History of International Relations Textbook

The Muslim caliphates

The Khazars were a semi-nomadic Turkic people who created a powerful kingdom, Khazaria, 618-1048 CE, on the steppes of southern Russia, extending from the Crimean peninsula to Caucasus and northward to the foothills of the Urals. During the seventh- and eighth-centuries the Khazars allied themselves with Byzantium and fought a series of wars with the Umayyads and the Abbasids, but they always managed to maintain their independence. Nicely positioned at the crossroads of several important trade routes, Khazaria was one of greatest trading emporia of the medieval world. Many Khazars were pastoralists and others made good use of the abundance of fish in the Volga river or traded in sable skins, squirrel pelt, swords and honey. Another important commodity were slaves who were exported to the Arab caliphates. The Khazars had a centralized administration, a standing army, and exacted tribute from some thirty different tribes. The king was recruited from among the nobility in a ceremony in which he was asked how many years he wished to reign while simultaneously being throttled almost to death. At the end of his requested reign the king was killed.

Beginning in the eighth-century CE, the Khazar kings converted to Judaism while a majority of the population remained Tengrist, Christian or Muslims.[Read more: Tengrism] Some Jews who suffered from persecution elsewhere took their refuge in Khazaria and the kings saw themselves as defenders of Jews living outside of their own borders too. It could be that conversion to Judaism was a way to retain Khazar independence both from the Muslim caliphates and the Christians in Byzantium.

In the nineteenth-century, a few European scholars began arguing that the Jewish population of Europe are descendants of Khazarian Jews who had emigrated after the fall of their kingdom rather than Jews who originated in Palestine itself. The thesis which became widely known through Arthur Koestler’s book The Thirteenth Tribe, 1976, has been used in antisemitic propaganda and in order to undermine Israel’s claim to statehood. Yet the theory cannot possibly be true since not a sufficiently large portion of the Khazar population converted to Judaism and since not that many Khazars proceeded to emigrate to Europe. Genetic tests should be able to say whether there are any Khazar characteristics among the Jewish population of Europe but there is today no remaining Khazar population to compare with.

Ibn Khaldun, 1332-1406 CE, was a historian and philosopher of history born in Tunis in North Africa but in a family which for centuries had been officials to the Muslim rulers of Spain. By Khaldun’s time, Muslim North Africa was in decline and the once powerful states had fragmented into a number of competing political entities. It was among these emirates that Ibn Khaldun looked for employment. He was well read in the Arabic classics, an expert in jurisprudence, and he knew the Quran by heart. He was, by all accounts, extraordinarily ambitious and perfectly convinced of his own intellectual superiority. He was also in the habit of plotting against his employers. The result was a life which alternatively turned him into a statesman and a prisoner. The fact that he survived until the ripe old age of 76 testifies not only to his political acumen but also to his luck.

In 1375, he took a prolonged sabbatical from his political career and settled in the Berber town of Qalat Ibn Salama in what today is western Algeria. Here he began writing what at first was meant to be a history of the Berbers but which soon turned into a history of the world, prefaced by a Muqaddimah, a “Prolegomenon,” in which he laid out his theory of history. Writing as a historical sociologists, Ibn Khaldun sought to explain what it is that makes kingdoms rise and fall. As far the rise to power is concerned he emphasized the role of asabiyyah, “social cohesion” or “group solidarity.” The Berbers provide a good example. They survived in the harsh conditions of the desert only because they stayed united and helped each other out. This sense of social solidarity provided them with mulk, “the ability to govern,” and made them into formidable conquerors which easily took over the far more effeminate, and internally divided, cities they came across. In making this argument Ibn Khaldun reinterpreted terms which traditionally had been given a far more negative connotation by Islamic scholars — asabiyyah was usually defined as “tribalism” or “prejudice” and mulk as “partisan rule.” Ibn Khaldun did not deny these interpretations — indeed, the Berbers, when they conquered a city were often ferocious in their destructiveness. Yet politics, Ibn Khaldun insisted, is a ruthless game and it follows a logic of its own.

