Later Islamic Societies

Map of Iran

The Qajars

The Qajar family took full control of Iran in 1794 when they eliminated all rivals, and reasserted Persian sovereignty over the former Iranian territories in Georgia and the Caucasus. In 1796 Agha Mohammad Khan was formally crowned as shah, and European powers began to see Iran as a strategic ally in the region — to undermine Ottoman power and tip the balance in the 'great game' of Russia and British rivalry in Asia. Britain and Iran came to blows in 1856, and Britain also established control of the Trucial States. {1-7}

fath ali shah quarter rial

In the Anglo-Russian Agreement of 1907, the two countries agreed to respect their respective spheres of influence, but the Qajars became economically indebted to Russia, and in 1901 also sold off - cheaply to a British engineer — a concession to prospect for oil in the country. {1-7} Western science, technology, and educational methods were gradually  introduced into Iran, and that influence also encouraged a movement for democracy and a constitutional monarchy. A constitution was reluctantly granted in 1906, following mass demonstrations, but the move upset conservative opinion in the country. Reza Shah Pahlavi overthrew the Qajars in 1921, establishing a more authoritarian government. The Majlis (consultative assembly) could not be overturned, but Reza Shah found ways to manipulate or discredit its leaders. {1-7}

Qajars: Fath 'Ali Shah, (1797-1834). Ar Quarter Riyal. Minted at Tabriz in 1225 AH. Weight: 2.55 gm.
Obverse: Shah Qajar / Fath 'Ali / es-sult es-sult / an ibn n (Fath 'Ali Shah / the sult the sult / an son of n, i.e. Fath 'Ali Shah Qajar / Sultan and son of the Sultan)

For his pro-German sympathies in W.W.II, Reza Shah was replaced by the western powers by his son, Mohammad-Reza Shah, who was further supported in a CIA-organized coup in 1953 against the nationalist Prime Minister, Mohammad Mosaddegh. {5}

The Pahlavis fell to the Islamic Revolution in 1979, however, when the groundswell of anti-Western sentiment and desire for an Islamic government overcame British and American influences. {1-8}

fath ali shah quarter rial coin reverse

Fath Ali Shah was governor of Fars when his uncle, the excessively cruel  Agha Mohammad Khan, was assassinated in 1797. His reign saw a resurgence in Persian culture (and rigid court etiquette) and wars with Russia over Georgian territories. {12} The new shah tried to reassert Persian control over Georgia after General Pavel Tsitsianov attacked the city of Ganja, which sent thousands fleeing into Iran. Early successes were undone by superior Russian armaments, however, and appeals to Britain and France were unsuccessful. When Russia took Tabriz in 1813, Fath Ali Shah was obliged to sign the Treaty of Gulistan, which ceded Georgia, southern Dagestan and Azerbaijan to Russia. {14}

Reverse: Sultan / zarb Tebriz 1225 (Sultan / struck in Tabriz 1225 AH). {8- 13}

  From 1805 to 1818, Iran also attempted to win back control of Herat in western Afghanistan, but were defeated by Afghan uprisings. In a second 1826-28 war with Russia, Iran again tried to recapture lost territories, but had to cede defeat in the 1828 Treat of Turkmenchay and pay an indemnity. {15}

Matters went better on the home front. Fath Ali Shah maintained a splendid court and harem,  fathering  57 sons and 46 daughters. He is instantly recognisable in many portraits by his waist-length black beard, but this virile and intelligent man apparently grew more avaricious and slothful  with the passing years. Until  the rule of Nasir-e-Din Sha (1848-96), that decadence continued with his successors, when Iran became increasingly involved in various reform movements and power struggles between Britain and the regional  powers. {1-7, 14-15}

Islamic Calligraphy

Because the religion distrusts figurative art, Islam lays great stress on the words of the Qur'an, and on writing generally. Calligraphy is a high art form, cultivated in books, carpets, architectural decoration, ceramics and coins. The last were redesigned in the great Ummayad reform of 692 AD, when pictorial images were replaced by standard inscriptions — Qur'anic verses, written mint and date (and, from 754 AD, the caliph and local ruler's name and/or titles). Images do occasionally appear on medieval Islamic coins, but religious legends and titles have always played the greater role: the Qur'anic message was an iconic symbol of Islam and its empire. {16-21}

