Sunday, May 7, 2017

Review of the New Cambridge History of Islam, volume 3

The New Cambridge History of Islam, volume 3. Edited by David O. Morgan and Anthony Reid, 2010. Glossy's rating: 6.5/10.

This volume is about the history of the eastern Islamic world, defined as everything from Iran to Southeast Asia, from the 11th through the 18th centuries.

In this period Central Asian nomads had an enormous impact on most of these lands.

"Even at the beginning of the twentieth century, the two major independent Muslim powers in the Middle East were still ruled by Turkish dynasties: the Ottomans, of course, but the Qajars of Iran were also, in origin, of Turkish descent. Indeed, it may be said that apart from the Zand interlude of the eighteenth century in part of the country, Iran as a whole had no ethnically Persian rulers from the arrival of the Saljuqs until the accession of Reza Shah in 1925 - very nearly 900 years."

Throughout this time most of India - the north more often than the south - was also ruled by Muslims of Turkic origin.

It seems that Turkic tribes were converted to Islam by Sunnis. They became associated with this strain of Islam at a very early stage, certainly by the 11th century. They revived Sunnism's fortunes in the Muslim heartland at a time when it seemed to be losing its fight with Shiism.

The Mongol invasion of the Middle East was much more destructive than the Saljuk (Turkic) invasion that preceded it.

The Mongols "were not as quick as the Saljuqs had been to appreciate the character and virtues of civilised life away from the steppes. They had arrived in vastly greater numbers, with no educational preparatory period on the borders. This may be part of the explanation for the ferocity of the first Mongol invasions: they had not yet understood that allowing agriculture and cities to continue in existence could be to their advantage as the new owners." [...]

"Not all of these actions were new - the massacre of soldiers after battle, permitted looting and the destruction of fortifications were all familiar. It was in the systematic organisation of conquered populations that the Mongols stood out, and in the ferocity with which they punished recalcitrant cities. In such cases the population was divided up among the soldiers to be killed, with the exception of women and children to be enslaved, young men for levies, craftsmen and the religious classes, who were spared." [...]

"Considering the consequences of resistance, it is remarkable how many cities opposed the Mongols." [...]

"The fact that Chinggis Khan could send out small contingents in different directions is a testament to the exceptional loyalty of the Mongol army; the defeat of one army did not threaten Chinggis Khan’s control over his followers. This sort of discipline was a phenomenon unknown in the recent experience of Iranian cities. The Mongols moreover enlarged their army through local alliances and levies - some levies rebelled, but others fought efficiently and participated enthusiastically in punitive massacres." [...]

"The vast majority of the Mongol army at this stage was clearly composed of light cavalry, meaning horsemen who were lightly armoured (with armour mainly composed of cloth and leather, but sometimes with iron components, with partially metal helmets; some had iron armour), carrying bow and arrows and some basic weapons for hand to hand warfare, and mounted on small, but sturdy steppe ponies. The Mongol trooper would set off on campaign with a string of such ponies, apparently around five, in order to change mounts during both long distance travel and battle (and perhaps provide meat also for himself and his fellow soldiers). The tactic of choice was wave after wave of cavalrymen advancing while firing, and then wheeling around to permit the advance of another wave of similar troops.

This might be accompanied by an attempt to encircle the enemy, facilitated by both the large numbers and the mobility of the Mongols. The aim was to break the will and formation of the enemy by these repeated attacks, and only then to engage in hand to hand combat or to chase after them if they fled, in either case probably inflicting greater casualties than the previously mentioned barrages."

The Mongols had a superstitious aversion to spilling royal blood, so when they captured Baghdad, they rolled up the caliph in rugs and kicked him to death instead of beheading him or piercing him with a sword.

In fairness, the Mongols did not only destroy. Their conquest of most of the civilized world facilitated cultural contacts between its distant parts. They brought Chinese astronomers to the Muslim lands, one of whom became the head of an observatory in Samarqand. And they brought Middle Eastern researchers to China, who established the Office of Western Medicine and an astronomical observatory there.

"...from the early Yuan period on, until the arrival of Jesuit astronomers in the seventeenth century, Islamic astronomy would play an important role in the history of Chinese science."

The Mongols even tried to bring paper money, a Chinese invention, to Iran:

"Its introduction was carefully planned, proclaimed in Ramadan 693/August 1294, and implemented a month later, but the population refused to accept it. Commerce shut down and violence erupted on the streets, so the experiment was cancelled."

