Medieval Islamic States

map of islamic world

Extensive trade is a feature of advanced societies, and was indeed the basis of prosperous Muslim societies in north Africa, the Middle East and Asia. Islam was founded by a businessman, of course, but business in the Muslim world followed rather different principles. Property was sacrosanct, being a way for Muslims to fulfil the obligations of their faith. Theft, fraud, and injustice (i.e. taking unfair advantage) were prohibited by the shari'ah, the Islamic law, which was studied by legal scholars who stood apart and independent of government. Man was not naturally wicked, moreover (i.e. not born into sin), but was sternly tested in life, where falâh (prosperity) refers to this life and the next. Though usury was forbidden, banks in practice charged an arrangement fee, and initiated many modern practices, including cheques, and credit payments, practices that were introduced into Europe through the Knights Templars. Merit was not measured in terms of wealth or poverty, however, but as to how that wealth was acquired and used. {1} Ethics indeed guided all aspects of life. {2-3} Because integral to Muslim society, merchants were widely respected — not relegated to the lower orders as in imperial China, nor seen as parvenus beside the landowning classes of western Europe. Naturally, there were darker aspects: slave-trading, aggressive wars, oppressive treatment of religions other than the Christian and Jewish faiths, but commerce was not at odds with the spiritual life.

Muslim societies today face many difficulties, some arising from the nature of Islamic society, some more related to their history, which has been has been no less troubled than those of the Christian west. But three differences may be crucial: {4}

Muslim society is based on the just and caring community, not the free individual. There is no Church as a separate entity, but only institutions of scholars who continually interpret and reinterpret the Prophet's teachings for modern times and specific occasions. Islam therefore permeates all levels of life, and is not something set aside for Sunday church going or private belief.

Men and women live in separate spheres of life, only freely intermixing in the privacy of the home. Women's subjugation should not be exaggerated, however. Mohammad laid down strict instructions on the respect and rights of women, and indeed women played a larger part in early worship, as they did in early Christianity. Women have also entered universities and the workplace in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, at least until western-funded religious fundamentalism overthrew these more secular societies.

As do Jews, though less ethnically based, Muslims believe in a destiny. Faith gives them the status of a chosen people, and the shocks of the Crusader and Mongol victories have not been forgotten. Even more disturbing to the faithful has been the slow penetration of western ideas into Muslim countries, often placing them under insensitive officialdom.

Medieval Islamic Dynasties

Initial conquest over, Muslim states were often content to thrive on the inland trade routes that brought silver to China and a vast array of costly merchandise in the opposite direction: silk, porcelains, spices and manufactures that could not be had in the Middle East, and still less in undeveloped western Europe. Tolls had to be paid at each stage of the journey, but the routes were kept free of brigands, and comfortable caravansaries offered lodging and safe storage of goods.

Many of the central Asian empires were not built on trade, however, but on undisguised plunder, particularly those ruled by nomadic Turcoman peoples who periodically invaded from steppe-lands north of the Himalayas: the Kushans, the Ghaznavids and the Sultans of Delhi. The Ghaznavid Empire was founded by Abu Mansur Sebuktigin, a Turkish slave governor serving the Samanid Emirs of Bukhara in the provincial city of Ghazni, south of present-day Kabul. Conquests were dramatically extended by his son, Yamin ad-Dawlah Abul-Qasim Mahmud Ibn Sebüktegin, more commonly known as Mahmud of Ghazni, who made his father's capital the centre of a wealthy empire covering much of today's Afghanistan, eastern Iran Pakistan and northwest India. {5}

Between 1000 and 1025 AD, Mahmud mounted some twelve to seventeen (accounts differ) on the rich Hindu kingdoms of the Indian subcontinent. The Chandellas of Khujaraho, the Pratiharas of Kanauj, and the Rajputs of Gwalior were no match for his formidable armies, and places like Kanauj, Mathura, and Thaneshwar were stripped of the treasures, the temples desecrated and many thousands killed. The most infamous was the destruction of the Shiva temple at Somnath, on the southern coast of Kathiawar in Gujarat, where Muslim chronicles suggest that 50,000 Hindus died in battle or its aftermath. The Shiva lingam was smashed by Mahmud himself, weapons, idols and jewellery amounting to some 6.5 tons of gold carted off, and even the intricately-carved doors of the temple transported to Ghazni, where they later adorned the entrance to Mahmud's tomb.

