdad's tailors introduced trousers as a more practical garment to wear on horseback than the traditional robe. And everything the Arabs tried would eventually find its way to Europe, usually via Spain. In that sense we are all heirs to what the Abbasid Caliphate produced.

For example, the Arabs introduced to Europe plants and agricultural techniques that only Asia had known previously. They transplanted oranges from China to the Middle East and then to North Africa and Spain. Cotton (kutn in Arabic) arrived from India, but because of the cold climate, wool remained the preferred textile in Europe. Sesame, rice, carobs, lemons, melons and apricots were all cultivated in the Islamic world before Christendom discovered them. With all these crops came the knowledge to cultivate them; the entire Spanish vocabulary on irrigation is derived from Arabic.

Another noteworthy item subject to cultural transmission was an invention no bureaucrat or bookmaker has been able do without since--paper. At first, only the Chinese knew how to manufacture it; the rest of the world used parchment and other materials that were expensive and difficult to make. At the battle of Talas in 751, the Arabs captured two Chinese prisoners who knew the secret; they hired them to work and teach their craft in Samarkand. The knowledge spread slowly through Islam, reached Sicily and Spain in the early 12th century, Italy in the 13th, and Germany in the first half of the 14th. The Egyptians had stopped exporting papyrus by 700; when they learned how to manufacture paper in the tenth century, the making of papyrus stopped entirely. The loss of that obsolete industry did not hurt Egypt as much as you'd think; in time she became a considerable exporter of paper.

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Arab Science

As the lust for conquest gave way to a thirst for knowledge, the Arabs took an interest in the writings of the past, particularly those of the Greeks. They ignored Homer, Sophocles, and the other Greek literary giants, since they had their own literary tradition, but anything of practical use got their attention. Consequently whatever they could find on medicine, astronomy, mathematics, and geography was translated into Arabic, studied with great interest, and improved upon by their own research. Greek philosophy had no such practical value, but the Greeks regarded it as a science, so they translated Plato and Aristotle, too. Often the original Greek scientific texts were lost, and what we have has come to us through an Arabic translation.

Appropriately, Galen's Anatomy was one of the first classical works translated. Arab medical practice emphasized clinical observation. One noted doctor, al-Razi (865-925), hung pieces of meat in different neighborhoods of Baghdad, compared their rates of putrefaction and from that determined the healthiest site for a new hospital. Another physician, Abu Ali al-Hussein ibn Sina (980-1037, known in the West as Avicenna), produced a comprehensive encyclopedia called the Qanun, which described many diseases, and how to use 760 drugs; translated into Latin, it would remain Europe's standard medical text until the Renaissance. Harun al-Rashid opened the world's first free public hospital, and the idea eventually caught on in the rest of the Moslem world. For the rest of the Middle Ages Christian kings, despite their hostility to Islam, preferred to employ doctors trained in Arab medical schools.(4)

The quest for new medicines encouraged the practice of alchemy; al-Razi and many other physicians were also alchemists. We nowadays ridicule alchemy for its fruitless quests to find life-prolonging elixirs and a way to turn base metals into gold, but it laid the foundations of modern chemistry by identifying many different chemicals and by developing many techniques used today (e.g., calcination, reduction, melting and crystallization).

Arab scientists labored hard to bring the works of Ptolemy and other ancient astronomers up to date. They could apply this in many ways: improved navigation, better maps and calendars, knowing the exact direction of Mecca for proper worship, etc. Most of the brighter stars in our sky, such as Altair, Aldebaran, and Deneb, still have Arabic names today. The astrolabe, main tool of the navigator before the invention of the compass, is an Arab invention.

From India they learned the numerals we now call "Arabic," and possibly the concept of zero as well. As in medicine, the Arabs soon became second to none in the field of mathematics. They invented algebra (from the Arabic word al-jabr), trigonometry, and analytical geometry. The word algorithm comes to us from al-Khwarizmi, the name of the ninth century mathematician who perfected quadratic equations.

Thanks to the work of Baghdad's scientists, an astonishing number of Arabic words have come into English as scientific terms. Among them are the following: alchemy, alcohol, alembic, alkali, azimuth, borax, camphor, cipher, elixir, nadir, and zenith.

Umar Khayyam (1044-1123) is remembered in the West as a romantic poet who wrote many verses on the pleasures of life, but Moslems chiefly remember him for his work in mathematics and astronomy. Like Leonardo da Vinci and the other "Renaissance men" of Europe, many Islamic scholars were talented in more than one field. Umar Khayyam carefully defined the forms of cubic equations and used geometry (intersecting conic sections) to explain the solution of each. In 1074 he joined a committee of astronomers and created a solar calendar which had an error of only one day in 5,000 years (our Gregorian calendar errs by one day in 3,300 years). It never got popular, however, for religious reasons, and most Moslem countries still use the grossly inaccurate 354-day lunar calendar.

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Arab Education

One did not have to be a well-trained scholar to have access to knowledge. Literacy was widespread and encouraged; no mosque was considered complete without a library attached to it. They built colleges in every major city; a twelfth-century traveler from Spain listed thirty in Baghdad, twenty in Damascus, and six in Mosul. The oldest university still active today, al-Azhar, was built in tenth-century Cairo.

Though Islamic education was deficient by modern standards, it was way ahead of what the West, sunk in appalling ignorance, could offer at this time. As mentioned previously, Islamic scholarship preserved for the world the heritage of Greece, India, and other ancient civilizations, knowledge that medieval Europe forgot.

