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Islam and the Arabs: A Concise History

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A Concise History of Islam and the Arabs

Introduction - This page provides an overview of the history of Islam and the Arabs, which is a great part of the history of the Middle East. The subject covers more than twelve centuries, about a dozen empires and a vast territory, stretching from Spain in the west to the islands of Indonesia in the Pacific Ocean. It is impossible to provide a comprehensive treatment of the history of Islam in a brief space. However, I have attempted to present here, and in related pages that are linked or planned, a concise (relatively) treatment of the essential facts that everyone should know about Islam, the Arabs and the Middle East. Islam arose in the Arabian peninsula, and its history and rites are connected with it. This history is meant to be read in conjunction with the complementary article about the history of Arabia.

The Rise of Islam - Muhammad, a prophet astute in statecraft and military strategy ‎and an inspired statesman, changed the history and destiny of Arabia and of much of ‎the world. He was born about 570 to the Banu Hashim family, reputable merchants in ‎the tribe of Quraysh in Mecca. According to tradition, he was a penniless orphan who ‎married Khadija, the widow of a rich merchant, somewhat older than himself. He ‎probably engaged in trade, and is said by some to have had responsibilities in ‎connection with the Ka'aba stone. When he was about forty years old he began ‎preaching a new religion, eventually meeting the opposition of Meccan oligarchy. ‎Initially, Muhammad made few converts and many enemies. His first converts were ‎Khadija, Ali (who became the husband of Fatima), and Abu-Bakr.

The Hijra - From about 620, ‎Mecca became actively hostile, since much of its revenues depended on its pagan ‎shrine, the Kaaba, under the protection of the Quraysh, and an attack on the existing ‎Arab religion was an attack on the prosperity of Mecca.‎ Following the death of Khadija in 621, Muhammad married eleven other women. ‎Tradition relates that he and his followers were invited to the town of Yathrib by ‎Jewish and Christian tribes after they were no longer welcome in Mecca. In 622, the ‎first year of the Muslim calendar, they set out on the Hijra, the emigration to Yathrib, ‎later renamed Medina, meaning "the city" where Muhammad  concluded a treaty with ‎the tribes of Medina. A large number of Medinans, known as the Ansar (helpers), ‎were attracted to Muhammad's cause. According to several sources, early versions of ‎Islamic practice included Jewish practices such as the fast of Yom Kippur and prayer ‎to Jerusalem, perhaps influenced by the Jews of Medina. These were eventually ‎dropped, and the direction of prayer was turned to Mecca. ‎

Battle of Badr - In 624 Muhammad learned of a war party of the Quraysh, who were setting out to ‎Medina to avenge the apparently accidental death of one Hadrami, a relative of the ‎leader of the Quraysh. Muhammad and his army, aided by the Ansar auxiliaries, rode ‎out to meet them at Badr. This battle, related in the Quran, is often called the first ‎battle of Islam, but in fact there had been several skirmishes before Badr. Despite the ‎numerical superiority of the Qurayshites, the Battle of Badr was apparently a clear ‎victory for Muhammad. The Quraysh lost about 70 warriors and leaders and 70 ‎captured (these "round" numbers may be historical conventions) out of a fighting ‎force of about a thousand. ‎

Battle of Uhud -The Qurayshites prepared better for the battle of Uhud, fought in the following year. ‎They gathered a force of some 3,000 men, including a strong cavalry contingent led ‎by Khalid Ibn Walid, later a famous general of Islam. The battle was fought in the vally ‎of Aqiq, north of Yathrib (Medina) in the shadow of Mount Uhud. Though the Muslims ‎had the initial advantage, they fell to looting the camp of the Meccans and ‎abandoned a good archery position in the high ground. This allowed Khalid ibn Walid ‎to save the day for the Qurayshites and inflict heavy losses on the Muslims. Tradition ‎relates that the Muslims lost 70 men in this battle. Uhud is often called the second ‎battle of Islam, because it is the second battle referred to in the Quran, or perhaps ‎because it was the second Ghazwa. A Ghazwa is a large scale raid that was led by Muhammad in person. ‎

Battle of The Trench - Muhammad believed firmly in his position as last of the prophets and as successor of ‎Jesus. Therefore, he seems at first to have expected that the Jews and Christians ‎would welcome him and accept his revelations, but he was soon disappointed. ‎Medina had a large Jewish population that controlled most of the wealth of the city, ‎and a portion of them at least refused to give their new ruler any kind of religious ‎allegiance. Muhammad, after a long quarrel, appropriated much of their property, and ‎destroyed two Jewish tribes, the Banu Nadir and the Banu Quraizah. Muhammad ‎fought the Banu Nadir and expelled them from Meccah. According to tradition, in 627, ‎remnants of the Banu Nadir instigated the formation of a large alliance (Ahzab) of ‎tribes including the Quraysh, the Banu Quraiza and others and mounted an attack on ‎Medina with a force of about 20,000. Muhammad and his followers constructed a ‎trench around Medina as a part of its fortification, purposely making one section ‎narrower than the rest, so that the Meccan attackers would try to cross the trench at ‎that point. This formed a convenient trap which resulted in the death of many ‎Meccans. Unable to cross the trench, the Meccans besieged Medina. Medina was ‎saved by a miracle reminiscent of the destruction of Senacharib before Jerusalem. ‎After 27 days of siege, according to tradition, God sent a piercing blast of the cold ‎east wind. The enemy’s tents were torn up, their fires were put out, the sand and rain ‎beat in their faces. Terrified by the portents, they broke camp and lifted the siege. ‎

Treaty of Hudaybieh - In 628, Muhammad and his followers set out on a pilgrimage to Mecca, and met the ‎Quraysh tribe at Hudaybiyeh, where the Quraysh had assembled to block the ‎pilgrimage. Instead of fighting, the enemies concluded a treaty and the Muslims ‎agreed not to make the pilgrimage that year. Instead, they turned on the Jews of the ‎town of Khaybar, who were now no longer protected by the Quraysh, and attacked ‎and subjugated the city.