Moreover, the success of a conqueror would never last for long. Once in power, the asabiyyah would start to dissipate as the new rulers became rich and began to indulge in assorted luxuries. Instead of relying on the solidarity of the group, the rulers employed mercenaries to fight their wars and bureaucrats to staff their ministries. In five generations, Ibn Khaldun explained, the mulk was gone and the state was ripe for take-over by someone else. Ibn Khaldun, that is, had quite a gloomy view of history. He lived at the tail-end of the Arabic Golden Age and when the Black Death was sweeping across Europe and North Africa, killing millions of people, including Ibn Khaldun’s own parents. Towards the end of his life he moved to Cairo where he wrote his autobiography and worked as a judge and a diplomat. Here too he continued to plot against both enemies and friends.

The Arabs did not only invade Spain but also Italy, at least the southern Italian island of Sicily. Already in the eighth-century they started raids here and much as in Spain the raiders turned into occupiers. In 831, Sicily was wrestled from the Byzantines and an emirate established, with Palermo as its capital, and it lasted, albeit in increasingly weakened form, until 1072. Much as in Spain, the Arab occupation transformed a provincial backwater into an economic and cultural center. A land reform reduced the power of the landed estates and increased the productivity of farming. The irrigation systems were improved and the Arabs introduced new crops such as oranges, lemons, pistachios and sugarcane. In the eleventh-century, Palermo had a population of 350,000, making it the second largest city in Europe after Cordoba. In 1091, the Normans captured the island. The Normans were Vikings from France who started out as mercenaries working for the Byzantine kings of southern Italy, but who before long began making war on their own behalf. Yet in sharp contrast to the situation in Spain after the Reconquista, the Normans did not try to destroy Arab Sicily. On the contrary, Arab scholars and artists were given new commissions and Arab bureaucrats continued to be employed by the government. Visitors were astonished to learn that even the king’s own chef – a key position for anyone interested in poisoning his majesty – was an Arab. The result was a blend of Arabic, Byzantine and Norman influences which still is on display in some of the churches of Palermo.

The court of king Roger II, reigning between 1130 and 1154 CE, was particularly splendid. Although its official language was French, the king spoke Arabic fluently, and the administration communicated with its subjects in Latin, Greek, Arabic and Hebrew. People were encouraged to convert to Christianity, but Islam was tolerated. Indeed many Christians in Palermo spoke Arabic and wore Muslim dress.The geographer, Muhammad al-Idrisi, was one of the scholars employed at Roger’s court. In 1154, after 15 years of research, he produced the Kitab Rudjdjar, the Tabula Rogeriana, or the “Book of Roger,” a description and a map of the world. The text provides an exhaustive description of the seven climate zones, including the physical, cultural, political and socioeconomic conditions of each region, and the map would for the next three centuries provide the most accurate representation available of the world. The map has Mecca at its center, it has the north pointing downwards, and the world is a sphere which, al-Idrisi calculated, has a circumference of 37,000 kilometers – a number wrong by only 10 percent. The original copy of Kitab Rudjdjar was destroyed in the 1160s, and the Norman court was destroyed soon after that, and next Sicily came under the power of the Catholic church. A persecution of Arabs began in the 1240s and Byzantine influences were wiped out too. By the 1330s, Palermo was once again a provincial backwater – now with only 50,000 inhabitants.

References to the four first caliphates are common in the political rhetoric of many contemporary radical Islamic groups. The four first caliphates, goes the argument, were ruled directly by Islamic principles and as such they provide the only truly Islamic alternative to modern societies and to a modern way of life. One prominent group which makes this claim is Hizb ut-Tahrir, the “Party of Liberation,” founded in 1953 by the Palestinian scholar Taqiuddin al-Nabhani. Al-Nabhani was disillusioned with capitalism, with colonialism and democracy, but also with nationalism which was the predominant Muslim response to these challenges. The nation-state divided the ummah, the Islamic community, and set Islamic brothers against each other. The situation was made worse by the way each state in the Muslim world allied itself with various imperialist powers. As Al-Nabhani explained in books such as The Islamic State and Economic System of Islam, a restored caliphate would unite all Muslims into one political community ruled by a religious leader, a caliph, or “successor” to Muhammad. The ummah-wide caliphate would be organized according to sharia law and it would be founded on Islamic economic principles, which, for example, would ban the charging of interest rates. The caliphate would be a welfare state of sorts, where charity would extend to the elderly, the poor, widows and the disabled. The leaders would be accountable and government based on the rule of law. Political parties would no longer be needed since the community would be united under the precepts of the Quran.