The extraordinary organization and discipline of the Mongols did not last long after Chinggis Khan's death:

"Since neither Islamic nor Mongolian tradition favoured primogeniture, there were frequent succession struggles, and the Mongol period was one of particularly intense factionalism. Not many men of power, whether bureaucrats or commanders, died of natural causes. The only way to achieve an orderly administration was to rule for a long time, and here Mongol rulers were handicapped by their excessive consumption of alcohol. Leadership required constant feasting, accompanied by the drinking of both fermented and distilled alcohol. The resulting alcoholism was a common cause of death, and both the Great Khans and the Ilkhans had unusually short reigns."

In the late 14th century a Mongol warrior named Temur, aka Tamerlane, recaptured much of the old glory during 35 years of incessant campaigning, leaving towers of severed human heads along the way. He conquered Iran and Central Asia, crushed the Ottomans, obtained the submission of the Byzantine emperor at Constantinople and died while planning to invade China.

Temur and his descendants were extraordinarily generous patrons of the arts, helping to create a culture "whose impact on the subsequent development of almost every field of artistic endeavour, in both the eastern and western Islamic world, was entirely out of proportion to the Timurid dynasty’s relatively limited duration and geographical scope."

Samarkand, in modern Uzbekistan

 
 
 
Temur's mausoleum
Temur, facial reconstruction based on exhumed skull.
I liked this quote about a Central Asian ruler of this time: "In the forest of courage, he was a lion hunting tiger; in the sea of generosity his hand rained pearls." [...]

"...the charismatic figure of Temür and the Timurid cultural legacy have become of great relevance to the construction of their national identity by the modern Uzbeks of the post Soviet republican period."

This would have baffled Temur himself:

"In Central Asian sources of the period, the amırs are usually identified by a tribal name [...] never as ‘Uzbek’, a generally derogatory or condescending term applied to an unlettered person, a bumpkin or rustic. It was outsiders who used the term ‘Uzbek’, and often in a pejorative sense, to refer to the entire state, its rulers and their military supporters."

Of course, Temur's empire dissolved as soon as he stopped breathing.

"Since the decline in the central authority of the Abbasid caliphate, ruling dynasties, even formidable ones like the Saljuqs, the Mongols and the Timurids, rarely lasted for much more than a century, and often less"

This contrasts with the more durable Ottoman, Safavid and Mughal empires in the Muslim world, as well as the French, Spanish, English and Russian nation states which arose at roughly  the same time.

"What is the explanation for this? The most obvious point is that they were ‘gunpowder empires’. The argument is that, with the increasing sophistication and expense of gunpowder weaponry, only large states could afford to keep up to date, which endowed such states with a decisive political and military advantage. By contrast, in the era of the dominance of the composite bow, which every nomad cavalryman possessed, any ambitious chieftain could attempt to put together a force which, when it reached a sufficient size, could hope to be the equal of any other. Hence in part, perhaps, the comparatively ephemeral nature of many pre-1500 states."

So it's not that firearms created large states. Those periodically popped up throughout the middle ages - just think of Charlemagne in Europe. What firearms did instead was make large states more durable and centralized. Knights and nobles could no longer hide behind their armor and castle walls, plotting revolts against the king. So they were defeated, and then "domesticated" by him.

The degree of success of the transition to firearm technology 500 years ago seems to correlate with mean IQ levels today, implying that modern geographical differences in IQ go back centuries. Europe did best. The Ottomans were second, with Iran, India and Southeast Asia lagging behind them. A lot of the gunsmiths in the Turkish realm were Westerners, yet in India and Southeast Asia Ottoman gunsmiths predominated.

"Safavid Iran, it has been argued, ‘succeeded in remaining independent because it did not allow itself to get drawn into the kind of war that only the Ottomans could win. Its reliance on cavalry instead of firearms was the secret to its survival.’"

The steppe nomads fared worst of all:

"There were to be no more steppe empires after Tamerlane’s, and the vast area that had produced the Turks and the Mongols was eventually divided between the sedentary empires of Russia and China."

Firearms could have only been manufactured in a sedentary society. Also, the settled world had a much larger population. Once organized into huge, centralized states, it could keep the nomads at bay.

By bringing back powerful states, guns increased peace and prosperity. There's an obvious parallel with nuclear weapons in the 20th century.

What about the large, stable, centralized states that existed before guns: Rome, China before the nomads started invading it? Perhaps mounted warriors weren't as effective in antiquity as they became in the middle ages. But I don't know enough about the evolution of equestrian military technology to be sure of this.