Conquest of Mecca -  By 630, Muhammad and the Muslims were strong enough to ‎attack and conquer Mecca, despite the treaty, alleging that the Quraysh had violated ‎the treaty first. The Meccans were forced to convert to Islam, and the powerful ‎Quraish and Umayya tribes were incorporated into the Islamic leadership by giving ‎members of their leaders, especially Uthman, prominent positions in the military and ‎government. By this time pagan Arabia had been converted, and the Prophet's ‎missionaries, or legates, were active in the Eastern Empire, in Persia, and in ‎Ethiopia.‎

The new religion evolved into a way of life and recipe for community organization, ‎providing a religious and ideological framework for uniting the Arab tribes, and a ‎social and organizational framework for regulating the unified action of the nomads. ‎The separate tribes had been re-formed into a Muslim-Arab Umma (community). The ‎Qur'an is, among other things, a handbook for rules of war, prescribing the laws of ‎treaties and of booty and commanding the faithful to Jihad, (holy war) against any ‎who interfere with the practice of Islam. In practice, Jihad was often carried out as ‎aggressive war well beyond the borders of Islam. Muhammad had created powerful force that could now wrest control of much of the subcontinent. In 632, Muhammad died after a short illness. Though he had been an astute statesman, he failed to make any arrangements for his succession. His successors were chosen one after the other from among the family and supporters of Muhammad.

Abu Bakr, father-law of Muhammad, was his first successor. He was given command of the faithful as Khalifa (Caliph, deputy) of Muhammad. Several tribes living at some distance from Mecca refused to accept his rule, and a war of secession, the Ridda, was fought by Abu Bakr and his able general Khalid ibn al Walid to subjugate these tribes. Muslim successes in these wars and real or perceived threats from the neighboring Persian and Byzantine empires initiated a series of wars of conquest outside the Arabian peninsula. Abu Bakr died in 634, and was replaced by Umar, who completed the initial expansion of Islam.  The Byzantine and Persian empires had been greatly weakened by their struggles with each other and internal decay. The Arabs had perfected a form of warfare suitable for the desert, and for those times and conditions. The swordsmen mounted on camels, and living by raids and foraging were self-sufficient and didn't concern themselves with supply lines. They could come out of the desert that bordered Persian and Byzantine domains and strike at will. If they failed in battle, they could quickly retreat into the desert, where it was difficult for enemies mounted on horseback to follow. The failing Byzantine and Persian empires could not organize field armies large enough to decisively defeat the Arabs, nor could they provide the manpower for proper stationary defensive fortifications. The Arabs quickly conquered Syria, Palestine, Iraq, Egypt and Persia. The Caliph Umar conquered Jerusalem in 640, and guaranteed the safety of the Christian holy places.

The Caliphate is moved from Arabia - On the death of Umar (Omar) in 644, Uthman was chosen as Caliph. Uthman was murdered by mutinous soldiers in 656, provoking a civil war over the succession, and laying the foundation for an eventual split. In place of Uthman. Ali, the son-in-law of Muhammad, who had married his daughter Fatima, became Caliph. Ali moved the capital from Media to Kufa, in what is now Iraq. The Arabian peninsula, which had spawned Islam, remained an important religious center and the site of the holy pilgrimage to Mecca, but it was politically eclipsed and did not play an important part in the subsequent expansion of Islam. Ali  fought a civil war against supporters of the party of Uthman and others. He defeated the widow of Muhammad and her supporters at Basra, in modern Iraq, in the battle of the Camel. Mu'awiya, who ruled the province of Syria from Damascus, claimed that he was the legitimate successor to the Caliphate, and challenged Ali indecisively in the battle of Sittin in 657. The Kharjites (meaning "those who left") protested against the compromise outcome of the battle and formed a separate movement as adherents of Ali. They continued to be important until about the eleventh century and eventually evolved into Ibadi Islam. Ibadism is neither Sunni nor Shia, and exists today mainly in Oman, East Africa, the Mzab valley in Algeria, the Nafus mountains of Libya, and Jerba island  in Tunisia. Ali was murdered in  661 and the Caliphate moved to Damascus under Mu'awiya, who founded theUmayyad dynasty.

In the course of history, Islam diverged into numerous schools and sects with different approaches and philosophies ranging from fierce and puritanical schools such as the Wahhabi of Saudi Arabia to tolerant and spiritualistic Sufi practitioners.  Four different Sufi schools (Tasawwuf) arose in different parts of the Islamic world : The Naqshbandiah, the Qadriah, the Chishtiah, and Suharwardiah.  Sunni (meaning "orthodox") Sunni Islam includes four systems of law ((Madh'hab) . One of these, the school of Malik ibn Anas (died in 796), which is observed today in much of Africa and Indonesia, originated with the scholars of Medina. The three other Sunni law schools (Hanafi, Shafii, and Hanbali) developed at about the same time, mostly based on Iraqi scholarship.