Although often banned, Hizb ut-Tahrir has spread to more than 40 countries and has an estimated one million members worldwide. The organization is active in Europe, in Britain in particular, but also in several countries in Central Asia. The movement is strongly anti-Zionist and regards Israel as an abomination. In Europe Hizb ut-Tahrir has often been accused of trying to take over local schools and to change the curriculum to reflect its agenda. In 2007, the movement caused headlines in Denmark by changing the curriculum of a nursery school, and in the spring of 2014, it was implicated in what British newspapers called “Operation Trojan Horse,” an alleged plot to replace head-teachers and change learning objectives in schools in Birmingham and elsewhere. The British authorities have begun monitoring the group, suspecting it of links to terrorist organizations. And the political agenda of a terrorist group such as Al Qaeda is indeed very close to that of Hizb ut-Tahrir. Al Qaeda too rejects the principles of modern societies and hopes that the caliphate can be restored. Indeed, in the spring of 2014, ISIL, the “Islamic State in Iraq and the Levant,” captured large territories in Iraq and Syria and proceeded to announce the reestablishment of the caliphate. The great difference between groups such as these and Hizb ut-Tahrir is that the latter always has rejected terrorist methods and regards the taking of innocent lives as a crime against the Quran.

Once Toledo was captured in 1085, it became the most important city in Christian Spain and its cultural and intellectual center. Christians from all over al-Andalus took their refuge here, but intellectually speaking the city served more as a bridge than as a spearhead. The scholars who ended up in Toledo were often Arabic speaking and they relied on Arabic sources in their work. Coming into contact with western Christendom, where Latin was the only written language, it became necessary to translate this material. This was an exciting task since the Arabs had access to many works, including classical Greek texts, which European scholars had heard about but never themselves read – works by Galen on medicine, by Ptolemy on geography, by Aristotle on philosophy, and so on. Europeans no longer knew Greek, and in many cases the texts themselves had simply disappeared. In the first part of the twelfth-century, Raymond, the arch-bishop of Toledo, set up a center in the library of the cathedral where classical works were translated, together with the commentaries and elaborations provided by Arabic scholars. Gerard of Cremona was the most productive of the translators, translating more than 87 works on statecraft, ethics, physiognomy, astrology, geometry, alchemy, magic and medicine. Scholars from all over Europe gathered here to read the translations, and as they returned home, they took copies of the texts with them.

The translation movement of Toledo of the twelfth- and thirteenth-centuries thus parallels the translation movement of Baghdad of the ninth- and tenth-centuries. The Arabs translated the classics from Greek into Arabic, and now the same texts were translated from Arabic into Latin. Instead of being lost, the books had survived, first in Baghdad and other Muslims centers of scholarship, and then, making the trip around the Mediterranean, they showed up in Spain. From here they continued straight into a new European institution – the university. The first European universities were established in the twelfth-century, and they used the new translations as their first textbooks. This is how Albertus Magnus and Thomas Aquinas came to read Ibn Rushd and Ibn Sina, how Roger Bacon was inspired by the scientific methods of Ibn al-Haytham, and how Nicolaus Copernicus came to consult the tables, based on the works by Greek and Arabic astronomers, which allowed him to see that the sun, not the earth, is at the center of our solar system. Renaissance means “rebirth” and what was reborn in the Renaissance, in the fifteenth-century, in Italy and elsewhere, was more than anything the scholarship of classical antiquity – as saved, translated and elaborated on by the Arabs and by the scholars of Toledo.

Mosheh ben Maimon was a scholar, judge and medical doctor, born into an influential Jewish family in Cordoba in 1135. He is known as “Musa Ibn Maymun” in Arabic and as “Moses Maimonides” in Latin. Ben Maimon was trained both in the Jewish and the Arabic intellectual traditions – indeed, the two were quite impossible to separate – and he wrote in Judeo-Arabic, a classical form of Arabic which used the Hebrew script. To subsequent generations of Jewish scholars Ben Maimon is most famous as the author of the fourteen volume Mishneh Torah, a sprawling collection containing all the laws and regulations that govern Jewish life – rules for how to say prayers, conduct weddings and funerals, the appropriate punishments for adulteresses and thieves, dietary prescriptions, and so on. The Mishneh Torah is still widely read and commented on to this day.