Caliph Harun al-Rashid once sent envoys to Western Europe's most powerful monarch, Charlemagne. They dazzled their hosts with their education and the excellence of the gifts they brought, and noted this about Charlemagne and his court: "They were dabbling in the art of writing their names."

eighth-century coin.
This coin circulated in England during the reign of Offa of Mercia (757-796). One side says "King Offa" in Latin, the other side features Islam's first commandment ("There is no god but Allah, and Mohammed is his prophet") in old Arabic. It's a safe bet that Offa could not read the Arabic words, and because he was a first-generation convert to Christianity, I don't think he would have cared for the message, if he did understand it. What the coins show us is how far Arab merchants and their coins traveled. Either Offa was recycling Arabic coins that had made their way to England, or he thought Arabic coins looked cool, and made copies of them for domestic use.

The above statement shows that the Arabs knew they were more sophisticated than anybody at that time, with the possible exception of the Chinese. Consequently they held Westerners in low regard, thinking they were all uncouth barbarians, like the Vikings. The tenth-century geographer Masudi had this to say about them:

"The peoples of the North are those for whom the sun is distant; their bodies are large, their natures gross, their understanding dull and their tongues heavy . . . their religious beliefs lack solidity . . . those of them who are farthest to the north are the most subject to stupidity, grossness, and brutishness."

This attitude would cause trouble in the modern era, when the West caught up with the Islamic world; the Moslems, caught up in their sense of superiority, paid little attention and fell behind.

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The Arts

The Prophet had frowned on music, wine, and unregulated lust, but these temptations still came to the Arabs from their non-Arab subjects, especially the Persians. The tolerant and secular Umayyads indulged in the arts of pleasure, as noted in the previous chapter, but a higher standard of conduct was expected of the self-proclaimed champions of Islam, the Abbasids. Instead, the Abbasids both matched and surpassed their predecessors. The prospects of earning fantastic wealth and the caliph's friendship attracted the empire's best musicians and poets to Baghdad. As in other times and places, many of these artists got attention (and controversy) by using obscenities and breaking various taboos. Dramatic and musical presentations became a regular feature at the caliphal court, and since much of the music praised wine and women, the court had plenty of both.(5)

The court's jaded tastes were not satisfied with female companions of every race and color. They experimented with dressing beardless youths in female costumes, and much poetry praised the attractiveness of these boys. This wasn't enough, though, and somebody tried the reverse, hiring women pages and dressing them like boys. Court life may have been decadent, but it did not suffer from a lack of imagination!

The court poet with the most scandalous reputation was a bisexual named Abu Nuwas. According to One Thousand and One Nights, even his patron, Harun al-Rashid, found his behavior so shocking that he considered putting him to death, but he always found the poet too amusing. Once Abu Nuwas was having an orgy with three handsome youths in his house when the caliph walked in. Harun al-Rashid said with bitter sarcasm, "I have sought direction of Allah Almighty and have appointed thee judge of pimps and panders." Unashamed, Abu Nuwas replied, "Hast thou any suit to prefer to me?" What happened next reads as follows:

"The Caliph went away in anger, and the next day when Abu Nuwas appeared at the Diwan [council of state], Harun ordered him to be stripped and an ass's pack-saddle to be bound on his back, a halter round his head, and a crupper under his rump, and thus to be led round to all the lodgings of the slave girls, and the chambers of the Harem, that the women might make mock of him; then to have his head cut off and brought to the caliph. But Abu Nuwas was a funny fellow, so he made all the girls laugh with his buffooneries, and each gave him something whereby he returned not save with a pocketful of money. When he was met by Ja'far the Barmecide, Ja'far said, 'What offense hast thou committed to bring this punishment on thee?' To which Abu Nuwas answered, 'None whatsoever except that I made our Lord the caliph a present of the best of my poetry and he presented me, in return, with the best of his raiment.' When the Prince of True Believers heard this, he laughed, from a heart full of wrath, and pardoned Abu Nuwas, and also gave him a myriad of money."

The Arabs knew nothing about architecture when they boiled out of the desert in the seventh century, but as in other fields, they quickly learned from others and improved on it, producing a distinctly Islamic style. The main feature of this style is abstract designs; they avoid adorning mosques with pictures of people and even animals. There is no verse in the Koran prohibiting the portrayal of living figures, but tradition claimed that Mohammed had opposed it; his logic was that since man was created in God's image, making an image of a person is like making an idol of God. Instead plants, endlessly repeating geometric patterns (the so-called arabesques), and verses from the Koran became decorations. Restrictions, however, were more lax in secular life, and the Persians continued their long tradition of depicting animals and people, eventually perfecting one of the world's most beautiful styles of painting.

One of the oldest pieces of Islamic architecture still standing is the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, built on the site of Solomon's Temple in 691; at this early date the style is more Byzantine than Islamic. The best example still standing from Abbasid times is the Ibn Tulun mosque in Cairo, which combines the strength of earlier construction with Persian refinement and delicacy.

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The Mu'tazilites

Lengthy exposure to the works of ancient Greece changed the way many Arabs viewed the world, their religion, and life overall. Instead of accepting everything taught to them as fact, they began to reason in the Greek manner, by questioning all assumptions. One Moslem theologian went so far as to argue that doubt is the first requirement of knowledge. To many this verged on heresy, but some Moslem intellectuals saw Greek logic as a tool to explain Islam and defend it more effectively against the doctrines of non-Moslems.

This combination of Islam and Humanism produced a daring movement known as the Mu'tazilite school in the 730s. Its viewpoint was expressed by a philosopher named al-Kindi, who said, "We should not . . . be ashamed to recognize truth and assimilate it, from whatever quarter it may reach us, even though it may come from earlier generations and foreign peoples." The Mu'tazilites began using reason and logic to examine ideas previous Moslems had accepted on faith alone.

To the horror of conservative Moslems, the Mu'tazilites reached startling conclusions in their reasoning, ones that threatened to seriously undermine Islam. One argument was over the nature of the Koran: was it eternal like God himself, as most Moslems believed, or had there been a time when the Koran did not exist? The Mu'tazilites believed the latter, and used Greek logic to prove it, pointing out that only God, and none of his creations, can be eternal.