Though the Ghaznavids became great patrons of literature, and brought India into the Asian trade routes, they also initiated the millennium-old struggle between Hindus and Moslems. The Arab geographer, Alberuni, who attended Mahmud's court and wrote an account of India, wrote of these raids that 'the Hindus became like the atoms of dust scattered in all directions and like a tale of old in the mouths of people. Their scattered remains cherish of course the most inveterate aversion towards all Moslems.' Ghazni today boasts three small minarets only to commemorate its vanished splendour: minarets that are beautifully decorated in kufic tile-work but truncated and only precariously standing on the outskirts of a town that largely exists to serve the tourist trade. In Mahmud's day the city was a centre of learning, commerce and worship, a splendid court life, and hub of trade across the Asian continent. Here Fidowsi wrote his famous epic of Persia, dedicating his Namanah to Mahmud — until the emperor reneged on payment, when scurrilous verses on the empty promises of kings were added. With the death of Mahmud in 1030, at the age of sixty-two, India was free of invasions for another fifty years.

None of the succeeding Sultans of Ghazni had Mahmud's warlike spirit, though the dynasty continued in name for over a hundred years. Persian lands to the west gradually fell to the Seljuks, however, and the eastern parts of the empire were conquered by the Ghorids and then the Sultans of Delhi, all of them Turkish warrior peoples. The Rajput clans, who had reasserted themselves after Mahmud's death, were in the 1192 battle of Tarain defeated by Mahmud of Ghur, who had issued out from his rocky fastness in northern Afganistan. The Indian forces were led by Prithviraj Chauhan, whose wife's final speech to her husband became a rallying cry in the years afterwards. 'Oh Sun of the Chauhans, none has drunk so deeply both of glory and pleasure as thou. Life is an old garment: what matters if we throw it off? To die well is life immortal.' But the battle of Tarain in Kurukshetra was decisive for the Muslim cause. 'For miles the stricken field was bestrewn with castaway flags and spears and shields, and heaped bows, jewelled swords and plumed casques, exquisitely chiselled and damascened gauntlets, breast-plates and gaily-dyed scarves, intermingled with the countless dead.' Mahmud continued on his triumphal progress through Ajmir, Gwalior and Delhi. In 1194, his generals took Benares and then Bihar, where the slaughter of Buddhist priests effectively destroyed that religion in India. Bengal fell next, and by 1200 all northern India was under Muslim rules, save only Rajputana, Malwa and part of Gujarat. The loss in Hindu prestige and culture was enormous, but local rulers, quarrelsome, chivalrous and dependent on cumbersome tactics with elephants, were no match for drilled cavalry and archers united under a crusading faith.

The conqueror was assassinated on the banks of the Indus in 1206, probably by members of the heretical Ismaili sect who, in the words of Juvaini, the historian of Ghengis Khan 'turned the bright day into black night for the army by destroying the king, and spoiled for him the flavour of the food of life.' Mahmud's command fell to his generals, most notably to one Kutub-ud-din Aibak, who assumed the title Sultan of Delhi. Kutub died in a polo accident in 1210 and was succeeded by Iltutmish, his son in law, under which Delhi was embellished by a great mosque and the still-to-be-seen Kutub Minar tower. The Sultans of Delhi protected India from the Mongol hordes under Ghengiz Khan, but had their own ways of extracting wealth from their Indian subjects. {4-5}

Islamic Empires: Ottomans

The Ottoman Empire (1299-1923) once included Turkey, Egypt, Greece, Bulgaria, Romania, Macedonia, Hungary, Israel, Jordan, Lebanon, Syria, and parts of the Arabian peninsula and north Africa, an area amounting to 19.9 million sq. km. in 1595. The Ottomans suffered defeat at Timur's hands but went on to capture Constantinople in 1453, and reach the walls of Vienna in 1529 and 1683. For three hundred years the Ottoman army, supplied by the latest armaments and supported by the 12,000-strong janissaries, was the most formidable fighting machine in the world. The empire reached the height of its power in the reign of Sulayman I, but expansion was checked at the Battle of Lepanto (1571) and then in defeats by Venice and the emerging Safavid state. Paradoxically, as the Ottoman empire became the last great Muslim power, and its sultan the Khalifa, the state proved unable to stem the rising power of Russia north of the Black Sea. Areas were ceded to Russia by the Treaty of Kuchuk Kainorj in 1774, and again in 1792 and 1812. Christian powers were given privileges within the empire, beginning with the French, who supplied diplomatic services against the Habsburgs. Christians and Jews indeed placed themselves under certificates of protection, and so came to control trade with Europe and edge out Muslim rivals. Decline set in markedly after the Crimea War, and the empire was dismembered following defeat in W.W.I. {6-11}

Suleyman I (1494-1566)

suleyman dinar obv

Ottomans: Suleiman I Au dinar. Misr 19mm, 3.47gm. AH 926

Obverse: "Sultan Suleyman Shah bin Sultan Selim Shah azze nasruhu zuriba fi Misir sanat / 926" (Sultan Suleiman Shah son of Selim Shah / May his victory be glorious / minted in Cairo / year / 926)

suleyman dinar rev

Reverse: Inscriptions in four lines within border of pellets.