In 1148, when the Almohad rulers of al-Andalus imposed their religious reforms on their subjects, Christians and Jews were required to either convert or be killed. However, Ben Maimon and his family escaped to Egypt which at the time was run by the Fatimid caliphs, a far more tolerant regime. Note that escaping north — into Christian Europe — never was entertained as an option.  In Cairo he established himself as an interpreter of the Torah and as a teacher in the Jewish community.  However, after his brother drowned in the Indian Ocean, taking the family’s collected savings with him, Ben Maimon was forced to seek employment, and he ended up as a doctor at the court of the sultan. This is when he began reaching out to a broader intellectual community, writing his most famous philosophical work, Guide for the Perplexed. Much as Ibn Rushd, a fellow Cordoban and his contemporary, he defended reason against revelation and rejected literal readings of sacred texts. For example: when the Torah talks about “the finger of God,” we should not imagine that God actually has a finger, and it is not actually the case that God “gets angry” with his people when the Torah says he does.  These are metaphors and allegories that ordinary people need in order to believe.  And it is important that ordinary people believe, or there will be nothing that prevents them from sinning.

We are very knowledgeable about Ben Maimon’s life thanks to the Cairo Geniza, a collection of up to 300,000 fragments of manuscripts discovered in the synagogue in Cairo. Since Jews were afraid to throw away any piece of paper which had the name of God written on it  – or even any paper on which God’s name may be written — they ended up with a very large collection of papers of varous kinds.  The texts were preserved to this day in the Geniza and this includes Ben Maimon’s personal notes and correspondence.

Although Ben Maimon died in Cairo in 1204, and his family remained as leaders of the Jewish community there for many generations, he is buried in Tiberias, by the Sea of Galilee, in what today is Israel. On his death, the story goes, he wanted to be buried in the land of his forefathers. In 1955 road works were conducted in Tiberias and a tractor came across structures which soon were identified as Ben Maimon’s grave. Although the authorities concerned refused to halt the construction, Orthodox Jewish groups began protesting, staging sit-downs, and eventually they managed to stop the work. Subsequently a large monument was erected in Ben Maimon’s honor, next to monuments of other famous Jewish religious leaders. The tomb is today a site of pilgrimage for Israelis, a practice which would have outraged Ben Maimon himself since one of the rules of his Mishneh Torah is a prohibition against praying at tombs. Ben Maimon would no doubt also have objected to being made into an Israeli citizen after his death and used as a means to give historical legacy the new state. More than anyone else Ben Maimon symbolized the very tight connection between the Muslim and the Jewish heritage.

Meanwhile the Jewish community in Cairo which as recently as in the 1920s comprised some 80,000 people has dwindled to fewer than 200 today. There is a tradition among them that Ben Maimon’s body never was transferred to Tiberias and that he still is buried in Cairo.

Ibn Rushd, known in Europe as “Averroes,” was a scholar and a philosopher born in Cordoba in al-Andalus in 1126 CE. Born into an established family of administrators and judges, Ibn Rushd received an education in Islamic theology and jurisprudence, but he also studied medicine. He is most famous for his detailed commentaries on the work of Aristotle, which he strongly defended against those who regarded Aristotle as an infidel who knew nothing about the teachings of the Quran. Ibn Rushd, that is, defended reason above revelation. Or rather, the believed that revelation, as presented in the Quran, is knowledge of ultimate truth as conveyed to the illiterate masses. Religion teaches by signs and symbols, but philosophy presents the truth itself. Ordinary people are literal-minded and they need miracles in order to believe. To them, the God of the Quran is a being with human features who acts and reacts much as human beings do – he gets angry, suspicious, revengeful, and so on. Proper philosophers, however, know that God is nothing like that. If God was like a human being, he would quite obviously not be God. Miracles happen, but they must always correspond to the laws which govern the universe, or the universe will become arbitrary and unintelligible.

