Thursday, April 6, 2017

Review of the New Cambridge History of Islam, volume 2

The New Cambridge History of Islam, volume 2, edited by Maribel Fierro, 2010. Glossy's rating: 6.5 out of 10.

This volume covers the history of the western Islamic world - the area between Syria and Morocco - from the 11th through the 18th centuries.

It's natural to compare it to European history of the same period. The barbaric invasions which plagued Core Europe during the Dark Ages ended around 1000 AD, but continued in the Islamic world for quite a while afterwards.

Arab nomads from the Banu Hilal and Banu Sulaym tribes devastated the Maghreb in the 11th century before settling there permanently. As a result the area under cultivation shrank, partly replaced by pasture. The cities declined. The famous North African historian Ibn Khaldun compared this invasion to a plague of locusts.

The Bedouinization of Egypt is blamed here, along with the plague, for the fall in land revenues from 9.5 million dinars in 1376, to 1.8 million in 1517.

Two Berber tribal groups, the Almoravids and the Almohads, succeeded each other in conquering the Maghreb and Muslim Spain from the 11th through the 13th centuries. Turkic nomads conquered Anatolia and Syria in the 11th century:

"This nomadic invasion was especially devastating to the Byzantine village populations who were exposed and undefended. Consequently they increasingly abandoned their lands."

Mongols seized Iran and Iraq in the 13th century.

As the urban culture of Europe began to revive, its Islamic counterpart continued to get hit by waves of nomads. I don't think that's the main reason why Europe overtook the Muslim World in the later Middle Ages, but it must have been a contributing factor. If the Mongols reached as far west in the 13th century as the Huns did in the 5th or if the Viking Age recurred after 1000 AD, things might have turned out a little differently.

Starting in the 9th century and for a very long time afterwards Muslim states paid their armies mostly by granting warriors the revenues of specific tracts of land. In contrast to European feudalism, Muslim soldiers did not own these tracts. For example, most of the time they couldn't pass them on to their children. Still, it's interesting that in the Middle Ages both Christendom and Islam preferred this system over the Roman (and modern) model of governments paying soldiers (from "solidus", a Roman coin) with money that they collected through taxes.

Medieval Muslim states did collect taxes, but maybe there was a limit to how much money they could obtain this way? In the Middle Ages the military was the most expensive, the most resource-hungry part of the government. Perhaps in the absence of large bureaucracies and with rebellions a common occurrence, an experienced killer with a sword taking what he needed from the peasants himself was the most efficient way to finance these armies. And I'm assuming that this gentleman took a lot of it in kind. Perhaps the medieval money economy simply wasn't large enough to support a lot of people paid in cash.

The Muslim armies of this period were either tribal, bound by the altruism that comes with close kinship, or of Turkic slave origin. Young Central Asian boys were sold into slavery in the steppes and brought to the core Muslim lands to be trained to fight on horseback. When they matured, they were freed and given the quasi-feudal estates that I mentioned earlier. Most of the time these people, called Mamelukes, fought for Arab or Persian masters, but on occasion, most famously in medieval Egypt, they seized power for themselves.

Egyptian Mamelukes barely spoke Arabic, retaining their Turkic language, names and costume. Their mixed-race sons, called by an Arabic term that means "wanderers between two worlds", were not allowed to reach high positions in the army. If they pursued military careers, they had to do it in the auxiliary non-Mameluke units. The next generation of real Mamelukes, the heart of the army, was again recruited through slavery.

The steppe dwellers' inborn machismo was not the only reason for their domination of Muslim militaries:

"Such freedmen, with few ties to their natal families or clans, were thrown back upon the loyalty to their owners or former owners".

Both the Crusaders and the Mongols were defeated in the Middle East not by natives, but by these Central Asian warriors.

"the Zangid Nur al Din"..."was reported to say that only the arrows of the Turks were effective against the Crusader army."[...]

"Moreover, there was the prejudice expressed by authors like Abu Hamid al-Qudsı (d. 888/1483) at the end of the ninth/ fifteenth century, that Arab Egyptians were unmartial people and not able to protect themselves. Therefore the Turks would cheerfully shoulder the burden of the holy war and devote their lives to the defence of the community of believers."[...]

"As the mostly Turkish-born mamluks defeated their Central Asian Mongol ‘cousins’ in 658/1260, Abu Shama (d. 665/ 1268) stated that ‘against any (evil) thing there is a cure from its own kind".

"...experiments with black military slaves were only short-lived, possibly owing to the fact that the white military slave, the mamluk, enjoyed a far higher reputation in the Muslim world than the black household slave, the abd."

At some point Mamelukes began to be bought in the Caucasus. This book implies that this was because the Black Death hit the steppes worse than hard-to-access mountain valleys. In 1382 there was a coup in Egypt, with a Circassian Mameluke sultan replacing a Turkic one.