In 827 the Mu'tazilites gained the support of the caliph, al-Mamun. He attempted to impose Mu'tazilite beliefs on traditionalists, and announced that he would not appoint a judge who believed that the Koran had existed forever. For 22 years the Mu'tazilite position remained the official doctrine; its opponents lost their jobs in public office, and some even suffered physical persecution.

In time people got tired of the Mu'tazilite movement for two reasons: it was too intolerant of other beliefs, and it exalted human reason as being more important than God's will. In 849 the caliph Mutawakkil reversed official policy and restored the traditionalists. The last word on the subject came from al-Ashari (874-935), who had been a Mu'tazilite for 40 years, but later left the movement and turned their own tools of logic against them. Using logic to defend the faith, rather than tear it down, he argued that God created everything but it is up to man to choose whether he will follow good or evil; at the final judgement he will be rewarded or punished for his deeds accordingly. As for the arguments over whether the Koran was created or uncreated, he asserted that it is a mistake to try to understand God in human terms; anyone who is limited by time, space, life or death cannot properly understand God. Islam was thus saved from the ideas that would water down mainline Christianity in modern times, but other splinter movements would eventually appear in the Islamic community. We will cover them in the next sections.

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The Shi'a

During the period covered in this chapter the Shiites developed the beliefs that distinguish them today. The main tenet of Shiism is that god put a saint, called an imam, on earth to be his personal representative. The imam has special knowledge and insight, and is thus the ultimate authority in interpreting the law (Shari'a). Ali was the first imam; his sons Hasan and Hussein were the second and third. Most Shiites believe in twelve imams, all of them from the same family; the last one, Mohammed al-Muntazar, disappeared mysteriously in 878. Many Shiites believe the 12th imam is still alive but hidden. One day he will reappear as the Mahdi (Messiah), right all wrongs in the world and start a period of peace and justice before the Final Judgment by God. This emphasis on saints and a savior has led to some speculation that Christianity influenced the Shiites.

Islam's Sunni majority has criticized the Shi'a for teaching a silly doctrine and sinfully dividing Islam, but will not reject them altogether. Most Sunnites have suppressed their annoyance of them, because their movement goes back to the second generation of Islam's existence, giving it a kind of perverse justification, even in orthodox eyes.

The Zaidis, followers of Zaid (a grandson of Ali's son Hussein), formed a moderate subsect in the ninth century. Like other Shiites, they insist that a descendant of Ali should lead Islam, but the rest of their beliefs are virtually identical with Sunni orthodoxy. They formed significant communities in northern Iran, and around 860 a Zaidi imam appeared in northern Yemen, as a rival to the Abbasid-appointed governor there. Zaidi imams ruled all or part of Yemen until modern times; the last was deposed in 1962.

Another Shiite subsect worth mentioning here is that of the Alawites, also called the Nusayris. Founded around 850 by Mohammed ibn Nusayr an-Namiri, an Iraqi contemporary of the tenth imam, the sect gained powerful backing in northern Syria when it converted the local emirs, the Hamdanids, in the mid-tenth century.

The Alawites believe that Ali was God himself in earthly form. They interpret the five pillars of Islam as ideals to strive for, rather than rules to live by, and thus are considered liberal by other Moslems. They observe both Christian & Moslem holidays, and keep many of their practices secret from outsiders.

After the fall of the Hamdanids, the Alawites, like other Shiites, fell victim to persecution at the hands of Turks, Crusaders, and Mamelukes. Though they only make up about 12% of modern Syria's population, they rule Syria today, because one of them is President al-Assad.

Before I continue, note that the Shiites played a role in Islam similar to that of the Christian heresies; both found new life by spearheading political movements. When the provinces of the Moslem empire started to break away, many rebels (the Idrisids in North Africa, the Saffarids in Iran, to name a few) justified their actions by declaring themselves Shiite, thus eliminating both the spiritual and secular authority the Abbasid caliphs had over them. Their independence eventually passed beyond challenge and the next generation of independent emirates (the Murabits, Zirids, Samanids, etc.) returned to Sunni orthodoxy, readily acknowledging a common culture with Baghdad, once they could do so without compromising their freedom.

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The Ismailis

One group of Shiites is known as the Ismailis or "seveners," because they believe in seven imams instead of twelve. Again the issue involved here is succession. In 765 most Shiites recognized Musa al-Kazim as the seventh imam. However, Musa had an older brother, Ismail, whom his father had disinherited for being too fond of the bottle. Some Shiites rejected this, claiming that Ismail and his descendants were the only true imams that followed.

Starting with this, the Ismailis have produced a theology far removed from orthodoxy, based on belief in a secret understanding of the Koran. It claims that at the beginning of time there was only one living being, the Unknowable One. The Unknowable One created a supernatural being called the First Intelligence, and then nine others, each less powerful than the ones created previously. The tenth and last being created was Allah. Thus, for Ismailis the thunderous, majestic god of Islam is relatively low in the heavenly hierarchy. Allah, however, created the world, all animals, and on the island of Sri Lanka he placed the first man, known to Ismailis as the Perfect One. The spirit of this Adam has been reincarnated in every imam that has appeared since, and he is the only person who can understand the Unknowable One. One day the Perfect One will reappear as the sinless and infallible Mahdi, superior even to Mohammed.

In the late ninth and early tenth centuries the Ismailis waged a successful political campaign, combining their doctrine with a social agenda that sought to improve the lot of the oppressed. They gained followers all over the Islamic world and established some Ismaili-ruled states (the Qarmatians in Arabia, the Fatimids in North Africa), which we will cover in more detail shortly. The dreaded Order of Assassins, a terrorist movement that appeared in the late eleventh century, was also inspired by Ismaili politics.