The Rise of Shi'ism -. Despite civil discord, Mu'awiya continued the rapid expansion of Islam throughout central and Eastern Asia, including Afghanistan. Mu'awiya also launched the first Muslim expeditions against Byzantine Constantinople, though he was unsuccessful.  In 680, Mu'awiya died and was succeeded by Yazid.  Yazid was challenged by Hussayn, the son of Ali, in the same year, and Hussayn and his followers were massacred in the battle of Karbala in Iraq. This event formed the impetus for the growth of the dissident Shi'ite movement, which had begun with the death of Ali in opposition to the Umayyads. The ranks of the Shi'ites were swelled by various discontented groups, notably by newly converted non-Arab Muslims, the Mawali, who demanded equal rights with Arabs. The Shi'a supported successors of Ali and family members of the Prophet as the only legitimate Caliphs. They spawned several related political and religious movements including the Isma'ili sect, the Carmathians and the Fatimid movement and dynasty. A central belief of the Shi'ites relates to the coming of a special leader, the Mahdi, the Muslim equivalent of the Jewish and Christian Messiah. The majority of Shi'ites recognize a line of twelve leaders, or Imams  beginning with Ali and ending with Muhammad al Muntazar (Muhammad, the awaited one). These Shia, known as  "Twelvers," believe that the Twelfth Imam did not die but disappeared in 874, and that he will return as the "rightly guided leader," or Mahdi, and usher in a new, more perfect order. A second Shia group, the Ismailis, or the "Seveners," follow a line of Imams that challenged the Seventh Imam and supported a younger brother, Ismail.  The major Shi'a ritual is Ashura, the commemoration of the death of Husayn. Other practices include pilgrimages to shrines of Ali and his relatives. The Alawi of Syria and Lebanon are considered to be a branch of Ismaili Shi'ism, as is the Druze religion, which originated in Fatimid  Egypt. Druze, Ismailis and Alawi share beliefs in emanations of God, in supernatural hierarchies, and in the transmigration of souls.

The Umayyads - In 683 Yazid died. A second civil war ensued, ending in Umayyad victory at the battle of Marj Rahit. The Caliph Marwan ruled for only a year, but arranged for the succession of his son Abd-al Malik. Abd-al Malik consolidated Arab gains and put down revolts by Kharjites and others with a heavy hand. His deputy Al-Hajjaj ibn Yussef was send to Iraq against its governor, the brother of Ibn al-Zubayr who was in rebellion, and after dealing with him, al-Hajjaj was sent to Mecca with Syrian troops under his command to subdue the rebellion of Ibn al-Zubayr and his followers. After a seven-month seige, Ibn al-Zubayr was killed and unity was restored to the Muslim empire. Al-Hajjaj's cruelty became a byword in Islam. He is said to have told the faithful at a mosque in Baghdad, "I have seen that some heads have ripened and are ready to be picked, I will be the one to pick them."

Abd-al Malik was succeeded in 705 by Walid, whose reign represented the height of Ummayad power. Walid resumed the expansion of the Muslim empire, conquering Sind in India and landing in Spain for the first time in 710. Walid was succeeded in 715 by Sulayman, who mounted a disastrous expedition against Constantinople that almost ruined the Arab state. In 717 he died, passing the Caliphate to Umar ibn Abdel Aziz, or Umar II. Umar II, a pious and able ruler, reconstructed and restored the Arabian empire. However, he reigned only 3 years, and was followed by Yazid and Hisham, and Marwan, the last Umayyad ruler in the East. In the West however, the Umayyads established an independent dynast in Spain, where Abd ar Rahman III became Caliph in 912. The last Umayyad Caliph of Spain was Hisham III, who ruled until 1032

The Abbasids and the Climax of Arab power - Disenfranchised and dissatisfied elements including Shi'ites united under the leadership of Abu Muslim in Persia, and raised a black flag of rebellion in Khurasan. These forces quickly gathered strength and swept away the resistance of the Arab tribes at the battle of the Great Zab, bringing to power Abu'l Abbas known as al Saffah, founder of the Abbasid caliphate. The rise of the Abbasid caliphate represented a true social revolution.  Arabs been displaced by Persians and others. The distinctions of aristocracy disappeared. The distinction between Arab Muslims and converted Muslims was likewise wiped away and the basis was laid for the eclectic and tolerant Muslim society of the golden age of Islam. The Abbasid caliph Al-Mansour built a capital city on an island between the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers, in place of a small Persian village. He called his capital Madinat as-Salam - the city of peace, but it came to be known by most people by its older Persian name, Baghdad.

The Golden Age - The apogee of Abbasid power came under the famous caliph Haroun al-Rashid. The Arab/Muslim empire had expanded from the Arabian Peninsula to cover all of North Africa, Mesopotamia and central Asia in a very brief period. Under Haroun Al Rashid (786-809) and his successors,  Baghdad became the cultural center of the world, at a time when Europe was lost in the darkness of the early Middle Ages. In particular, during the reign of Al-Ma`mun (819-833),  Iraq and the Arabian empire catalyzed a remarkable cultural revolution, which included the generation of poetry and literature, compilations of folktales such as the famous tales of the 1001 Arabian nights, and translation of works of science and philosophy  from other languages into Arabic, preserving and propagating the ancient classics. Baghdad was probably the richest city in the world. The caliph Al-Ma`mun collected texts, employed translators such as Hunayn ibn Ishaq, and established an academy in Baghdad, the Bayt al-Hikmah ("House of Wisdom"), with a large library and an observatory and research center, and private patrons encouraged science and the arts as well.

