In or about the year 570 the child who would be named Muhammad and
who would become the Prophet of one of the world's great religions,
Islam, was born into a family belonging to a clan of Quraysh, the ruling
tribe of Mecca, a city in the Hijaz region of northwestern Arabia.
Originally the site of the Ka'bah, a shrine of ancient origins, Mecca
had with the decline of southern Arabia (see Chapter l ) become an
important center of sixth-century trade with such powers as the
Sassanians, Byzantines, and Ethiopians. As a result the city was
dominated by powerful merchant families among whom the men of Quraysh
Muhammad's father, 'Abd Allah ibn'Abd al-Muttalib, died before the
boy was born; his mother, Aminah, died when he was six. The orphan was
consigned to the care of his grandfather, the head of the clan of
Hashim. After the death of his grandfather, Muhammad was raised by his
uncle, Abu Talib. As was customary, Muhammad as a child was sent to live
for a year or two with a Bedouin family. This custom, followed until
recently by noble families of Mecca, Medina, Tayif, and other towns of
the Hijaz, had important implications for Muhammad. In addition to
enduring the hardships of desert life, he acquired a taste for the rich
language so loved by the Arabs, whose speech was their proudest art, and
learned the patience and forbearance of the herdsmen, whose life of
solitude he first shared and then came to understand and appreciate.
About the year 590, Muhammad, then in his twenties, entered the
service of a widow named Khadijah as a merchant actively engaged with
trading caravans to the north. Sometime later Muhammad married Khadijah,
by whom he had two sons - who did not survive - and four daughters.
During this period of his life Muhammad traveled widely. Then, in his
forties he began to retire to meditate in a cave on Mount Hira outside
of Mecca, where the first of the great events of Islam took place. One
day, as he sat in the cave, he heard a voice, later identified as that
of the Angel Gabriel, which ordered him to:
Recite: In the name of thy Lord who created, Created man from a clot of blood.
Three times Muhammad pleaded his inability to do so, but each time
the command was repeated. Finally, Muhammad recited the words of what
are now the first five verses of the 96th surah or chapter of the Quran -
words which proclaim God the Creator of man and the Source of all
At first Muhammad divulged his experience only to his wife and his
immediate circle. But as more revelations enjoined him to proclaim the
oneness of God universally, his following grew, at first among the poor
and the slaves, but later also among the most prominent men of Mecca.
The revelations he received at this time and those he did so later are
all incorporated in the Quran, the Scripture of Islam.
Photo: The sun rises over
Jabal al-Rahmah, the Mount of Mercy, where Muhammad in his farewell
sermon told the assembled Muslims, "I have delivered God's message to
you and left you with a clear command: the Book of God and the practice
of His Prophet. If you hold fast to this you will never go astray."
Not everyone accepted God's message transmitted through Muhammad.
Even in his own clan there were those who rejected his teachings, and
many merchants actively opposed the message. The opposition, however,
merely served to sharpen Muhammad's sense of mission and his
understanding of exactly how Islam differed from paganism. The belief in
the unity of God was paramount in Islam; from this all else followed.
The verses of the Quran stress God's uniqueness, warn those who deny it
of impending punishment, and proclaim His unbounded compassion to those
who submit to His will. They affirm the Last Judgment, when God, the
Judge, will weigh in the balance the faith and works of each man,
rewarding the faithful and punishing the transgressor. Because the Quran
rejected polytheism and emphasized man's moral responsibility, in
powerful images, it presented a grave challenge to the worldly Meccans.
After Muhammad had preached publicly for more than a decade, the
opposition to him reached such a high pitch that, fearful for their
safety, he sent some of his adherents to Ethiopia, where the Christian
ruler extended protection to them, the memory of which has been
cherished by Muslims ever since. But in Mecca the persecution worsened.
Muhammad's followers were harassed, abused, and even tortured. At last,
therefore, Muhammad sent seventy of his followers off to the northern
town of Yathrib, which was later to be renamed Medina ("The City").
Later, in the early fall of 622, he learned of a plot to murder him and,
with his closest friend, Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, set off to join the
In Mecca the plotters arrived at Muhammad's home to find that his
cousin, 'Ali, had taken his place in bed. Enraged, the Meccans set a
price on Muhammad's head and set off in pursuit. Muhammad and Abu Bakr,
however, had taken refuge in a cave where, as they hid from their
pursuers, a spider spun its web across the cave's mouth. When they saw
that the web was unbroken, the Meccans passed by and Muhammad and Abu
Bakr went on to Medina, where they were joyously welcomed by a throng of
Medinans as well as the Meccans who had gone ahead to prepare the way.
This was the Hijrah - anglicized as Hegira - usually, but
inaccurately, translated as "Flight" - from which the Muslim era is
dated. In fact, the Hijrah was not a flight but a carefully planned
migration which marks not only a break in history - the beginning of the
Islamic era- but also, for Muhammad and the Muslims, a new way of life.
Henceforth, the organizational principle of the community was not to be
mere blood kinship, but the greater brotherhood of all Muslims. The men
who accompanied Muhammad on the Hijrah were called the Muhajirun -
"those that made the Hijrah" or the "Emigrants" - while those in Medina
who became Muslims were called the Ansar or "Helpers."
Muhammad was well acquainted with the situation in Medina. Earlier,
before the Hijrah, the city had sent envoys to Mecca asking Muhammad to
mediate a dispute between two powerful tribes. What the envoys saw and
heard had impressed them and they had invited Muhammad to settle in
Medina. After the Hijrah, Muhammad's exceptional qualities so impressed
the Medinans that the rival tribes and their allies temporarily closed
ranks as, on March 15, 624, Muhammad and his supporters moved against
the pagans of Mecca.
Photo: A colonnade of
lofty arches surrounds the courtyard at the Prophet's Mosque in Medina,
after Mecca the second holiest city of Islam.
The first battle, which took place near Badr, now a small town
southwest of Medina, had several important effects. In the first place,
the Muslim forces, outnumbered three to one, routed the Meccans.
Secondly, the discipline displayed by the Muslims brought home to the
Meccans, perhaps for the first time, the abilities of the man they had
driven from their city. Thirdly, one of the allied tribes which had
pledged support to the Muslims in the Battle of Badr, but had then
proved lukewarm when the fighting started, was expelled from Medina one
month after the battle. Those who claimed to be allies of the Muslims,
but tacitly opposed them, were thus served warning: membership in the
community imposed the obligation of total support.
A year later the Meccans struck back. Assembling an army of three
thousand men, they met the Muslims at Uhud, a ridge outside Medina.
After an initial success the Muslims were driven back and the Prophet
himself was wounded. As the Muslims were not completely defeated, the
Meccans, with an army of ten thousand, attacked Medina again two years
later but with quite different results. At the Battle of the Trench,
also known as the Battle of the Confederates, the Muslims scored a
signal victory by introducing a new defense. On the side of Medina from
which attack was expected they dug a trench too deep for the Meccan
cavalry to clear without exposing itself to the archers posted behind
earthworks on the Medina side. After an inconclusive siege, the Meccans
were forced to retire. Thereafter Medina was entirely in the hands of
The Constitution of Medina - under which the clans accepting Muhammad
as the Prophet of God formed an alliance, or federation - dates from
this period. It showed that the political consciousness of the Muslim
community had reached an important point; its members defined themselves
as a community separate from all others. The Constitution also defined
the role of non-Muslims in the community. Jews, for example, were part
of the community; they were dhimmis, that is, protected people, as long
as they conformed to its laws. This established a precedent for the
treatment of subject peoples during the later conquests. Christians and
Jews, upon payment of a yearly tax, were allowed religious freedom and,
while maintaining their status as non-Muslims, were associate members of
the Muslim state. This status did not apply to polytheists, who could
not be tolerated within a community that worshipped the One God.
Photo: The Ka'bah, spiritual axis of the Muslim world, stands in the courtyard of Mecca's Sacred Mosque.
Ibn Ishaq, one of the earliest biographers of the Prophet, says it
was at about this time that Muhammad sent letters to the rulers of the
earth - the King of Persia, the Emperor of Byzantium, the Negus of
Abyssinia, and the Governor of Egypt among others - inviting them to
submit to Islam. Nothing more fully illustrates the confidence of the
small community, as its military power, despite the battle of the
Trench, was still negligible. But its confidence was not misplaced.
Muhammad so effectively built up a series of alliances among the tribes
his early years with the Bedouins must have stood him in good stead
here- that by 628 he and fifteen hundred followers were able to demand
access to the Ka'bah during negotiations with the Meccans. This was a
milestone in the history of the Muslims. Just a short time before,
Muhammad had to leave the city of his birth in fear of his life. Now he
was being treated by his former enemies as a leader in his own right. A
year later, in 629, he reentered and, in effect, conquered Mecca without
bloodshed and in a spirit of tolerance which established an ideal for
future conquests. He also destroyed the idols in the Ka'bah, to put an
end forever to pagan practices there. At the same time Muhammad won the
allegiance of 'Amr ibn al-'As, the future conqueror of Egypt, and Khalid
ibn al-Walid, the future "Sword of God," both of whom embraced Islam
and joined Muhammad. Their conversion was especially noteworthy because
these men had been among Muhammad's bitterest opponents only a short
In one sense Muhammad's return to Mecca was the climax of his
mission. In 632, just three years later, he was suddenly taken ill and
on June 8 of that year, with his third wife 'Aishah in attendance, the
Messenger of God "died with the heat of noon."
Photo: Devout Muslims from
all over the world gather for the pilgrimage to Mecca, for nearly
fourteen centuries one of the most impressive religious gatherings in
The death of Muhammad was a profound loss. To his followers this
simple man from Mecca was far more than a beloved friend, far more than a
gifted administrator, far more than the revered leader who had forged a
new state from clusters of warring tribes. Muhammad was also the
exemplar of the teachings he had brought them from God: the teachings of
the Quran, which, for centuries, have guided the thought and action,
the faith and conduct, of innumerable men and women, and which ushered
in a distinctive era in the history of mankind. His death, nevertheless,
had little effect on the dynamic society he had created in Arabia, and
no effect at all on his central mission: to transmit the Quran to the
world. As Abu Bakr put it: "Whoever worshipped Muhammad, let him know
that Muhammad is dead, but whoever worshipped God, let him know that God
lives and dies not."
THE RIGHTLY GUIDED CALIPHS
With the death of Muhammad, the Muslim community was faced with the
problem of succession. Who would be its leader? There were four persons
obviously marked for leadership: Abu Bakr al-Siddiq, who had not only
accompanied Muhammad to Medina ten years before, but had been appointed
to take the place of the Prophet as leader of public prayer during
Muhammad's last illness; 'Umar ibn al-Khattab, an able and trusted
Companion of the Prophet; 'Uthman ibn 'Affan, a respected early convert;
and 'Ali ibn Abi Talib, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law. To avoid
contention among various groups, 'Umar suddenly grasped Abu Bakr's hand,
the traditional sign of recognition of a new leader. Soon everyone
concurred and before dusk Abu Bakr had been recognized as the khalifah
of Muhammad. Khalifah- anglicized as caliph - is a word meaning
"successor" but also suggesting what his historical role would be: to
govern according to the Quran and the practice of the Prophet.
Abu Bakr's caliphate was short but important. An exemplary leader, he
lived simply, assiduously fulfilled his religious obligations, and was
accessible and sympathetic to his people. But he also stood firm when,
in the wake of the Prophet's death, some tribes renounced Islam; in what
was a major accomplishment, Abu Bakr swiftly disciplined them. Later,
he consolidated the support of the tribes within the Arabian Peninsula
and subsequently funnelled their energies against the powerful empires
of the East: the Sassanians in Persia and the Byzantines in Syria,
Palestine, and Egypt. In short, he demonstrated the viability of the
The second caliph, 'Umar- appointed by Abu Bakr in a written
testament - continued to demonstrate that viability. Adopting the title
Amir al-Muminin, "Commander of the Believers," 'Umar extended Islam's
temporal rule over Syria, Egypt, Iraq, and Persia in what from a purely
military standpoint were astonishing victories. Within four years after
the death of the Prophet the Muslim state had extended its sway over all
of Syria and had, at a famous battle fought during a sandstorm near the
River Yarmuk, blunted the power of the Byzantines - whose ruler
Heraclius had shortly before disdainfully rejected the letter from the
unknown Prophet of Arabia.
Even more astonishingly, the Muslim state administered the conquered
territories with a tolerance almost unheard of in that age. At Damascus,
for example, the Muslim leader Khalid ibn al-Walid signed a treaty
which read as follows:
This is what Khalid ibn al-Walid would grant to the inhabitants of
Damascus if he enters therein: he promises to give them security for
their lives, property and churches. Their city wall shall not be
demolished, neither shall any Muslim be quartered in their houses.
Thereunto we give them the pact of Allah and the protection of His
Prophet, the caliphs and the believers. So long as they pay the poll
tax, nothing but good shall befall them.
This tolerance was typical of Islam. A year after Yarmuk, 'Umar, in
the military camp of al-Jabiyah on the Golan Heights, received word that
the Byzantines were ready to surrender Jerusalem and rode there to
accept the surrender in person. According to one account, he entered the
city alone and clad in a simple cloak, astounding a populace accustomed
to the sumptuous garb and court ceremonials of the Byzantines and
Persians. He astounded them still further when he set their fears at
rest by negotiating a generous treaty in which he told them:
In the name of God ... you have complete security for your churches which shall not be occupied by the Muslims or destroyed.
This policy was to prove successful everywhere. In Syria, for
example, many Christians who had been involved in bitter theological
disputes with Byzantine authorities- and persecuted for it- welcomed the
coming of Islam as an end to tyranny. And in Egypt, which 'Amr ibn
al-'As took from the Byzantines after a daring march across the Sinai
Peninsula, the Coptic Christians not only welcomed the Arabs, but
enthusiastically assisted them.
This pattern was repeated throughout the Byzantine Empire. Conflict
among Greek Orthodox, Syrian Monophysites, Copts, and Nestorian
Christians contributed to the failure of the Byzantines - always
regarded as intruders - to develop popular support, while the tolerance
which Muslims showed toward Christians and Jews removed the primary
cause for opposing them.
'Umar adopted this attitude in administrative matters as well.
Although he assigned Muslim governors to the new provinces, existing
Byzantine and Persian administrations were retained wherever possible.
For fifty years, in fact, Greek remained the chancery language of Syria,
Egypt, and Palestine, while Pahlavi, the chancery language of the
Sassanians, continued to be used in Mesopotamia and Persia.