In the eleventh century the Ismailis subdivided several ways. The first splinter group, the Druze, has diverged enough from other Moslem sects to be considered a separate religion. In 1094 the Fatimid caliph, al-Mustansir, died, leaving three sons. The second son, al-Mustal, became the next caliph, but many Ismailis felt that the eldest son, Nizar, should have been the heir. The result was another division, again for political reasons; the two subsects became known as Mustalis and Nizaris, after the candidates they backed. Nizar took refuge among the Assassins and gained much support from them, though he could never seize power.

Today the Mustalis are mainly found in Yemen and Bombay, India, where they are known as Bohras (merchants). The Nizaris have a larger following and are led by the jet-setting Aga Khans, considered holy by some twenty million followers in India, Pakistan, East Africa and Syria.

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Every major religion has some followers who believe that an emotional encounter with God is more important than following a set of rules. Usually this is done through a combination of asceticism and mysticism. The Moslems who practiced this imitated Christian monks in their humility and poverty, and showed it by wearing robes of rough, undyed wool (suf in Arabic), so we know them as Sufis.

The first Sufis were individuals from every occupation, ranging from saints and poets to charlatans. Some wandered from village to village, living on alms and inflaming listeners with their ecstatic message. Others lived the remote and disciplined life of hermits, like the hanifs of Mohammed's day. All rejected worldly wealth and the mechanical observance of rituals in favor of an inner spiritual life; all of them viewed God as a loving figure who was always close to his creations.

One early Sufi who lived this lifestyle was a woman named Rabi'a, stolen from her family and sold into slavery as a child, but later freed because of her purity and selfless love of God. She lived a life of extreme self-denial, rejecting the pursuit of any virtue that the hope of a reward motivated. "O God," she prayed, "if I worship thee in fear of Hell, burn me in Hell; and if I worship thee in hope of Paradise, exclude me from Paradise; but if I worship thee for thine own sake, withhold not thine everlasting beauty."

Rabi'a's enthusiasm raised a few orthodox eyebrows; a ninth-century mystic known as al-Hallaj raised many more. Often he spoke in capricious, troubling riddles, removing God from the grasp of mortals with one sentence, bringing him blasphemously close with the next. His preaching in Baghdad inspired a cry among the people for moral and political reforms. At one point he said "I am the Truth," causing orthodox theologians to conclude he was calling himself God. They called for his death, and al-Hallaj fled to Iran, but a few years later they captured and imprisoned him. Eight years later he was freed, accused of heresy again, tried and sentenced to death by crucifixion. Appropriately, he went to his execution smiling and quoting Jesus: "Father, forgive them . . ."

Sufism was made respectable by al-Ghazali (1058-1111), the greatest theologian Islam ever produced. His intellectual curiosity was boundless, and he investigated every creed he came across, from atheism to the most intense fanaticism. Finally he settled on Sufism as the way to come closest to God. Afterwards he wrote a book called The Revivification of the Sciences of Religion, which many regard as the last word on Sunni theology. He argued that God cannot be approached by intellect, only by faith; philosophy must never supersede religion. Al-Ghazali did not reject orthodoxy; instead he saw mysticism as a way to improve orthodox Islam.

Afterwards they accepted Sufism as a legitimate outlet for pent-up religious fervor. In the twelfth century monastic-type orders were first set up, with prescribed techniques to perpetuate their ecstatic experiences. New orders, each with its own characteristics, were established regularly, some as recently as the nineteenth century. Many blurred the differences between Islam and other religions by introducing saints, and turning their tombs into holy places; this went right against the original spirit of Islam, which states that no prophet will come after Mohammed. And they promoted other heterodoxies as well. For example, Mohammed had commanded that it was the duty of all Moslems to marry and raise little Moslems, but the Sufis picked up enough ideas from Christian monks to suggest that celibacy is a holier way to live. Some practiced blatant pagan customs like glass-eating or fire-walking; the famous "Whirling Dervishes" of Turkey seek communion with God by spinning around for hours at a time. The Bedawiya of Egypt regularly practiced orgiastic ceremonies, taken straight from the time of the pharaohs, around the tomb of their thirteenth-century founder. The Safavids of Iran (more about them in chapter 13) were often called "grass worshipers" because they were outright pantheists, seeing God in natural features and natural omens.

The orthodox Ulema staged a peaceful counterattack; there was no Islamic counter-reformation, no witch-hunt for heretics. Sufism was too widespread, too popular, and too ambiguous to suppress completely. What the Ulema did was strengthen their control over the educational system throughout the Islamic world, ensuring that no heterodox ideas were taught and that the students would not study any subjects which might lead them to heterodoxy. Thus Islam was preserved in its near-original form, deviating less from the teachings of its founder than Christianity, Buddhism, and other major religions.

Today only the puritanical Wahhabi of Saudi Arabia completely reject Sufism and its cult of saints. In India, on the other hand, Sufis became the leading missionaries of Islam. The Turks also found Sufism very attractive; there are more than 400 different Sufi orders in modern Turkey.

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The Yezidis

The Yezidi religion is Islam's counterpart to Gnosticism. Its members claim descent from supporters of Yezid I, the second Umayyad caliph. They believe that they were created separately from the rest of humanity, not even being descended from Adam, and keep themselves strictly segregated from the people around them. Their society is well organized, with both a religious and a secular leader. They live mainly in northern Iraq and the nearest parts of Turkey and Syria, and probably number less than 100,000.

The Yezidis are deists, believing that God created the universe originally, but has taken no direct interest in it since. In his absence seven angels rule, of which the most important is Malak Ta'us ("Peacock Angel"); seven iron or bronze statues of peacocks represent them.

