History of International Relations Textbook

The Muslim caliphates

After the death of the prophet Muhammad in Medina in 632, his followers on the Arabian peninsula expanded quickly in all directions, creating an empire which only one hundred years later came to include not only all of the Middle East and much of Central Asia, but North Africa and the Iberian peninsula as well. This was known as the “caliphate,” from khalifah, meaning “succession.” Yet it was difficult to keep such a large political entity together and there were conflicts regarding who should be regarded as the rightful heir to the prophet. Thus the first caliphate was soon replaced by a second, a third and a fourth, each one controlled by rivaling factions. The first caliphate, the Rashidun Caliphate, 632-661, was led by the sahabah, the “companions” who were the family and friends of the prophet and who all were drawn from Muhammad’s own Quraysh tribe. The second caliphate, the Umayyads, 661-750, moved the capital to Damascus in Syria. And while it did not last long, one of its offshoots established itself in today’s Spain and Portugal, known as al-Andalus, and made Córdoba into a thriving, multicultural center.

The third caliphate, the Abbasids, 750-1258, presided over what is often referred to as the “Islamic Golden Age,” when science, technology, philosophy and the arts flourished. The Abbasid capital, Baghdad, became a center in which Islamic learning combined with influences from Persia, India and even China. These achievements came to an abrupt halt when the Mongols sacked the city in 1258. From now on it was instead Cairo that constituted the center of the Muslim world. Yet the caliphs in Cairo too were quickly undermined, in this case by their own soldiers, an elite corps of warriors known as the Mamluks. The next Muslim empire to call itself a “caliphate” was instead the Ottoman Empire, with its capital in Istanbul, the city the Greeks had called “Constantinople.” Although the Ottomans were Muslims, they were not Arabs but Turks, and they had their origin in Central Asia, not on the Arabian peninsula.

Despite the continuing story of political infighting and fragmentation, the idea of the caliphate continues to exercise a strong rhetorical force in the Muslim world to this day. During the caliphates the Arab world experienced unprecedented economic prosperity and a cultural and intellectual success which made them powerful and admired. Not surprisingly perhaps, the idea of restoring the caliphate is still alive today among radical Islamic groups who want to boost Muslim self-confidence.

The Arab expansion

After the death of the prophet Muhammad in 632, the various families, clans and tribes which made up the population of the Arabian peninsula seemed prepared to return to their previous ways of life, which included perpetual rivalries and occasional cases of outright warfare. Yet a small but influential group of the prophet’s followers, the sahabah, sought to preserve the teachings which he had left them and to keep the Arabs united. This, the sahabah believed, could best be achieved if their energies were directed towards external, non-Arab targets. Moreover, they were on a mission from God. The sahabah were the custodians of the revelation as given to Muhammad and their task was to spread the word and convert infidels to the new faith. The new leader of the community must consequently, many felt, combine the qualities which had characterized Muhammad himself – to be a religious leader but also a politician and military commander. In 632, it was the prophet’s father-in-law, Abu Bakr, who best exemplified these qualities and he was elected to be the first caliph of what later came to be known as the rashidun, or “rightly guided,” caliphate. During his short rule, 632-634, Abu Bakr consolidated Muslim control over the Arabian peninsula, but he also attacked the southern parts of Iraq, occupied by the Persians, and the southern parts of Syria, occupied by the Byzantines.

The term jihad, “holy war,” is often used to describe this military expansion, yet political control, not religious conversion, was its main objective. The expansion may best be explained not by a religious but by a military logic. Since the troops of the caliphate were paid by the spoils of war – by what they could lay their hands on in the lands they conquered – the army could only be maintained as long as it continued to be successful. “Raids” is consequently a better term for many of these engagements than “battles,” even if the raids eventually turned into permanent occupations. Thus when the advance of the Muslim forces throughout Europe eventually was stopped at the Battle of Tours in 732, this was regarded as a major triumph by European observers but merely as a temporary setback by the Arabs themselves. They simply retreated in order to fight another day. Moreover, since their occupations in many cases were quite superficial, it was often easy enough for the local population to reassert their independence. As a result, in several cases the Arabs had to reconquer the same territory over and over again.

The secret behind this astounding military success was a lightly armed and highly mobile fighting force. Although Muhammad and his immediate followers were merchants and city-dwellers, most of the population of the Arabian peninsula were Bedouins. Mobility was key to survival in the harsh environment of the desert, and thanks to horses and camels, the Bedouins could cover large distances with great speed. Once they were formed into an army their horses could be used for swift attacks and their camels for transporting supplies. The neighboring Empires – the Greeks in Byzantium to the west and the Persians to the east – were both stationary by comparison. As soon as the Arabs had mastered the basics of siege warfare, these sedentary societies were easily defeated.