For much of the Mameluke period civil administration in Egypt was mainly handled by Copts, who were already a minority then. Their success occasionally led to anti-Christian riots. I'm fascinated by remnants of formerly large religious communities, the people who refused to convert when everyone else did. Many became successful: Parsees, Lebanese Christians, Russian Old Believers, the last native English Catholics, and apparently the late medieval Copts too.

One of the most important storylines in this volume is the rise of the Ottomans. The Seljuk Turks conquered Anatolia in the 11th century, but their state was broken up by dynastic conflict and Mongol expansion. A number of small Turkic states took its place in Asia Minor. One of them, in the north-west of the peninsula, was headed by the Ottoman family. It first shows up in the historical record at the end of the 13th century.

One of the causes of the Ottomans' success was that they avoided the dynastic fragmentation that was so typical in the Middle Ages. Some of it was luck. After the deaths of several important sultans one son was able to kill all of his brothers, preventing the division of the realm. In some periods this was institutionalized, the junior heirs being strangled in the palace at the senior heir's accession. In other periods there were wars between princes.

The early 16th century was the Ottomans' peak, an era remembered with nostalgia by subsequent generations of Turks. The empire they created was more centralized than any Islamic state before it. Its army was 100,000 strong.

The Ottomans were able to defeat the Mamelukes partly because the latter resisted the adoption of firearms. They were too attached to their self-image as mounted warriors. In fact, they were the only people in Egypt who were allowed to ride horses.

In the late 17th century the Ottomans switched from rowed to sailing warships because the latter could carry more firepower. However, they were never good at oceanic travel, losing the Indian Ocean trade to the Portuguese and their Dutch and English successors, and were conspicuously absent from America. According to this book, the Moroccan sultan Ahmad al Mansur, who ruled in the late 16th century, planned "to join England in the acquisition of American territory", but this came to nothing.

The Ottomans added the Balkan peninsula to the lands of Islam before being stopped at the gates of Core Europe, just like the Arabs 800 years before them. Was this because Core Europeans were better at defending themselves than peripheral Europeans? Or because the unconquered territories were too far from the Muslim center for effective campaigning to be successful? In the latter case Core Europe could simply be the area that was never screwed up by Arab, Berber, Turkish and Tatar-Mongol conquests.

Who staffed the Ottoman Empire during its heyday?

"Viziers and other members of the military–political class were usually of Rumelian origin, that is from the Balkan Peninsula. It was only during the late tenth/sixteenth and eleventh/seventeenth centuries that men of Caucasian origin emerged as rivals to the Rumelians in the contest for political office. The legal–religious elite tended to come from Anatolian Turkish families, as did the secretaries that manned the sultan’s chancellery. It was also Rumeli and Anatolia that furnished the majority of troops and crews for the imperial army and imperial fleet, and provided most of the materials and cash to support military and naval enterprises".

"...the sultans preferred, wherever possible, to appoint governors from among the men of non-Muslim origin who had received their education in the palace, and hence had no source of patronage except the sultan."

Many of these men were Balkan natives who were captured by the Turks as boys.

"Although few Arabs entered the higher ranks of the Ottoman legal establishment or army outside their home provinces before the late nineteenth century CE, Ottoman governors and chief judges usually had local Arabic-speaking deputies." [...]

"Nationalist Arab historians have generally consigned the Ottoman centuries to their people’s darkest age, with Ottoman imperialism prefiguring later Western imperialism in the region."

The Ottomans never conquered Iran, which became their main Muslim rival. The Persian history of this period is treated in a different volume, but I'm guessing that this long-term confrontation was the reason why Shiism became Iran's official ideology at this time. Iran's rulers would have needed to differentiate themselves from the Ottomans and to challenge their claim to leadership of worldwide Islam.

The Ottomans' control in the Maghreb was never as tight as in the empire's core. Before the Turks arrived in that region, the Spaniards seized many of the towns on the North African coast.

"The fear of suffering the same fate as Oran (where Cardinal Ximenez had orchestrated the massacre of 4,000 inhabitants and the capture of 8,000 others, before consecrating the two main mosques as Catholic churches in May 1509) led most of the other threatened ports to surrender without a shot."[...]

"What were these conquerors looking for? Whether these new vantage points were a means of consolidating the reconquista or were a basis for the colonisation of the country is hard to judge. If it is true that Spain had a policy towards Africa, this was thwarted by the people of Algiers’ calls to the intrepid Turkish sailors, the Barbarossa brothers."

By the way, the Normans occupied the coast of Algeria for 25 years in the 12th century. Throughout history this region escaped many attempts to Europeanize it. A related bit of info, which I didn't know until I read is book, is that the Crusaders made a serious attempt to conquer Egypt.

The Barbarossas mentioned above had been privateers, and the Ottoman provinces that were created in the Maghreb in the wake of their campaigns against Europeans drew the greatest share of their income from piracy.

Most of it was of course confined to the Mediterranean, but "In 1037/1627, the pirates from Algiers sacked the coast of Iceland and reached England in 1041/1631."