The contrast of the brilliance of Arab Islamic civilization with the benighted Frankish empire in Europe, ruled by illiterate monarchs such as Charlemagne, is striking. Muslim activity had a profound effect, not only on Muslim intellectual life, but also on the intellectual life of western Europe.  Much of the science and philosophy taught in universities in the Middle Ages was derived from Arabic translations, rendered into Latin in Spain in the 12th century. For the realm of Islam as well as for parts of Europe, the Muslim Arabs became the brokers of a cultural revolution, transmitting and integrating works of science, as well as technical advances from the far east, including the introduction of paper from China, and the introduction of the zero into mathematics from India, along with the "Arabic" numerals and system of reckoning that are used today throughout the world.

The further spread of Islam - Though the caliphate splintered, Islam spread under various rulers to Sub-Saharan Africa and South East Asia, and into Indonesia. In Europe, in addition to Spain the Arabs began attacking Sicily as early as the reign of Mu'awiya. A serious effort was direct at Sicily by Ziyadatallah the Muslim ruler of Tunisia in 827, when aiding the dissident Byzantine admiral Euphemious. He sent a force of about a hundred ships, and with the fortuitous arrival of Spanish Muslims, was able to gain a foothold, occupying Palermo in 831. Muslim rule in Sicily and parts of southern Italy lasted until 1091 when they were finally expelled by the Normans under Roger I.

Spain (Al-Andalus)  was conquered by successive waves of Muslim invasions in the eighth century. The Muslim advance into Europe was soon halted at the battle of Tours (also known as the battle  of Tours and Poitiers and the battle of Poitiers)  in 732. According to some accounts, this was an impressive and critical battle.  Abd-er Rahman, governor of Spain led an army estimated to 60,000 to 400,000 soldiers across the Western Pyrenees and toward the Loire River, but they were met just outside the city of Tours by Charles Martel, (Charles  the Hammer) and the Frankish Army, and defeated. According to other accounts the Muslim army was a small forward force. In any case, the Muslims persisted in Spain and solidified their hold there, Arabizing the culture of Spain and enriching European culture. Spain soon became an independent Muslim country and parts of Spain remained in Muslim hands until it was conquered by Christians and the Muslims expelled or converted at the end of the 15th century. To this day, the expulsion from Spain is remembered with bitterness by Muslims, and Spain, known as Al-Andalus in Arabic, is considered territory lost from Dar al Islam (the realm of peace) to Dar al Harb (the realm of war).

The Alhambra- Granada Spain

Map of the Arab Empire about 750

Map of the Arab Empire - About 750

The fall of the Abbasids and decline of the Arabs - The Arab empire began to disintegrate soon after the Golden age, and a period of independent Caliphates and successive chaotic invasions followed. The Shi'ite Fatimids established an independent Caliphate in North Africa in 910, and conquered Egypt in 969, founding the city of Cairo. The Buwayhids occupied the throne of Persia in 932 and conquered Baghdad in 945. The Seljuk Turks in turn conquered Baghdad in 1055, and their rule spread to Syria and Palestine, where they displaced the Fatimids.  The Fatimids, based in Egypt, briefly retook Jerusalem in 1098. In these centuries the Assassin sect arose, based mainly in Iran Iraq and derived from the Ismai'ilis. They were hired killers who services were offered to various Muslim rulers. It is frequently said that they used Hashish as a means of increasing their ferocity, but this may be a spurious tale.

The Crusades - The Muslims were challenged by the Crusaders who arrived in the Middle East in 1096 and captured Jerusalem in 1099. The Muslim world reacted slowly but surely to the unexpected and unwelcome intrusion of the "Franks." Salah Eddin, a Kurd, took control of Fatimid Egypt and declared an end to the Fatimid dynasty in 1171. He reconquered Jerusalem in 1187, having defeated the Crusaders at the battle of Hattin.  The Crusaders lingered on in Syria and Palestine. The last fortress of the Crusaders, Acre, fell in 1291. Click for a map of Palestine under the crusaders.

The Mongols - Despite the conquest of Baghdad by the Buwayhids and Seljuk Turks, the Abbasids still ruled nominally as Caliphs until 1258, when the Mongols under Hulagu (also Holagu, Huleku) sacked Baghdad, ending the the temporal power of the Caliphate. The Mongols swept across the Middle East, reaching the Mediterranean and wreaking havoc in the already weakened remains of the Arab empire.  The advance of Hulagu was finally stopped at the battle of Ayn Jalut near Nazereth in Palestine in 1260. The Mongols eventually converted to Islam and were integrated in the Muslim domains. However, the invasion of Hulagu was followed in the fourteenth and fifteen centuries by the invasion of Tamurlaine, who conquered Samarkand in central Asia and reached Syria about 1401. 

The Mamluke Turks - The Mamlukes were a slave caste of warriors. About 1250 they took power in Egypt from the remains of the Ayubbid dynasty founded by Salah Eddin. It was they who defeated the Mongols at Ayn Jalut. Their rule was quickly extended over Palestine and Syria.