'Umar, who served as caliph for ten years, ended his rule with a
significant victory over the Persian Empire. The struggle with the
Sassanid realm had opened in 687 at al-Qadisiyah, near Ctesiphon in
Iraq, where Muslim cavalry had successfully coped with elephants used by
the Persians as a kind of primitive tank. Now with the Battle of
Nihavand, called the "Conquest of Conquests," 'Umar sealed the fate of
Persia; henceforth it was to be one of the most important provinces in
the Muslim Empire.
His caliphate was a high point in early Islamic history. He was noted
for his justice, social ideals, administration, and statesmanship. His
innovations left all enduring imprint on social welfare, taxation, and
the financial and administrative fabric of the growing empire.
After the death of 'Umar an advisory council composed of Companions
of the Prophet selected as the third caliph 'Uthman, during whose rule
the first serious strains on Islamic unity would appear. 'Uthman
achieved much during his reign. He pushed forward with the pacification
of Persia, continued to defend the Muslim state against the Byzantines,
added what is now Libya to the empire, and subjugated most of Armenia.
'Uthman also, through his cousin Mu'awiyah ibn Abi Sufyan, the governor
of Syria, established an Arab navy which fought a series of important
engagements with the Byzantines.
Of much greater importance to Islam, however, was 'Uthman's
compilation of the text of the Quran as revealed to the Prophet.
Realizing that the original message from God might be inadvertently
distorted by textual variants, he appointed a committee to collect the
canonical verses and destroy the variant recensions. The result was the
text that is accepted to this day throughout the Muslim world.
Photo: This eighth century manuscript from Mecca or Medina is one of the two oldest known existing copies of the Quran.
These successes, however, were qualified by serious administrative
weaknesses. 'Uthman was accused of favoritism to members of his family -
the clan of Umayyah. Negotiations over such grievances were opened by
representatives from Egypt but soon collapsed and 'Uthman was killed -
an act that caused a rift in the community of Islam that has never
entirely been closed.
This rift widened almost as soon as 'Ali, cousin and son-in-law of
the Prophet, was chosen to be the fourth caliph. At issue, essentially,
was the legitimacy of 'Ali's caliphate. 'Uthman's relatives - in
particular Mu'awiyah, the powerful governor of Syria, where 'Ali's
election had not been recognized - believed 'Ali's caliphate was invalid
because his election had been supported by those responsible for
'Uthman's unavenged death. The conflict came to a climax in 657 at
Siffin, near the Euphrates, and eventually resulted in a major division
between the Sunnis or Sunnites and the Shi'is (also called Shi'ites or
Shi'ah), the "Partisans" of 'Ali- a division that was to color the
subsequent history of Islam.
Actually the Sunnis and the Shi'is are agreed upon almost all the
essentials of Islam. Both believe in the Quran and the Prophet, both
follow the same principles of religion and both observe the same
rituals. However, there is one prominent difference, which is
essentially political rather than religious, and concerns the choice of
the caliph or successor of Muhammad.
The majority of Muslims support the elective principle which led to
the choice of Abu Bakr as the first caliph. This group is known as ahl
alsunnah wa-l-jama'ah, "the people of custom and community," or Sunnis,
who consider the caliph to be Muhammad's successor only in his capacity
as ruler of the community. The main body of the Shi'is, on the other
hand, believes that the caliphate - which they call the imamate or
"leadership" - is nonelective. The caliphate, they say, must remain
within the family of the Prophet - with 'Ali the first valid caliph. And
while Sunnis consider the caliph a guardian of the shari'ah, the
religious law, the Shi'is see the imam as a trustee inheriting and
interpreting the Prophet's spiritual knowledge.
After the battle of Siffin, 'Ali - whose chief strength was in Iraq,
with his capital at Kufa - began to lose the support of many of his more
uncompromising followers and in 661 he was murdered by a former
supporter. His son Hasan was proclaimed caliph at Kufa but soon
afterward deferred to Muiawiyah, who had already been proclaimed caliph
in Jerusalem in the previous year and who now was recognized and
accepted as caliph in all the Muslim territories - thus inaugurating the
Umayyad dynasty which would rule for the next ninety years.
The division between the Sunnis and the Shi'is continued to develop
in 680 when Ali's son Husayn along with his followers was brutally
killed at Karbala in Iraq by the forces of the Umayyad ruler Yazid. His
death is still commemorated every year during the Islamic month of
The shift in power to Damascus, the Umayyad capital city, was to have
profound effects on the development of Islamic history. For one thing,
it was a tacit recognition of the end of an era. The first four caliphs
had been without exception Companions of the Prophet - pious, sincere
men who had lived no differently from their neighbors and who preserved
the simple habits of their ancestors despite the massive influx of
wealth from the conquered territories. Even 'Uthman, whose policies had
such a divisive effect, was essentially dedicated more to the concerns
of the next world than of this. With the shift to Damascus much was
In the early days of Islam, the extension of Islamic rule had been
based on an uncomplicated desire to spread the Word of God. Although the
Muslims used force when they met resistance they did not compel their
enemies to accept Islam. On the contrary, the Muslims permitted
Christians and Jews to practice their own faith and numerous conversions
to Islam were the result of exposure to a faith that was simple and
Photo: Medieval Muslims regarded the Great Mosque built by the Umayyads in Damascus as one of the wonders of the world.
With the advent of the Umayyads, how ever, secular concerns and the
problems inherent in the administration of what, by then, was a large
empire began to dominate the attention of the caliphs, often at the
expense of religious concerns - a development that disturbed many devout
Muslims. This is not to say that religious values were ignored; on the
contrary, they grew in strength for centuries. But they were not always
at the forefront and from the time of Mu'awiyah the caliph's role as
"Defender of the Faith" increasingly required him to devote attention to
the purely secular concerns which dominate so much of every nation's
Muiawiyah was an able administrator, and even his critics concede
that he possessed to a high degree the much-valued quality of hilm - a
quality which may be defined as "civilized restraint" and which he
himself once described in these words:
I apply not my sword where my lash suffices, nor my lash where my
tongue is enough. And even if there be one hair binding me to my
fellowmen, I do not let it break: when they pull I loosen, and if they
loosen I pull.
Nevertheless, Mu'awiyah was never able to reconcile the opposition to
his rule nor solve the conflict with the Shi'is. These problems were
not unmanageable while Mu'awiyah was alive, but after he died in 680 the
partisans of 'Ali resumed a complicated but persistent struggle that
plagued the Umayyads at home for most of the next seventy years and in
time spread into North Africa and Spain.
Photo: Facing al-Gharbiyah, the western minaret, a muezzin at the Umayyad Mosque calls believers to prayer.
The Umayyads, however, did manage to achieve a degree of stability,
particularly after 'Abd al-Malik ibn Marwan succeeded to the caliphate
in 685. Like the Umayyads who preceded him, 'Abd al-Malik was forced to
devote a substantial part of his reign to political problems. But he
also introduced much needed reforms. He directed the cleaning and
reopening of the canals that irrigated the Tigris-Euphrates Valley - a
key to the prosperity of Mesopotamia since the time of the Sumerians -
introduced the use of the Indian water buffalo in the riverine marshes,
and minted a standard coinage which replaced the Byzantine and Sassanid
coins, until then the sole currencies in circulation. 'Abd al-Malik's
organization of government agencies was also important; it established a
model for the later elaborate bureaucracies of the 'Abbasids and their
successor states. There were specific agencies charged with keeping pay
records; others concerned themselves with the collection of taxes. 'Abd
al-Malik established a system of postal routes to expedite his
communications throughout the far flung empire. Most important of all,
he introduced Arabic as the language of administration, replacing Greek
Under 'Abd al-Malik, the Umayyads expanded Islamic power still
further. To the east they extended their influence into Transoxania, an
area north of the Oxus River in today's Soviet Union, and went on to
reach the borders of China. To the west, they took North Africa, in a
continuation of the campaign led by 'Uqbah ibn Nafi' who founded the
city of Kairouan - in what is now Tunisia - and from there rode all the
way to the shores of the Atlantic Ocean.
These territorial acquisitions brought the Arabs into contact with
previously unknown ethnic groups who embraced Islam and would later
influence the course of Islamic history. The Berbers of North Africa,
for example, who resisted Arab rule but willingly embraced Islam, later
joined Musa ibn Nusayr and his general, Tariq ibn Ziyad, when they
crossed the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain. The Berbers later also
launched reform movements in North Africa which greatly influenced the
Islamic civilization. In the East, Umayyad rule in Transoxania brought
the Arabs into contact with the Turks who, like the Berbers, embraced
Islam and, in the course of time, became its staunch defenders. Umayyad
expansion also reached the ancient civilization of India, whose
literature and science greatly enriched Islamic culture.
Photo: The minaret of the Great Mosque at Kairouan in Tunisia became the prototype for the majority of North African minarets.
In Europe, meanwhile, the Arabs had passed into Spain, defeated the
Visigoths, and by 713 had reached Narbonne in France. In the next
decades, raiding parties continually made forays into France and in 732
reached as far as the Loire Valley, only 170 miles from Paris. There, at
the Battle of Tours, or Poitiers, the Arabs were finally turned back by
One of the Umayyad caliphs who attained greatness was 'Umar ibn 'Abd
al-'Aziz, a man very different from his predecessors. Although a member
of the Umayyad family, 'Umar had been born and raised in Medina, where
his early contact with devout men had given him a concern for spiritual
as well as political values. The criticisms that religious men in Medina
and elsewhere had voiced of Umayyad policy - particularly the pursuit
of worldly goals - were not lost on 'Umar who, reversing the policy of
his predecessors, discontinued the levy of a poll tax on converts.
This move reduced state income substantially, but as there was clear
precedent in the practice of the great 'Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second
caliph, and as 'Umar ibn 'Abd al-'Aziz was determined to bring
government policy more in line with the practice of the Prophet, even
enemies of his regime had nothing but praise for this pious man.
The last great Umayyad caliph was Hisham, the fourth son of 'Abd
al-Malik to succeed to the caliphate. His reign was long - from 724 to
743 - and during it the Arab empire reached its greatest extent. But
neither he nor the four caliphs who succeeded him were the statesmen the
times demanded when, in 747, revolutionaries in Khorasan unfurled the
black flag of rebellion that would bring the Umayyad Dynasty to an end.
Although the Umayyads favored their own region of Syria, their rule
was not without accomplishments. Some of the most beautiful existing
buildings in the Muslim world were constructed at their instigation -
buildings such as the Umayyad Mosque in Damascus, the Dome of the Rock
in Jerusalem, and the lovely country palaces in the deserts of Syria,
Jordan, and Iraq. They also organized a bureaucracy able to cope with
the complex problems of a vast and diverse empire, and made Arabic the
language of government. The Umayyads, furthermore, encouraged such
writers as 'Abd Allah ibn al-Muqaffa' and 'Abd al-Hamid ibn Yahya
al-Katib, whose clear, expository Arabic prose has rarely been
Photo: The shrine of the
Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, built in an area revered by Muslims,
Christians and Jews alike covers the rock from which Muhammad is
believed to have ascended to heaven with the Angel Gabriel.
For all that, the Umayyads, during the ninety years of their
leadership, rarely shook off their empire's reputation as a mulk - that
is, a worldly kingdom - and in the last years of the dynasty their
opponents formed a secret organization devoted to pressing the claims to
the caliphate put forward by a descendant of al-'Abbas ibn 'Abd
al-Muttalib, an uncle of the Prophet. By skillful preparation, this
organization rallied to its cause many mutually hostile groups in
Khorasan and Iraq and proclaimed Abu al-'Abbas caliph. Marwan ibn
Muhammad, the last Umayyad caliph, was defeated and the Syrians, still
loyal to the Umayyads, were put to rout. Only one man of importance
escaped the disaster - 'Abd al-Rahman ibn Mu'awiyah al-Dakhil, a young
prince who with a loyal servant fled to Spain and in 756 set up an
Umayyad Dynasty there.
ISLAM IN SPAIN
By the time 'Abd al-Rahman reached Spain, the Arabs from North Africa
were already entrenched on the Iberian Peninsula and had begun to write
one of the most glorious chapters in Islamic history.
After their forays into France were blunted by Charles Martel, the
Muslims in Spain had begun to focus their whole attention on what they
called al-Andalus, southern Spain (Andalusia), and to build there a
civilization far superior to anything Spain had ever known. Reigning
with wisdom and justice, they treated Christians and Jews with
tolerance, with the result that many embraced Islam. They also improved
trade and agriculture, patronized the arts, made valuable contributions
to science, and established Cordoba as the most sophisticated city in
By the tenth century, Cordoba could boast of a population of some
500,000, compared to about 38,000 in Paris. According to the chronicles
of the day, the city had 700 mosques, some 60,000 palaces, and 70
libraries - one reportedly housing 500,000 manuscripts and employing a
staff of researchers, illuminators, and book binders. Cordoba also had
some 900 public baths, Europe's first street lights and, five miles
outside the city, the caliphal residence, Madinat al-Zahra. A complex of
marble, stucco, ivory, and onyx, Madinat al-Zahra took forty years to
build, cost close to one-third of Cordoba's revenue, and was, until
destroyed in the eleventh century, one of the wonders of the age. Its
restoration, begun in the early years of this century, is still under
Photo: A forest of eight hundred and fifty pillars connected by Moorish arches lines the great mosque of Cordoba.
By the eleventh century, however, a small pocket of Christian
resistance had begun to grow, and under Alfonso VI Christian forces
retook Toledo. It was the beginning of the period the Christians called
the Reconquest, and it underlined a serious problem that marred this
refined, graceful, and charming era: the inability of the numerous
rulers of Islamic Spain to maintain their unity. This so weakened them
that when the various Christian kingdoms began to pose a serious threat,
the Muslim rulers in Spain had to ask the Almoravids, a North African
Berber dynasty, to come to their aid. The Almoravids came and crushed
the Christian uprising, but eventually seized control themselves. In
1147, the Almoravids were in turn defeated by another coalition of
Berber tribes, the Almohads.
Although such internal conflict was by no means uncommon- the
Christian kingdoms also warred incessantly among themselves- it did
divert Muslim strength at a time when the Christians were beginning to
negotiate strong alliances, form powerful armies, and launch the
campaigns that would later bring an end to Arab rule.
The Arabs did not surrender easily; al-Andalus was their land too.