 Legend: "Darib al-nadr / sahib al-'izz wa'l-nasr / fi'l-barr wa'l-bahr (The striker of precious metal, the Master of Glory and the Victorious on land and sea)

Suleyman I (Kanuni Sultan Suleyman), known in the west as as Suleiman the Magnificent, and in the east as the lawgiver (kanuni), for his legal reforms, was remarkable man. From 1520 to 1566, he ruled an Ottoman Empire at the height at of its power, prestige and prosperity, leading armies to conquer the Christian strongholds of Belgrade, Rhodes, and most of Hungary before his ambitions were checked at the Siege of Vienna in 1529. A good deal of the Middle East was annexed from Persia, and north Africa as far west as Algeria. The Ottoman fleet also dominated the seas, from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf.

To add to those accomplishments, he was an outstanding poet, goldsmith and patron of the arts. His marriage to a harem girl — Roxelana, then Hurrem Sultan — was equally unusual, as was the sultana's influence on the court and sultan.

Organization of the Ottoman State

The Ottoman state was intricately organized through checks and balances, ostensibly divided between a landowning class that commanded armies, administered and taxed, and a subject class, largely agricultural but including merchants and workshop artisans. Further organization came in Sufi orders, brotherhoods and communities (millets) with their own rites, education, justice systems, charities and social systems. Each millet answered to the Sultan. A parallel legal system of lawyers, bureaucrats and judges came under the authority of the grand vizier. The devshirme or janissaries began life as the Sultan's bodyguards, but soon had administrative roles in government, the military and the arts. While advancement was by merit, as it was until the eighteenth century, the state was exceptionally cohesive, surviving ethnic unrest, and rule by mediocre sultans and corrupt viziers. {6-11}

In its decline, however, the empire increasingly suffered the defects of its own excellence. {7, 8-11}

The empire drew its wealth from territorial expansion, traditional monopolies and a tax on land and agricultural products. Roads, so necessary for trade and the transporting of those agricultural products, were not generally improved, however, though a system of caravanserai was extended into the Balkans. Their safety was improved in the eighteenth century, after the Jelali revolts, but that was no more consistent a state policy than the maintenance of the powerful navy built by Bayezid II. The navy suppressed piracy, protected shipping and transported armies, but did not otherwise interfere with the sea trade, the empire preferring to tax a free-trade system. Wheat was transported from the Aegean and the eastern Mediterranean, spices from Red Sea and Persian Gulf, and wheat and lumber from the Black Sea. Only briefly in the sixteenth century did the state undertake its own trade in spices. {6-11}

Technological advances cut travel times in the nineteenth century, from Venice to Istanbul in 10 days by steam ship from the customary 15-81 days by sail, for example, and carried larger tonnages, 1000 tonnes rather than the earlier 50-100 tonnes. Indeed Istanbul handled 10 million tonnes in 1900, up from 4.5 million tonnes in 1873. But 90% of shipping was owned by European interests, and a similar picture held for road transport. Steam engines speeded the transportation of agricultural products to the coast for export, but 10,000 camels were still employed to serve the railway stations. Employment gains were modest. Low salaries, a sparse population and expensive sources of capital did not encourage industrialization. {6-11}

The Ottoman Empire was essentially an agrarian society where taxes on land supplied 40% of state revenues. Most worked on small family holdings, where only part of the crop or livestock production went for export. Families also produced handicrafts, and nomads supplied animal products and textiles. Agricultural techniques were gradually improved, however, and tens of thousands of ploughs and even combines were in action across the Balkans, Anatolia and Arab lands by 1900. Agriculture was also extended into poorer soils, particularly by refugees. Agricultural schools and model farms proliferated, and the value of Anatolian agricultural products rose 45% between 1876 and 1908, and tithe products by 76%. Generally, however, the local wheat could not compete with cheap imports of American grain, and there were periodic economic and political crises. {6-11}

The middle class was small, and generally comprised non-Muslim merchants and bankers and bureaucrats, who were part of the establishment, protecting their positions and resistant to change. Indeed the seventeen sultans after Suleyman (1566-1789) were men of little knowledge of or interest in the outside world. The average periods of rule were half those of the previous sultans, and many incumbents were incompetent if not mentally defective, being brought up wholly within the harem and so open to its influence. {6-11}