The Safavid Dynasty - In the confusion left by the retreating Mongols of Tamerlane, the Safavid dynasty took power in Persia in 1501, and established a strong independent state, though it eventually had to cede Baghdad and all of Iraq to the Ottoman Turks. Persians fought against western incursions, against the Uzbeks and against Sunni Muslims. In particular, the first Safavid Shah, Ismail I, pursued a policy of persecuting Muslims and interfering with Ottoman interests. This attracted the ire of the Turkish Sultans, who inflicted a decisive defeat on the Persians in 1514, causing the loss of northern Iraq and eastern Asia minor. The Safavid's ruled until 1732. Click here for a history of modern Iran

The Ottoman Turks - (see also: Ottoman Empire) While the Mamelukes were taking power in the southern part of the Middle East, the Ottoman Turks were gathering strength in the Asia Minor and spilling over into Europe. Their success was due to good organization and early exploitation of the power of fire arms, which was not realized by other Muslim antagonists. The Mamlukes had been Turkish slaves of the Arabs; the Ottomans in turn created a soldier caste of Janissaries (Yeni Ceri, meaning New Troops), who were Christians conscripted or captured at any early age and raised as fanatic Muslims. They originally served as the personal guard of the Sultan. After the 1380s Sultan Selim I recruited them by taxation in human form called devshirmeh. The sultan’s men would conscript a number of non-Muslim, usually Christian, boys – at first at random, later by strict selection – and take them to be trained.

In Asia Minor, Osman I established the beginning of the Ottoman dynasty in 1293. Osman's successor Ohkran conquered most of western Asia Minor. By 1354 the Turks had a base at Gallipoli, a peninsula. on the Mediterranean coast of Turkey.  In 1351, Murad I  took Adrianople. The Byzantine Empire was reduced to the city of Constantinople. In 1389, at the Battle of Kossovo, Murad I defeated Christian resistance and Ottoman power extended up to the Danube. Slowed for a time by the invasions of Tamerlane, the Ottomans  maintained their power in their European possessions and in the 15th century their expansion resumed.

In 1443 or 1444, the forces of the Sultan Murad II defeated an army of Christian allies at the Bulgarian seaport of Varna. On May 29, 1453, Constantinople was conquered by the Sultan Mehmet the Conquerer (Mehmet the II). The Turks spread their rule progressively over practically the entire Middle East. In 1517 they defeated the Mamlukes, using canons and guns against the Mamkuke troops who were armed mostly with swords. The Hashemite Sharif of Mecca accepted Ottoman rule. In 1519 they extended their rule through most of North Africa, and later conquered and reconquered Iraq. In Europe, the Ottoman Turks conquered Wallachia, Transylvania Greece, Bulgaria, Serbia and Albania. As early as 1480, they had landed at Otranto in Italy, but their presence there proved to be short lived. By 1529 they were threatening Vienna, though their siege failed and they did not extend their empire beyond Hungary.

Sultan Mehmet II

Map of the Ottoman Empire in 1580

Map of the Ottoman Empire in 1580

The conquest of Constantinople made trade between Europe and the east more difficult. The Europeans soon sought a sea route that would bring them to the spices of India without the intervention of Arab traders. Vasco Da Gama reached the Indies by sea in 1498, and opened the ocean trade between Europe and Asia. Thereafter, the overland trade routes of the Arabs and Turks declined in importance.

The Ottoman empire continued to flourish in the 16th and 17th centuries despite inherent weaknesses in the organization of the Sultanate. The first sign of weakness was the Turkish defeat in the sea battle of Lepanto (near Naupactus in Epirus, Western Greece)  in 1571, by the anti-Ottoman alliance known as the Holy League. The Holy League was assembled by the influence of Pope Pious V and led by Don Juan of Austria. It consisted of the Papal States, Spain, Venice and Genoa.

The decisive turning point in the Turkish struggle with Europe came with the second siege of Vienna in 1680. The Turks were beaten back by a combined force of Germans and Austrians aided by 30,000 Poles under the Emperor Jan Sobieski. The Ottoman Empire declined in power and importance, but the fact of decline was not really grasped for another 120 years.   Napoleon's rapid conquest of Egypt in 1798 clearly signaled to the Muslims that they had been left behind in the race for cultural development, and efforts were made to introduce Western arms, printing presses, music and dress.

However, the Muslim world failed to industrialize and modernize, and the Turkish Empire continued to retreat before the advances of the Russians and to disintegrate due to internal causes.  Throughout the nineteenth century, they were partly saved by the British and French who were interested in maintaining Turkey as a means of stopping Russian expansion, and in protecting their growing interests in Turkey, which was considerably indebted to them. All the powers, including Russia, pursued a policy of keeping the Sultan in power and maintaining the integrity of the Turkish Empire. At the same time, the Western powers encouraged or took advantage of the dissolution of certain parts of the Empire. Greece was taken taken from Turkey in 1830 following an internal revolt, and Serbia became autonomous in 1829 following the Russo-Turkish War. Lebanon became autonomous in 1861. Egypt remained independent after the withdrawal of Napoleon, though it was forced to give up conquests in Syria and Palestine. Turkey lost further territories, especially in the Balkans, after the Crimean war in 1856 and after the Balkan crisis of 1878.

In 1908 the government of Turkey was seized by the Young Turks, a group of  college students and dissident soldiers who had focused the discontent of many with the despotism and inefficiency of the regime, and the nationalist hopes of Arabs and others. In 1908, the Young Turks forced Sultan Abdülhamid II to reinstitute the 1876 constitution and recall the legislature. In 1914, Turkey entered WW I under on the side of the Central Powers. Britain decided that it was time to dismantle the Ottoman Empire. A British officer, T.E. Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia) aided a Muslim revolt by the Hashemite family, rulers of Mecca and the Hijaz. The British, Australians and French carried out a long and bloody battle in the Gallipoli peninsula, and finally were forced to withdraw, suffering about 250,000 casualties. However, General Allenby conquered Palestine and Syria, and the Turks retreated before the British and the rebellious Arabs, as well as the Russians pressing from the north.