But, bit by bit, they had to retreat, first from northern Spain, then
from central Spain. By the thirteenth century their once extensive
domains were reduced to a few scattered kingdoms deep in the mountains
of Andalusia - where, for some two hundred years longer, they would not
only survive but flourish.
It is both odd and poignant that it was then, in the last two
centuries of their rule, that the Arabs created that extravagantly
lovely kingdom for which they are most famous: Granada. It seems as if,
in their slow retreat to the south, they suddenly realized that they
were, as Washington Irving wrote, a people without a country, and set
about building a memorial: the Alhambra, the citadel above Granada that
one writer has called "the glory and the wonder of the civilized world."
The Alhambra was begun in 1238 by Muhammad ibn al-Ahmar who, to buy
safety for his people when King Ferdinand of Aragon laid siege to
Granada, once rode to Ferdinand's tent and humbly offered to become the
king's vassal in return for peace.
Photo: Pool in the Patio de los Arrayanes reflects the grandeur of the incomparable Alhambra.
It was a necessary move, but also difficult - particularly when
Ferdinand called on him to implement the agreement by providing troops
to help the Christians against Muslims in the siege of Seville in 1248.
True to his pledge, Ibn al-Ahmar complied and Seville fell to the
Christians. But returning to Granada, where cheering crowds hailed him
as a victor, he disclosed his turmoil in that short, sad reply that he
inscribed over and over on the walls of the Alhambra: "There is no
victor but God."
Over the years, what started as a fortress slowly evolved under Ibn
al-Ahmar's successors into a remarkable series of delicately lovely
buildings, quiet courtyards, limpid pools, and hidden gardens. Later,
after Ibn al-Ahmar's death, Granada itself was rebuilt and became, as
one Arab visitor wrote, "as a silver vase filled with emeralds."
Meanwhile, outside Granada, the Christian kings waited. In relentless
succession they had retaken Toledo, Cordoba, and Seville. Only Granada
survived. Then, in 1482, in a trivial quarrel, the Muslim kingdom split
into two hostile factions and, simultaneously, two strong Christian
sovereigns, Ferdinand and Isabella, married and merged their kingdoms.
As a result, Granada fell ten years later. On January 2, 1492 - the year
they sent Columbus to America - Ferdinand and Isabella hoisted the
banner of Christian Spain above the Alhambra and Boabdil, the last
Muslim king, rode weeping into exile with the bitter envoi from his aged
mother, "Weep like a woman for the city you would not defend like a
Photo: A Moorish-built tower soars above Guadalquivir River in Seville.
In describing the fate of Islam in Spain, Irving suggested that the
Muslims were then swiftly and thoroughly wiped out. Never, he wrote, was
the annihilation of a people more complete. In fact, by emigration to
North Africa and elsewhere, many Muslims carried remnants of the Spanish
era with them and were thus able to make important contributions to the
material and cultural life of their adopted lands.
Much of the emigration, however, came later. At first, most Muslims
simply stayed in Spain; cut off from their original roots by time and
distance they quite simply had no other place to go. Until the
Inquisition, furthermore, conditions in Spain were not intolerable. The
Christians permitted Muslims to work, serve in the army, own land, and
even practice their religion - all concessions to the importance of
Muslims in Spain's still prosperous economy. But then, in the period of
the Inquisition, all the rights of the Muslims were withdrawn, their
lives became difficult, and more began to emigrate. Finally, in the
early seventeenth century, most of the survivors were forcibly expelled.
In the Middle East, during these centuries, the 'Abbasids, after
their victory over the Umayyads, had transformed the Umayyads' Arab
empire into a multinational Muslim empire. They moved the capital of the
empire from Syria to Iraq, where they built a new capital, Baghdad,
from which, during the next five centuries, they would influence many of
the main events of Islamic history.
In the early period of 'Abbasid rule, al-Mansur, the second caliph of
the dynasty, continued the reorganization of the administration of the
empire along the lines that had been laid down by his Umayyad
predecessor, 'Abd al-Malik. Much of the 'Abbasid administration, for
example, was left in the hands of well-educated Persian civil servants,
many of whom came from families that had traditionally served the
Sassanid kings. The important office of wazir or vizier, chief
counselor, may well have developed from Sassanid models. The vizier was
much more than an advisor; indeed, when the caliph was weak, a capable
vizier became the most powerful man in the empire.
Photo: Astride the Tigris,
present day Baghdad stands in the vicinity of the 'Abbasid capital, a
fabulous city of mosques, mansions and libraries.
The creation of the office of the vizier was only one of the
innovations the 'Abbasids brought to statecraft. Another was the
development of the Umayyad postal system into an efficient intelligence
service; postmasters in outlying provinces were the eyes and ears of the
government and regular reports were filed with the central government
on everything from the state of the harvest to the doings of dissident
sects. Under the 'Abbasids too a whole literature was created for the
use and training of the clerical classes that had come into being. Since
all government business was by now transacted in Arabic, manuals of
correct usage were written for the instruction of non-Arabic speakers
who had found government employment. There was also a vast literature on
the correct deportment of princes, as well as anthologies of witty
sayings and anecdotes with which to enliven one's epistolary style.
Photo: The Great Mosque of
the Umayyads in Damascus dates from the early eighth century and
numerous works of rebuilding have not changed its fundamental character.
In some ways the 'Abbasids were more fortunate than the Umayyads.
When, for example, al-Mansur died in 775 after a reign of twenty years,
his son, al-Mahdi, inherited a full treasury and an empire that was more
devoted to trade than war.
The developments in trade, indeed, are among the achievements of the
'Abbasids that are too often overlooked. Because Islamic rule unified
much of the Eastern world, thus abolishing many boundaries, trade was
freer, safer, and more extensive than it had been since the time of
Alexander the Great. Muslim traders, consequently, established trading
posts as far away as India, the Philippines, Malaya, the East Indies,
Photo: Golden domes and gold topped minarets highlight the mosque of al-Kazimayn in Baghdad, built in the early sixteenth century.
From the eighth to the eleventh centuries this trade was largely
concerned with finding and importing basic necessities- grain, metals,
and wood. To obtain them, of course, the Muslims had to export too,
often using the imports from one region as exports to another: pearls
from the Gulf, livestock from the Arabian Peninsula (particularly
Arabian horses and camels), and - one of the chief products - cloth. The
Muslims also traded medicines, an offshoot of 'Abbasid advances in
medical science, as well as paper and sugar.
Photo: The mosque of Bibi Khanum named for Tamerlane's favorite wife, was once the most imposing building of Samarkand.
This expansion of commercial activity led to other developments too.
One was a system of banking and exchange so sophisticated that a letter
of credit issued in Baghdad could be honored in Samarkand in Central
Asia or Kairouan in North Africa. The demands on trade also generated
development of crafts. From Baghdad's large urban population, for
example, came craftsmen of every conceivable sort: metalworkers,
leatherworkers, bookbinders, papermakers, jewelers, weavers, druggists,
bakers, and many more. As they grew in importance to the economy these
craftsmen eventually organized themselves into mutual-benefit societies
which in some ways were similar to later Western guilds and which
offered many social services: lodging travelers, engaging in pious works
such as caring for orphans, and endowing schools. Because of this
growth in commerce the 'Abbasids also developed a system by which a
muhtasib, an inspector made sure that proper weights and measures were
given and that dishonest practices of all sorts were avoided.
THE GOLDEN AGE
The early 'Abbasids were also fortunate in the caliber of their
caliphs, especially after Harun al-Rashid came to the caliphate in 786.
His reign is now the most famous in the annals of the 'Abbasids - partly
because of the fictional role given him in The Thousand and One Nights
(portions of which probably date from his reign), but also because his
reign and those of his immediate successors marked the high point of the
'Abbasid period. As the Arab chronicles put it, Harun al-Rashid ruled
when the world was young, a felicitous description of what in later
times has come to be called the Golden Age of Islam.
The Golden Age was a period of unrivaled intellectual activity in all
fields: science, technology, and (as a result of intensive study of the
Islamic faith) literature - particularly biography, history, and
linguistics. Scholars, for example, in collecting and reexamining the
hadith, or "traditions" - the sayings and actions of the Prophet -
compiled immense biographical detail about the Prophet and other
information, historic and linguistic, about the Prophet's era. This led
to such memorable works as Sirat Rasul Allah, the "Life of the Messenger
of God," by Ibn Ishaq, later revised by Ibn Hisham; one of the earliest
Arabic historical works, it was a key source of information about the
Prophet's life and also a model for other important works of history
such as al-Tabari's Annals of the Apostles and the Kings and his massive
commentary on the Quran.
miniature depicts students with a teacher of astronomy - one of the
sciences to which scholars of the Golden Age made great contributions.
'Abbasid writers also developed new a genres of literature such as
adab, the embodiment of sensible counsel, sometimes in the form of
animal fables; a typical example is Kalilah wa-Dimnah, translated by Ibn
al-Muqaffa' from a Pahlavi version of an Indian work. Writers of this
period also studied tribal traditions and wrote the first systematic
During the Golden Age Muslim scholars also made important and
original contributions to mathematics, astronomy, medicine, and
chemistry. They collected and corrected previous astronomical data,
built the world's first observatory, and developed the astrolabe, an
instrument that was once called "a mathematical jewel." In medicine they
experimented with diet, drugs, surgery, and anatomy, and in chemistry,
an outgrowth of alchemy, isolated and studied a wide variety of minerals
Important advances in agriculture were also made in the Golden Age.
The 'Abbasids preserved and improved the ancient network of wells,
underground canals, and waterwheels, introduced new breeds of livestock,
hastened the spread of cotton, and, from the Chinese, learned the art
of making paper, a key to the revival of learning in Europe in the
The Golden Age also, little by little, transformed the diet of
medieval Europe by introducing such plants as plums, artichokes,
apricots, cauliflower, celery, fennel, squash, pumpkins, and eggplant,
as well as rice, sorghum, new strains of wheat, the date palm, and
scientists developed the astrolabe, an instrument used long before the
invention of the sextant to observe the position of celestial bodies.
Many of the advances in science, literature, and trade which took
place during the Golden Age of the 'Abbasids and which would provide the
impetus for the European Renaissance reached their flowering during the
caliphate of al-Mamun, son of Harun al-Rashid and perhaps the greatest
of all the 'Abbasids. But politically the signs of decay were already
becoming evident. The province of Ifriqiyah - North Africa west of Libya
and east of Morocco - had fallen away from 'Abbasid control during the
reign of Harun al-Rashid, and under al-Mamun other provinces soon broke
loose also. When, for example, al-Mamun marched from Khorasan to
Baghdad, he left a trusted general named Tahir ibn al-Husayn in charge
of the eastern province. Tahir asserted his independence of the central
government by omitting mention of the caliph's name in the mosque on
Friday and by striking his own coins - acts which became the standard
ways of expressing political independence. From 821 onward Tahir and his
descendants ruled Khorasan as an independent state, with the tacit
consent of the 'Abbasids.
Al-Mamun died in 833, in the town of Tarsus, and was succeeded by his
brother, al-Mu'tasim, under whose rule the symptoms of decline that had
manifested themselves earlier grew steadily worse. As he could no
longer rely on the loyalty of his army, al-Mu'tasim recruited an army of
Turks from Transoxania and Turkestan. It was a necessary step, but its
outcome was dominance of the caliphate by its own praetorian guard. In
the years following 861, the Turks made and unmade rulers at will, a
trend that accelerated the decline of the central authority. Although
the religious authority of the 'Abbasid caliphate remained unchallenged,
the next four centuries saw political power dispersed among a large
number of independent states: Tahirids, Saffarids, Samanids, Buwayhids,
Ziyarids, and Ghaznavids in the east; Hamdanids in Syria and northern
Mesopotamia; and Tulunids, Ikhshidids, and Fatimids in Egypt.
Photo: Books of fables, often illustrated, served a dual purpose to instruct and to entertain.
Some of these states made important contributions to Islamic culture.
Under the Samanids, the Persian language, written in the Arabic
alphabet, first reached the level of a literary language and poets like
Rudaki, Daqiqi, and Firdausi flourished. The Ghaznavids patronized
al-Biruni, one of the greatest and most original scholars of medival
Islam, and the Hamdanids, a purely Arab dynasty, patronized such poets
as al-Mutanabbi and philosophers like the great al-Farabi, whose work
kept the flame of Arab culture alive in a difficult period. But in
historical terms, only the Fatimids rivaled the preceding dynasties.
The most stable of the successor dynasties founded in the ninth and
tenth centuries was that of the Fatimids, a branch of Shi'is. The
Fatimids won their first success in North Africa, where they established
a rival caliphate at Raqqadah near Kairouan and, in 952, embarked on a
period of expansion that within a few years took them to Egypt.
in 970, the mosque of al-Azhar in Cairo is one of the earliest and
finest examples of the Egyptian style in Islamic architecture.
For a time the Fatimids aspired to be rulers of the whole Islamic
world, and their achievements were impressive. At their peak they ruled
North Africa, the Red Sea coast, Yemen, Palestine, and parts of Syria.
The Fatimids built the Mosque of al-Azhar in Cairo - from which
developed al-Azhar University, now the oldest university in the world
and perhaps the most influential Islamic school of higher learning.
Fatimid merchants traded with Afghanistan and China and tried to divert
some of Baghdad's Arabian Gulf shipping to the Red Sea.
But the Fatimids' dreams of gaining control of the Islamic heartland
came to nothing, partly because many other independent states refused to
support them and partly because they, like the 'Abbasids in Baghdad,
lost effective control of their own mercenaries. Such developments
weakened the Fatimids, but thanks to a family of viziers of Armenian
origin they were able to endure until the Ayyubid succession in the
second half of the twelfth century - even in the face of the
eleventh-century invasion by the Seljuk Turks.
THE SELJUK TURKS
Although individual Turkish generals had already gained considerable,
and at times decisive, power in Mesopotamia and Egypt during the tenth
and eleventh centuries, the coming of the Seljuks signaled the first
large-scale penetration of the Turkish elements into the Middle East.
Descended from a tribal chief named Seljuk, whose homeland lay beyond
the Oxus River near the Aral Sea, the Seljuks not only developed a
highly effective fighting force but also, through their close contacts
with Persian court life in Khorasan and Transoxania, attracted a body of
able administrators. Extending from Central Asia to the Byzantine
marches in Asia Minor, the Seljuk state under its first three sultans-
Tughril Beg, Alp-Arslan, and Malikshah- established a highly cohesive,
well-administered Sunni state under the nominal authority of the
'Abbasid caliphs at Baghdad.