Moreover, the Arabs were able to benefit from the fact that Byzantines and Persians already for centuries had been each other’s worst enemies. After decades of relative peace, the wars between the two superpowers flared up again in the beginning of the seventh century, with devastating effects for both parties. Thus when the Arab forces began their incursions from the south, both Byzantines and Persians were already considerably weakened. However, it was far more difficult for the Arabs to expand wherever they encountered people who resembled themselves. This was the case in northern Africa where the Berbers, after some costly engagements, were not defeated as much as bought off and incorporated into the new Arab elite.

During the second caliph, Umar, who succeeded Abu Bakr in 634 and ruled for ten years, these military campaigns were dramatically extended. The caliphate now became an imperial power. They occupied the eastern parts of the Byzantine Empire, including Syria, Anatolia and Egypt in the 630s; and then all of the Persian empire in the 640s, including present-day Afghanistan, Azerbaijan, Armenia and Georgia. Umar’s greatest achievement, however, was to give an administrative structure to the new state. Clearly, the institutions once appropriate for the cities of Mecca and Medina were not appropriate for the vast empire which the caliphate now had become. Umar’s answer was the diwan, a state bureaucracy with a treasury and separate departments responsible for tax collection, public safety and the exercise of sharia law. Coins were minted by the state and welfare institutions were established which looked after the poor and needy; grain was stockpiled to be distributed to the people at times of famine. The caliphate engaged in several large-scale projects, building new cities, canals and irrigation systems. Roads and bridges were constructed too and guest houses were set up for the benefit of merchants or for pilgrims going to Mecca for the hajj. Umar, the second rightly guided caliph, has always been highly respected by Muslims for these achievements and for his personal modesty and sense of justice.

Although the occupation of lands outside of the Arabian peninsula happened exceedingly quickly, converting the occupied populations to the new faith took centuries to accomplish, and in many cases it never happened at all. As a result of its military victories, Islam became a minority religion everywhere the Arabs went, and forced conversions were for that reason alone unlikely to prove successful. Moreover, conversions were financially disadvantageous to the authorities. Since non-Muslims were required to pay a tax, the jizya, which was higher than the tax for Muslims, a change of religion meant a loss of tax revenue for the caliphate.

Instead the various non-Muslim communities, known as the dhimmi, were allowed to practice their religion much as before. As the new Arab rulers saw it, monotheistic religions such as Christianity, Judaism and Zoroastrianism were precursors of Islam which the teachings of the prophet had made redundant. [Read more:Zarathustra and Zoroastrianism”] The military success of his followers, in their own eyes, had proven the viability of the new faith. Other religions were thus regarded as the colorful remnants of an older order, but not as threats to Islam itself. Indulging them, the Arab rulers allowed them to govern their respective communities in accordance with their own customs. Christians, for example, could continue to drink alcohol and eat pork. Though the dhimmi lacked certain political rights which came with membership in the community of Muslim believers, they were regarded as equal with Muslims before the law and they were not expected to become soldiers in the caliphate’s armies.

In 644, Umar was assassinated by a slave during a hajj to Mecca, apparently as a revenge for the wars which the Arabs had made on the Persian empire. This time around the problem of succession became acute. The question of who should take over as caliph concerned how power should be distributed among the small elite of the prophet’s Arabian followers. The most obvious choice was Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law, who had married Fatimah, the only one of the prophet’s children who survived him. Yet it was instead Uthman ibn Affan who became the third caliph. Uthman too was an early convert to Islam and one of the prophet’s closest companions but – and probably more importantly as far as the question of succession was concerned – he was a member of the Umayyads, one of Mecca’s oldest and best established families.

Once elected, Uthman dispatched military expeditions to recapture regions in Central Asia which had rebelled against Arab rule. He also made war on the Byzantine Empire, occupying most of present-day Turkey and coming close to besieging Constantinople itself. Rather more surprisingly for a military force largely made up of Bedouins, Uthman constructed an impressive navy which occupied the Mediterranean islands of Crete, Rhodes and Cyprus and made raids on Sicily. At the end of the 640s, when the Byzantine attempt to recapture Egypt failed, all of North Africa came under the caliphate’s control.

Despite these military advances, it was difficult to maintain peace between the various factions of the caliphate’s elite. Indeed, the rich spoils which the Arab armies encountered in countries such as Syria and Iraq constituted a new source of conflict. During Umar’s reign the soldiers had been paid a stipend, been quartered in garrisons well away from traditional urban areas, and been banned from taking agricultural land. During Uthman these policies were reversed. This led to resentment as a new land-owning Arab elite came to develop and to replace traditional leaders. Uthman was also accused of favoring members of his own family when it came to appointing governors to the new provinces. Another source of conflict was Uthman’s attempt to standardize the text of the Quran and thereby to force all believers to accept his interpretation of its message.