Turkey was forced to sign an ignominious peace at Sevres in 1919, but Kemal Ataturk, who seized the government from Young Turks, refused to honor it and negotiated better terms at Lausanne in 1922 after defeating the invading Greeks. Ataturk abolished the Caliphate formally in the same year and began the modernization of Turkey.

The Ottoman Empire, the last empire of the Muslims,  was at an end, and the Middle East was carved up by Britain and France into nation states, mandates and protectorates, all of which eventually became independent following World War II. In Saudi Arabia, the Wahhabi Saud family, based in the Eastern Najd areas took power, displacing the Hashemites who ruled the Hijaz. The Hashemites had been promised an Arabian kingdom by the British in return for their support of the British and the revolt against the Ottoman Turks. The British compensated the Hashemites for the loss of the Hijaz by giving them the Kingdoms of Transjordan and Iraq.

Arabic identity, nationalism and Islam - The spread of Islam necessarily spread Arabic culture, language and customs. The Qur'an is written in Arabic and may not be translated for religious practice, so that knowledge of Arabic is important for all Muslims. As the empire spread, the Arabic language became the medium of local pre-existing cultures. In particular, early Arab culture and poetry owes a great debt to Persian. The term "Arab" became associated with speakers of Arabic rather than being confined only to the original inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula, though today it is sometimes used with reference to the Bedouin of Arabia and and at other times used to refer to all Arab-speaking peoples. The Arab empire was in many ways dependent on foreigners, who were integrated into it to varying degrees. The Arabs employed a Turkish slave-caste, the Mamelukes, as soldiers. Christians and Jews served as merchants and administrators, especially in Egypt, and later under the Ottoman Turks. All of these different people were integrated, with varying degrees of completeness and varying enthusiasm, under the rubric of "Arabs."

The historical development of Islam, the Arab state and its successor states, was different from that of the West. Some claim that because of this development, there is no real national feeling in the Arab world, but this is not necessarily the case.   An Arab is part of the Arabic Umma (roughly translated as "community" - it is sometimes translated as 'nation') and a Muslim Arab is also a member of the Islamic Umma. An Arab may also have a particular "national" identity, as a member of a "Sha'ab" such as the Palestinian Sha'ab. In modern times, the rise of nationalism has also caused a reassertion of particularism, and of the separate identities of different ethnic and religious groups such as the Egyptians, the Bedouin and Peninsular Arabs, the Maronite Christians and the Amazigh people of North Africa.

Islam and Arab culture developed a model of toleration and coexistence long before these were practiced in the West. The model was different however, from the cultural pluralism or melting pot models of modern Western society. Pluralism and separateness was recognized and regulated. Middle Eastern societies tend to be segmented, so that for example, Armenians, Jews, Greeks and others live in separate quarters, go to separate schools, have different occupations from each other, and each have a separate and recognized place in society. Christians and Jews were classified as people of the book and allowed rights as dhimmi, a second class citizenship that was a handicap of varying degrees of discomfort in different ages and in different Muslim countries, and might involve restrictions on worship, special dress, exclusion from administrative posts and other strictures. Land conquered by Muslims was awarded on leasehold to Muslims. Conversion of Jews and Christians was usually not forced. though for a period in the 12th century, Spain and North Africa came under the rule of a fanatic sect, the Mu'ahaddin, who forced conversion of Jews and Christians to Islam. Conversion to Islam was made particularly attractive because it resulted in reduction of taxes, freedom from slavery for captive and the possibility of advancement. Captive women forced to marry Muslims do not have to change their religion, but their children must be raised as Muslims. The persecution of Hindus under some of the Muslim Moghul emperor Auranzeb was notorious. Nonetheless, for the most part, both Arab and subsequent Ottoman Muslim empires exhibited a toleration of Jewish and Christian faiths, and even of pagan worship that was unknown in Europe. After the Jews were expelled from Spain, the Sultan Bayezid II welcomed them to Ottoman Turkey, and the Ottoman empire allowed Jews exiled from Spain to settle in Palestine, where they formed communities in Tiberias and Hebron.

The Arab-Israel Conflict - Arabs remained bitter that the British did not immediately fulfill their promise for an independent Arab empire that included Syria, and for the granting of Palestine as a homeland for the Jews. The Sykes-Picot Agreement of 1916 called for part of Palestine to be under British rule, part to be placed under a joint Allied government, and for Syria and Lebanon to be given to the France.  However, Britain also offered to back Arab demands for postwar independence from the Ottomans in return for Arab support for the Allies and seems to have promised the same territories to the Arabs. November 1917, before it had conquered Jerusalem and the area to be known as Palestine, Britain issued the Balfour Declaration, stating Britain's support for the creation of a Jewish national home in Palestine, and leading to the League of Nations mandate for Palestine. The mandate, and subsequent creation of the State of Israel, led to the Arab Israel conflict, which has resulted in several wars.