One of the administrators, the Persian Nizam-al-Mulk, became one of
the greatest statesmen of medieval Islam. For twenty years, especially
during the rule of Sultan Malikshah, he was the true custodian of the
Seljuk state. In addition to having administrative abilities, he was an
accomplished stylist whose book on statecraft, Siyasat-Namah, is a
valuable source for the political thought of the time. In it he stresses
the responsibilities of the ruler: for example, if a man is killed
because a bridge is in disrepair, it is the fault of the ruler, for he
should make it his business to apprise himself of the smallest
negligences of his underlings. Nizam-al-Mulk, furthermore, was a devout
and orthodox Muslim who established a system of madrasahs or theological
seminaries (called nizamiyah after the first element of his name) to
provide students with free education in the religious sciences of Islam,
as well as in the most advanced scientific and philosophical thought of
the time. The famous theologian al-Ghazali whose greatest work, the
Revival of the Sciences of Religion, was a triumph of Sunni theology
taught for a time at the nizamiyah schools at Baghdad and at Nishapur.
Nizam-al-Mulk was the patron of the poet and astronomer 'Umar al-Khayyam
(Omar Khayyam), whose verses, as translated by Edward FitzGerald in the
nineteenth century, have become as familiar to English readers as the
sonnets of Shakespeare.
After the death of Malikshah in 1092, internal conflict among the
young heirs led to the fragmentation of the Seljuks' central authority
into smaller Seljuk states led by various members of the family, and
still smaller units led by regional chieftains, no one of whom was able
to unite the Muslim world as still another force appeared in the Middle
East: the Crusaders.
The most imposing of the many fortresses built by the Crusaders the
elegant Krak des Chevaliers in Syria (top) held out against the Muslims
for over a century and a half. The Crusader castle at Sidon in Lebanon
(below) was abandoned after the final defeat of the Crusader Kingdom of
To Arab historians, the Crusaders were a minor irritant, their
invasion one more barbarian incursion, not nearly as serious a threat as
the Mongols were to prove in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries.
The First Crusade began in 1095 after the Byzantines - threatened by
Seljuk power- appealed to Pope Urban II for military aid. Pope Urban,
hoping to divert the Christian kings and princes from their struggles
with each other, and perhaps also seeing an opportunity to reunite the
Eastern and Western churches, called for a "Truce of God" among the
rulers of Europe and urged them to take the Holy Land from the Muslims.
most impossing of the many fortresses built by the crusaders, the
elegant krak des Chevailers in Syria held out against the Muslims for
over a century and a half.
Considered dispassionately, the venture was impossible. The
volunteers - a mixed assemblage of kings, nobles, mercenaries, and
adventurers - had to cross thousands of miles of unfamiliar and hostile
country and conquer lands of whose strength they had no conception. Yet
so great was their fervor that in 1099 they took Jerusalem, establishing
along the way principalities in Antioch, Edessa, and Tripoli. Although
unable to fend off the Crusaders at first - even offering the Crusaders
access to Jerusalem if they would come as pilgrims rather than invaders -
the Muslims eventually began to mount effective counterattacks. They
recaptured Aleppo and besieged Edessa, thus bringing on the unsuccessful
In the meantime the Crusaders - or Franks, the Arabs called them -
had extended their reach to the borders of Egypt, where the Fatimids had
fallen after two hundred years. There they faced a young man called
Salah al-Din (Saladin) who had founded still another new dynasty, the
Ayyubids, and who was destined to blunt the thrust of the Crusaders'
attack. In 1187 Saladin counterattacked, eventually recapturing
Jerusalem. The Europeans mounted a series of further crusading
expeditions against the Muslims over the next hundred years or so, but
the Crusaders never again recovered the initiative. Confined to the
coast, they ruled small areas until their final defeat at the hands of
the Egyptian Mamluks at the end of the thirteenth century.
Photo: The Crusader castle at Sidon in Lebanon was abandoned after the final defeat of the Crusader Kingdom of Jerusalem.
Although the Crusades achieved no lasting results in terms of
military conquest, they were important in the development of trade, and
their long-range effects on Western society - on everything from
feudalism to fashion - are inestimable. Ironically, they also put an end
to the centuries-old rivalry between the Arabs and Byzantines. By
occupying Constantinople, the capital of their Christian allies, in the
Fourth Crusade, the Crusaders achieved what the Arabs had been trying to
do from the early days of Islam. Although the Byzantine Empire
continued until 1453, when Constantinople fell to the Ottoman Turks, it
never recovered its former power after the Fourth Crusade, and subsisted
only in the half-light of history during its remaining years.
For the West, however, the Crusaders' greatest achievement was the
opening of the eastern Mediterranean to European shipping. The Venetians
and Genoese established trading colonies in Egypt, and luxury goods of
the East found their way to European markets. In the history of the
Middle Ages, this was far more important than ephemeral conquests.
Control of the Eastern trade became a constantly recurring theme in
later relations between the European countries and the East, and in the
nineteenth century was to lead to widespread Western intervention.
THE MONGOLS AND THE MAMLUKS
In the thirteenth century still another threat to the Muslim world
appeared in the land beyond the Oxus: the Mongols. Led by Genghis Khan, a
confederation of nomadic tribes which had already conquered China now
attacked the Muslims. In 1220 they took Samarkand and Bukhara. By
mid-century they had taken Russia, Central Europe, northern Iran, and
the Caucuses, and in 1258, under Hulagu Khan, they invaded Baghdad and
put an end to the remnants of the once-glorious 'Abbasid Empire. The
ancient systems of irrigation were destroyed and the devastation was so
extensive that agricultural recovery, even in the twentieth century, is
still incomplete. Because a minor scion of the dynasty took refuge with
the Mamluks in Egypt, the 'Abbasid caliphate continued in name into the
sixteenth century. In effect, however, it expired with the Mongols and
the capture of Baghdad. From Iraq the Mongols pressed forward into Syria
and then toward Egypt where, for the first time, they faced adversaries
who refused to quail before their vaunted power. These were the
Mamluks, soldier-slaves from the Turkish steppe area north of the Black
and Caspian Seas with a later infusion of Circassians from the region of
the Caucuses Mountains.
The Mamluks had been recruited by the Ayyubids and then, like the
Turkish mercenaries of the 'Abbasid caliphs, had usurped power from
their enfeebled masters. Unlike their predecessors, however, they were
able to maintain their power, and they retained control of Egypt until
the Ottoman conquest in 1517. Militarily formidable, they were also the
first power to defeat the Mongols in open combat when, in 1260, the
Mongols moved against Palestine and Egypt. Alerted by a chain of signal
fires stretching from Iraq to Egypt, the Mamluks were able to marshal
their forces in time to meet, and crush, the Mongols at 'Ayn Jalut near
Nazareth in Palestine.
Mamluks, originally a class of soldier slaves, seized power in Egypt in
the thirteenth century and stood fast against the Mongols.
In the meantime, the Mongols, like so many of the peoples who had
come into contact with Islam, had begun to embrace it. At the dawn of
the fourteenth century, Ghazan Khan Mahmud officially adopted Islam as
the religion of the state, and for a time peace descended on the eastern
portion of the Mongol empire. During this period the Mongols built
mosques and schools and patronized scholarship of all sorts. But then,
in 1380, a new Turko-Mongol confederation was hammered together by
another world conqueror: Tamerlane, who claimed descent from Genghis
Khan. Under Tamerlane, the Mongol forces swept down on Central Asia,
India, Iran, Iraq, and Syria, occupying Aleppo and Damascus and
threatening - but not defeating - the Mamluks. Once again, however, the
Muslims survived their invaders. Tamerlane died on his way to conquer
China, and his empire melted away.
Politically and economically, the Mongol invasions were disastrous.
Some regions never fully recovered and the Muslim empire, already
weakened by internal pressures, never fully regained its previous power.
The Mongol invasions, in fact, were a major cause of the subsequent
decline that set in throughout the heartland of the Arab East. In their
sweep through the Islamic world the Mongols killed or deported numerous
scholars and scientists and destroyed libraries with their irreplaceable
works. The result was to wipe out much of the priceless cultural,
scientific, and technological legacy that Muslim scholars had been
preserving and enlarging for some five hundred years.
The foundation of this legacy was the astonishing achievements of
Muslim scholars, scientists, craftsmen, and traders during the two
hundred years or so that are called the Golden Age. During this period,
from 750 to 950, the territory of the Muslim Empire encompassed
present-day Iran, Syria, Iraq, Egypt, Palestine, North Africa, Spain,
and parts of Turkey and drew to Baghdad peoples of all those lands in an
unparalleled cross-fertilization of once isolated intellectual
Geographical unity, however, was but one factor. Another was the
development of Arabic, by the ninth century, into the language of
international scholarship as well as the language of the Divine Truth.
This was one of the most significant events in the history of ideas.
A third important factor was the establishment in Baghdad of a paper
mill. The introduction of paper, replacing parchment and papyrus, was a
pivotal advance which had effects on education and scholarship as far
reaching as the invention of printing in the fifteenth century. It made
it possible to put books within the reach of everyone.
Unlike the Byzantines, with their suspicion of classical science and
philosophy, the Muslims were enjoined by the Prophet to "seek learning
as far as China" - as, eventually, they did. In the eighth century,
however, they had a more convenient source: the works of Greek
scientists stored in libraries in Constantinople and other centers of
the Byzantine empire. In the ninth century the Caliph al-Mamun, son of
the famous Harun al-Rashid, began to tap that invaluable source. With
the approval of the Byzantine emperor, he dispatched scholars to select
and bring back to Baghdad Greek scientific manuscripts for translation
into Arabic at Bayt al-Hikmah, "the House of Wisdom."
Bayt al-Hikmah was a remarkable assemblage of scholar-translators who
undertook a Herculean task: to translate into Arabic all of what had
survived of the philosophical and scientific tradition of the ancient
world and incorporate it into the conceptual framework of Islam.
As the early scholars in the Islamic world agreed with Aristotle that
mathematics was the basis of all science, the scholars of the House of
Wisdom first focused on mathematics. Ishaq ibn Hunayn and Thabit ibn
Qurrah, for example, prepared a critical edition of Euclid's Elements,
while other scholars translated a commentary on Euclid originally
written by a mathematician and inventor from Egypt, and still others
translated at least eleven major works by Archimedes, including a
treatise on the construction of a water clock. Other translations
included a book On mathematical theory by Nichomachus of Gerasa, and
works by mathematicians like Theodosius of Tripoli, Apollonius Pergacus,
Theon, and Menelaus, all basic to the great age of Islamic mathematical
speculation that followed.
The first great advance on the inherited mathematical tradition was
the introduction of "Arabic" numerals, which actually originated in
India and which simplified calculation of all sorts and made possible
the development of algebra. Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khwaraznli seems to
have been the first to explore their use systematically, and wrote the
famous Kitab al-Jabr wa-l-Muqabalah, the first book on algebra, a name
derived from the second word in his title. One of the basic meanings of
jabr in Arabic is "bonesetting," and al-Khwarazmi used it as a graphic
description of one of the two operations he uses for the solution of
The scholars at Bayt al-Hikmah also contributed to geometry, a study
recommended by Ibn Khaldun, the great North African historian, because
"it enlightens the intelligence of the man who cultivates it and gives
him the habit of thinking exactly." The men most responsible for
encouraging the study of geometry were the sons of Musa ibn Shakir,
al-Mamurl's court astronomer. Called Banu Musa - "the sons of Musa" -
these three men, Muhammad, Ahmad, and al-Hasan, devoted their lives and
fortunes to the quest for knowledge. They not only sponsored
translations of Greek works, but wrote a series of important original
studies of their own, one bearing the impressive title The Measurement
of the Sphere, Trisection of the Angle, and Determination of Two Mean
Proportionals to Form a Single Division between Two Given Quantities.
The Banu Musa also contributed works on celestial mechanics and the
atom, helped with such practical projects as canal construction, and in
addition recruited one of the greatest of the ninth-century scholars,
Thabit ibn Qurrah.
During a trip to Byzantium in search of manuscripts, Muhammad ibn
Musa happened to meet Thabit ibn Qurrah, then a money changer but also a
scholar in Syriac, Greek, and Arabic. Impressed by Thabit's learning,
Muhammad personally presented him to the caliph, who was in turn so
impressed that he appointed Thabit court astrologer. As Thabit's
knowledge of Greek and Syriac was unrivaled, he contributed enormously
to the translation of Greek scientific writing and also produced some
seventy original works - in mathematics, astronomy, astrology, ethics,
mechanics, music, medicine, physics, philosophy, and the construction of
Although the House of Wisdom originally concentrated on mathematics,
it did not exclude other subjects. One of its most famous scholars was
Hunayn ibn Ishaq, Ishaq's father - known to the West as Joanitius - who
eventually translated the entire canon of Greek medical works into
Arabic, including the Hippocratic oath. Later a director of the House of
Wisdom, Hunayn also wrote at least twenty-nine original treatises of
his own on medical topics, and a collection of ten essays on
ophthalmology which covered, in systematic fashion, the anatomy and
physiology of the eye and the treatment of various diseases which
afflict vision. The first known medical work to include anatomical
drawings, the book was translated into Latin and for centuries was the
authoritative treatment of the subject in both Western and Eastern
Others prominent in Islamic medicine were Yuhanna ibn Masawayh, a
specialist in gynecology and the famous Abu Bakr Muhammad ibn Zakariya
al-Razi - known to the West as Rhazes. According to a bibliography of
his writings al-Razi wrote 184 works, including a huge compendium of his
experiments, observations, and diagnoses with the title al-Hawi, "The
A fountainhead of medical wisdom during the Islamic era, al-Razi,
according to one contemporary account, was also a fine teacher and a
compassionate physician, who brought rations to the poor and provided
nursing for them. He was also a man devoted to common sense, as the
titles of two of his works suggest. The Reason Why Some Persons and the
Common People Leave a Physician Even If He Is Clever, and A Clever
Physician Does Not Have the Power to Heal All Diseases, for That is Not
within the Realm of Possibility.
The scholars at the House of Wisdom, unlike their modern
counterparts, did not "specialize." Al-Razi, for example, was a
philosopher and a mathematician as well as a physician and al-Kindi, the
first Muslim philosopher to use Aristotelian logic to support Islamic
dogma, also wrote on logic, philosophy, geometry, calculation,
arithmetic, music, and astronomy. Among his works were such titles as An
Introduction to the Art of Music, The Reason Why Rain Rarely Falls in
Certain Places, The Cause of Vertigo, and Crossbreeding the Dove.
