MEDIEVAL AND MODERN ISLAM
16.1 The disintegration of the `Abbâsid empire
During the first century of `Abbâsid rule, while power was being consolidated in the central Arab territories, the peripheral regions were slipping away. The first to go was Spain, which was taken over by `Abdarrahmân I, the grandson of the Umayyad caliph Hishâm, in 756.
In North Africa a Khârijite revolt began among the Berber tribes of Tripolitania in 757 and spread to western Algeria. There Ibn-Rustam founded a state which had extensive relations with West Africa and lasted until the Fâtimid take-over in 909.
Morocco came under a kind of Shî`ite rule with the coming of Idrîs ibn-`Abdallâh, a great-grandson of `Alî’s son al-Hasan and brother of Muhammad an-Nafs az-Zakiyya. After the failure of a Shî`ite revolt against the `Abbâsids, he fled to Morocco, gathered Berber followers, and built Fez as his capital.
To control what remained of the Maghrib, Hârűn ar-Rashîd appointed Ibn-al-Aghlab, the son of a Khurâsânian army officer, as governor of Ifrîqiya (Tunisia) in 800. The Aghlabid dynasty ruled Tunisia and Sicily until the Fâtimid conquest of 909. The overlordship of the `Abbâsids was merely nominal. Apart from mentioning the caliph’s name in the Friday prayers and sending an annual tribute, the Aghlabids ruled independently.
In Khurâsân a similar devolvement of power was made in 820 to Tâhir, a Persian general responsible for al-Ma’műn’s victory over his brother al-Amîn. His family ruled Khurâsân until 873 when the rival Saffârid dynasty took over.
The rise of provincial governors meant the diminishing of the caliph’s political and military power, and the total loss of secular authority by the middle of the 10th century.
At the same time a struggle among the various groups who had brought the `Abbâsids to power was weakening the caliphate right at the centre. These groups formed two main camps: those who wanted a constitutionalist type of government and those who wanted the caliph to have autocratic powers. The constitutionalists wanted the Sharî`a, that is, the Qur’ân and adîth, to be the ultimate authority to which even the caliph is subject. In practice, this meant that the caliph must abide by the decisions of the ulamâ’, the religious scholars who supplied the judges and similar officials of the government. The autocratic bloc, on the other hand, wanted the caliph to be unhampered by the `ulamâ’ and their conservative views and give him a free hand.
Among those who supported an autocratic caliph were the secretaries or civil servants who were recruited from the Persian Mawâlî. These had great attachment to their traditional culture and promoted it through a movement called the shu`űbiyya from sha`b = “people”). This was basically a literary movement propagandizing the merits of the non-Arabs. The secretaries’ pride in culture also implied that their traditional culture had values to offer society independently of Islam. This meant that Sharî`a was not the exclusive and infallible guide for all matters. For this relativization of Sharî`a they were accused of zandaqa, or irreligion.
Also among the autocratic bloc were the Shî`ites, from their basic belief in the charism attached to the family of `Alî, to which the `Abbâsids pretended to be the heirs.
16.2 Shî`ite attempt to capture the Muslim world
The Shî`ites took advantage of this social discontent, appealing to the charism attached to the family of `Alî, to which the `Abbâsids pretended to be the heirs. After the ill-fated Black slave revolt in Bara, which lasted from 869 to 883, Shî`ite propagandists of the Ismâ`îlî branch aroused followers and took over Yemen and the east of Arabia. Their bedouin bands, known as the Qarâmita (or Carmathians) wrought havoc on the central lands of Islam, attacking pilgrim caravans, even robbing the black stone from the Ka`ba of Mecca, and plundering the cities of Iraq and Syria. The Qarâmita failed to overthrow the `Abbâsid caliphate, however.
Another Shî`ite movement taking shape at this time was Imâmism. Later Imâmites upheld a series of twelve imâms up to around the year 878, but during their lifetimes these “imâm”s may have been considered merely leaders of the clan of `Alî, whereas the real imâm was the `Abbâsid caliph. In this case, the main teaching of the Imâmites was that the `Abbâsids held their power not by election but by appointment from their predecessors in a line going back to `Alî. Moreover, Abű-Bakr, `Umar and `Uthmân were usurpers, and all the Hadîths traced back to them on which the Sunnî ulamâ' base their arguments, are worthless and cannot be used to tie down the caliph.