Yezidis deny the existence of evil and sin. Like Hindus, they believe that the breaking of divine laws results not in punishment but in reincarnation, giving the soul another chance to learn from its mistakes. In their creation story, the devil repented of his sin of pride before God, and was pardoned and put back in his previous position as chief of the angels; this myth has caused both Christians and Moslems to call the Yezidis devil worshipers.

The main Yezidi shrine and place of pilgrimage is the tomb of Shaykh 'Adi (a 12th-century Sufi who has become the foremost Yezidi saint), located in a former Christian monastery in the town of ash-Shaykh 'Adi, north of Mosul. Two short books written in Arabic, Kitab al-Jilwah (Book of Revelation) and Mashaf Rash (Black Writing), form the sacred scriptures of the Yezidis, and a hymn praising Shaykh 'Adi is also widely used.

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Political Dissolution

Odd as it may seem, Islam deteriorated politically while it was enjoying its best years from a cultural standpoint. Of all the Abbasid caliphs, only the first, Abu al-Abbas, could claim to be the ruler of all Islam; even the best of his successors lost significant chunks of territory. Initially this was because of the capital's move eastward; the Caliphate lost touch with the Arabic and Moorish components of Islam, and consequently the neglected western provinces were the first to go.

We already mentioned the loss of Spain to a fugitive Umayyad in 756 at the beginning of this chapter. Then Kharijite factions seized power in southern Morocco and Algeria, founding respectively the Midrarid (772) and Rustamid Emirates (777). The next loss was in the Caucasus, where an unconverted tribe, the Abasgians, annexed the neighboring land of Lazica in 788, thereby ending Islamic expansion toward the Black Sea. In northern Morocco the Idrisids surpassed everyone else when it came to making a break with Baghdad, by setting up a Shiite Caliphate (789). The governor sent by Harun al-Rashid to Tunisia made his office hereditary and independent in all but name, forming the Aghlabid Emirate (800). Tahir ibn Hussein, the general who helped al-Mamun win the Caliphate, was rewarded for his services with the governorship of eastern Iran, Afghanistan and Central Asia; in 820 he dropped the caliph's name from Friday prayers in the mosques, which many saw as a declaration of independence. After that nothing could stop Pakistan from breaking off as two independent states (827).

The next caliph, Abu Ishak al-Mu'tasim (833-842), was only half Arab; his mother was a Turkish concubine of Harun al-Rashid. When he took the throne, al-Mu'tasim decided that his Persian bodyguards were no longer reliable, and replaced them with four thousand Turkish slaves. They did turn out to be more loyal, since they depended on their master for their lives and prosperity; furthermore, since they lacked family ties, they were more mobile than a force of Arabs or Persians. Another plus for the Turks was that they were recent converts to Islam, giving them a zeal to spread the religion that could no longer be found among the Arabs. Army units of slaves, known as Mamelukes (from the Arabic Mamluk, meaning "owned"), now became the elite warriors of Islamic society.

Nevertheless, in some ways the cure was worse than the disease. A lot of Turks were still pagan, and those who had converted were liberal in their interpretation of Islam (see their response to Sufism), which offended the Arabs. The Persians resented the barbaric newcomers, and came to resent the Caliphate as well. Tensions rose until the caliph felt the need to quit Baghdad. In 836 he moved sixty miles up the Tigris and built a new city named Samarra. It remained the capital under the reigns of seven caliphs.

In Samarra the caliphs grew increasingly dependent on their Turkish guards, and as that happened the Mamelukes' desire for power increased. Before long, the caliphs were little more than pawns. One of them, al-Mutawakkil, was placed on the throne by his guards and reigned as their virtual prisoner. The Turks murdered him when his son expressed a desire to become caliph, and he only sat on the throne for six months before they also removed him. After that the Turks were like the Praetorians of ancient Rome; they appointed and deposed five caliphs in just one decade, the 860s.

As if to add injury to insult, the health of Islam's most decrepit enemy, Byzantium, improved significantly. In 851 the Empire announced it was fed up with Moslem raiding and launched a counteroffensive; it advanced eastward, won a victory at Amida in northern Iraq, and took 10,000 prisoners. A Byzantine fleet went to Egypt and sacked the port of Damietta in 853. Then the war settled down to a series of skirmishes, the only lively moment being a Moslem victory on the upper Euphrates in 860, accomplished with the help of the Paulicians, the newest persecuted Christian heresy. In 863 a large Abbasid army invaded Asia Minor, reached the Black Sea, and plundered the regions of Paphlagonia and Galatia. Then the Moslems withdrew, but the Byzantines caught up and destroyed them.

A war of a different character took place in southern Iraq. Many black slaves from Africa, known as the Zanj, had been sent there to reclaim the salt marshes for cultivation. In 869 they revolted, captured Basra, and threatened Baghdad. This rebellion took on the appearance of a race war when black troops were sent to crush it, and they went over to the rebels instead. The fighting went on for fourteen years before the Zanj were defeated and the head of their leader was sent to Baghdad on a pole.

The Twelfth Byzantine-Moslem War (871-885) began only eight years after the eleventh one ended, when the Byzantine Emperor Basil I decided to take advantage of Moslem troubles and extend his frontiers. His forces marched to the upper Euphrates and won a sound victory at Samosata. Then a second expedition went to Italy and drove out the Aghlabids, who had gained a foothold on the mainland recently.

In areas that were at peace the Caliphate continued its devolution. In 868 a Turk named Ahmad ibn Tulun became governor of Egypt and made himself a virtually independent ruler, founding the Tulunid dynasty. Nine years later he annexed Syria and the Hejaz, making his realm as big as the area still directly ruled by the caliph. The east saw a Persian revival that created two Persian-run states in place of the Tahirids: the Shiite Saffarids in Iran (867) and the Sunnite Samanids in Central Asia (874). The weakness of the Caliphate forced it to accept Armenian independence in return for tribute, and it even had to tolerate a descendant of Ali in Tabaristan, who had Saffarid protection (both events occurred in 885).