Ibn Rushd worked as a judge in Sevilla and as a scholar at the court of the Almohad rulers in Marrakesh, and it was apparently the caliph himself who had asked him to write the commentaries on Aristotle. Ibn Rushd devoted the best thirty years of his life to this task. The Almohad rulers appreciated his teachings since they too rejected a literal-minded interpretation of the Quran, and they liked his emphasis on philosophical understanding, which they interpreted as an esoteric teaching. Yet Ibn Rushd made many enemies among the establishment, including among jurists who had made a career for themselves by interpreting the literal meaning of the Quran. Late in his life, in 1195, Ibn Rushd was accused of heresy and exiled. He was returned to favor in 1198, but died soon afterwards. Ibn Rushd is buried in the family grave in Cordoba.

Ibn Rushd, and in particular his commentaries on Aristotle, came to have a far-reaching influence on intellectual developments in Europe, in particular on Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas was the great theologian of the Middle Ages, the Church Father who in his Summa theologica defined the official position of the Church on next to all matters of philosophy and dogma. Aquinas asked himself the very same question as Ibn Rushd concerning the relationship between revelation and reason, and his conclusions were basically the same. That is, there is ultimately no conflict between the two. To make this point as forcefully as possible, Aquinas naturally turned to Ibn Rushd for support. After all, Ibn Rushd’s commentaries provided the most extensive, and most sophisticated, introduction to Aristotle’s thought available. Aquinas disagreed with many of Ibn Rushd’s substantive conclusions, but he always referred to Ibn Rushd with the greatest respect, calling him “the Commentator,” much as he called Aristotle “the Philosopher.” However, subsequent generations of Europeans were not equally generous. In the later Middle Ages, Ibn Rushd became the very epitome of a misguided Muslim who was wrong on every account. Yet this was also why his work was rediscovered during the Renaissance. Philosophers in Florence, Italy, were excited by Ibn Rushd’s doctrines, precisely because they had been rejected by the medieval philosophers who preceded them.

The seminal contribution which Ibn Rushd made to the intellectual development of Europe had no counterpart in the Muslim world itself. Here Ibn Rushd left no “school” and no disciples, and his works were barely read. His thought, with its defense of Aristotle in the face of the literal statements of the Quran, was considered too close to a heresy. It was instead only at the end of the nineteenth-century that Ibn Rushd was discovered. The reason was a book by the French Orientalist Ernest Renan, Averroës et l’Averroïsme, 1852, in which Renan made a strong case for Ibn Rushd’s importance. Translating Renan’s book into Arabic, Muslim intellectuals discovered exactly what they had been looking for – a Arab who had made a seminal contribution not only to Arabic civilization but to the civilization of the world. Ibn Rushd mattered to them since he mattered to the Europeans; stressing his importance was thus a way of stressing their own importance.

To some contemporary Muslim intellectuals, Ibn Rushd has become a symbol of a more liberal, more rationalistic, intellectual tradition. By emphasizing reason at the expense of revelation, Ibn Rushd would seem to stand closer to a scientific, modern, world-view. Yet Ibn Rushd was obviously neither a liberal nor a democrat – no twelfth-century intellectuals were.

Abu I-Hasan, 789-857 CE, nicknamed “Ziryab” from the Arabic for “black bird,” was a musician, singer, composer, poet and teacher, who lived and worked in Baghdad, Northern Africa, and during thirty years in Al-Andalus in Spain. More than anything he was a master of the oud, the Arabic lute, to which he added a fifth pair of strings and began playing with a pick rather than the fingers. Many good musicians assembled at the court in Córdoba, but Ziryab was the best. He established a school where the Arabic style of music was taught for generations, creating a tradition which was to have a profound influence on all subsequent music in Spain, not least on the flamenco.

In addition Ziryab was the court’s leading authority on questions of food and fashion where he set an elegant standard of etiquette previously unknown in this part of the world. He changed his clothes according to the weather and the season, and he suggested different dress for mornings, afternoons and evenings. He is said to have invented a new type of deodorant to get rid of bad odors, and also promoted morning and evening baths. He also invented an early form of toothpaste and popularized shaving among men. Among the products he took with him from Baghdad were new fruits and vegetables such as the asparagus as well as the habit of serving three-course meals, consisting of soup, main course and dessert.