A further Shî`ite movement of the time was Zaydism. This was a compromise Shî`ism which accepted the first three Medinan caliphs as legitimate but inferior to `Alî. The compromise idea of the “imâmate of the inferior” (imâmat al-mafdűl) was taken up by many Mu`tazilites and by al-Ma'műn, who based his claim to legitimacy on being of the house of Muhammad through Muhammad's uncle al-`Abbâs, also on his being the best of the community, and on his ability to enforce his claim by the sword.
Yet in the `Abbâsid heartlands the Sunnite ulamâ', particularly the conservative Hanbalites, had the support of the common people in the cities. The wealthier merchants and landlords may have supported an autocratic trend in government, but they were also allied with the abnâ' ad-dawla (the Khurâsânî privileged Sons of the Revolution) and the anbalites in perpetuating a taxation system which gave wealthy merchants virtual exemption while transferring the burden onto the poor.
In the West, Abű-Abdallâh propagandized Shî`ism among the Berbers of what is modern Algeria. His work led to the success of the Fâtimid caliphate, which in 909 had its capital at Mahdiyya on the coast of Tunisia. The Fâtimids gained control of all North Africa and founded the new capital of al-Qâhira (Cairo) in 969, building the famous al-Azhar mosque-school at its centre.
Persian Shî`ites, known as Buwayhids, took over the eastern territories of the `Abbâsids and, taking Baghdad in 945, they reduced the `Abbâsid caliph to a puppet role, their own leader taking the title “sultân” (= “authority”). The Buwayhids clashed with the Fâtimids, and thus prevented a Shî`ite unification of the Muslim world.
Also in the 10th century the Sâmânids of eastern Persia were engaged in the momentous conversion of the Asian Turks to the north. Many Turks moved into the Muslims states as mercenaries, and eventually took control of certain areas. As one group of Turks was expanding into Indian territory, another, the Seljűq Turks, moved west and occupied Baghdad in 1055. The Seljűqs were Sunnites, and replace the Shî`ites Buwayhids as guardians of the `Abbâsid caliphs. The Seljűq leader was named the Sultân of the `Abbâsid caliph, and exercised the real power in the East. Swarms of disruptive Turkish nomads followed the Seljűqs west and pushed the Byzantines from most of modern Turkey. But they failed to dislodge the Fâtimids from Egypt.
Some of the greatest Muslim philosophers were patronized by various local princes during this period of `Abbâsid disintegration, notably, al-Fârâbî (875-950), Ibn-Sînâ (980-1037), and in Spain Ibn-Rushd 1126-1198).
16.3 The Crusade impact
During the 11th century Europe was growing in power and reclaiming the north of Spain and the islands of the Mediterranean from the Arabs. In the first crusade against the East, Jerusalem was taken in 1099. The Muslims of Iraq and Syria rallied under the leadership of Turkish and Kurd officers. Their chances of expelling the Crusaders were enhanced by their capturing control of Egypt from the languishing Fâtimid government in 1168, before the Crusaders had a chance to do so. Then, under the titular rule of an `Abbâsid caliph, the Kurd officer Salâhaddîn (Saladin) gained supreme command of both Egypt and the Iraq-Syria areas. His military efforts all but extinguished the Crusader states by the time of his death in 1193.
16.4 The Mongols
The 13th century began auspiciously for Muslim Asia. The Persian governors of Khwarazm (south of the Arab Sea) had defeated the Seljűq Turks and were about to become the new protectors and masters of the `Abbâsid caliph. But in 1218, a group of Mongol traders arrived at the Khwarazm border and were put to death as spies. Chingiz Khan then let lose his Mongol hordes who, with their Chinese engineers, quickly leveled every fortification in eastern Persia.
Between 1237 and 1241, under the reign of Chingiz Khan’s son, the Mongols swept over southern Russia and eastern Europe, and suddenly withdrew. The Europeans were at once terrified and tantalized at the prospect of gaining the alliance or conversion of the pagan Mongols. who already had been in part converted to Nestorian Christianity. But the European emissaries, including Marco Polo, gained no instant results. The Khan had asked for 100 missionaries from the Pope, but none could be found willing to go.