Another major figure in the Islamic Golden Age was al-Farabi, who
wrestled with many of the same philosophical problems as al-Kindi and
wrote The Perfect City, which illustrates to what degree Islam had
assimilated Greek ideas and then impressed them with its own indelible
stamp. This work proposed that the ideal city be founded on moral and
religious principles from which would flow the physical infrastructure.
The Muslim legacy included advances in technology too. Ibn al-Haytham,
for example, wrote The Book of Optics, in which he gives a detailed
treatment of the anatomy of the eye, correctly deducing that the eye
receives light from the object perceived and laying the foundation for
modern photography. In the tenth century he proposed a plan to dam the
Nile. It was by no means theoretical speculation; many of the dams,
reservoirs, and aqueducts constructed at this time throughout the
Islamic world still survive.
Photo: At Hama in Syria, antique wooden wheels still lift the waters of the Orontes to gardens, baths, and cooling fountains.
Muslim engineers also perfected the waterwheel and constructed
elaborate underground water channels called qanats. Requiring a high
degree of engineering skill, qanats were built some fifty feet
underground with a very slight inclination over long distances to tap
underground water and were provided with manholes so that they could be
cleaned and repaired.
Agricultural advances are also part of the Muslim legacy. Important
books were written on soil analysis, water, and what kinds of crops were
suited to what soil. Because there was considerable interest in new
varieties - for nutritive and medicinal purposes - many new plants were
introduced: sorghum, for example, which had recently been discovered in
The introduction of numerous varieties of fruits and vegetables and
other plants to the West via the Islamic empire was, however, largely
the result of the vast expansion of trade during the Golden Age. This
trade was vital; in the central lands of the 'Abbasid empire natural
resources such as metals and wood were scarce, and increases in urban
populations had outstripped the capacity of the agricultural system to
support them. The 'Abbasids, therefore, were forced to develop extensive
and complicated patterns of trade. To obtain food, for example, Baghdad
had to import wheat from Syria and Egypt, rice from the Fayyum in
Egypt, southern Morocco, and Spain, and olive oil from Tunisia. Called
"a forest of olive trees," Tunisia exported so much olive oil that its
port of Sfax was called "the port of oil."
To obtain scarce metals the 'Abbasids had to turn elsewhere. They
imported the technologically advanced "ondanique" steel from India, for
example, and then processed it at such famous centers of weapons
manufacture as Damascus and Toledo, both of which cities won fame for
their blades. The 'Abbasids also imported iron from Europe, tin from the
British Isles and Malaya, and silver from northern Iran, Afghanistan,
and the Caucuses. For gold, once the vast quantities in the treasuries
of the conquered countries were exhausted, they turned to several
sources. One was the gold mines of the Hijaz which were reopened around
750, reworked for about four hundred years, and then, in 1931, explored
again by Karl Twitchell, who was searching for minerals in that area on
behalf of King 'Abd al-'Aziz of Saudi Arabia.
For these necessities the 'Abbasid traders exchanged a wide variety
of products: pearls, livestock, paper, sugar, and (a specialty of the
Islamic world) luxurious cloth. The traditional cloths were wool and
linen - the latter an Egyptian specialty since ancient times - but
cotton, which was introduced into upper Iraq about the time of the
Prophet, later spread with Islam around the Mediterranean, to Syria,
North Africa, Spain, Sicily, Cyprus, and Crete.
The cloth trade produced a number of auxiliary exports: gold and
silver thread for embroidery, gum from the Sudan for glazing, and
needles, looms, and dyestuffs. Closely connected with the trade in
dyestuffs was the trade in medicines, an offshoot of 'Abbasid advances
in medicine and the spread of hospitals in all major Islamic cities. As
scientific research and translation of medical texts from India and
possibly even China expanded the earlier pharmacopoeia, ingredients for
medicines were brought from all over the known world and also
Because the religious, political, and military achievements of the
Islamic period loom so large in the history of the world, the
extraordinary cultural, scientific, technological, and commercial
achievements are frequently obscured or overlooked. Yet these advances
were, in fact, of enduring significance to mankind as a whole. The
destruction by the Mongols of many of these achievements and of much of
what the Muslims had accomplished by the end of the Golden Age was a
tragic loss for the world as a whole.
Architectural monuments spanning a thousand years bear witness to the spread of Islam.
Photo: Jerusalem's Dome of the Rock, built in 691-692.
Photo: Purity of line characterizes the late twelfth century Kutubiyah Mosque of the Berbers in Marrakesh.
Photo: Water courses and
fountains make an oasis of the Alhambra palace built at Granada in the
fourteenth century Here incredibly light and elegant elements of Islamic
decoration find their highest realization.
Photo: Sixteenth century
Sultan Selim Mosque at Edirne is the apogee of Ottoman Turkish
architecture, soaring space enclosed with a massive dome.
Photo: Persia's greatest
contribution to ornament, gloriously colored enameled tile, faces the
dome and stalactite portal of Shaykh Lutf Allah Mosque, built in the
early 1600s on Isfahan's vast royal plaza.
Photo: The peak of Mogul
architecture and possibly the most famous work of all times and cultures
is the dazzling Taj Mahal mausoleum built at Agra in 1629.
During the second Mongol invasion, Tamerlane had met and very nearly
annihilated another rising power: the Ottomans. Under a minor chieftain
named Othman, groups of Turkish-speaking peoples in Anatolia were united
in the Ottoman confederation which, by the second half of the
fourteenth century, had conquered much of present-day Greece and Turkey
and was threatening Constantinople.
The Ottoman state was born on the frontier between Islam and the
Byzantine Empire. Turkish tribes, driven from their homeland in the
steppes of Central Asia by the Mongols, had embraced Islam and settled
in Anatolia on the battle lines of the Islamic world, where they formed
the Ottoman confederation. They were called ghazis, warriors for the
faith, and their highest ambition was to die in battle for their adopted
In addition to their military abilities the Turks seem to have been
endowed with a special talent for organization. Towards the end of the
Ottoman Empire, this talent fossilized into bureaucracy - and a moribund
bureaucracy at that. But at the beginning, when its institutions were
responsive to the needs of the people and the state, the Ottoman Empire
was a model of administrative efficiency. This, together with a series
of brilliant sultans - culminating in the redoubtable Suleiman the
Magnificent - established the foundations of an empire that at its
height was comparable to that of the Romans.
The first important step in the establishment of this empire was
taken in 1326 when the Ottoman leader Orhan captured the town of Bursa,
south of the Sea of Marmara, and made it his capital.
It was probably during the reign of Orhan that the famous institution
of the Janissaries, a word derived from the Turkish yeni cheri ("new
troops"), was formed. An elite corps of slave soldiers conscripted from
the subject population of the empire, they were carefully selected on
the basis of physique and intelligence, educated, trained, introduced to
Islam, and formed into one of the most formidable military corps ever
known. At a later period the Janissaries became so powerful that they
made and unmade sultans at their will, and membership in the corps was a
sure road to advancement.
Photo: The mosque at Kyustendi in Bulgaria was founded during Ottoman rule.
Orhan's successor, Murad I, who launched naval attacks upon the
Aegean coasts of Europe, established himself on the European shores of
the Bosporus, and crushed a Balkan coalition. The next Ottoman leader
was Bayazid I, who besieged Constantinople and routed the armies
dispatched by an alarmed Europe to raise the siege.
It was at this point in history that Tamerlane and his Mongols
advanced into Anatolia and very nearly crushed the Ottomans forever.
They recovered, however, and later, under the leadership of a new
sultan, Murad II, besieged Constantinople for the second time. They were
repulsed, but by 1444 they had advanced into Greece and Albania,
leaving Constantinople isolated though unconquered. Murad II was
succeeded by Mehmed (Muhammad) II, called "The Conqueror" because on May
29, 1453, after his artillery finally breached Constantinople's massive
walls, the city fell.
After the fall of Constantinople, and during the sixteenth century,
the Ottoman system evolved the centralized administrative framework by
which the sultans maintained effective control over the extraordinarily
diverse peoples in the vast empire.
An important part of this framework was the millet system -
essentially a division of the empire into a communal system based upon
religious affiliation. Each millet was relatively autonomous, was ruled
by its own religious leader, and retained its own laws and customs. The
religious leader, in turn, was responsible to the sultan or his
representatives for such details as the payment of taxes. There were
also, however, organizations which united the diverse peoples.
Particularly important were the guilds of artisans which often cut
across the divisions of religion and location.
There was also a territorial organization of the empire, at the upper
levels of which was a unit called the muqata'ah under the control of a
noble or administrator who could keep some portion of the state revenues
derived from it. The amount varied with the importance of the
individual noble or administrator, and he could use it as he saw fit.
Such rights were also given to some administrators or governors in place
of, or in addition to, salaries, thus insuring a regular collection of
revenues and reducing record keeping.
The Ottoman Empire reached its peak in size and splendor under the
sultan called Suleiman the Magnificent, who ruled from 1520 to 1566 and
was known to the Turks as Suleiman the Law-Giver. But from the middle of
the sixteenth century on the empire began to decline. This process got
under way as the office of the Grand Vizier gradually assumed more power
and indifferent sultans began to neglect administration. Another factor
was that the Janissaries became too strong for the sultans to control
The sultans were further weakened when it became customary to bring them
up and educate them in isolation and without the skills necessary to
Some sultans later regained power through political maneuvering and
by playing off factions against one another, but as a result
administration was paralyzed. When Europe found a new route to India -
thus eliminating the traditional transshipment of goods through the Arab
regions of the empire, revenues began to fall, triggering inflation,
corruption, administrative inefficiency, and fragmentation of authority.
Temporary reforms under various sultans, and the still formidable, if
weakened, military prowess of the Ottomans helped maintain their
empire. As late as 1683, for example, they besieged Vienna.
Nevertheless, the decline continued. Because of the increasingly
disruptive part played by the Janissaries, the empire, in a series of
eighteenth-century wars, slowly lost territory. Because of
administrative paralysis, local governors became increasingly
independent and, eventually, revolts broke out. Even the various reform
movements were balked, and with the invasion of Egypt in 1798 by France
it became obvious that the once powerful empire was weakening.
In 1824 Mahmud II finally broke the power of the Janissaries, brought
in German advisers to restructure the army, and launched a
modernization program. He also brought the semi-autonomous rulers in
various provinces under control, with the exception of the defiant and
able Muhammad 'Ali in Egypt. On the death of Mahmud, his sons continued
his efforts with a series of reforms called the tanzimat. Some of these
were no more than efforts to placate European powers - which by then had
great influence on the empire's policies - but others, in education and
law, were important. Again, however, the effects were temporary and the
empire continued to lose territory through rebellion or foreign
By the early years of the twentieth century the Ottoman Empire was
clearly in decline and was referred to as the "Sick Man of Europe."
There were, however, some positive accomplishments in this period, such
as the Hijaz Railway. Building the railway was undertaken in 1900 by
Sultan Abdul-Hamid, as a pan-Islamic project. Completed in 1908, it
permitted thousands of Muslims to make the pilgrimage in relative
comfort and safety. It also helped to give the Ottoman government more
effective control over its territories in western Arabia.
Photo: The Hijaz Railway, completed by the Turks in 1908, linked Damascus with Medina, eight hundred miles to the south.
During the early twentieth century too, a group called the Young
Turks forced the restoration of the constitution (which had been
suspended by Abdul-Hamid), eventually deposed the sultan, and again
attempted to modernize the Ottoman state. The Turkish defeat in the
First World War (in which the Ottoman Empire sided with Germany and the
Central Powers) finally discredited the Young Turks, however, and paved
the way for the success of a new nationalist movement under the
leadership of an army officer named Mustafa Kemal, later known as
Ataturk or "Father of the Turks." The nationalist government under
Ataturk, dedicated to leading Turkey in the direction of secularism and
Westernization, abolished the sultanate, declared a republic, and
eventually (in 1924) abolished the caliphate as well.
THE COMING OF THE WEST
The Western world had for centuries been gradually penetrating most
of the areas that had once been part of the Muslim empire, and in the
latter part of the nineteenth century, in the vacuum left by the long
decay and decline of the Ottoman Empire, European powers came to
dominate the Middle East.
Among the first Europeans to gain a foothold in the Middle East were
the Venetians who, as early as the thirteenth century, had established
trading posts in what are now Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt, and who
controlled much of the shipping between Arab and European ports. Then,
in 1497, five years after Ferdinand and Isabella ended Islamic rule in
Spain, Vasco da Gama led a fleet of four Portuguese ships around Africa
and in 1498 found a new sea route to India from Europe. Dutch, British,
and French frigates and merchantmen followed and began establishing
trading outposts along the shores of the Indian Ocean, eventually
undercutting both Venetian shipping and the Mediterranean trade on which
the Middle East had thrived for millennia.
The process of European penetration was gradual and complex; but
there were, nevertheless, clearly identifiable turning points. In the
sixteenth century, for example, the Ottoman Empire voluntarily granted a
series of concessions called the "Capitulations" to European powers -
concessions which gave the Europeans decided advantages in foreign trade
in the empire. Another turning point was the invasion of Egypt in 1798
by Napoleon Bonaparte. Hoping to cut Britain's lines to India and
cripple its maritime and economic power, Napoleon crushed the Mamluks
(who governed Egypt under Ottoman suzerainty) and briefly occupied the
country. By defeating Egypt, then still part of the Ottoman Empire,
Napoleon exposed the inner weaknesses, both military and administrative,
of the sultans, shattered the myth of Ottoman power, and inaugurated
more than 150 years of direct political intervention by the West.
Europe's worldwide nineteenth-century search for raw materials,
markets, military bases, and colonies eventually touched most of what
had been the Arab empire. In 1820 Great Britain imposed a pact on Arab
tribes on the coast of the Arabian Gulf; in the 1830s France occupied
Algeria; in 1839 Britain occupied Aden, at the strategic entrance to the
Red Sea; and in 1869 Ferdinand de Lesseps, with the backing of the
French emperor, completed what would become, and still is, one of the
key shipping arteries of the world, the Suez Canal.
Western culture spread with Western economic and political control.