The Islamic scripts evolved into fascinating and beautiful forms. The simple kufic, angular and rigid, expanded its letter set from 17 to 29, added diacritical marks (indicating vowels: not generally shown on coins until modern times), and then branched out into elegant and even decorated varieties: floral, foliated, plaited or interlaced, bordered, and squared kufic. Coexisting with the angular kufic were cursive scripts, developing into the elegant naskh script, of which there were several variations, all in use today. Thuluth was a display script with long vertical lines with broad spacing. Riq'ah was a handwriting style derived from naskh and thuluth, first appearing in the 9th century. The Maghribi script developed in the 10th century and is still used in Spain and north Africa. Muhaqqaq was a majestic style often used in the Mamluk period. The Ta'liq and Nasta'liq scripts were cursive styles devised for Persian literary works. Diwani developed during the reign of the early Ottoman Turks. {16-21}

'The art of the coin in the Chinese and in the Islamic world focused on the beauty of the designed characters and a proportionate distribution of text on the available limited, mostly circular space. The roots of coin design in the Islamic world lay nevertheless in the Hellenistic tradition, whereas Chinese coinage drew on a different past.' Coinage calligraphy indeed vacillated between the styles of the chanceries, the art of Qur'anic calligraphy and the epigraphic inscriptions decorating monumental architecture. Uighur script — deriving from Aramaic-Syriac Script and Phagspa and used in the Yuan courts of Beijing in 1268-69 — appeared on Ilkhanid and Chaghatid coins. The Ta'liq and Nasta'liq on Safavid coins became especially refined, the inscription sometimes suggesting the rhythm of the pen's movement by modulated degrees of relief, {20} as is also the case here.

Very prominent  is the decorative nature of the inscriptions. On the obverse, the final 'n's have been dropped to the bottom line, and the pleasing pattern further ornamented with pellets. The legend on the reverse has been attenuated, and the characters elongated into a pattern that makes them almost abstract. The later Moghuls and the Durranis often displayed rhyming Persian couplets on their coins,{22} and poetry is not missing from the layout of this piece. 'Poetry, universal and indispensable in Persian life, together with philosophy, overt and implicit, nourish all cultural expressions. Analogies between Persian  poetry and visual design are numerous: rhythm and rhyme, stress and resolution, surprise and fulfilment merely head a long list of characteristics that have their counterparts in each. . . That which to a hurried Western viewer may seem a surfeit of opulence is to the Persian, who values contemplation, an invitation to leisurely exploration, a promise of endless delights.' {23}

Islamic Response to the West

Muslim countries, once so prosperous, {24-25} have not fared well in recent centuries, and their adoption of western concepts has been slow and difficult, with many now accused of harbouring religious fundamentalism, or of even promoting terrorism. {26} How has this happened?

map of islamic world


By failing to modernize and apply the scientific approach to large-scale production might be one answer. Neoliberalism goes further, and insists on the unrestricted flow of goods, ideas and money across national boundaries. Individuals can and must make rational and informed choices on their material well-being. Many countries in these regions are under repressive dictatorships, however, and education of their peoples often does not advance beyond memorizing the Qur'an. Commerce is hindered by unnecessary and complex bureaucracies, where haggling and bribery are part of a social fabric that reinforces the status quo. Women are kept out of the workplace, and unavailable for the factories that have transformed the economies of southeast Asia. All this is true, but only partly an explanation. Market economics has its own problems, in theory and application, and it is clear that something more fundamental has created the antagonisms to western ideas. Islam does not despise wealth, and for many centuries the Islamic world was more prosperous and better governed than worn-torn Europe. {27}





(tons of silver)

Revenue per Head

(grams of silver)

Persia c. BC 350




Egypt c. BC 200




Rome c. 1 AD




Rome c. 150 AD




Byzantium c. 850 AD




Abbasids c. 850 AD




T'ang China c. 850 AD




France 1221 AD




England 1203 AD




There are many issues, some arising from the nature of Islamic societies, some more related to their history, which has been has been no less troubled than those of the Christian west.