Since the Mongols were pagans when they arrived in the Middle East, they had no special respect for Arabic as the language of the prophet. They employed Persian bureaucrats though, so under their rule Persian rose in importance.

"Such traditions were transplanted into India, and there, too, Persian became the language of government so ineradicably that even in the nineteenth century it was still thought necessary to teach Persian to young British recruits to the service of the East India Company." [...]

"This is not to say that Arabic lost its prestige: as the language of the Quran, of law and of theology, its position was unassailable. But for literature, for poetry, for history, for civilised discourse generally, Persian became the language of choice over a vast geographical range, enormously larger than anything that might be considered to be Iran in a political or ethnic sense." [...]

"That there was a decline after the early Islamic centuries, in some sense, was undeniable, but it was an Arab and an Arabic, not a general Islamic, decline. The young Albert Hourani asked Philip Hitti why his celebrated History of the Arabs of 1937 contained so little on the period between the Ottoman conquest and the nineteenth century. ‘There was no Arab history then,’ was the reply. The centre of the Islamic world had shifted out of the old Arab heartlands, and so likewise should the attention of the historian. The centre shifted, in fact, to the Persian world."

One thing I didn't know before I read this book was that "all six of the collections of hadıth that carry the greatest authority in Sunnı Islam were compiled by third fourth/ninth tenth century scholars from north east Iran and Central Asia."

This book traces the development of the Safavid dynasty in Iran, which made Shiism that country's state religion around 1500. After the Safavids' decline there was a period of civil war, which ended when Agha Muhammad, a member of the Qajar tribe, emerged on top, reuniting the country in the course of several decades of tireless campaigning.

The interesting thing about him is that he had been castrated at the age of 5 after he was captured by a rival clan. Think of the qualities that soldiers expected from their leaders at that time. Now imagine his voice and beardless face, the jokes told in soldiers' camps. And yet he did it. Famous for extraordinary cruelty, even by the standards of his age, he beat every rival on his path to power.

Agha Muhammad
For most of the period covered in this book Iran was much poorer than India, so it experienced a huge outflow of talent - poets, administrators, clerics - towards its eastern neighbor.

A 17th century French monk named Raphael du Mans compared Persia to "a great caravanserai with two doors: silver entered through one in the west, only to exit through another in the east and pass into India, ‘where all the money in the Universe is unloaded as if into an abyss’".

The book quotes other Western writers, going back to Pliny the Elder, making the same observation. The spice trade was a small part of the reason. India was the world's chief manufacturer of cotton textiles. Cotton was grown in Iran and Central Asia too, but those regions could not compete with the subcontinent in the quality and price of finished cloth.

After the discovery of the Americas a huge share of the silver and gold mined by the Spaniards ended up in India. The West's ancient trade deficit with that country only disappeared when the Industrial Revolution allowed Europeans to make cheap textiles of their own.

Arab traders brought Islam to small parts of India early on, but the first large Muslim states were founded there by Turkic nomads. India's climate and terrain were unsuitable for actual nomadism, so these people quickly settled down. They fought on horses which they imported from their Central Asian homeland, but these often had to be replaced because they did not live long in Indian conditions. The same was true of the conquerors themselves:

"Among the invading Turks, the most substantial losses of manpower were probably caused by exposure to the almost entirely new disease pool comprising malaria, smallpox, cholera, bubonic plague and a host of others of the hot and humid climate of the densely settled plains of India rather than by warfare as such."

Babur, a Turko-Mongol commander who founded the Mughal Empire in India, preferred to rule it from Afghanistan.

"He and many of his men were appalled by the environment and society of India. In fact, many of his begs or commanders fled back to the temperate climate of Kabul immediately after their Rajput victory. Babur himself did not have that luxury, and in his memoirs he recorded his acerbic evaluation of his conquests. Noting, first of all, that the trans-Indus region known as Hindustan was a ‘strange kingdom … a different world’ where even the rocks were unique, he went on to indicate that the only thing he liked about Hindustan was its wealth and its seemingly limitless human and material resources. He particularly hated north India’s flat, featureless landscape, with its lack of geometrically precise gardens bisected by waterways, and despised much of what he knew of Hindu society. Many of his most provocative critiques are contained in one brief passage, in which he writes that: The people of Hindustan have no beauty; they have no convivial society, no social intercourse, no character or genius, no urbanity, no nobility or chivalry. In the skilled arts and crafts there is no regularity, proportionality, straightness or rectangularity."