Gradually the empire lost the power to tax its commerce, and the ideal of service to the state was replaced by self interest. Governors in Arab lands became independent, and attempts by strong viziers like Ibrahim Pasha (1718-30) and rulers like Selim III (1789-1807) were thwarted. Under the cry 'Islam is in danger' the janissaries formed an alliance with the Ulama to curb modernizing practices and central rule. {6-11}

Guilds began with the Sufi Ahi Brotherhood in the 13-14th century, which merchants and craftsmen saw as an extension of Muslim faith. True guilds were widespread in the 16th century, and ran workshops and even small factories. Domestic consumption increased, and steam-powered silk weaving factories appeared in the 1830s. Silk and carpet factories were employing 100,000 workers in 1914, mostly women. Wages were low, however, and locations shifted from urban areas to even lower-paying rural ones. Guilds controlled quality, gave some price protection, but products were gradually displaced by cheaper foreign products, first Asian and then European. {6-11}

The Ottoman Empire only slowly joined the industrial west. Global trade increased 60 fold in the nineteenth century, but only 10-16 fold within the empire. Cotton exports to France and England did double between the late 17th and late 18th centuries, but then shrank in the face of competition from industrialized mill production. Luxury goods, manufactured by the Ottomans or re-exported, also fell throughout the 18th century, and the direction of trade shifted: high quality goods were imported and raw materials exported. Nonetheless, there were no balance of payments problems until the later 19th century. {6-11}

Bureaucratic and military expenditures were funded by taxation, and both expanded through the 18th and 19th centuries. There were some 2,000 civil servants at the end of the 18th century, but 35,000 in 1908. Until 1850 there was no appreciable foreign debt, but nor was there a reliable Ottoman banking system. The government raised money for development with bond issues between 1854 and 1876, but Egypt in particular ran up large debts at the end of the century. Repayment of loans for railway, port and public utility developments consumed increasing proportions of tax revenues, and put the economy in foreign hands. {6-11}

Corruption spread as the empire declined in power. Bribery, purchase of office, favouritism and nepotism became commonplace, and officials would often borrow to buy the administration of provinces, which they would then plunder to repay loans. The devshirme or janissaries became an hereditary class, no longer created afresh from foreign slaves and so answering solely to the sultan. {6-11}

European shipping increasingly sidelined silks, porcelain and handicrafts brought from the east, and the growth of the Safavid state also stemmed or added costs to the overland silk routes. Nonetheless, the European threat did not at first call for a transformation of the Muslim state. European inventions could be simply purchased and installed — armaments, and then schools and institutions for scientific advancement. The empire did not suffer the attentions of Christian missionaries, and the old ruling order was not swept away, as was the case in India and north Africa. But the secular nature of European society, with its clear division between church and state, came increasingly to question the nature of Ottoman rule. Capitalism challenged the Qur'anic prohibition of usury. The European concept of rights challenged the Qur'anic acceptance of slavery. And the belief in equality challenged the traditional view of women — a man's right to four wives, to easy divorce, and to the seclusion of women in the harem or home. More threatening was the monolithic idea of the state's control over all aspects of physical and human resources, limited by law but still expressing the 'popular will'. Even education, focussing on the individual, was at odds with the Qur'anic revelation that legislated for the whole society. {6-11}

But European technology was clearly superior to Ottoman, and not benign. Change had to come, and a start was made by Mahmud II (1808-39). The janissaries were eliminated, and a modern army constructed and trained by Prussian officers. Schools taught European languages, and by 1863 all commercial, criminal, maritime and land legislation were based on codes of French origin. Edicts of 1839 and 1856 declared that all subjects, Muslim or not, were equal before the law. A new constitution was introduced, although unsuccessfully, in 1876, and Abdul Hamid (1876-1909) espoused a pan-Islamic ideology. Yet the Young Turks who seized government in 1908 imposed parliamentary rule by fiat, and troubles in the Balkans and Libya gave their administration a military focus, which caused the empire to unwisely join the Axis powers and so suffer defeat in W.W.I. {6-11}

It was Mustafa Kemal (1881-1938), later called Ataturk, who wholly secularised the Ottoman state. He defeated the Greeks who had occupied Rumelia and western Anatolia in 1922, and made peace with the Allies the following year. The sultanate was abolished in 1921, and the caliphate in 1922. The last heir of Osman was put on the Orient Express and bundled off to Paris. Islam became a private affair, a matter of individual conscience, and the Shariah was no longer the basis of law. Turkey is now a regional power, with an economy that grew 5% p.a. between 2002 and 2012. Nonetheless, the modernization has been carried out by a westernised elite with mixed support in the countryside, and Turkey still faces threats from those actions: capital flight, Kurdish and Islamic insurgency, and blowback from US Middle East policies. {12-15}

References and Further Reading

Need the 15 references and 2 illustration sources? Please consider the inexpensive ebook.