The Historical Setting

David Wade

The creation within the space of a single century of a vast Arab Empire stretching from Spain to India is one of the most extraordinary marvels of history.”

J.J. Saunders, A History of Medieval Islam
Fragment of a 10th/3rd century papyrus depicting an Arabian mounted warrior.

The Revelations

The bare historical facts concerning the origin of the religion of Islam are these -The Qur’an, the Holy Book of Islam, began to be revealed to the Prophet Muhammad when he was forty years old, circa 610 CE. These revelations continued until his death in 632 CE, by which time their strict monotheistic message had become so widely accepted that the new religion had largely supplanted the ancient paganism of the Arabian Peninsula. The rapid, widespread acceptance of Islam also introduced a quite new sense of unity among the various Arabian tribes. This unity and sense of religious purpose was disturbed by the death of Muhammad, but after a short period of uncertainty his successors (in Arabic, Khalifah) continued his mission, with an expansive programme of conversion, diplomacy and military tactics.

The first Khalifah (Caliph), Abu Bakr, defeated various tribal rebellions that followed the Prophets death and managed to hold the Islamic community together. In 634 CE he called for a jihad (Holy War) to spread the Faith beyond the Arabian borders. In this enterprise the new religion was to prove extraordinarily successful.

Early Conquests

The decision to expand the ‘mandate of Allah’ outwards, to the north and east, inevitably meant that the Muslims would confront the great Empires of Byzantium and Persia. In fact the timing, from their point of view, was propitious since these rival civilisations had been engaged in an exhausting war with each other for some twenty-five years (603-628 CE), as a result of which the resources of both were seriously depleted. The military successes of the upstart Arabs against the military might of both the Byzantine and Persian armies were, nevertheless, quite remarkable. Damascus, the most important town in the Byzantine Middle-East, had capitulated by 635 CE, the rest of Syria by 636 CE. For the native Syrians, both Christians and Jews, this change of rulership was not altogether unwelcome, since it represented a release from Byzantine tyranny - another reason for the Islamic success in this region. Mesopotamia fell to the Arab forces in 637 CE and Egypt in 639 CE In the following decades Persia, Turkestan, the Indus Valley, North Africa and Spain would follow. Remarkably, the Islamic world was largely delineated within a century of the death of the Prophet. Naturally, the rapidity and scale of these early conquests were felt by the early Muslims as a vindication of the rightfulness of their beliefs; God was clearly on their side.

Islam and the Civilisations of the Ancient World

There had been great nomadic movements before and there were others after, the Arab conquests. But the important difference between the Islamic expansion and all others was precisely the intense collective conviction that was inspired by their newly-found faith. Fired as they were by religious zeal, these essentially unlettered nomads were able to withstand a complete absorption into the more sophisticated civilisations that had fallen into their lap. From the beginning, their mission was not merely destructive; they had a mission to reinvigorate the ‘Abrahamic’ religion where it already existed (in the Hellenised, Christian remnants of the Eastern Roman Empire), and introduce it where it did not (in the Persian Sassanid Empire, and beyond). So although the wealth and technical achievements of the civilisations that they conquered made a deep and lasting impression they were able to resist the ideological and religious values that they encountered - in fact they were supremely confident of the superiority of their own religious beliefs. However, they had less resistance to more general cultural influences. To retain their hold on the conquered territories the Muslims had to adopt many of its civilised ways. In the event they proved very adept at this, largely by retaining the existing administrative institutions (including taxation and bureaucracy). In short, they quickly learned everything that sedentary civilisations had to teach them that was necessary to consolidate their conquests.

The Umayyads and Damascus

Muhammad had made Mecca the religious centre of the Islamic world (a role that it still fulfils), but its geographical position made it too remote a location from which to rule the recently acquired territories. It was inevitable that the Islamic administrative centre of gravity would shift northwards. In 661 CE (41 AH)1 the role of Caliph was taken over by Mu’awiya, an able general who had led the campaigns against the Byzantines and who had governed Syria for some twenty years. Mu’awiya belonged to the Meccan clan of Omayya, so he and his descendants were known as the Umayyads, and they continued to rule the new Islamic Empire from the ancient town of Damascus for almost a century. This period of Islamic history saw the extraordinary expansion referred to in the heading quote. There was a downside to this campaign; it has been said that under the Umayyad Caliphate Islam ‘grew as a power, but decayed as a religion’.