Resentment against these policies was channeled into support for Ali, Muhammad’s son-in-law, and before long an uprising against Uthman was under way. In 656, three separate armies marched on Medina, laid a siege on Uthman’s house and killed him. Now it was finally time for Ali to become the new leader. He remained in power for five years, 656-661, but his rule was undermined by continuous conflicts. Uthman’s followers wanted revenge and insisted that Ali should punish the people who had murdered him. This, however, was difficult for Ali to do since it was thanks to them that he had come to power. In addition, Uthman’s relatives and associates in the provinces wanted to protect their assets and their new landholdings. The result of these conflicts was the First Fitna, the first civil war between Muslims, which broke out in 657. Ali’s forces met the forces of the Umayyads at Siffin, in today’s Syria, but instead of a military confrontation, Ali decided to settle the matter by means of negotiations. This led some of his supporters to abandon his cause, and in 661 he was murdered by one of them. Muawiyah, the leader of the Umayyads, now established himself as the new caliph. However, this succession was disputed by Husayn, Ali’s son, and once again war broke out. In the year 680, Husayn was ambushed and killed together with all of his family.

This is the historical origin of the split between the Sunni and the Shia, the two largest denominations of Muslims in the world today. According to Shia beliefs, Ali had been designated as the prophet’s immediate successor, and his son and Muhammad’s grandson, Husayn, was thus the rightful heir. Shia Muslims continue to believe that the caliphate was taken away from them by the Umayyad family and that authority in the Muslim world is illegitimately exercised. They even blame themselves for Husayn’s killing, since not enough of his followers came to his support. On the day of his death, Ashura, a festival of mourning and repentance is celebrated by Shia Muslims. The processions held in Karbala, Iraq, where Husayn died, are the most spectacular, with millions of believers attending. These festivals have often been the targets of violence by non-Shia groups. Although only about 10 percent of all Muslims are Shia, they constitute today around 30 percent of the population of the Middle East.

The Umayyads and the Abbasids

Yet no amount of administrative reorganization could stop political conflicts from tearing also this caliphate apart. In the middle of the eighth century, the Umayyads were challenged by new regional elites, in particular by the governors of Iraq, a fertile and rich part of the empire. Before long a new civil war, the Second Fitna, broke out. In 750 the Umayyads were decisively defeated and the Abbasid Caliphate, 750-1258, took their place. The Abbasids claimed a descent from Abbas, Muhammad’s youngest uncle. Their first capital was Kufa, in southern Iraq, but in 762 they constructed a new capital in Baghdad. It was soon to become the largest and richest city in the world, and a great center of culture and learning.

In Baghdad many cultures mixed freely and, much as elsewhere in the Muslim world, the dhimmi were given the right to run their own affairs. During the Abbasid Caliphate the influences from Persia and Central Asia were strong. Persians, or rather Arabized Persians, were employed in the administration of the caliphate as advisers and judges, and Persian scholars and artists populated the caliph’s court. Cultural influences did not only come from Persia, however, but also from far further afield. From the Indians the Arabs learned about the latest advances in mathematics. [Read more: “Indian mathematics”] Through exchanges with China, the Arabs came to master the secrets of paper-making and soon a paper mill was established in Baghdad. Since paper is far cheaper to produce than parchment or papyrus, it was suddenly possible to gather far larger collections of books. Libraries were established throughout the caliphate which contained hundreds of thousands of volumes. At the time, the caliph’s library in Baghdad had the largest collection of books in the world. [Read more: “Arabian Nights”]

During the Abbasid Caliphate, the Arab world received influences from Byzantium too. Indeed, since Byzantium remained the caliphate’s greatest military enemy, competition with this remnant of the Roman Empire was intense. One cultural expression of their rivalry was the so called “translation movement” which began during the reign of the founder of the Abbasid Caliphate, al-Mansur, 754-775. Compared to the Greeks, the Arabs were social upstarts and although their cultural sponsorship was paying off handsomely, they had none of the historical prestige of the Greeks. Indeed, the Arabic language had until recently been spoken mainly by Bedouins in the desert and it lacked much of the technical terminology required to express philosophical and scientific ideas. All too aware of these deficiencies, the Abbasid caliphs embarked on a vast project of translating Greek books into Arabic. [Read more:The translation movement”]

Despite its glories and successes, Baghdad was not the only center of the caliphate. Indeed in Iraq itself, Basra and Samarra were important hubs, and in Central Asia different cities were run by increasingly self-assertive local rulers. Much like the caliphs in Baghdad they wanted not only political power but also the reputation of running an intellectually and culturally sophisticated court. Thus the library of the rulers of Shiraz, in Persia, was reputed to have a copy of every book in the world, and the library in Bukhara, in today’s Uzbekistan, had a catalog which itself ran into thousands of volumes – besides, the library provided free paper on which its users could take notes. Meanwhile, the local rulers of Afghanistan made that part of the Abbasid Caliphate into a center of learning. The leading scholar here, Abu Rayhan al-Bīrūnī, went to India and returned with books on astronomy and mathematics which he synthesized and expanded. [Read more:Indian mathematics”]