In 892 the caliph al-Mu'tadid returned the capital to Baghdad, starting a minor Abbasid revival. His enemies to the east, the Saffarids, were overthrown by the orthodox and spiritually obedient Samanids (900); in Egypt the Abbasids ousted the Tulunids and regained direct rule (905). However, the revival lasted for just a generation; thirty years later Egypt was lost to another disloyal governor, this time permanently. Syria declared independence under a local Arab family, the Hamdanids, in 936; they would bear the brunt of Byzantium's attacks on Islam in subsequent years. In the Caucasus, the old centrifugal tendencies continued under the Sajid Emir of Azerbaijan, who behaved as if Abbasid authority over his realm did not exist. The activities of the Sajid Emir were mostly directed toward depriving the Armenians of what little wealth and happiness they had; he succeeded when he created a second Armenian kingdom named Vaspurakan in 908. The bitter rivalry that followed between old and new Armenia enabled the Armenians to experience for themselves the thrill others got from massacring Armenians.

The most threatening (and embarrassing) problem the Abbasids had was a successful propaganda campaign by the Ismailis in Islam's heartland, Arabia. In 899 Hamdan Qarmat, an Ismaili extremist, declared the independence of eastern Arabia. Then the Qarmatians plotted the subversion of the rest of the Caliphate. Rejecting many of Mohammed's teachings, they offered equality, social reform, and the most liberal creed that ever went by the name of Islam: they urged Moslems not to pray, fast, or make pilgrimages, and encouraged wine drinking, sexual promiscuity, and music. In 930 they captured Mecca and carried off the Black Stone, Islam's holiest relic (it was ransomed and returned in 952). They incurred great hatred, however, because of the atrocities they committed and Sunni persecution eventually broke their power. The Qarmatians were finally overthrown in 1077-78.

Orthodoxy returned to Mecca when a Zaidi descendant of Ali's son Hasan gained control of the holy city in 967. For nearly a thousand years afterward, his family, known as the sharifs of Mecca, would be the most influential rulers in Arabia. Officially they were under the authority of whoever ruled in Egypt or Iraq, but in practice they were all but independent by virtue of their remote location. When foreign powers contested control of the Hejaz, the sharifs took an opportunist position, supporting whichever side was winning. The Saudis finally expelled them in the early twentieth century.

The temporal power of the Abbasid Caliphate, though not the Caliphate itself, was extinguished by the Buwayhids, a family of three Shiite brothers who seized power in western Iran in 932. In 945 they marched on Baghdad; the Turkish guards fled, and the Buwayhids took their place as protectors of the Abbasids. Now the caliphs only had spiritual authority, much like the popes of modern Europe. Since the Buwayhids had the submission of all Iran & Iraq, while their eastern rivals, the Samanids, lost all of their territory except Turkmenistan a few years later, one gets a false impression of Buwayhid strength by looking at a map. The truth is that maintaining the illusion of power was the limit of Buwayhid capabilities.

A raid from an unexpected direction displayed the weakness of the Caliphate and its Buwayhid overlords. In 945 twelve hundred Swedish Vikings sailed down the Volga River out of Russia and entered the Caspian Sea. Following the coast until they reached Azerbaijan, they turned inland and went two hundred miles up the Kura river until they reached Barda, a city with about 10,000 inhabitants. Under normal circumstances the local Moslem commander would have thrown them back into the sea, since the Vikings lacked cavalry and were outnumbered four to one. The Vikings, however, had heavy shields to protect themselves from the arrows of the Arab archers, and when the two sides closed in for hand-to-hand combat, the berserk fury of the Norsemen carried all before them. Barda was captured, and the Vikings beat off every Moslem attempt to retake the city for a year, inflicting ghastly numbers of casualties every time they sallied forth from the city walls. Eventually an enemy the Vikings could not fight, disease, became a problem, and about four hundred of them slipped out under cover of darkness and returned home, with as much booty and as many slaves as they could handle.

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The Fatimids and the Druze

At this time the most aggressive Moslems were the Fatimids, an Ismaili dynasty that had ruled Tunisia and Sicily since 909. In 969 they thundered across North Africa, conquered Egypt, and built Cairo to serve as their permanent capital. Continuing east, they added the Hejaz and Israel to their realm by 972. With all of North Africa under the Fatimids, Arabia divided between Qarmatians and Zaidis, the Buwayhids in Iraq and Iran, Alawites in Syria, and other Shiites in Pakistan, most of the Moslem world had come under Shiite domination.(6)

The Fatimid offensive on the Mediterranean's southeastern shore coincided with a Christian one on the northeastern shore. The Byzantine Emperor Nicephorus II started the Thirteenth Byzantine-Moslem War (960-976) to stop Hamdanid raiding from Syria. The opening campaigns were very successful; by 965 he had reconquered Cilicia, while naval expeditions took Crete and Cyprus. Then he advanced into Syria, occupying Antioch and Aleppo by 969. The Hamdanids sued for peace, but Nicephorus was assassinated before he could reply, and his successor, an Armenian named John Tzimisces, continued the Byzantine drive southward, taking Damascus in 974. Now his main opponent was not the Hamdanids but the Fatimids; they stopped him when he reached the walls of Jerusalem in 976. The death of John Tzimisces in the same year ended the fighting, with Syria divided between Byzantium and the Fatimid Caliphate.