In Lebanon missionaries from several countries founded a network of
schools and universities. By introducing modern Western ideas these
fostered the growth of Arab nationalism, contributed to the revival of
Arabic literature, and provided a powerful impulse toward modernization.
In addition to education, contact with the West led to improvements in
medical care and the introduction of Western techniques in agriculture,
commerce, and industry. For the most part, however, Western domination
tended to benefit the nations of Europe at the expense of the Arab
world. Although the Suez Canal, for example, has been of immense value
to Egypt, the profits for nearly a century went to European shareholders
in the company that managed the canal. Western and Western stimulated
efforts to modernize parts of the Middle East, moreover, often led
Middle Eastern rulers to incur debts which led to European financial
control and then to European political domination. It was such a series
of steps that ended with France occupying Tunisia in 1881 and Britain
taking control of Egypt in 1882. Later, in emulation, Italy in 1911
Resistance to European penetration took several forms. In the cities,
Arab intellectuals debated whether modernization or a return to their
roots would be the more effective path to the removal of foreign
dominance and, consequently, to independence. Elsewhere, Muslim leaders
such as the Mahdi in the Sudan and 'Abd al-Qadir al-Jazairi in Algeria
took direct action. These struggles were later romanticized and
distorted in a wave of books and films on, for example, Gordon of
Khartoum and the French Foreign Legion. Still other intellectuals, such
as the Egyptian Muhammad 'Abduh and his Syrian disciple Rashid Rida,
undertook to reform the Muslim educational system and to restate Islamic
values in terms of modern concepts - needs deeply felt by most Muslim
thinkers of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries.
Western penetration also drew the Middle East into the First World
War, when the Ottoman Empire sided with (Germany, and Great Britain, in
response, encouraged and supported the Arab Revolt against the Turks. By
promising aid - and ultimate independence from the Ottomans - Great
Britain encouraged the Arabs to launch a daring guerrilla campaign
against Turkish forces, a campaign widely publicized in press coverage
of T. E. Lawrence ("Lawrence of Arabia") and in Lawrence's own writings.
By diverting Turkish strength and blocking the Turkish-German route
to the Red Sea and India, the Arab Revolt contributed substantially to
the Allied victory, but it did not result in full independence for the
Arab lands. Instead, France and Great Britain secretly agreed to
partition most of the Arab provinces of the Ottoman Empire between them
and eventually obtained mandates from the League of Nations: Britain
over Iraq, Palestine, and Transjordan; France over Syria and Lebanon.
The mandates were inconsistent with British promises to the Arabs and,
furthermore, contrary to the recommendations of President Wilson's
King-Crane Commission, a group sent to the Middle East in 1919
specifically to ascertain the wishes of the Arab peoples.
The mandates, however, were granted, thus extending Western control
of the Middle East and also setting the stage for one of the most tragic
and intractable conflicts of modern times: the conflict over Palestine
which has, since 1948, ignited four wars, sent masses of Palestinian
Arabs into exile, contributed to the energy crisis of 1973, and, from
1975 on, fueled the civil war in Lebanon.
The conflict over Palestine actually goes back to 1896, when Theodor
Herzl published a pamphlet called Der Judenstaat ("The Jewish State"),
in which he advocated British-backed Jewish colonization in Argentina or
Palestine - with the hope of eventually creating a sovereign Jewish
state. Herzl's writings and personal advocacy led to the formal
development of Zionism, a political movement dedicated to the creation
of such a state, and eventually focusing on Palestine. The Zionist claim
to Palestine was mainly based on the fact that there had been periods
of Hebrew rule in Canaan and the land west of the Jordan River between
1300 B.C. and A.D. 70.
The Arabs considered this claim to be without substance. Palestine,
they pointed out, had been part of the Islamic world almost continually
for twelve centuries; from 636 to the First World War. In 1917, however,
Lord Balfour, the British Foreign Secretary, issued the Baltour
Declaration, which promised British support for the establishment of a
"national home for the Jewish people" in Palestine providing that
"nothing shall he done which may prejudice the civil and religious
rights of existing non-Jewish communities" - a reference to the Arabs,
who then were 92 percent of the population. The declaration was
interpreted by key Zionist leaders as support for a sovereign Jewish
state, but this interpretation has been disputed. Both Winston Churchill
and Lord Balfour himself later said publicly that "a national home"
meant a cultural or religious center, a view that America's King-Crane
Commission independently presented. Establishment of a national home did
not imply a Jewish state, the commission said.
In the wake of the Balfour Declaration, and during the British
mandate, Jewish immigration increased. So, in proportion did sporadic
strife between Arabs and Jews. Immigration nevertheless continued and in
the 1930s - with the rise of Adolf Hitler - and after World War II,
Jewish immigration increased still further. As British efforts to
control it generated widespread disapproval in the West and stimulated
underground warfare by militant Zionist units against British forces,
Britain eventually placed the problem in the hands of the United
Nations, which in 1947 voted to partition Palestine into Jewish and Arab
Fighting then flared up in Palestine. Six months later, when Britain
withdrew and formation of the State of Israel was proclaimed, the Arabs
went to war against the newly declared nation. As Jewish forces were
victorious - and as stories spread that some 250 Arab civilians had been
massacred in a village called Deir Yassin - thousands of Palestinians
fled, among the first of today's 3.4 million refugees and exiles.
Eventually the United Nations negotiated a truce, but fighting became
endemic and war broke out again in 1956, 1967, and 1973. The 1967 war
triggered underground warfare by Palestinian militants, whose attacks
were primarily aimed at Israel, but also included strikes in Europe and
hijackings on international air routes.
In order to settle the conflict, numerous United Nations Resolutions
have been passed calling for peace, the return of the refugees to their
homes, Israeli withdrawal from occupied territories, and the
establishment of permanent boundaries. Several Western nations have
attempted mediation, a Palestinian spokesman has argued the matter
before the General Assembly of the UN, and in 1977 President Sadat of
Egypt traveled to Jerusalem and appeared before the Israeli parliament
in an unprecedented peace initiative. President Carter of the United
States brought the leaders of Egypt and Israel together in the United
States and himself traveled to the Middle East in an attempt to persuade
at least these two countries to conclude a peace treaty, and in March
1979 Egypt and Israel signed a treaty to which the United States was
also a signatory. Although it led to an improvement in Egyptian-Israeli
relations which resulted in Israeli evacuation of some occupied Egyptian
territory and the opening of the Suez Canal to Israeli ships, however,
this separate peace treaty did nothing to bring about withdrawal of
Israeli occupation forces from East Jerusalem, the West Bank, and the
Golan Heights of Syria and left untouched the root cause of the entire
problem- that is, the status of the Palestinians. The immediate net
result of the treaty, in fact, was a general increase in tension in the
Middle East which manifested itself in an apparent increase in Israeli
intransigence in the occupied territories and the isolation of Egypt
from the rest of the Arab world, including those countries on which it
has been most heavily dependent for economic and political backing and
which were opposed to the separate treaty because it failed to achieve a
permanent and comprehensive peace.
REVIVAL IN THE ARAB EAST
Elsewhere in the Arab world, meanwhile, the last vestiges of European
political dominance were being eliminated. Egypt, for example, after
ousting in 1952 a royal dynasty going back to the 1800s and installing
Gamal Abdel Nasser as president, forced the British to relinquish
control of the Suez Canal and withdraw from the country. Algeria, ten
years later, won its independence from France after six years of bitter
warfare. Even earlier, Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon had broken their ties
with Britain and France.
This tumultuous period also saw an increase in the influence of the
United States and the Soviet Union in the Middle East. Neither power had
played a major role in the early phases of penetration, but this
changed as they developed conflicting interests with regard to the
Arab-Israeli dispute, the construction of the Aswan Dam in Egypt, the
rise of a number of radical governments in the area, and the emergence
of the Arab world as a pivotal supplier of oil to the world.
In the same period, the Arab countries themselves, voluntarily and
pragmatically, continued to adopt Western techniques, forms, and to some
extent concepts. Most Arab countries, for example, have embraced the
concept of the sovereign nation-state and Western patterns of political
administration: parliaments, political parties, and constitutions. Many,
too, have adopted Western legal codes, have accepted international and
regional organizations and international courts as means of dealing with
other nations, and have organized and equipped their armed forces along
Western lines. In recent years, most Arab countries have also adopted
the modern industrial economy as a national goal and introduced modern
techniques of agriculture and modern methods of transport and mass
communications, and invested vast sums in education. Even in recreation
and amusement, Western influences are strong.
If Western influences are important in the Middle East, however, they
are by no means paramount. Western forms have been adapted as much as
they have been adopted, and healthy hybrid forms and concepts abound.
More importantly, traditional values are still deeply cherished and
promoted. In sum, modernization has not been entirely synonymous with
Westernization. By the end of the 1970s the Arabs, having assumed
control of their own destinies, had emerged as full and independent
participants in the affairs of the world. In the forefront was Saudi
Arabia, the heartland of Islam, and the site of the momentous events
which initiated Islamic history fourteen centuries ago.
In the sixteenth century three Muslim empires are at or close to the
pinnacle of their power and brilliance: the Ottomans under Suleiman the
Magnificent, Safavid Persia under Shah Abbas the Great, and Mogul India
under Akbar the Great. The Ottoman Turks have conquered and maintain
effective control over diverse peoples in a vast empire stretching from
Persia almost to the gates of Vienna and along the north coast of Africa
to Algiers. In the Arabian Peninsula the Ottomans penetrate to al-Hasa
on the Arabian Gulf and to Mocha on the Red Sea. However, the sharifs of
Mecca and Medina are virtually independent. Throughout this period the
Ottomans contest control of the Arabian Gulf and the Red Sea with the
Portuguese, who establish themselves in Bahrain, Muscat, and Hormuz and
assist Ethiopia in repulsing the Turks from the coast of East Africa.
Islam numbers many millions of adherents outside the Middle Eastern countries:
Photo: Sunset silhouettes a
minaret in Sarajevo, a city of some eighty mosques that bear witness to
the long Islamic heritage of Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Photo: The Mopti Mosque in the West African Republic of Mali.
Photo: A Taiwanese religious teacher.
Photo: A mosque in Washington, D.C., a landmark for millions of Muslims in North America
Photo: One of the largest mosques of the Far East is in Bandar Seri Bagawan, capital of the Sultanate of Brunei in Southeast Asia.
THE HOLY QURAN
Islam appeared in the form of a book: the Quran. Muslims, consider
the Quran (sometimes spelled "Koran") to be the Word of God as
transmitted by the Angel Gabriel, in the Arabic language, through the
Prophet Muhammad. The Muslim view, moreover, is that the Quran
supersedes earlier revelations; it is regarded as their summation and
completion. It is the final revelation, as Muhammad is regarded as the
final prophet - 'the Seal of the Prophets."
In a very real sense the Quran is the mentor of millions of Muslims,
Arab and non-Arab alike; it shapes their everyday life, anchors them to a
unique system of law, and inspires them by its guiding principles.
Written in noble language, this Holy Text has done more than move
multitudes to tears and ecstasy; it has also, for almost fourteen
hundred years, illuminated the lives of Muslims with its eloquent
message of uncompromising monotheism, human dignity, righteous living,
individual responsibility, and social justice. For countless millions,
consequently, it has been the single most important force in guiding
their religious, social, and cultural lives. Indeed, the Quran is the
cornerstone on which the edifice of Islamic civilization has been built.
The text of the Quran was delivered orally by the Prophet Muhammad to
his followers as it was revealed to him. The first verses were revealed
to him in or about 610, and the last revelation dates from the last
year of his life, 632. His followers at first committed the Quran to
memory and then, as instructed by him, to writing. Although the entire
contents of the Quran, the placement of its verses, and the arrangement
of its chapters date back to the Prophet, as long as he lived he
continued to receive revelations. Consequently, the Holy Text could only
be collected as a single corpus - "between the two covers" - after the
death of Muhammad. This is exactly what happened. After the battle of
al-Yamamah in 633, 'Umar ibn al-Khattab, later to become the second
caliph, suggested to Abu Bakr, the first caliph, that because of the
grievous loss of life in that battle, there was a very real danger of
losing the Quran, enshrined as it was in the memories of the faithful
and in uncollated fragments. Abu Bakr recognized the danger and
entrusted the task of gathering the revelations to Zayd ibn Thabit, who
as the chief scribe of the Prophet was the person to whom Muhammad
frequently dictated the revelations in his lifetime. With great
difficulty, the task was carried out and the first complete manuscript
compiled from "bits of parchment, thin white stones - ostracae -
leafless palm branches, and the memories of men." Later, during the time
of 'Uthman, the third caliph, a final, authorized text was prepared and
completed in 651, and this has remained the text in use ever since.
The contents of the Quran differ in substance and arrangement from
the Old and New Testaments. Instead of presenting a straight historical
narrative, as do the Gospels and the historical books of the Old
Testament, the Quran treats, in allusive style, spiritual and practical
as well as historical matters.
The Quran is divided into 114 surahs, or chapters, and the surahs are
conventionally assigned to two broad categories: those revealed at
Mecca and those revealed at Medina. The surahs revealed at Mecca - at
the beginning of Muhammad's mission - tend to be short and to stress, in
highly moving language, the eternal themes of the unity of God, the
necessity of faith, the punishment of those who stray from the right
path, and the Last Judgment, when all man's actions and beliefs will be
judged. The surahs revealed at Medina are longer, often deal in detail
with specific legal, social, or political situations, and sometimes can
only be properly understood with a full knowledge of the circumstances
in which they were revealed All the surahs are divided into ayahs or
verses and, for purposes of pedagogy and recitation, the Quran as a
whole is divided into thirty parts, which in turn are divided into short
divisions of nearly equal length, to facilitate study and memorization.
The surahs themselves are of varying length, ranging from the
longest, Surah 2, with 282 verses, to the shortest, Surahs 103, 108, and
110, each of which has only three. With some exceptions the surahs are
arranged in the Quran in descending order of length, with the longest at
the beginning and the shortest at the end. The major exception to this
arrangement is the opening surah, "al-Fatihah," which contains seven
verses and which serves as an introduction to the entire revelation:
In the Name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate.
Praise be to God, Lord of the Worlds;
The Merciful, the Compassionate;
Master of the Day of Judgment;
Thee only do we worship, and Thee alone we ask for help.
Guide us in the straight path,
The path of those whom Thou hast favored; not the path of those who earn Thine anger nor of those who go astray.