As the power of these regional centers grew, the Abbasid rulers in Baghdad became correspondingly weaker. They lost power over North Africa, including Egypt, in the eighth century, and in the tenth century they controlled little more than the heartlands of Iraq. Even in Baghdad itself, the caliphs lost power to the viziers, their prime ministers. Interestingly, the city seemed to benefit culturally from the political fragmentation and the new influences it provided. The majlis, or salon, was a particularly thriving institution. In the drawing-rooms of the members of the elite, scientists, philosophers and artists would meet to gossip, debate and exchange ideas. Here Muslims, Jews and Christians could mingle freely and often the political elites, including the caliphs themselves, would participate in the proceedings. The majlis provided a free intellectual atmosphere in which different opinions on matters of philosophy, religion and science thrived. This is how Muhammad al-Razi’s chemical discoveries – including the discovery of alcohol – became known, together with al-Farabi’s synthesis of the philosophies of Plato and Aristotle.

The glories of Baghdad, together with the Abbasid Caliphate itself, came to an abrupt end with the Mongol invasion of 1258. What the Mongols did to Baghdad counts as one of the greatest acts of barbarism of all time. A large proportion of the inhabitants were killed – estimates run into several hundreds of thousands – and all the remarkable cultural institutions were destroyed together with their contents. Survivors said that the water of the river Tigris running through the city was colored black from the ink of the books the Mongols had thrown into it, and red from the blood of the scholars they had killed. The caliph himself was rolled up in a carpet and trampled to death by horses. Baghdad never recovered from the devastation.

The Arabs in Spain

Although the Umayyads were decisively defeated by the Abbasids in 750, they obtained a surprising lease on life – in the Iberian peninsula, on the western-most frontier of the Arabic world. As the caliphate in Damascus was about to fall, a branch of the Umayyad family fled across North Africa and established itself in the city of Córdoba, in present-day Spain, or in what the Arabs referred to as “al-Andalus.” The Arabic incursion into Spain had started already in 711, with a small party of raiders, predominantly Berbers, making their way from Morocco to Gibraltar – or Jabal ariq as they called it, “the mountain of Tariq,” named after their commander. In the end all of present-day Spain and Portugal were occupied, except for a few provinces close to the Pyrenees in the north. In 756, the Umayyads established a new caliphate for themselves at Córdoba. They were greeted as saviors by the Jewish community who had suffered from persecution under the Visigoths, the previous rulers, and by many ordinary people too who had suffered under heavy taxation.

The Caliphate of Córdoba, 929-1031, was the high point of Arabic rule in Spain. This was first of all a period of great economic prosperity. The Arabs connected Europe with trade routes going to North Africa, the Middle East and beyond, and industries such as textiles, ceramics, glassware and metalwork were developed. Agriculture was thriving too. The Arabs introduced crops such as rice, watermelons, bananas, eggplant and wheat, and the fields were irrigated according to new methods, which included use of the waterwheel. Córdoba was a cosmopolitan city with a large multi-ethnic population of Spaniards, Arabs, Berbers, Christians and a flourishing community of Jews. In Córdoba, much as in the rest of the Arab world, the dhimmi were allowed to rule themselves as long as they stayed obedient to the rulers and paid their taxes. The caliphs were patrons of the arts and fashion and their courtiers took up civilized habits such as the use of deodorants and toothpaste. [Read more:Deodorants and the origin of flamenco”] But Córdoba was an intellectual center too. The great mosque, completed in 987 and modeled on the Great Mosque of Damascus, was not only a place of religious worship but also an educational institution with a library which contained some 400,000 books. The scholars who gathered here did cutting-edge research in the medical sciences, including surgery and pharmaceutics. They reacted quickly to intellectual developments which were coming out of Baghdad and from other places in the Arab world.

Yet this caliphate too proved difficult to keep together. In the first part of the eleventh century, it fell apart as rivalries, a coup and a full-fledged civil war – the Fitna of al-Andalus – pitted various factions against each other. In 1031, the caliphate disintegrated completely and political power in the Iberian peninsula was transferred to the taifa – the small, thirty-plus kingdoms which all called themselves “emirates” and all to varying degrees were in conflict with one another. This was when the Christian kingdoms in the north of the peninsula began to make military gains. Christian forces captured Toledo in 1085, and the city soon established itself as the cultural and intellectual center of Christian Spain. [Read more:The Toledo school of translators”] This is not to say that the various Christian kingdoms had a common goal and a common strategy. Rather, each Christian state, much as each Muslim, was looking after its own interests and making wars with other kingdoms quite irrespective of religious affiliations. Thus some emirs were allied with Christian kings, while kings paid tribute to emirs, and they all employed knights who killed on behalf of whoever paid the highest salary. Quite apart from the military insecurity of the taifa period, this competition had positive side effects. The taifa kings sponsored both sciences and the arts. This is how small provincial hubs such as Zaragoza, Sevilla and Granada came to establish themselves as cultural centers in their own right.