Pan-Arabism - Frustrated Arab nationalist ambitions and socialist and fascist ideologies gave rise to several movements and political parties. In particular, the Ba'ath party was founded in Syria in 1928 by Michel Aflaq  and Salah al-Din Bitar with a Pan-Arab nationalist program and elements of both Marxism and fascism.  Aflak and Bitar were influenced by Arab nationalist trends that had begun in time of the Turks, inspired in part by the Islamic and Arab reform ideologies of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-1897), his student Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), and Abduh's student, Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935). These thinkers called for a renewal of Islam, with limited borrowing of concepts from the West. Abduh in particular was active in promoting Arab autonomy within Ottoman Turkey, and had placed great hopes in the Young Turks. Rida grew increasingly anti-Western with time, and was a great influence on Hassan al-Banna, who founded the Muslim Brotherhood. While Aflak was a Greek Orthodox Christian, Ba'ath ideology adopted an affinity for Islam, and Pan-Arabists saw one of their goals as asserting the primacy of the Arabs in the Muslim world.

As World War II drew to a close, Arab national ambitions and the desire to prevent creation of a Jewish homeland in Palestine led to the creation of the Arab League and soon after, to the rise of Arab national sentiment. Gamal Abdel Nasser, president of Egypt,  took advantage of the anti-imperialist feeling to become the leader of a Pan-Arab ideology, which tried to unite Arabs beyond the confines of the nation states, and to encourage a program of modernization and secularization. This program met opposition from Muslim traditionalists. Pan-Arabism declined after Nasser instigated the Six-Day War with Israel, which resulted in a disastrous Arab defeat. Other contenders eventually took Nasser's place as leaders of Pan-Arabism, notably Saddam Hussein of Iraq. However, the rise of Islamist fundamentalism or Islamism, offered an ideology that largely displaced pan-Arabism. Pan-Arabism was also challenged by nationalist particularism, especially in Egypt itself, where people have a profound sense of their identity as Egyptians, as distinct from "Arabs."

Islamism - Islamism is a general name for all forms of Islamic fundamentalism, and includes several different and sometimes competing political and religious movements, notably the Shi'ite followers of the late Ayatollah Khomeini, extremist Wahhabi Muslims in  Saudi Arabia (not necessarily all Wahhabi Muslims), some of the Deobandi sect in India, the Afghani Taliban, the Muslim Brotherhood, the Palestinian Hamas, the Hizbulla, Islamic Jihad and Jama'at Islamia in several countries, as well as and followers of Osama Bin Laden and the infamous Al-Qaeda, a network of Sunni Islamists. Islamic parties like the Turkish AKP are sometimes called "Islamist," though they may not share the radical program of Islamists, and may be more akin to the Christian Democrat parties of Europe. Their philosophy should not be confused with radical Islamism.

Radical Islamism has common ideological roots with Pan Arabism, in the ideas of Jamal al-Din al-Afghani (1839-1897), his student Muhammad Abduh (1849-1905), and Abduh's student, Muhammad Rashid Rida (1865-1935). Another ideological father of Islamism was probably Sayed Abul Ala Maududi (or Mawdoodi), who lived in what is now  Pakistan, and who was influenced by Deobandi ideology as well as by Al-Banna. He called for an Islamic state governed by Sha'aria (Sha'ria -Islamic law) and tried to reconcile Islam with modern science. Maududi founded the Jamaat-e-Islami in 1941 and headed the movement until 1972. His key work was, "Towards Understanding Islam" (Risalah Diniyat). Afghani and Abduh were liberals, but Rida developed Abduh's philosophy into a xenophobic and racist anti-colonialism, which had as its goal re-establishment of the Caliphate and imposition of Sharia law.  The radical Islamists have in common the convictions that Islam must dictate the political organization of the state as well as religious life, intolerance of the West and hatred for Jews as such. This preceded hatred for Israel, but formed a basis for it. Jews are despised as agents of Western democracy and human rights. Israel is hated because it is considered a foreign implant in the Islamic Middle East. They also have an ideology or theology of liberation, in which the poor nations of the south play the part of the oppressed proletariat. This last was possibly amplified by Marxist Islamic thinkers of Central Asia, and figures prominently in Shi'a Islamist ideology, including that of the Hizbullah. However, it is quite explicit in the ideas of Hassan al-Banna and Sayyid Qutb, Egyptian Islamists, whose ideas developed independently of Marxist influence and who were more influenced by German Fascism.  Islamists attribute the decline of Islamic civilization to laxity in religious observance, and demand a return to strict observance of the Qur'an. Most Islamist groups advocate re-establishment of the Caliphate and Jihad (holy war) against the West and believe that Islam, which requires the rule of God, is inherently opposed to democracy, which is the rule of man.

The Arab and Muslim world has suffered several frustrating disappointments. National ambitions were partially frustrated by the Western take over of the Middle East after World War I, which, in the Arab view, prevented the realization of the aims of Arab nationalism that had begun to crystallize during the last years of the Ottoman Empire, and humiliated the Muslim Umma. In particular, the rise of Israel is a sore point and a focus for anti-Western resentment. Much of the Arab and Muslim world, burdened by high population growth and lack of a middle class, has failed to industrialize and lags far behind the west in standard of living, quality of life and democratic institutions. Literacy rates are low and infant mortality is high relative to the West. The introduction of modern medicine has produced a population explosion that hampers economic growth. Muslims blame oil-greedy western countries for repressive regimes that they claim have stifled growth, even in the oil rich Arabian peninsula and Persian Gulf area. Islamists have leveraged on this discontent and frustration to build populist movements that often have an extremely destructive and reactionary philosophy. They are opposed both by moderate Muslims who favor western style democratic reform and by conservative Salafi fundamentalists who are uninterested in innovation and social reform.