This book explains Babur's complaint about the lack of convivial society in India as a sign of his disgust with the caste system. Turkic nomads were more egalitarian than either Indians or Middle Easterners.

Babur's memoires are called here "a masterpiece of concise and straightforward Chaghatay prose, revealing an endearingly complex personality who lived in difficult political times."

Islam had a special appeal to lower caste Indians because unlike Hinduism it stresses equality of all men before God.

"The first great Islamic scholar to comment on the Indic world, Abu Rayhan al Bırunı (973-1048), noted how radically it differed from Islamic (or Christian) civilisations: ‘On the whole there is very little disputing about theological topics among themselves: at the utmost, they fight with words, but they will never stake their soul or body or their property on religious controversy."

Ancient Europeans and Middle Easterners did not fight any religious wars either. That seems to be unique to monotheism.

Among India's Muslim scholars the natural sciences - astronomy, medicine, etc. - were more popular than elsewhere in the Muslim world, and purely Quranic scholarship was less common.

Akbar, Babur's grandson, experimented with syncretism and religious tolerance, inviting accusations of apostasy. He allowed some of his Indian wives to practice Hinduism and adopted a modified form of vegetarianism.

"By the end of his life Akbar had subdued a territory that may have included more than 100 million people, nearly comparable to the population of Ming China, the only contemporary state that rivalled Mughal India in territory, population and wealth. At about the same time the populations of the Ottoman and Safavid states comprised an estimated 22 and 10 million people respectively, while Uzbek territories probably held no more than 5 million."

This and the following pictures are from Lahore in what is now Pakistan.






Jahangır, Akbar's son, also wrote an autobiography, "and while it seems to reveal a shallower individual than his great-grandfather the work is nonetheless still a rich, complex text."

He confessed in it to being an alcoholic and an opium addict, which, according to this book, was not unusual among the Mughal and Safavid ruling classes. Interestingly, Turkic royal women drank too.

"Temür’s wives were present at his receptions and drank and got drunk with men present, even with the Spanish ambassador Clavijo in 808/1405."

Why didn't Islam prevail over Hinduism in the long run? I think that at the elite level India already had a pretty sophisticated culture which did not feel itself to be inferior to Islam. It wasn't a martial culture, hence the ease with which Turkic nomads conquered it, but intellectually and commercially it was quite accomplished. And the Indian masses could look up to this native tradition.

This was even more true in China, where Islam fared much worse than in India.

Arab traders had been visiting the far east long before Muhammad. Muslim communities in coastal Chinese cities go back to the early centuries of Islam.

"Around 290/900 there were direct passages from the Gulf to China in one ship, though other trade was done in several ships. By the end of the eleventh century direct trade in one ship had ended. The trade became segmented, with one merchant and ship doing the Arabian Sea part to south India, where the goods were exchanged, and then taken on by other ships and merchants to South East Asia, where there was another exchange, and so to China."

This important move towards segmentation was partly a result of unsettled conditions at both ends of the route as powerful empires declined, and partly because traders realised that the direct passage in the same ship was inefficient, given that they had to wait for monsoons at several places."

The spread of Islam in Southeast Asia and China was mostly due to these traders.

"A rather rare case is cited of one Li Yansheng, identied in Tang sources as ‘an Arab’ (Dashiguo ren), who passed the civil service exams in 847, and was recommended to a post at the palace. The incident sparked a debate among Chinese scholars about the meaning of ‘being Chinese’ in the wake of this appointment."

When the Mongols conquered China, they brought some Muslims with them:

"Qubilai instituted a systematic classification of population according to ethnicity: Mongols had the highest status, western and Central Asians (se mu) came second, then northern Chinese. In theory, the highest offices were reserved for the Mongols and se mu, who also enjoyed tax privileges and the right to bear arms."

Think of that when someone tells you that ethnicity is a modern invention. Muslims suffered in the inevitable nativist, anti-Mongol backlash.

Islam fared better in Southeast Asia, especially in countries where Chinese cultural influence was weak.

I think that this could be telling us something about the future: as long China continues its upward trajectory, Islam will have little impact on it. Individuals don't abandon winning cultures. In fact, if China ends up dominating the world the way European powers did before WWII, Islam's self-confidence, even in the Arab world itself, could fall back to its mid-20th-century levels.    ř

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