Enter the Almoravids. [Read more:North Africa”] The Almoravids were a Berber tribe, originally nomads from the deserts of North Africa, who had established themselves as rulers of Morocco, with Marrakesh as their capital. After the fall of Toledo, they invaded al-Andalus and already a year later, in 1086, they had successfully occupied the southern half of the Iberian peninsula. However, they never managed to take back Toledo. In 1147, at the height of their power, the Almoravids were toppled and their leader killed by a rivaling coalition of Berber tribes known as the Almohads. The Almohads were a religious movement as well as a military force, and their rule followed strict Islamic principles: they banned the sale of pork and wine and the mixing of men and women in public places. They burned books too – including Islamic tracts with which they disagreed – and insisted that Christians and Jews convert to Islam on the pain of death. [Read more:Ibn Rushd and the challenge of reason”] By 1172, the Almohads had conquered all of al-Andalus. Under these circumstances many of the inhabitants preferred to flee – Christians to the north, while Jews fled east to Cairo and the Fatimid Caliphate, where the rulers were far more accepting of members of other religions. [Read more: “Mosheh ben Maimon”]

Yet Almohad rule in al-Andalus did not last long. In 1212, at the Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa, the Christian princes managed, for the first time, to put up a united front against them. Córdoba fell to the Christian invaders in 1236 and Sevilla in 1248. From this time onward it was only Granada, together with associated smaller cities such Málaga, that remained in Muslim hands. Here, however, the multicultural and dynamic spirit of al-Andalus continued to thrive for another 250 years. Wisely, after Navas de Tolosa, Granada allied itself with the Christian state of Castile. Although this friendship occasionally broke down, the Emirate of Granada, as it came to be known, continued to pay tribute to Castile in the form of gold from as far away as Mali in Africa. [Read more:Golden Stool of the Asante”] Today the most visible remnant of the Emirate of Granada is the Alhambra, the fortress and palace which served as the residence of the emir. It is famous above all for its courtyards, its fountains and its roses. Yet in 1492, Granada too fell to the Christians and the last Emir of al-Andalus – Muhammad XII, known as “Boabdil” to the Spaniards – was forced out of Spain. The Christians, much as the Almohads before them, were on a mission from God, and they ruled the territories they had conquered in a similarly repressive fashion. The Alhambra Decree, issued three months after the fall of Granada, forced the non-Christian population to covert or leave. As a result some 200,000 Muslims left for North Africa, while an equal number of Jews preferred to settle in the Ottoman Empire to the east. This was the end of Muslim rule and the end of the cultural and intellectual flourishing of southern Spain.

A caliphal international system

The Fatimid Caliphate, 909-1171, is usually considered as the last of the four original caliphates which succeeded the prophet Muhammad. The Fatimids were originally Berbers from Tunisia but claimed their descent from Fatimah, the prophet’s daughter. They were Shia Muslims, which make them unique among caliphs. In 969 they moved their capital to Cairo and from here they ruled all Muslim lands west of Syria, including the western part of the Arabian peninsula, Sicily and all of North Africa. Fatimid Cairo displayed much the same multicultural mix and intellectual vigor as the capitals of the other caliphates. The Fatimids founded the al-Azhar mosque here in 970, and also the al-Azhar university, associated with the mosque, where students studied the Quran together with the sciences, mathematics and philosophy. Al-Azhar University is still the chief center of Islamic learning in the world and a main source of fatwas, religious rulings and opinions.

Yet the Fatimid Caliphate was not actually an empire, if we by that term mean a united political entity which imposes its authority on every part of the territory it claims to control. In fact, all of the caliphates had barely established themselves before they began to fall apart. Thus the Abbasids lost power over North Africa, including Egypt, already in the eighth century. The Fatimids soon lost power too, including power over their Berber heartlands where the Almoravids and Almohads took over. Sicily was next to break off, first establishing its own independent emirate and then, in 1072, the island was occupied by Vikings from France. [Read more: “Kitab Rujar and the Emirate of Sicily”] In the end the caliphs were really only in control of their respective heartlands which, in case of the Fatimids, meant the Nile river valley.