Loss of Power

The Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires were gradually infiltrated by western ideas as their rulers acceded to western attractions of power and wealth. English, French, German, Dutch and other adventurers sold manufactures and armaments to the Ottomans, advising on modern approaches, as they did to the Safavids.

Modernizations were made, often for good reason — better representation, education, health and industry — but also introduced too quickly, for the benefit of an increasingly secular elite, and too clearly in the interests of western powers and businesses. Monopolies given to western companies with valuable technical know-how naturally antagonized local opinion, making it more difficult to introduce universities, factories and parliaments in Qajar Iran, for example, which was nominally independent but became a pawn in power games of Britain, Russia and then America. {24}


The west colonized the Muslim world by stages. First came trading posts along the Indian Ocean coast: unthreatening outposts operating under the license of the local ruler that made little impact on Muslim customs but provided welcome silver for local manufactures. The English, French and the Dutch each had their East India Companies, jockeying for position in Iran, India and southeast Asia, and not too scrupulous in their methods. Often, as in India, these trading posts expanded to small communities, supported by militia in their disputes between rival trading powers. In this way the Portuguese were gradually ousted by the Dutch, and these by the French and finally by the English. Though small, these foreign communities often meddled in local politics, backing one side against another, advising rulers, collecting tax revenues and supplying model armies to local sultans. Gradually their ways prevailed: they rarely interfered with life at the village level but advised rulers on overseas trade, diplomacy and western notions of industry. Their armies, composed of local levies, were often better trained, and administrations notably less corrupt. The East India Company finally took over most of India, which was annexed to the Crown after the 1857 Mutiny. Sons of rulers and wealthy businessmen went to school in Europe, and gradually developed into a social elite that assumed government when Independence was granted. The elite lived a western style of life, and felt closer to world events than the Islamic societies that operated on town and village level. Oil wealth has accentuated these differences in the Middle East, and it is with these elites that foreign governments and companies prefer to do business, leaving the great mass of the population unrepresented. {28}

Western Meddling

Countries formerly part of the Ottoman and Mughal empires were carved up by the western powers in ways that more reflected European colonial ambitions than the wishes or histories of the peoples concerned. Democracies were not favoured because of their perceived threats to oil supplies. {29} India was partitioned between a predominately Hindu India and a Muslim Pakistan, a rushed contrivance that caused much bloodshed, and economic problems for succeeding generations. Because Kashmir's ruler was Hindu, the province was awarded to India, though the population was essentially Muslim, another compromise that has claimed thousands of lives.

Independent Iran became a British fief when Riza Shah Pahlevi was forced to abdicate for German sympathies after WW II, and the USA reinstalled his son by a coup in 1953 to further their and British oil interests. His overthrow by Khomeini ushered in a theocratic Shi'ite state hostile to the west but open to Russian and more local influences.

The decaying Ottoman Empire was split into French and British protectorates in a highly artificial manner, which led to much ethnic and religious strife. {30} Egypt was invaded by the French and then by the English in the Napoleonic wars, became only semi-independent from the British under Mohammad Ali and his heirs, {31} but more so under the charismatic Nasser in 1952. The west-leaning Mubarak government was overthrown by Arab Spring movements, but the corrupt and repressive army has again seized control. The Jewish return to ancestral homelands, accelerated after the holocaust, added a further component to the explosive mix. Expulsion of Palestinians after abortive wars waged by Arab neighbours added more fuel to the flames, {32-33} and Israel is now a US ally and dependency in an oil-rich region where major powers (US, Russia, Britain) have interests that operate through armaments supply and covert resistance groups. {34} The violent overthrow of Middle East governments by the western powers {35} has produced a predictable 'blowback' in Muslim extremism, which then, as a never-ending spiral, has served to justify increased spending by the military and intelligence services. {27,36} Parts of Syria and Iraq have now been overrun by ISIS, a shadowy but ruthless organization that grew out of Wahhabism, {37} the west's invasion of Iraq and support for an anti-Assad uprising. Notwithstanding its financial links with Saudi Arabia, Turkey and the Gulf States, some commentators see Al Qaeda and ISIS as expressly trained and supplied by America, NATO and Israel to destabilize the Muslim world. {38} Nothing is simple in this area of shifting interests and alliances. {35}