In the Caucasus, the Abasgians renamed their kingdom Georgia in 978, making a bid for pan-Georgian patriotism among the Georgians still not under their rule (Tbilisi, the capital of modern Georgia, was held by the Armenians at this time). Armenia itself broke into ministates around this time, attracting outside intervention. Byzantium moved in and annexed the largest Armenian state, Vaspurakan, in 1022. During the next few years Byzantium went on to conquer Edessa (1032), and the rest of Armenia (1045); this is the high-water mark of the Byzantine revival.

Al-Hakim, the sixth Fatimid caliph (996-1021), was the most fanatical of them all. His uncontrollable temper led to the execution of one vizier after another, and the violent persecution of Christians and Jews. Against Byzantium he fought, and lost, a war that left the Syrian frontier unchanged from the previous conflict (995-999). In 1009 he tore down the Church of the Holy Sepulcher(7); in 1016, not content with being God's agent on earth, he announced he was God incarnate. He disappeared in 1021, and his followers assert that he didn't die, but is waiting for the opportunity to return to the world and start a new golden age for true believers. The new religion soon disappeared from Egypt, but a missionary named Mohammed ibn Ismail al-Darazi successfully introduced it to Lebanon; the name Druze probably comes from him. Its members prefer to call themselves Mouwahedoun, meaning Unitarians.

The Druze believe that God has come to earth several times in human form, and that al-Hakim was His final incarnation. Like the Moslems they believe in one God, but have adopted various beliefs from other religions, including reincarnation. The seven cardinal rules that they follow are: (1) honesty in dealing with each other; (2) mutual protection and assistance; (3) renunciation of other religions; (4) belief in the divinity of al-Hakim; (5) contentment with the works of God; (6) submission to his will; and (7) separation from demons and those in error. They abstain from wine, tobacco and foul language; they do not pray or fast, and only an elite known as the 'uggal (elect) holds religious services. They go to great lengths to keep their teachings secret from the outside world. Conversions to and from the faith are forbidden, because the number of true believers has been fixed since the creation; only Druze who die will be reborn as Druze. They also protect their teachings by worshiping as Moslems when among Moslems, and as Christians when among Christians (they regard Jesus as one of God's previous incarnations).

Estimates of the number of Druze vary from 350,000 to 900,000, mostly concentrated in the Mt. Hermon area where Syria, Lebanon, and Israel meet. They played a role in Lebanon's 20th century civil war, as allies of the Shiite militias. With them we are right at the edge of Islamic orthodoxy, if not beyond it; they have transformed the all-conquering faith into a mystery religion that is a secret even to most of its members!

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Enter the Turks

As a new millennium began, the Fatimids and the Buwayhids continued to put on a show of strength, but the vigor had gone from both. In striking contrast to this was the entry of the Turks in full force on the stage of Islam. Like other Central Asian peoples, the Turks were nomads, excellent archers who spent most of their lives on horseback. They often served as mercenaries in Moslem armies, but in the eleventh century most of them were still barbarian pagans. The Middle Eastern influence had taken root, though, and those Turks who looked for employment found acceptance of Islam and Abbasid (Persian) civilization as the best guarantee of future success. Most of the Turks chose the Sunni branch of Islam, with momentous results; it meant that the tenth-century Shiite dominion over Islam would not become permanent.

The first Turks who became civilized enough to found a state of their own were the Ghaznavids, based in Afghanistan. The most fearsome of the Ghaznavids, Mahmud of Ghazni, overthrew his Samanid master in 999 and seized the vacant throne. Mahmud was soon pressing on Buwayhid territory in northern and eastern Iran, but since most of his campaigns were directed to the southeast they belong to Indian, rather than Middle Eastern history. And for the Turks, Mahmud did not leave a lasting legacy; destruction was the only thing he was good at.

The Turkish tribe that would establish a legacy, the Seljuks, was not very important at the beginning of the eleventh century. When they first appeared, they were just another clan of the Oghuz, the collection of Turkish tribes living between the Caspian and Aral Seas. The tribe's semi-legendary founder, Seljuk, was the son of Toqaq, a chieftain who served the Khazars as a mercenary. Seljuk probably followed in his father's footsteps at first, but then the Khazar kingdom was destroyed by Svyatoslav, one of the first Russian princes. In 985 he made two decisions that changed the tribe's destiny forever. First, he moved to greener pastures, leading his followers to the lands east of the Aral Sea, settling on the north bank of the Syr Darya River (near modern Kyzylorda, in southern Kazakhstan). Not only did they do better here, but their new home gave them a new perspective on the civilized world. If they had stayed on the Russian steppe, they probably would have ended up in Europe later on, like so many other Central Asian tribes; now instead, with Persia in easy reach, they would see the Middle East as their destination.

Seljuk's other decision was to accept Islam. Most of the people in the Middle East, including the Turks who went there first, were Moslems already. Seljuk met with other key members of the tribe, and their resolution was: "If we do not enter the Faith of the people in the country in which we desire to live and make a pact with them, no man will cleave to us, and we shall be a small and solitary people." Still, their conversion was not a total one; they did not choose the strict Arab interpretation of Islam, where the only pagan symbol allowed is the crescent of a forgotten moon-god. Instead, the Turks took a moderate approach, keeping a few parts of the pagan culture they had previously; Seljuk reportedly still went to a shaman to have his dreams interpreted.(8) Later on they would accept Sufi sects for the same reason; even today, the Turks are seen as more liberal than the Arabs and Iranians. Still, they were zealous evangelists once converted, and their promotion of the Sunni faith would have the same effect on the Middle East as the conversion of Clovis and the Franks had for the Christians of Western Europe.