In addition, the Fatimid caliphs became increasingly dependent on mercenaries, known as mamluks, meaning “possession” or “slave.” The mamluks were bought or captured as children, often from the Caucasus or Turkish-speaking parts of Central Asia. From here they were taken to Cairo where they were housed in garrisons together with other captives, brought up in the Muslim faith and taught martial arts – archery and cavalry in particular. The mamluks served as soldiers and military leaders but also as scribes, courtiers, advisers and administrators. Yet it was not a good idea to give slaves access to weapons. Ousting the Fatimids, the mamluks took power in Egypt in 1250 and ruled the country, as the Mamluk Sultanate, until 1517, when the Ottomans invaded. [Read more:Saladin and the Crusaders”] The Mamluk sultans ran a meritocratic regime, rewarding the talented and the hardworking rather than the well-connected, but since succession did not follow a family line, the infighting at court was intense. Some rulers ruled for days rather than years and none of them slept comfortably at night. The Mamluks embarked on ambitious architectural projects, constructing mosques and other public buildings in a distinct architectural style of their own.

The result was an international system with unique characteristics – perhaps we could talk about a “caliphal international system.” Instead of being an empire, each caliphate was more like a federation where the constituent parts had a considerable amount of independence from the center and from each other. The system as a whole was held together by institutional rather than by military means – by its language, its administrative prowess and by an abiding loyalty to the idea of the caliphate itself. And it was held together by religion too of course. The caliphs were religious leaders of enormous cultural authority. This applied in particular to the caliphs, such as the Fatimids, who had responsibility for the holy sites at Mecca and Medina.

The result was an international system where there occasionally were conflicts over boundaries and jurisdictions but where there were no wars of conquest. Political entities beyond the caliphate’s borders would occasionally make trouble, and military expeditions would be dispatched to punish them, yet the caliphs much preferred to control the foreigners by cultural means. For example: Baghdad would dispatch missions to the Bulgars, a people living on the river Volga in present-day Russia, in order to instruct them how to properly practice the Muslim faith. [Read more:A Viking funeral on the Volga”] Rulers such as the Bulgars paid tribute, and as a result the caliphates came to exercise a measure of control over far larger areas than their armies could capture.

Two external incursions temporarily wreaked havoc with these arrangements – the invasions by European Crusaders and by the Mongols. Both had come to Muslim lands from very far away indeed, and they had no respect whatsoever for Islamic civilization or for the idea of the caliphate. Both were bent on territorial conquest. The Europeans, known to the Arabs as Faranj, from “Franks,” first arrived in the eastern Mediterranean in the final years of the eleventh century and proceeded to capture Jerusalem and what they regarded as the “Holy Land.” [Read more:Saladin and the Crusaders”] They then returned again and again as the First Crusade, 1095-1099, was followed by similar military campaigns in 1145, 1189, 1202, 1213, 1248 and 1270. The Faranj established small kingdoms on the territory of the Fatimid Caliphate, and they made war in a barbarian fashion – the capture of Jerusalem in 1099, and the subsequent massacre of civilians, is only the most notorious example. In 1291, with the fall of the last Crusader state, the Europeans were eventually defeated. As far as the Mongols are concerned, they captured and destroyed Baghdad in 1258, yet only two years later, at the Battle of Ain Jalut, they were themselves defeated and their advance stopped. Although the Mongols had been beaten before, they would always come back to exact a terrible revenge. After Ain Jalut, however, this did not happen. It signaled the beginning of the end of the Mongol Empire.

Why empires rise and fall was a question which preoccupied Ibn Khaldun, 1332-1406, a historian and philosopher, who worked first in Tunis, then in Cairo. It is the communal spirit of a people, he argued, which makes a state powerful. This is the spirit which makes a people, such as the Berbers of North Africa, work together even under the harshest of circumstances. Yet, once they have come to power and settled in cities, they lose their communal spirit; everyone becomes more selfish and the political leaders start fighting each other. Ibn Khaldun’s work, the Muqaddimah, published in 1377, is sometimes considered the first text on historical sociology. [Read more:Ibn Khaldun and the role of asabiyyah”]

The Ottoman Empire

The empire which rose to replace the Abbasids as leaders of the Muslim world were the Ottomans. The Ottomans were Turks with their origin in Central Asia, and they spoke Turkish, not Arabic. Remarkably, the same dynasty, the Osmans, were in charge of the empire from Osman I in the thirteenth century until the last sultan, Mehmed VI, in the twentieth. Altogether there were thirty-six Ottoman sultans. Although the Turks too were Muslim and called themselves a “caliphate” – the Ottoman Caliphate, 1517-1924 – their capital was the former Greek city of Constantinople. While they ruled much of North Africa and the Middle East, they ruled much of Europe too – the Balkans in particular and large parts of eastern Europe.