Islamist doctrine is not a passive philosophy, but a program for action. One of their favorite "military" tools is the suicide attack on civilians. Persons who die in such attacks are considered to be holy martyrs (Shahid). Islamists were responsible for suicide attacks on the US forces in Lebanon in the '80s. They have been involved in plots to assassinate Arab leaders in different countries, and they instigated and carried out the attack on the United States on September 11, 2001. Shi'a Islamists came to power in Iran in 1979 and formed an Islamic Republic.

The Muslim Brotherhood - The Muslim Brotherhood (Ikhwan) in Egypt has been a longstanding threat to the regime. Founded in 1928 by Hassan al-Banna, their popularity grew rapidly in the 30s and 40s despite vigorous repression. They  combined strict Islamic practice, Fascist ideology and pro-Axis politics.  In 1948, following their efforts in mobilizing volunteers to fight in the war against "the Zionists" in Palestine to prevent establishment of a Jewish state, they were ready to launch a coup against the Egyptian monarchy. However, On December 8, 1948, Prime Minister Nuqrashi Pasha disbanded the Ikwhan in Egypt. Less than three weeks later, the Ikhwan assassinated Nuqrashi Pasha; Hassan al-Banna was assassinated by government agents on February 12, 1949. The Ikhwan had organized extensively in Gaza, and remnants of the Ikhwan eventually founded Palestinian groups including the Hamas. In Egypt, leadership of the movement was taken over by Sayyid Qutb. Qutb had been more or less exiled or sent to the USA in 1948 and studied there. He returned with a profound hatred for the United States and the West, including Western materialism and sexual permissiveness, which he viewed as depravity. He wrote extensively against democracy and characterized western society as "Jahil" - that is, benighted in the same way as the pre-Islamic Jahiliyah period in Arabia. He called for Jihad against these infidels. Gamal Abdel Nasser banned the Muslim brotherhood after they were involved in plots to assassinate him, and Qutb was executed in 1965. Eventually, Islamic Jihad did assassinate Anwar Sadat after he signed a peace treaty with Israel. Recently (2004), the Muslim Brothers in Egypt announced that they were modifying their philosophy to a more moderate stance which abjured violence and supported democracy.

A Muslim Brother revolt that planned to overthrow the Syrian government and assassinate Syrian president Hafez el-Assad  was suppressed by gassing tens of thousands of people in El-Hama in 1982. In Iran, Shi'a Islamists led by Ayatollah Khomeini came to power in 1979. The Iranians support the Hizbulla guerilla group in Lebanon and the Islamic Jihad Palestinian terrorist group. The initially ferocious Iranian regime has mellowed with time, and some democratic reforms have been established. Likewise the Hizbollah in Lebanon claim that they want to come to power democratically. However, it is now clear that the conservative clerics in Iran who hold the the real power will not give it up in favor of the democratically elected president and his reform-minded supporters. A recent election in Iran was rigged by eliminating candidates who were judged to be insufficiently "Islamic."

Osama Bin-Laden gained power by organizing Islamic resistance to the Soviet-supported regime in Afghanistan, with the aid of the United States. Following the partial eclipse of Saddam Hussein after operation Desert Storm, Bin Laden and his Al-Qaeda Mujaheddin may have assumed increased importance as the symbols of successful resistance to the West and the infidels.

On September 11, 2001, Osama Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda movement carried out suicide attacks against the World Trade Center in New York  and the Pentagon in Washington DC. According to Bin Laden, the attacks were aimed at punishing the United States for the presence of its soldiers in Saudi Arabia, which is supposed to be off limits to non-Muslims, and for its support of Israel. Bin-Laden and Al-Qaeda may actually be aiming at the much more limited goal of taking power in oil-rich Saudi Arabia. Despite the removal of the Taliban regime from Afghanistan by allied military intervention, forcing Osama Bin Laden into hiding, Al Qaeda has since been responsible for terror attacks aimed at moderate regimes throughout the Muslim world, especially in Saudi Arabia and Turkey.

The US invasion of Iraq and the swiftness of the American victory has taken the Arab and Muslim worlds by surprise, despite the well known superiority of Western arms. The effects of this upheaval have not been completely assimilated in the Middle East, and probably will not be totally evident until the success or failure of the Americans in their war aims becomes apparent. There are signs that it has produced both stirrings of democratization and a desire to appease the USA, and a counter-reaction of resentment and growing discontent.

Ami Isseroff

More about Islam -
Introduction to Islam

An English Translation of the Qur'an (Koran) - Complete - with an Introduction

 Islam and the Concept of Martyrdom

Some Other MidEastWeb sources on Middle East History:

A Brief History of Arabia
A Brief History of Egypt
IRAQ History and Resources
IRAQ Timeline

A Brief History of modern Iran - From the Qajars to present day.

Brief History of Israel and Palestine
Source Documents- Arab-Israel Conflict
Iraq- Source Documents

Palestinian Political Groups
MideastWeb Web Site Fairness and Accuracy Policy


Bibliography of Islam-Middle Ages & Ottoman

Bibliography of Islam Today and Islamism

External Sources on Islam

The Internet Sourcebook of Islamic History

Medieval Middle East at Cornell  
World Civilizations: Islam

Islam at Friesian.com

Online Book - Life of Muhammad by Mohamed Haykal

Biography of Muhammad

Millenium Biography of Muhammad

Muhammad Abduh

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