Since the 11th century a large majority of commercial shipping in the Med was conducted by Europeans. Muslims rarely visited Christian ports, while the reverse was commonplace. But according to this book Muslim piracy was about as common as the Christian kind. A lot of the North African corsairs were converts from Christianity though, natives of Sicily, Calabria, Corsica and similar places who had become "professional Turks" in the Maghreb. Many came to the region when they were captured by a previous generation of pirates.

"Scholars now calculate that between 1500 and 1750 at least a million European Christians were captured either temporarily or permanently in North Africa."

Before setting sail these pirates, who preferred to call themselves holy warriors, solemnly visited the shrines of various Muslim saints. Jubilant crowds greeted them on their return. The golden age of the pirate economy on the Barbary coast was the 17th century.

In some periods the military elite of Algiers functioned as a quasi-republic. Real republics, with formal constitutions, seem to have been absent from the Muslim world though. City states occasionally popped up, but not as often as in Christian Europe.

At the end of the book there is a chapter about the ulama, Islam's learned men.

"Comparison with the university traditions of the Christian West are not always helpful, for in the Islamic societies there were indeed no universities, degrees or syllabuses as such."

There were madrasas though, which made their first appearance in Baghdad in the 11th century.

Muslims had a tradition of compiling huge biographical dictionaries of scholars.

" the dictionary entries, the list of teachers that each alim studied under conveys exactly the same meaning as the degree awarded by a Western university. An aspiring alim had to choose his teachers carefully according to their rank and reputation, for by studying under them he would acquire something of their personal authority, and he would become one more link in a chain of inherited recognition."

As in the West, rulers and rich merchants donated money to madrasas and individual learned men. One potentate in Timbuktu is mentioned here as giving a scholar "a farm with thirteen slaves and 80 mithqal of gold – more than the average price for a slave – for the purchase of a copy of the Qamus, a classical Arabic dictionary."

Of course having read this, I had to look up this dictionary and Arabic dictionaries in general. Already by the 13th century they had one which contained 80,000 head words and which fills more than a dozen modern volumes.

Back to Islamic education:

"This formally unstructured system of learning underwent a great change during the Ottoman period, when the ulama became state functionaries through a process that filtered out the less suitable candidates. The final result was a powerful hierarchical structure of a sort previously alien to the world of Islamic scholarship."

I'll end with a few remarks about the piece of scholarship currently under review. As in the first volume, the authors of the individual chapters did not coordinate with each other much. The same material is sometimes covered by more than one researcher. Worse than that, an important event - the conquest of Constantinople by the Ottomans - was not covered by any of them, having simply slipped through the cracks of editorial topic assignment.

The style is sometimes unnecessarily verbose and square-headed in the typical modern social science way, yet at other times elegant - it all depends on the author. The material is fascinating throughout. Anyone who has a lot of interest in the story of Islam should read these books.    ř


  1. Sad that we find ourselves in what amounts to a struggle for survival with this fascinating and immense culture. there are many times and places within it where I think I would have been perfectly happy.

  2. This is an excellent series of posts.

    Two things seem to have happened in Late Antiquity (late second through the seventh centuries) at the western end of Eurasia that we understand very poorly, and have to infer from other events. One of these things is a population crash, and the other is the death of the cash economy. The former probably contributed to the latter. But the end result was a situation where there was little cash but lots of vacant land, hence feudalism.

    1. Thank you.

      I think there was a general civilizational decline in late antiquity and the Dark Ages. Ancient mathematics and proto-science peaked in the 2nd century BC and declined afterwards. Realistic art disappeared in the 4th century AD. Most of the pagan Greco-Roman literature was lost in the 4th and 5th centuries AD.

      There were Dark Ages before that one, and most of them can be attributed to barbaric invasions. There was a Mesopotamian Dark Age around 2100 BC, which was brought on by the Gutian invasion. The Hyksos invasion caused the Second Intermediate Period in Egypt around 1600 BC. The Sea Peoples caused the Bronze Age Collapse around 1200 BC.

      The European Dark Ages featured Germanic invasions, but those started long after the decline became apparent. So they didn't cause it.

      The cause of the European Dark Ages is a fascinating topic. One theory is that the Romans imported into Italy lots of slaves from the Middle East, which changed the character of Roman government (republic -> principate -> dominate), the culture and everything else. The same thing might have happened to the Greeks after Alexander's conquests. Here's an old paper that advances this argument:

      I've seen Greg Cochran and Razib Khan dispute this argument. They say that the population of Italy hasn't changed much since Roman times, except in Sicily and Calabria. However, Greg Cochran himself pointed out that the population of the city of Rome and of the other cities of the empire did not survive to be examined by modern geneticists. It died out during the Dark Ages. Modern Italians are descended from Roman-era farmers instead, who might not have been affected by those population movements. So the argument outlined in that paper that I linked to could still be correct.