First founded in 1299, the Ottoman Empire began as one of many small states on the territory of what today is Turkey. After having conquered most of their neighbors, the Ottomans moved across the Bosporus and into Europe in the early fifteenth century. Before long they came to completely surround the Byzantines – now reduced to the size of little more than the city of Constantinople itself. As far as the Byzantine Empire is concerned, it claimed a legacy which went right back to the Roman era. In the year 330 of the Common Era, emperor Constantine had moved the capital to the eastern city that came to carry his name. Rather miraculously, when the western section of the empire fell apart in the fifth and sixth centuries, the eastern section survived. Over the years Constantinople was besieged by Arabs, Persians and Russians, and in 1204 the city was sacked and destroyed by members of the Fourth Crusade. Despite these setbacks the Byzantine Empire managed to thrive both culturally and economically. [Read more: “The Byzantine diplomatic service”] However, in May 1453, after a seven-week-long siege, Constantinople fell to the Ottomans, led by sultan Mehmed II, henceforth known as “Mehmed the Conqueror.” The city was renamed “Istanbul,” and the famous cathedral, Hagia Sophia, was turned into a mosque. The defeat was met with fear and trepidation by Christians all over Europe and it is mournfully remembered by Greek people to this day.

Even as Constantinople was renamed “Istanbul,” it continued to be a cosmopolitan city. In the Ottoman Empire, much as in the Arab caliphates which preceded it, the dhimmi enjoyed a protected status. Known as the millet system in Turkish, the Ottoman Empire gave each minority group the right to maintain its traditions and to be judged by its own legal code. It was policies such as these that convinced many Jews to settle here after the Christian occupation of Muslim Spain in 1492. To this day there are Spanish-speaking Jews in the former parts of the Ottoman Empire. Moreover, the city’s strategic location at the intersection of Europe and Asia was as beneficial to Ottoman traders as it had been to the Byzantines. The state manipulated the economy to serve its own ends – to strengthen the army and to enrich the rulers – yet the administrators employed for these purposes were highly trained and competent. The state-sponsored projects which the Ottomans embarked on, such as the construction of roads, canals and mosques, helped spur economic development. The empire was prosperous and markets for both consumer items and fashion were established. [Read more: “Tulipmanias”]

The Ottomans continued to enjoy military success. Selim I, 1512-1520, established a navy which operated as far away as in the Red Sea and the Persian Gulf. He defeated both Persia and the Mamluks in Egypt, dramatically expanding an empire which now also included the holy cities of Mecca and Medina. It was now that the sultans began calling themselves “caliphs,” implying that they were the rulers of all Muslim believers everywhere. Suleiman I, known as “the Magnificent,” 1520-1566, continued the expansion into Europe. He captured Belgrade in 1521 and Hungary in 1526, laid a siege on Vienna in 1529, but failed to take the city. The Ottoman army responsible for these feats was quite different from the European armies of the time. Like other armies with their roots in a nomadic tradition, they relied on speed and mobility to overtake their enemies, fighting with bows and arrows on fast horses. But the Ottoman armies were also one of the first to use muskets. During the siege of Constantinople they used falconets – short, light cannons – to great effect. More surprisingly perhaps, the Ottomans had a powerful navy which helped them unite territories on all sides of the Mediterranean. The Ottoman army, much as armies elsewhere in the Muslim world, relied heavily on foreign-born soldiers. [Read more: “Janissaries and Turkish military music”] In the case of the Ottomans too, these former slaves eventually established themselves as rulers in their own right. This is how the Ottoman provinces of Egypt, Iraq and Syria came to assume an increasingly independent position, each ruled by its own military commanders.

The Ottomans were skillful diplomats. Despite the official Christian fear of the Turks, the Ottoman Empire was after 1453 a European power and as such an obvious partner in both alliances and wars. This was particularly the case for any European power that opposed countries which also were the enemies of the Turks – such as the Habsburg Empire and Russia. The French, for example, quickly realized that the Ottomans constituted a force which could be convinced to attack the Habsburgs from the back. During the Thirty Years War in the seventeenth century, the king of Sweden drew the same conclusion. And much later, in the 1850s, Great Britain and France relied on Turkey as an ally in making war against Russia in the Crimea. At the Congress of Paris, 1856, which concluded the Crimean War, the Ottoman Empire was officially included as a member of the European international system of states.

Yet for much of its later history, the empire was in decline. Economically it suffered when international trade routes, from the sixteenth century onward, were directed away from the Mediterranean. Together with the rest of Eastern Europe they suffered again when, in the nineteenth-century, the western parts of Europe began to industrialize and cheap factory-made goods began flooding in. The failed siege of Vienna in 1683 – the second time the Ottomans tried to take the city – is often seen as the symbolic start of the decline. The Ottomans held the city ransom for some two months, during which food was becoming exceedingly scarce and the Austrians increasingly desperate. [Read more:Coffee and croissants”] In the end the Ottomans were decisively defeated, losing perhaps 40,000 men. And before the end of the seventeenth century they had lost both Hungary and Transylvania to the Austrians. In the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire became known as “the sick man of Europe.” A number of administrative reforms were tried during this period. After the revolt of the so called “Young Turks” in 1908 – a secret society of university students – the Ottoman Empire became a constitutional monarchy in which the sultan no longer enjoyed executive powers. The Ottoman Empire ceased to exist in 1922, the republic of Turkey was founded in 1923, and the caliphate was officially abolished in 1924.