The military conquests certainly continued at a staggering pace; by 710 CE (91 AH) Muslim troops had conquered the whole of North Africa and were crossing the Straits of Gibraltar to Spain; by 714 CE (95AH) it too had succumbed. At the very same time, the Arabs, having completely overcome Persia, were pushing east to Transoxiana, which capitulated in 712 CE (93 AH), and the Indus Valley 713 CE (94AH), (both of which have retained an allegiance to Islam ever since).

At the centenary of the Hijra then, a centrally-controlled Islamic Empire ruled over territories that stretched quite literally from Spain and the Atlantic coast of Africa to India and the borders of China. As it turned out, these were to be the limits of Islamic territorial expansion for many centuries to come. In the process of Islam’s transformation from a religious movement into an imperial one it had lost much of its early spirit of group solidarity and to some extent its sense of missionary purpose. Serious rifts and dissatisfactions began to appear in the body politic, and these tended to be directed towards the ruling Dynasty. The Umayyad Emperors had very been very successful in taking over the administrative practices of the Greeks and Persians, but they had also adopted their somewhat despotic manners, becoming luxurious, remote and autocratic as a consequence. Despite their unprecedented achievement in creating such a vast Empire the Umayyads provoked many discontents. The dissenting factions finally came together in 750 CE (132 AH), when the Umayyads were overthrown by a revolution.

The Abbasids and Baghdad

In reality, the Umayyads had never been generally popular; the contrast between their Imperial manners and the austere lives of the first Caliphs was just too obvious. Towards the end the dynasty was also bedevilled by its own internal feuds and jealousies. Once the different strands of opposition to their rule was organised into armed resistance, their regime collapsed. Much of the resentment of Umayyad rule had came from the mawali, the non-Arab converts to Islam, but it was another Arab dynasty that benefited from the revolution.

The Abbasids, who took over the Caliphate, promised a government that would be based on true Muslim principles. They were descended from the Prophets family, which gave their claim to the Caliphate greater legitimacy in the eyes of the pious. But their promises of a Dawla, a ‘New Order’ for Islam, harking back to the early days, were abandoned soon after they were established in power. In reality, the Caliphate under the Abbasids was steadily Persianised. This began with the removal of the seat of government to a new capital, Baghdad, which was built near the ruins of Ctesiphon in 762 CE (145 AH). Here the Caliphs began to adopt the sort of sacred absolutism that characterised the Kings of the Ancient World, of Ninevah, Babylon and Persia. The Abbasids were soon portraying themselves as the ‘Shadow of God on Earth’. Their dynasty, however, become one of the most enduring in Islamic history, the Abbasid Caliphate itself lasting until 1258 CE (656 AH).

The early Abbasid centuries were the period in which many of Islam’s abiding Islamic cultural values were formed. In Baghdad the remnants of the Classical traditions of Rome and Greece were combined with those of Persia and India to form a brilliant new synthesis. In this way Islam’s originality as a religion was translated into a confident, highly civilised culture with its own distinctive ethos and social values. It developed a system of Law (derived from the Qu’ran and the Hadith), and an enthusiasm for Science and mathematics. The formation of a distinctive Islamic style in art, architecture and music also dates from this time. Sadly, much of the details of these interesting developments were lost to history, largely as a result of the terrible destruction that Baghdad was later to endure.

The Golden Age of Baghdad is often associated with the reign of the fifth Abbasid Caliph, Harun al-Rashid 786 CE (170 AH). Among other achievements of his time (which were important, not only for Islam but for the entire civilised world) was the concerted attempt to translate the remaining corpus of Greek scientific and other material into Arabic (see Background Note #3 - The Philosophical and Scientific Contribution).