At first the Seljuks offered their services to the Karakhanids, the most powerful Turkish tribe in Uzbekistan. This was a mistake, because in 1025 Mahmud of Ghazni inflicted a defeat on the Karakhanids and their vassals. Arslan, Seljuk's son and heir, was captured and brought to Mahmud, who asked him how many armed men he had. Arslan produced two arrows from his quiver and boasted that he could call up 100,000 men by sending his arrows among his people and twice that number if he sent his bow. Alarmed, Mahmud turned to his advisors, and they suggested amputating the thumbs of every man among the Seljuk Turks so they could no longer use bows. Mahmud, who had already inflicted unheard-of carnage in India, could carry out that brutal act, but even he thought the proposal was impractical. Instead, he "invited" Arslan to bring 4,000 families and all their animals and baggage into Turkmenistan, where he could watch them more closely.

It was a bad miscalculation. From Turkmenistan the Seljuk Turks spearheaded raids into Iran, and in the words of one twelfth-century historian, they "devoured Khurasan (Turkmenistan) as if it were food laid out for hunting falcons." Realizing his error, Mahmud imprisoned Arslan, but he died before he could defeat the upstarts (1030). Mahmud's heir, Masud, inherited only his father's vices, and he rejected a Seljuk request for permission to move the rest of the tribe into Turkmenistan. The new Seljuk leaders, two nephews of Arslan named Chaghri-Beg and Tughril-Beg, took matters into their own hands. In 1035 they gathered their allies and marched 10,000 horsemen across the Amu Darya. Once they were where they wanted to be, they ravaged the land exactly as they had done before, but this time they planned to keep it permanently, by announcing to the locals that they were champions of Sunni Islam. The double strategy of wielding sword and book worked; the impoverished, frightened locals eagerly announced their submission, if only to make the Seljuks turn their attentions elsewhere.

By using hit-and-run tactics, the Seljuks first wore down the Ghaznavids, then crushed them in three key battles between 1037 and 1040. Masud fled to India, where he spent his last days sunk in wine and music; his heirs were Seljuk vassals in Afghanistan.

The two Seljuk brothers chose to divide the land that now lay open before them. Chaghri-Beg took Central Asia and Afghanistan, while Tughril-Beg turned his attention to the west. Between 1040 and 1044 he conquered northern and central Iran; then he continued around the Caspian to annex Azerbaijan and raid the nearest Byzantine territories (Armenia and Asia Minor). His ultimate objective, however, was Baghdad, and after a decade in the Caucasus he felt ready to take on the city of the caliphs. In 1055 he marched on the capital; the last Buwayhid, a general named Basasiri, took flight, and Baghdad's civilian population quickly surrendered.

Tughril-Beg went to the Abbasid caliph, calling him the true leader of Islam. In return the caliph conferred on Tughril-Beg the title of sultan (a Turkish word meaning emperor), showing that he would have complete sovereignty where nonreligious matters were concerned. They sealed the new relationship with a marriage between the caliph and one of the sultan's nieces. Although the Abbasid caliphs would continue to reign in Baghdad for two more centuries, they were now puppets of the Turks. The same could be said about the Fatimids in Egypt, who fell under the domination of their Turkish bodyguards, the Mamelukes. In that sense, 1055 marks the end of the age when Islam was run by its Arab founders. For most of the years since, the Islamic world has been under the rule of other peoples, especially the Turks.

This is the End of Chapter 10.


1. Two teenage Umayyads escaped by jumping into the Euphrates River. One was killed because he turned back; the other, Abd al-Rahman, swam to the other side and fled to Spain, where he founded an independent Moslem state, the Caliphate of Cordova. It flourished for more than 200 years.

2. Green is regarded by Moslems as a sacred color, because it reminds them of the gardens of Paradise.

3. The Barmakids appear in One Thousand and One Nights under the Westernized name of Barmecide. In one story, The Barber's Tale of His Sixth Brother, the clever vizier serves a hungry guest a series of empty covered dishes to test his sense of humor, giving rise to the term "Barmecide feast."

4. They did this because the Christian doctors of Europe were quacks, by comparison. During the Crusades, an Arab doctor named Usama ibn Munqidh told about a gruesome encounter with a doctor from the "Franks," as the Arabs called Europeans at the time:

"They took me to see a knight who had an abscess on his leg. I applied a poultice to the leg and the abscess opened and began to heal. Then there appeared a Frankish doctor who said, 'This man has no idea how to cure this person!' He turned to the knight and said, 'Which would you prefer, to live with one leg or to die with two?' When the knight replied that he would prefer to live with one leg, he sent for a strong man and a sharp axe. They arrived, and I stood by to watch. The doctor supported the leg on a block of wood and said to the man, 'Strike a mighty blow, and cut cleanly!' And there before my eyes, the fellow struck the knight with one blow and then another for the first had not finished the job. The marrow spurted out of the leg, and the patient died instantaneously."

(From Usama ibn Munqidh's autobiography, translated by H. Derenbourg, 1893)

5. The Moslem restriction on alcohol gave Christian monasteries and Jewish merchants a near-monopoly in the liquor business. The only liquor Mohammed had permitted to himself and his followers was nabidh, a mild drink made by mixing chopped dates and raisins with water in earthenware jugs. Legal nabidh was allowed to ferment for only two days; illegal nabidh was older and stronger.

6. The areas left to Sunni Islam were Spain, the Caucasus and upper Volga regions, and Central Asia.

7. Edward Gibbon suggested that this was a better excuse for starting the Crusades than the one actually used, but Europe was not yet ready for an overseas campaign.

8. Seljuk probably converted to another monotheistic religion before 985; his sons were named Mikhail (Michael), Israil (Israel), Musa (Moses) and Yunus (Joseph). Those are not good pagan names, and they suggest that he either practiced Khazar Judaism or Nestorian Christianity. After they converted to Islam, Israil changed his name to Arslan ("Lion"). Although Israil/Arslan was Seljuk's heir, he had no sons of his own, so it was the two sons of Mikhail, Chaghri-Beg and Tughril-Beg, who led the Turks into Iran and Iraq.

© Copyright 2000 Charles Kimball

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