In 1255 Hulegu moved the Mongol forces into Muslim lands, and in 1258 devastated Baghdad. The Mongols moved on towards Egypt, but because of a diversion of their forces to settle problems at home, they were defeated by the Turkish Mamlűks of Egypt. By 1300 the Mongol leaders who remained in Muslim Asia chose Islam; thus the conquerors were assimilated.
Muslim Mongols appeared again in the 16th century, when they took control of most of India. In Persia Mongol dynasties fell to the Turks in the 15th century, but in 1501 the Safavid dynasty came and established Shî`ite Islam as the official religion, a position Shî`ism has enjoyed in Persia ever since.
16.5 The Ottoman Turks
Islam saw another imperial age in the West under the Ottoman (after the Turkish form of their leader, `Uthmân) Turks, who started as one clan among the Turkish nomads who swarmed into Anatolia under the Seljűqs. Growing in power, they overran much of the Balkans, and in 1453 captured Constantinople. In the 16th century they brought the lands of the Middle East under their control, took over the southern Mediterranean coasts, dominated the sea, and threatened the heart of Europe when they conquered Hungary and besieged Vienna. In the 17th century Turkish power began to decline, and during the 19th century Europe ate away at its provinces until the First World War left the Turks with nothing but their Anatolian homeland of modern Turkey.
As for the title of caliph, the Ottomans were for a long time content to recognize the titular `Abbâsid caliph. But when their empire began to slip away into the hands of non-Muslim powers, the ulân of Istanbul assumed the title of caliph in order to preserve a spiritual jurisdiction (like that of the Pope) over the lost lands. The title was first taken in 1774. After the First World War the Turks set up a secular government and in 1924 abolished the caliphate.
In the 19th and early 20th century most of the central lands of Islam came under European rule or political and cultural influence. Muslims have reacted both by struggling for independence and authenticity and by trying to catch up with the economically advanced countries. This led to an internal struggle between fundamentalist and modernist tendencies.
A modernizing reform movement, begun by al-Afghânî (d. 1897), was followed by Muhammad `Abduh (d. 1905) and Rashîd Ridâ (d. 1935). These had influence mostly in academic circles rather than on society at large. Abandoning the style of the archaic Ash`arite theology which prevailed in the schools, they tried to develop a modern apologetics based on concordism between the Qur’an and modern science. Taking the offensive, they asserted that Islam, and not Christianity, promoted women’s liberation and religious tolerance. Jihad was only defensive, and Islamic government is democratic, based on shűrâ (consultation, Q. 3:159).
The same line of thought was continued by the Pakistani writer Abű-l-`Alâ Maududi (d. 1979), who developed Islamic political theory along radical lines. He is much read in Nigeria.
Fundamentalist Hanbalism was developed by Ibn-Taymiyya (d. 1328), who is very influential today especially for his ideas on Islamic society. Ibn-Taymiyya’s ideas were taken up by `Abdalwahhâb in 18th century Arabia, and Hanbalite Wahhabism is the ideology of the present Saudi regime. Pilgrims carry it throughout the world, especially to Africa, where their efforts are subsidized by grants from the Saudi government for the propagation of Islam.
On the political front, from 1928 and more so after 1935, Hasan al-Bannâ began in Egypt the Muslim Brothers, which established branches throughout the Middle East. Bannâ was a friend of Nasser and Sadat, but met his death in 1949 by assassination, probably by the police of King Faruk. Nevertheless, the brotherhood grew and helped Nasser in his 1952 revolution. Later the Muslim Brothers broke with Nasser because he did not want to share power with them.
In this way Nasser lost the support of the most influential of the Muslim Brothers, Sayyid Qutb. Put in prison for refusing to cooperate with Nasser, he wrote a commentary on the Qur’an which took up the ideas of Rashîd Ridâ and Maududi, but went much further. Interpreting the Qur’an literally, he rejected the aggiornamento of Muhammad `Abduh and Ridâ, whom he accused of coming under the influence of Christian orientalists and Jews who distorted Islam with their critical and deviant interpretations.