Non-Muslims are often struck by the range of styles found in the
Quran. Passages of impassioned beauty are no less common than vigorous
narratives. The sublime "Verse of the Throne" is perhaps one of the most
famous: God - There is no god but He,
The Living. the Everlasting;
Slumber seizes Him not, neither sleep;
To Him belongs all that is
In the heavens and the earth;
Who is there that can intercede with Him
Save by His leave?
He knows what lies before them
And what is after them,
Nor do they encompass anything of His knowledge
Except such as He wills;
His Throne extends over the heavens and earth;
The preserving of them wearies Him not;
He is the Most High, the All-Glorious.
Muslims regard the Quran as untranslatable; the language in which it
was revealed - Arabic - is inseparable from its message and Muslims
everywhere, no matter what their native tongue, must learn Arabic to
read the Sacred Book and to perform their worship. The Quran of course
is available in many languages, but these versions are regarded as
interpretations rather than translations - partly because the Arabic
language, extraordinarily concise and allusive, is impossible to
translate in a mechanical, word-for-word way. The inimitability of the
Quran has crystallized in the Muslim view of i'jaz or "impossibility,"
which holds that the style of the Quran, being divine, cannot be
imitated: any attempt to do so is doomed to failure.
It must also be remembered that the Quran was originally transmitted
orally to the faithful and that the Holy Text is not meant to be read
only in silence. From the earliest days it has always been recited aloud
or, more accurately, chanted. As a result, several traditional means of
chanting, or intoning, the Quran were found side by side. These methods
carefully preserved the elaborate science of reciting the Quran - with
all its intonations and its cadence and punctuation. As the exact
pronunciation was important - and learning it took years - special
schools were founded to be sure that no error would creep in as the
traditional chanting methods were handed down. It is largely owing to
the existence of these traditional methods of recitation that the text
of the Quran was preserved without error. As the script in which the
Quran was first written down indicated only the consonantal skeleton of
the words, oral recitation was an essential element in the transmission
of the text.
Because the circumstances of each revelation were thought necessary
to correct interpretation, the community, early in the history of Islam,
concluded that it was imperative to gather as many traditions as
possible about the life and actions of the Prophet so that the Quran
might be more fully understood. These traditions not only provided the
historical context for many of the surahs - thus contributing to their
more exact explication - but also contained a wide variety of subsidiary
information on the practice, life, and legal rulings of the Prophet and
This material became the basis for what is called the sunnah, or
"practice" of the Prophet - the deeds, utterances, and taqrir (unspoken
approval) of Muhammad. Together with the Quran, the sunnah, as embodied
in the canonical collections of traditions, the hadith, became the basis
for the shari'ah, the sacred law of Islam.
Unlike Western legal systems, the shari'ah makes no distinction
between religious and civil matters; it is the codification of God's
Law, and it concerns itself with every aspect of social, political,
economic, and religious life. Islamic law is thus different from any
other legal system; it differs from canon law in that it is not
administered by a church hierarchy; in Islam there is nothing that
corresponds to a "church" in the Christian sense. Instead, there is the
ummah - the community of the believers - whose cohesion is guaranteed by
the sacred law. Every action of the pious Muslim, therefore, is
determined by the Quran, by precedents set by the Prophet, and by the
practice of the early community of Islam as enshrined in the shari'ah.
No description, however, can fully capture the overwhelming
importance of the Quran to Muslims. Objectively, it is the central fact
of the Islamic faith, the Word of God, the final and complete
revelation, the foundation and framework of Islamic law, and the source
of Islamic thought, language, and action. It is the essence of Islam.
Yet it is, in the deeply personal terms of a Muslim, something more as
well. In innumerable, almost indescribable ways, it is also the central
fact of Muslim life. To a degree almost incomprehensible in the West it
shapes and colors broadly, specifically, and totally the thoughts,
emotions, and values of the devout Muslim's life from birth to death.
THE FAITH OF ISLAM
Islam, in Arabic, means "submission" - submission to the will of God.
Faithful Muslims, therefore, submit unreservedly to God's will and obey
His precepts as set forth in the Quran and transmitted to mankind by
Muhammad, His Messenger.
Muslims believe that theirs is the only true faith. Islam, they say,
was revealed through a long line of prophets inspired by God. Among them
are Ibrahim (Abraham), patriarch of the Arabs through his first son
Isma'il (Ishmael); Musa (Moses), who received the Torah (Tawrah); Dawud
(David), who spoke through the Psalms (Zabur); and 'Isa (Jesus), who
brought the Gospels (Injil). But the full and final revelation came
through Muhammad, the last of all prophets, and was embodied in the
Quran, which completes and supersedes all previous revelations.
Photo: A youth in the pilgrim's simple robe reading the Quran.
As the chief source of Islamic doctrine and practice, the Quran is
the main foundation of the shari'ah, the sacred law of Islam, which
covers all aspects of the public and private, social and economic,
religious and political lives of all Muslims. In addition to the Quran
the shari'ah has three sources: the sunnah, the practice of the Prophet;
ijma', the consensus of opinion; and qiyas, reasoning by analogy. The
sunnah - which supplements and complements the Quran, the Word of God,
and is next to it in importance - embodies the meticulously documented
acts and sayings of the Prophet recorded in a body of writings called
the hadith. Ijma' is the consensus of - qualified jurists on matters not
specifically referred to in the Quran or the sunnah. Qiyas is the
application of human reasoning to extend the principles found in the two
primary sources - the Quran and the sunnah - to cases involving matters
unknown in the early years of Islam.
Systematized in the second and third centuries of the Muslim era (the
eighth and ninth centuries A.D.), the shari'ah later developed into
four major schools of jurisprudence: the Hanafi School, founded by Abu
Hanifah; the Maliki School, founded by Malik ibn Anas; the Shafi'i
School, founded by Muhammad al-Shafi'i; and the Hanbali School founded
by Ahmad ibn Hanbal. Each of these men, all exceptional scholars, wrote
or dictated long and learned commentaries upon which their schools of
law were founded. Based on one or the other of these schools, learned
officials called qadis administer the law in shari'ah courts. Despite
the great body of tradition and law, however the practice of Islam is
essentially personal - a direct relationship between individuals and
God. Although there are imams, who lead prayers and deliver sermons,
there are no priests or ministers.
To practice their faith, Muslims must accept five primary obligations
which Islam imposes. Called the Five Pillars of Islam, they are: the
profession of faith (shahadah), devotional worship or prayer (salah),
the religious tax (zakah), fasting (sawm), and the pilgrimage to Mecca
The first pillar, the profession of faith, is the repetition of the
statement, "There is no god but God; Muhammad is the Messenger of God" -
in Arabic the euphonious "La ilaha illa Allah; Muhammadun rasul Allah."
It is a simple statement, yet also profound, for in it a Muslim
expresses his complete acceptance of, and total commitment to, the
message of Islam.
The second pillar, devotional worship or prayer, requires Muslims to
pray five times a day - the dawn prayer, the noon prayer, the afternoon
prayer, the sunset prayer, and the evening prayer - while facing toward
the Ka'bah, the House of God, in Mecca. Like all Islamic ceremonies,
prayer is simple and personal, yet also communal, and the wording of the
prayers, the ablutions which are required before prayers, the number of
bows, and other parts of the ritual are set out in detail.
The religious tax, the third pillar, is zakah in Arabic, a word that
in the Prophet's lifetime came to suggest an obligatory religious tax.
Like prayer, zakah is considered a form of worship. It enshrines the
duty of social responsibility by which well-to-do Muslims must concern
themselves about those less fortunate. The zakah prescribes payments of
fixed proportions of a Muslim's possession for the welfare of the
community in general and for its needy members in particular, whether
Muslims or non-Muslims. This tax is often levied and disbursed by the
state, but in the absence of a government collecting system it must be
disbursed by the taxable Muslims themselves. In addition, all Muslims
are encouraged to make voluntary contributions to the needy called
The fourth pillar is fasting during Ramadan, the ninth month of the
Muslim year. Ordained in the Quran, the fast is an exacting act of
deeply personal worship in which Muslims seek a richer perception of God
and in which, as one writer puts it, Muslims assert that "man has
larger needs than bread."
Ramadan begins with the sighting of the new moon, after which
abstention from eating and drinking, as well as physical continence, is
obligatory every day between dawn and sunset. It is a rigorous fast, but
its object is not mere abstinence and deprivation; it is, rather, the
subjection of the passions and the purification of one's being so that
the soul is brought nearer to God. Fasting is also an exercise in
self-control and self-denial whereby one learns to appreciate the pangs
of hunger that the poor often feel. The exercise of self-control extends
far beyond refraining from food and drink; to make one's fast
acceptable to God, one must also refrain from cursing, lying, cheating,
and abusing or harming others.
Although rigorous, however, the fast, by Quranic injunction, also
admits of a warm compassion. Those who are ill, or on an arduous
journey, for example, may fast the prescribed number of days at another
time; those for whom fasting is impossible may forego it if they give
stipulated alms to the needy.
The month of fasting is also joyous. In Muslim regions, in modern
times, the faithful - at the sound of the sunset cannon or the call of
the muezzin - break their fast, perform voluntary nocturnal worship
(tarawih), and throng the streets in moods that are at once festive and,
in the spirit of Ramadan, communal. For those who retire and rest after
the day's fast there are, in some areas, men called musahhirs who, in
the silent, predawn darkness beat muted drums and call the faithful to
awake and eat before the long day's fast begins again.
The last ten days of Ramadan are particularly sacred because they
include the anniversary of the night on which Muhammad received his
first revelation from God - "the Night of Power" - and the appearance,
on the final day, of the thin edge of the new moon announcing the end of
Ramadan. At that moment the favor of God descends upon Muslims and, in a
spirit of joyous achievement, they begin the three days of celebration
called 'Id al-Fitr, the Feast of the Breaking of the Fast. To cement
social bonds further, Islam has instituted zakat al-fitr, an obligatory
levy in the form of provisions or money for the poor, so that they can
share in the joy of 'Id al-Fitr.
The fifth pillar of Islam is the pilgrimage to Mecca - the hajj. One
of the most moving acts of faith in Islam, the hajj is, for those
Muslims who can get to Mecca, the peak of their religious life, a moment
when they satisfy a deep yearning to behold at least once the Ka'bah -
the House of God and the physical focus of a life time of prayer. The
hajj is at once a worldwide migration of the faithful and a remarkable
spiritual happening that, according to Islamic tradition, dates back to
Abraham, was affirmed by Muhammad, and then, by Muhammad's own
pilgrimage, systematized into rites which are simple in execution but
rich it in meaning.
Photo: Dressed in their simple ihram garments, all pilgrims are equal in the eyes of God.
The hajj proper must be made between the eighth and thirteenth days
of the 12th month - Dhu al-Hijjah - of the Muslim year, but in one sense
it begins when a Muslim approaches Mecca, bathes, trims his nails and
hair, discards jewelry and headgear, and puts on the ihram dress. This
consists of two simple white seamless garments symbolizing a state of
purity; in donning it pilgrims make a declaration of pilgrimage and
pronounce a devotional utterance called the talbiyah: "Here I am, O God,
at Thy Service" - in Arabic the joyous cry "Labbayk!" After donning the
ihram dress, the pilgrims may enter the haram, the sacred precinct
surrounding Mecca, and then Mecca itself, where they perform the tawaf -
the circling of the Ka'bah - and the sa'y - the running between two
hills at al-Mas'a in Mecca. All this can be part of the 'umrah or
"lesser pilgrimage," often a prelude to the hajj but not an integral
part of it. One of the main distinctions between the hajj and the 'umrah
is that the 'umrah can be done at any time of the year, while the hajj
must be performed on specified dates.
Photo: Crowds at the small town of Mina cast pebbles at pillars that symbolize evil.
The major rites of the hajj begin on the eighth day of Dhu al-Hijjah
when, with thunderous cries of "Labbayk!" the pilgrims pour out of Mecca
to Mina, where, as the Prophet did, they meditate overnight. On the
next day they proceed en masse to 'Arafat, even farther outside Mecca,
and pray and meditate in what is the central rite of the pilgrimage:
"the standing" - a few precious hours of profound self-examination,
supplication, and penance in which, many say, a Muslim comes as close to
God as he can, on earth.
At 'Arafat many actually do stand - from just after noon to just
before sunset - but some also visit other pilgrims or the Mount of
Mercy, where Muhammad delivered his farewell sermon. The standing is not
the end of the hajj, but is the culmination of a Muslim's devotional
life. As the Prophet said, "The best of prayers is the prayer of the Day
After sunset the pilgrims move to a place called Muzdalifah, where
they gather stones for the "throwing of the pebbles" or "stoning of the
pillars," and then pray and sleep. The third day of the pilgrimage, back
at Mina, they enact a repudiation of evil by throwing the pebbles at a
pillar held by many to represent Satan. According to one tradition it
was in this area that Satan urged Abraham to disobey God's command to
sacrifice his son Ishmael. At Mina too, begins 'Id al-Adha, the great
worldwide Feast of Sacrifice during which the pilgrims sacrifice animals
- partly to commemorate Abraham's willingness to sacrifice his son and
partly to symbolize a Muslim's willingness to sacrifice what is dearest
to him. As Muslims throughout the world perform identical sacrifices on
the same day, the Muslims at Mina in effect share their pilgrimage with
Photo: A pillar marks the Mount of Mercy the rocky hill rising from the plain of Arafat.
As the pilgrims have now completed much of the hajj, Muslim men now
clip their hair or shave their heads and women clip a symbolic lock to
mark partial deconsecration. The pilgrims may also, at this point,
remove the ihram dress and bathe.
In Mecca the rites are concluded by the tawaf of the return, the
Circling of the Ka'bah seven times on foot, an act implying that all
human activity must have God at the center. After the last circuit the
pilgrims worship in the courtyard of the Mosque at the Place of Abraham,
where the Patriarch himself offered prayer and, with Ishmael, stood
while building the Ka'bah. The tawaf of the return is the last essential
devotion of the pilgrimage; now the pilgrims have become hajjis - those
who have completed the hajj. Most pilgrims also attempt to kiss, touch,
or salute the Hajar al-Aswad, the Black Stone of the Ka'bah, a fragment
of polished stone revered as a sign sent by God and a remnant of the
original structure built by Abraham and Ishmael. Many also make the sa'y
or running, a reenactment of a frantic search for water by Hagar when
she and Abraham's son Ishmael were stranded in the valley of Mecca until
the Angel Gabriel led them to water in the Well of Zamzam.