The Disintegration of the Caliphate

Brilliant though it was, the Abbasids suffered the same difficulties in maintaining political unity over their vast territories that had bedevilled the Umayyads. The problems, once again, were both internal and external. After Harun al-Rashid’s death, quarrels between his sons over the succession lead to civil war, the factions dividing along ethnic lines. The victor of this particular feud was Harun’s son Ma’mun, who became a renowned patron of the Arts and Science. In 828 CE (213 AH) Ma’mun, continuing his fathers lead, founded the Dar-al-Hikhma, the famous ‘House of Wisdom’, which was dedicated to translating Greek scientific works. Unfortunately, his enthusiasm for the knowledge of the older civilisations was not matched by the sort of political instincts necessary to run a vast Empire. With so many different ethnic loyalties and traditions of belief within the Empire there were always bound to be rivalries and separatism. In fact from the early 9th century (3rd AH), the Abbasid Caliphate gradually began to lose its grip. But the decline was uneven, and there were periods of recovery and reconsolidation. As well as territorial disputes the Abbasids frequently had to contend with theological controversies, which were no less serious a challenge to their authority. But with the period of conquest at an end the spirit of jihad had declined. Whereas the great conquests of the past had been achieved entirely by Arab forces, the Abbasid Caliphs became increasingly dependent on non-Arab troops to deal with rebellious provinces and religious revolts. This was a fatal error; in the time-honoured fashion of mercenary corps these Turkish, Berber and Khurasian troops began to assert themselves and usurp central authority.

North Africa became autonomous as early as 800 AH (184 AH), and Khurasan in 820 CE (204 AH). In 868 CE (254 AH)a Turkish soldier of fortune, Ahmad b. Tulun, managed to gain control of Egypt and Syria, which he and his descendants ruled until 905 AH (292). These countries were later brought back into the Empire by the more vigorous Caliph Muktafi, but worse was to follow.

The schismatic Alids (followers of Ali, the Prophets Son-in-law and fourth Caliph) had long been a thorn in the side of orthodoxy and legitimacy, but in 909 CE (297 AH)a leader emerged who (with the aid of a Berber army) vaulted their cause to prominence by declaring a Fatimid Caliphate in North Africa. This was a direct challenge to the Abbasid claims to be the sole religious arbiters in the Islamic world, in fact it meant that there were now three ‘Commanders of the Faithful’ (in Baghdad, Cordova and Mahdiya), each aspiring to this role. The Fatimids used North Africa as a springboard to conquer Egypt, in 969 CE ( 358 AH), and their foundation there of a new capital, al-Kahira (Cairo) is a landmark event in Islamic history; essentially, Egypt regained its ancient status as an independent state - and Fatimid power soon spread to Syria and Arabia. This meant that not only had the Abbasid Caliphate lost control of huge swathes of their territory, but that their spiritual, Sunnite legitimacy was now being seriously challenged by a proselytizing Shia movement with a secure base of its own. Even at home, in Baghdad, the Caliphs had been forced to yield to the Buyids, a group of Shi’ite adventurers. But the later 10th century CE (4th AH) was to prove to be the high-water mark of Shi’ism. Although the Abbasid Caliphs were now reduced to mere figureheads and much of the Muslim world was under the control of one or other Shia sect, there was to be a Sunni counter-offensive from an unexpected quarter.

The Sunni Revival

The theological quarrels between Sunni and Shia that raged throughout the Muslim world at this time (ostensibly about rights of spiritual succession) were usually far more complicated than they appeared on the surface. As always in these cases, religious differences often masked ethnic and political enmities, moreover the views of the rulers did not always reflect those of the general population. Despite the apparent ascendancy of Sh’ism, the early 11th c. CE began to see a revival in Sunni fortunes. The disintegration of the Abbasid Empire had created opportunities for nomadic, recently Islamicised, Turkish tribes from the Asian steppes. Two of these in particular, the Seljuks and the Ghaznavids came to play leading roles in the Islamic world; in time each became powerful military aristocracies, just as the Arabs had in the past. Most importantly for Islam’s religious constitution, they were both ardent champions of the Sunni cause. In fact the Seljuks took the lead in consolidating Sunni Islam.