For Qutb, Muslims should not try to confirm the Qur’an by modern science or try to adapt it to modern thought. Rather science and history must give in to the supreme truths of the Qur’an. Besides, reason as distinguished from revelation can say nothing about morality and social life. So, for Qutb, one must adhere to all the Qur’anic provisions concerning the non-exposure of women, polygamy, divorce and inequality in inheritance and witnessing in court. Christians and Jews have no right to the tolerance given to them by the early verses of the Qur’an. Having gone back to polytheism and broken their pact with God, they are unbelievers (kâfirűn). Therefore they should be attacked, according to the provisions of Qur’an 9:1-35; and this is what the followers of Qutb do up to today. Qutb did not limit jihad to defensive war, but made it an obligation of every individual, who must constantly fight for the establishment of Sharî`a law, first in traditionally Islamic societies, and then in the whole world.
Qutb’s refusal to accept any modification of the Qur’anic condemnation of usury or interest gave rise to a movement to set up an Islamic banking system based on sharing in risk and profit, a kind of cooperative without any fixed interest.
Qutb looked forward to the revival of an Islamic state with an imam or caliph really devoted to Sharî`a. This would be the kingdom of God on earth and real Utopia. Although executed in prison in 1966, Qutb’s influence has continued to grow. In Egypt his thought was taken up by the still more radical movement, al-Jihâd. Its founder, Muhammad `Abdassalâm al-Farâ, author of The Missing Obligation, insisted on the obligation of each individual Muslim to fight for the establishment of an Islamic state. His followers assassinated President Sadat for not fully implementing Sharî`a.
Radical Hanbalism continues to spread among Sunnite Muslims throughout the world. Nigeria has seen the Maitatsine movement, which is a self-made Khârijism with Mahdist historical influence, but is akin to Hanbalism.
Recently Shî`ism has been introduced to Nigeria by students returning from Iran. They have organized some demonstrations in the North, demanding a more Islamic government.
Hanbalism, with the stamp of Saudi Wahhabism and Sayyid Qutb, is represented in Nigeria by the Jamâ`at izâlat al-bid`a wa-iqâmat as-sunna Society for the removal of heresy and the establishment of Sunna), commonly known as Izala. This organization not only fights Christians in demanding an Islamic state, but also the Sufic brotherhoods and any Muslims who promote modernization or a revival of traditional African culture. So we see not only the burning of churches, but also fights among Muslims in the mosques.
What will be the outcome of this struggle? Christians give no sign of collapsing before the threat of radical Islam. Muslims attached to Sufic or African tradition have the psychological and social bulwark of African culture to tame the tide of radical Islam. Apart from some further possible flare-ups, one might expect an eventual accommodation once Muslims realize that radical Islam, no more than any other movement, cannot deliver a Utopia.
All countries of the world are becoming more and more pluralist, both ethnically and religiously, Catholic Spain and Muslim Saudi Arabia not excepted. The present challenge, new in the history of Muslim-Christian relations, is to assure democracy and equal rights for all in these countries. That is what we are most anxious for, no matter what our judgement about Muhammad and Islam may be.
The End —»
For this and the following sections see the respective chapters in The Cambridge history of Islam, which contain further bibliography.
Cf. Jacques Jomier, Le commentaire coranique du Manâr (Paris: Maisonneuve et Larose, 1954), and Introduction ŕ l’Islam actuel (Paris: Cerf, 1964).
Cf. Abű-l-`Alâ Maududi, Fundamental principles of Islamic political theory (Lahore, 1952), Islamic law and constitution (Lahore, 1960), Political theory of Islam (Lahore, 1965) & Towards understanding Islam (Lahore, 1974, 14th ed.).
Cf. Henri Laoust, Le traité de droit public d’Ibn Taimiyya (Beirut: Institut français de Damas, 1948), and Les schismes dans l’Islam, introduction ŕ une étude de la religion musulmane (Paris: Payot, 1965).
Cf. Olivier Carré, Mystique et politique, Lecture révolutionnaire du Coran par Sayyid Qutb, Frčre musulman radical (Paris: Cerf, 1984).
For a similar view of Islam in other parts of West Africa, see Luc Moreau, Les africains musulmans (Paris: Présence africaine, 1982).