Read more:

  • Adamson, Peter. Philosophy in the Islamic World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.
  • Bauer, Susan Wise. The History of the Medieval World: From the Conversion of Constantine to the First Crusade. New York: WW Norton & Co., 2010.
  • Bennison, Amira K. The Great Caliphs: The Golden Age of the ’Abbasid Empire. London: I.B. Tauris, 2009.
  • Casale, Giancarlo. The Ottoman Age of Exploration. New York; Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.
  • Faroqhi, Suraiya. The Ottoman Empire and the World Around It. London: I.B. Tauris, 2006.
  • Gutas, Dimitri. Greek Thought, Arabic Culture: The Graeco-Arabic Translation Movement in Baghdad and Early ’Abbasaid Society. London: Routledge, 1998.
  • Jayyusi, Salma Khadra, ed. The Legacy of Muslim Spain. Leiden: Brill, 2000.
  • Menocal, Maria Rosa. The Ornament of the World: How Muslims, Jews and Christians Created a Culture of Tolerance in Medieval Spain. Boston: Back Bay Books, 2003.
  • Ramadan, Tariq. Introduction to Islam. New York: Oxford University Press, 2017.
  • Starr, S. Frederick. Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2013.


  • 632. Death of the Prophet Muhammad in Medina.
  • 657. The First Fitna, the first Muslim civil war, fought between groups which later would become Sunni and Shia.
  • 661. The Umayyad Caliphate is established in Damascus.
  • 711. Arabs cross into Spain at Gibraltar.
  • 732. The Battle of Tour in central France. The Muslim forces are defeated.
  • 750. The Umayyads are defeated in the Second Fitna. The Abbasid Caliphate is founded and comes to take Baghdad as its capital.
  • 929. The Caliphate of Córdoba is established by a branch of the Umayyad family.
  • 969. Cairo is founded by the Fatamid caliphate.
  • 1031. Fall of the Caliphate of Córdoba.
  • 1212. Battle of Las Navas de Tolosa where a coalition of Christian kings defeat the Almoravids.
  • 1258. The Mongols destroy Baghdad.
  • 1453. The Ottoman capture Constantinople and rename it “Istanbul.”
  • 1492. Granada falls and the last Muslim ruler leaves for North Africa.
  • 1683. The Ottomans besiege Vienna but fail to take the city.
  • 1922. The Ottoman Empire is dissolved.

Short dictionary

  • asabiyyah, Arabic. “Solidarity,” or “group cohesion.” Term used by Ibn Khaldun to explain the military and political success of nomadic peoples like the Berber.
  • devşirme, Turkish. “Ingathering.” The Ottoman practice of kidnapping young boys, mainly in the Balkans, who were brought up as servants of the state. The practice was abolished in the first part of the eighteenth-century.
  • dhimmi, Arabic. Literally, “protected person.” Designated non-Muslim residents of a Muslim caliphate. Equivalent to the Turkish millet.
  • Faranj, Arabic. Literally, “Frank.” “European.” Name given to the waves of armies from Europe who invaded the Middle East from the eleventh to the thirteenth century. Cf. the Thai farang and the Malay ferenggi.
  • fatwa, Arabic. A legal opinion on a point of Islamic law given by a legal scholar.
  • fitna, Arabic. Literally, “sedition,” “temptation” or “civil strife.” The name given to wars fought between various Muslim groups.
  • hajj, Arabic. Pilgrimage to Mecca. A religious duty for all Muslims.
  • jihad, Arabic. Literally, “striving” or “struggle.” Any effort to make personal or social life conform with God’s guidance. This includes proselytizing and projects that improve the situation of the ummah.
  • jizya, Arabic. The tax which Muslim rulers imposed on non-Muslim subjects.
  • majlis, Arabic. Literally, “a place of sitting.” Name for legislatures in the Islamic world, but also for gatherings that take place in private houses. The majlis of the Abbasid Caliphate were centers for intellectual discussions.
  • millet, Turkish. “Nation.” Designated non-Muslim communities which lived in the Ottoman Empire. Equivalent to the Arabic dhimmi.
  • Reconquista, La. Spanish. Literally, “The reconquest.” The attempt by Christian princes in northern Spain to occupy al-Andalus. Completed in 1492.
  • sahabah, Arabic. The companions, disciples, scribes and family of the Prophet Muhammad.
  • sharia, Arabic. Islamic law based on the text of the Quran, the Islamic tradition and rulings by legal scholars.
  • taifa, Arabic. The small, Muslim, kingdoms that were formed all over southern Spain after the fall of the Caliphate of Córdoba in 1031.