It is also customary for pilgrims to return to Mina between the
eleventh and thirteenth days and cast their remaining pebbles at the
three pillars there and then, in Mecca, make a farewell circling of the
Ka'bah. Some may also visit the Mosque of the Prophet in Medina before
returning to their homes throughout the world in the "sudden, glad
stillness" of those who have stood at 'Arafat.
Photo: Symbol of the
oneness and centrality of God, the Ka'bah stands in the courtyard of
Mecca's Sacred Mosque where at the season of the hajj the faithful
gather for rituals that precede and end their pilgrimage.
Photo: Symbol of the
oneness and centrality of God, the Ka'bah stands in the courtyard of
Mecca's Sacred Mosque where at the season of the hajj the faithful
gather for rituals that precede and end their pilgrimage.
Photo: Pilgrims at the
climax of their hajj, "standing" before God at 'Arafat near the spot
where Muhammad delivered his farewell sermon.
Photo: Hajjis spend one night camped at Muzdalifah between 'Arafat and Mina.
Photo: In the ceremony of sa'y they reenact the search for water by Hagar, wife of the patriarch Abraham.
The Arabs gave to a large part of the world not only a religion -
Islam - but also a language and an alphabet. Where the Muslim religion
went, the Arabic language and Arabic writing also went. Arabic became
and has remained the national language - the mother tongue - of North
Africa and all the Arab countries of the Middle East.
Even where Arabic did not become the national language, it became the
language of religion wherever Islam became established, since the Quran
is written in Arabic, the Profession of Faith is to be spoken in
Arabic, and five times daily the practicing Muslim must say his prayers
in Arabic. Today, therefore, one can hear Arabic spoken - at least for
religious purposes - from Mauritania on the Atlantic, across Africa and
most of Asia, and as far east as Indonesia and the Philippines. Even in
China (which has a Muslim population of some forty million) and the
Central Asian republics of the CIS (ex-USSR), Arabic can be heard in the
shahadah, in prayer, and in the chanting of the Quran.
Of those people who embraced Islam but did not adopt Arabic as their
everyday language, many millions have taken the Arabic alphabet for
their own, so that today one sees the Arabic script used to write
languages that have no basic etymological connection with Arabic. The
languages of Iran, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are all written in the
Arabic alphabet, as was the language of Turkey until some fifty years
ago. It is also used in Kashmir and in some places in the Malay
Peninsula and the East Indies, and in Africa it is used in Somalia and
down the east coast as far south as Tanzania.
basmalah ("In the name of God the Merciful the Compassionate" - the
opening words of the Quran) is here done in an elaborate thuluth script
with the letters joined so that the entire phrase is written without
lifting the pen from the paper.
It is generally accepted that the Arabic alphabet developed from the
script used for Nabataean, a dialect of Aramaic used in northern Arabia
and what is now Jordan during roughly the thousand years before the
start of the Islamic era. It seems apparent that Syriac also had some
influence on its development. The earliest inscription that has been
found that is identifiably Arabic is one in Sinai that dates from about
A.D. 300. Another Semitic script which was in use at about the same time
and which is found on inscriptions in southern Arabia is the origin of
the alphabet now used for Amharic, the official language of Ethiopia.
The Arabic alphabet has twenty-eight letters (additional letters have
been added to serve the needs of non-Arabic languages that use the
Arabic script, such as those of Iran and Pakistan), and each of the
letters may have up to four different forms. All of the letters are
strictly speaking consonants, and unlike the Roman alphabet used for
English and most European languages Arabic writing goes from right to
Another significant difference is that the Arabic script has been
used much more extensively for decoration and as a means of artistic
expression. This is not to say that the Roman alphabet (and others such
as the Chinese and Japanese, for instance) are not just as decorative
and have not been used just as imaginatively. Since the invention of
printing from type, however, calligraphy (which means, literally
"beautiful writing") has come to be used in English and the other
European languages only for special documents and on special occasions
and has declined to the status of a relatively minor art.
Photo: Another basmalah in ornamental thuluth script is written in the shape of an oval.
In the countries that use the Arabic alphabet, on the other hand,
calligraphy has continued to be used not only on important documents but
for a variety of other artistic purposes as well. One reason is that
the cursive nature of the Arabic script and certain of its other
peculiarities made its adaptation to printing difficult and delayed the
introduction of the printing press, so that the Arab world continued for
some centuries after the time of Gutenberg to rely on handwriting for
the production of books (especially the Quran) and of legal and other
documents. The use of Arabic script has therefore tended to develop in
the direction of calligraphy and the development of artistically
pleasing forms of hand lettering, while in the West the trend has been
toward printing and the development of ornamental and sometimes
elaborate type faces.
Another and perhaps more important reason was a religious one. The
Quran nowhere prohibits the representation of humans or animals in
drawings, or paintings, but as Islam expanded in its early years it
inherited some of the prejudices against visual art of this kind that
had already taken root in the Middle East. In addition, the early
Muslims tended to oppose figural art (and in some cases all art) as
distracting the community from the worship of God and hostile to the
strictly unitarian religion preached by Muhammad, and all four of the
schools of Islamic law banned the use of images and, declared that the
painter of animate figures would be damned on the Day of Judgment.
Wherever artistic ornamentation and decoration were required, therefore,
Muslim artists, forbidden to depict, human or animal forms, for the
most part were forced to resort either to what has since come to be
known as "arabesque" (designs based on strictly geometrical forms or
patterns of leaves and flowers) or, very often, to calligraphy. Arabic
calligraphy therefore came to be used not only in producing copies of
the Quran (its first and for many centuries its most important use), but
also for all kinds of other artistic purposes as well on porcelain and
metalware, for carpets and other textiles, on coins, and as
architectural ornament (primarily on mosques and tombs but also,
especially in later years, on other buildings as well).
Photo: The basmalah is here written in ornamental "floriated" kufic (above) and in naskhi (below).
At the start of the Islamic era two types of script seem to have been
in use - both derived from different forms of the Nabataean, alphabet.
One was square and angular and was called kufic (after the town of Kufa
in Iraq, though it was in use well before the town was founded). It was
used for the first, handwritten copies of the Quran, and for
architectural decoration in the earliest years of the Islamic Empire.
The other, called naskhi, was more rounded and cursive and was used for
letters, business documents, and wherever speed rather than elaborate
formalism was needed. By the twelfth century kufic was obsolete as a
working script except for special uses and in northwest Africa, where it
developed into the maghribi style of writing still used in the area
today. Naskhi, the rounded script, remained in use and from it most of
the many later styles of Arabic calligraphy have been developed.
Photo: The ruq'ah script is used for headlines and titles and is the everyday written script of most of the Arab world.
Calligraphy flourished during the Umayyad era in Damascus. During
this period scribes began the modification of the original thick and
heavy kufic script into the form employed today for decorative purposes,
as well as developing a number of new scripts derived from the more
cursive naskhi. It was under the 'Abbasids, however, that calligraphy
first began to be systematized. In the first half of the tenth century
the 'Abbasid vizier Ibn Muqlah completed the development of kufic,
established some of the rules of shape and proportion that have been
followed by calligraphers since his time, and was first to develop what
became the traditional classification of Arabic writing into the "six
styles" of cursive script: naskhi (from which most present day printing
types are derived), thuluth (a more cursive outgrowth of naskhi),
rayhani (a more ornate version of thuluth), muhaqqaq (a bold script with
sweeping diagonal flourishes), tawqi' (a somewhat compressed variety of
thuluth in which all the letters are sometimes joined to each other),
and ruq'ah (the style commonly used today for ordinary handwriting in
most of the Arab world). It was from these six, and from kufic, that
later calligraphers, not only in the Arab world but in Iran, Turkey, and
elsewhere as well, developed and elaborated other scripts.
graceful Persian ta'liq script is used in a sentence which starts
"Beauty is a spell which casts its splendor upon the universe..."
In Iran, for example, there came into use a particularly graceful and
delicate script called ta'liq, in which the horizontal strokes of the
letters are elongated and which is often written at an angle across the
page. From ta'liq, in turn, another script called nasta'liq was derived
which combines the Arabic naskhi and the Persian tailiq into a
beautifully light and legible script.
diwani script (top) and the so called "royal" diwani (below) were
developed by Ottoman calligraphers for use on state documents.
It was in Ottoman Turkey, however, that calligraphy attained the
highest development once the early creative flowering had faded
elsewhere in the Middle East. So renowned were Ottoman calligraphers, in
fact, that a popular saying was that "The Quran was revealed in Mecca,
recited in Egypt, and written in Istanbul." The Ottomans were not
content merely to improve and develop the types of script that they
inherited from the Arabs and Persians but also added a number of new
styles to the calligrapher's repertoire.
One important addition by the Ottoman calligraphers was the script
called diwani, so called from the word diwan (meaning state council or
government office) since it was at first used primarily for documents
issued by the Ottoman Council of State. It is an extremely graceful and
very decorative script, with strong diagonal flourishes, though less
easy to read than some other styles. After its development in Turkey, it
spread to the Arab countries and is in use today for formal documents
and also as architectural decoration.
tughra (monogram or insignia) of the Ottoman Sultan Abdu Hamid shows
the three elongated vertical strokes which are characteristic of this
Examples of more or less standard types of script such as these do
not by any means exhaust the number of styles. Islamic calligraphers
have experimented endlessly and have been extremely imaginative. Another
distinctive Turkish contribution is the tughra, an elaborate and highly
stylized rendering of the names of the Ottoman sultan, originally used
to authenticate imperial decrees. The tughra later came to be used both
in Turkey and by rulers of t the Arab countries as a kind of royal
insignia or emblem, on coins and stamps and wherever a coat of arms or
royal monogram would be used by European governments.
the muthanna or "doubled" style of calligraphy shown on the left each
half of the design is a mirror image of the other. The basmalah in the
thuluth script on the right has been written in the shape of an ostrich.
Another unusual variation of calligraphy, not often used nowadays, is
the style called muthanna (Arabic for "doubled"). This is not really a
type of script in itself but consists of a text in one of the standard
scripts such as naskhi worked into a pattern in which one half is a
mirror image of the other. Even more imaginative is what may be called
pictorial calligraphy, in which the text (usually the profession of
faith, a verse from the Quran, or some other e phrase with religious
significance) is written in the shape of a bird, animal, tree, boat, or
other object. A Quranic verse in the kufic script, for example, may be
written so that it forms the picture of a mosque and minarets.
Photo: The angular kufic script is here used to put a well known religious expression into the form of a mosque with four minarets.
The art of calligraphy is still very much alive in the Arab world and
wherever the Arabic alphabet is used. The list of everyday uses is
almost endless: coins and paper money bear the work of expert
calligraphers, wall posters and advertising signs in every town show the
calligrapher's art, as do the cover and title page of every book, and
the major headlines in every newspaper and magazine have been written by
hand. Calligraphy - the art of "beautiful writing" -continues to be
something that is not only highly prized as ornament and decoration but
is immensely practical and useful as well.
Photo: Preeminent among
artists of the Muslim world is the calligrapher, as it is his privilege
to adorn the word of God. Here ornamental kufic is used on a Quranic
page that typifies the marriage of calligraphy and illumination, an art
that reached its zenith in the fourteenth century.
Photo: Cursive script on a
section of gold-embroidered kiswah, the black cloth covering of the
Ka'bah, which is renewed each year at the time of the pilgrimage.
Photo: Miniature from the Shah-Nameh (Book of Kings), illustrating the epic of Persian poet Firdausi.
Photo: The cursive script shown in detail from a fourteenth-century Persian tile.
Photo: A fourteenth-century manuscript of a pharmaceutical text.
Photo: Cursive script on Quran stand of wood, dated 1360, a fine example of Mongol art from western Turkestan.
Photo: From top - Modern
Arabic (western); Early Arabic (western); Arabic Letters (used as
numerals); Modern Arabic (eastern); Early Arabic (eastern); Early
Devanagari (Indian); Later Devanagari
The system of numeration employed throughout the greater part of the
world today was probably developed in India, but because it was the
Arabs who transmitted this system to the West the numerals it uses have
come to be called Arabic.
After extending Islam throughout the Middle East, the Arabs began to
assimilate the cultures of the peoples they had subdued. One of the
great centers of learning was Baghdad, where Arab, Greek, Persian,
Jewish, and other scholars pooled their cultural heritages and where in
771 an Indian scholar appeared, bringing with him a treatise on
astronomy using the Indian numerical system.
Until that time the Egyptian, Greek, and other cultures used their
own numerals in a manner similar to that of the Romans. Thus the number
323 was expressed like this:
Egyptian 999 nn III
Greek HHH ÆÆ III
Roman CCC XX III
The Egyptians actually wrote them from right to left, but they are
set down above from left to right to call g attention to the
similarities of the systems.
The Indian contribution was to substitute a single sign (in this case
meaning "3" and meaning "2") indicating the number of signs in each
cluster of similar signs. In this manner the Indians would render Roman
CCC XX 111 as: 3 2 3.
This new way of writing numbers was economical but not flawless. The
Roman numeral CCC II, for instance, presented a problem. If a 3 and a 2
respectively were substituted for the Roman clusters CCC and II, the
written result was 32. Clearly, the number intended was not thirty-two
but three hundred and two. The Arab scholars perceived that a sign
representing "nothing" or "nought" was required because the place of a
sign gave as much information as its unitary value did. The place had to
be shown even if the sign which showed it indicated a unitary value of
"nothing." It is uncertain whether the Arabs or the Indians filled this
need by inventing the zero, but in any case the problem was solved: now
the new system could show neatly the difference between XXX II (32) and
CCC II (302).
If the origin of this new method was Indian, it is not at all certain
that the original shapes of the Arabic numerals also were Indian. In
fact, it seems quite possible that the Arab scholars used their own
numerals but manipulated them in the Indian way. The Indian way had the
advantage of using much smaller clusters of symbols and greatly
simplifying written computations. The modern forms of the individual
numbers in both eastern Arabic and western Arabic, or European, appear
to have evolved from letters of the Arabic alphabet.
The Semites and Greeks traditionally assigned
numerical values to their letters and used them as numerals. This
alphabetical system is still used by the Arabs, much as Roman numerals
are used in the West for outlines and in enumerating kings, emperors,
and popes. The new mathematical principle on which the Arabic numerals
were based greatly simplified arithmetic. Their adoption in Europe began
in the tenth century after an Arabic mathematical treatise was
translated by a scholar in Spain and spread throughout the West.