Even the symbiosis of Big Oil, Big Money and Government is not as it seems. Western concerns did not take out concessions to exploit Middle East oil, but to postpone development and protect the high-price oil monopolies elsewhere: in the USA (Standard Oil), Mexico (Mexican Eagle), in Sumatra (Royal Dutch), Baku (Nobel Brothers) and Burma (Burma Oil). Demands for self-rule broke out across the former Ottoman territories after W.W.I. and were suppressed by France and Britain working through local rulers maintained in power by western interests and governments. Oil companies got tacit and sometimes military support from their governments for several reasons. One was the need to protect the oil supplies, particularly after W.W.II., when the Soviet Union threatened to support nationalist movements. Oil powered the British navy, and a cheap supply was also needed to maintain the high energy consumption of the American way of life. Oil indeed was an attractive alternative to coal — easier to transport and less subject to miners' strikes, some dangerously protracted (France 1895, Belgium 1902, Russia 1905, West Virginia 1919, Germany 1920, Britain 1926). France snuffed out nationalist movements in Syria. Britain put down uprisings in Iraq, Egypt and Palestine, and encouraged Jewish settlement In Palestine to offset Arab nationalism. Britain and the USA overthrew the Mossedegh presidency in Iran through a 1953 CIA coup. Until the 'war on terror' (i.e. western attacks on Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya, Syria and the Yemen) the Muslim world was ruled by repressive regimes whose lavish purchase of 'security' brought good profits to western armament manufacturers. The area was stable, but far from the ideals of a democratic or Islamic society. Naturally, given the high capital investment required, oil company interests involved the large banks: the Deutsche Bank in Berlin, Rothschild's in Paris, the Mellon family in Pittsburgh, and the Rockefellers with their oil production and refinery interests. Indeed oil inevitably supported the American dollar, because (excepting Persian oil that briefly used sterling) all importing countries had to pay for that oil in dollars. {29} Syria currently finds Turkey, Saudi Arabia and NATO fighting a proxy war against Russia, Iran and the Assad government. {30-31}

Afghanistan came several times (if briefly) under British attempts to protect India from Russian encroachment, and had its secular government overthrown by Islamic fundamentalists encouraged and partly funded by Americans in their constant attack on Soviet power. The country suffered a Russian invasion, a protracted civil war, a US-led overthrow of the Taliban, and a corrupt US-installed government whose authority barely extends beyond Kabul.

Muslim north Africa became French and Italian colonies, into which poured tens of thousands of European settlers, buying up much of the better land and imposing alien concepts of government. Independence has been marked by bitter sectarian wars and (in Libya) the overthrow of a populist government by US and European forces: the once richest country in Africa is now a failed state torn apart by civil war. Saudi Arabia, a Wahhabi fundamentalist state, is supported by America in exchange for unrestricted access to its oil wealth. {32-33}

Muslim Response

The western press often stigmatises Muslim thought as rigid and doctrinaire, but Muslim societies in fact approach the world through some mixture of: {34}

1. Fundamentalism: a return to a pristine and often intolerant version of Islam. (Wahhabi Saudi Arabia and Shi'ite Iran).

2. Aligarh secular modernism: Islam is a moral code rather than a social blueprint for life: religion and politics are separate, as they are in the Christian west. (Turkey)

3. Islamic modernism: Islam is reinterpreted for the contemporary age, but remains the source of social and political authority. Sayyid Jamaluddin Afghan founded no party in his peripatetic life, nor left any authoritative and considered book, for example, but his charismatic personality inspired many Muslim revivals (including the Muslim Brotherhood) and reinvigorated the concept of 'jihad' or holy war among Muslims oppressed by western governments or their puppet states.

References and Further Reading

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