The broad movement that has become known as the ‘Sunni Revival’ was a gradual, rather than a sudden, change of direction. The Seljuks restored the Abbasid Caliphate – from which they then drew their religious legitimacy, as did the Ghaznavids (the leaders of both of these tribal dynasties were thereafter designated as Sultans). By the second half of the 12th century CE/6th c AH, these new dispensations had established a new ‘ecumenical’ Sunnism. This new orthodoxy, which managed to include many previously contending factions, gained wide acceptance in the Islamic heartlands of Iraq and Persia. These changes were also felt in Egypt, where the schismatic rule of the Fatimids was ended by a Turkicised Kurdish dynasty, the Ayyubids, who also replaced Shi’ism with Sunnism as the official interpretation of Islam.

The break-up of the old Caliphate, and the disintegration of the Empire into jostling groups of smaller states, had seriously damaged the Islamic ideal of itself as a coherent religio-political entity. The widely accepted settlement, both religious and political, of the Sunni Revival went a long way to restoring a sense of cultural confidence in the areas where it was accepted. This confidence is clearly reflected in the arts and architecture of the time. Among other artistic achievements, this was the period when the characteristic forms of the Islamic decorative canon reached their full development, and when Islamic architecture reached new heights of brilliance and innovation (see Background Note #4 - The Evolution of Style). Paradoxically, there was a price for this artistic and cultural revival. The new emphasis on a religious orthodoxy, however welcome it was to pious believers, involved a distinct narrowing of intellectual horizons and a retreat from the enthusiasm of earlier periods for pre-Islamic scientific and philosophical speculation (see Background Notes #2 - The Religious Dimension & #3 - The Philosophical and Scientific Contribution). Nevertheless, at the beginning of the 13th c. (7th c.) the Dar al-Islam (The Islamic World) seemed to have attained a stability and confidence that it had not experienced for generations. But this peace was about to be shattered.

The Mongol Cataclysm

As we have seen, the original Islamic conquests were made by forceful Arab nomads, who launched themselves against the sedentary cultures of the Middle-East. Essentially, what began as a series of raids ( which were a long-established feature of nomadic life) was turned into full-blown conquest. The first Muslims came out of the desert, conquered vast reaches of the known world and managed to hold onto it. But these extraordinary successes inevitably led to the conquerors adopting many of the civilised values of the conquered lands – not least in defending their acquisitions from other marauders. In the process they became thoroughly civilised themselves. This course of events was repeated by the ‘Turkish Irruption’ that began to plague the eastern end of the Islamic world at the end of the 10thc. CE /4thc. A.H.. These nomadic incursions, destructive as they initially were, eventually had the same sort of revitalising effect on the Dar al-Islam that the original Islamic forces had exerted on the old middle-eastern Empires. There had been a long history of nomadic encroachment into Islamic territory; greater and smaller groups of barbarous tribesmen had been coming in, either as raiders or mercenaries, for centuries. Up to now Islam had managed to convert. absorb and civilise these outsiders. But the Mongol invasions that began in 1219 CE (616 AH) were of a different scale and order of ferocity than anything that the Dar al-Islam had ever experienced. From the beginning it was clear that these invaders were not interested in stealing from or joining civilised society in any capacity; their aim was to destroy it.

Genghis Khan became known as the ‘World Shaker’, which indeed he was. He and his successors, by the sheer numbers of troops they employed and by the tactics of systematic terror that they adopted, had a devastating impact on civilisations right across Asia. The Mongols first honed their ruthless skills in China, which they ravaged for five years. Peking was the first major city to suffer their appalling depredations. Merciless and bloodthirsty, they seemed to be consumed with a hatred of urban civilisation; cities were only fit for plunder, their inhabitants worthy only of contempt. Having devastated the great urban centres of Northern China and massacred huge numbers of the population, the Mongols turned their attention towards the Khwarezm Empire, in the very east of the Islamic world.

They prepared their destructive campaigns very thoroughly. In 1219 CE (616 AH), the ancient oasis towns of Samarkand and Bukhara were attacked simultaneously and without warning; they were besieged, sacked, burned and their inhabitants slaughtered. From here, Genghis Khan turned his attention to Khorasan in eastern Persia, and embarked on one of the most appalling campaigns of blood-lust ever recorded. City after city was subjected to his methodical ferocity, population after population was annihilated; an entire cultural landscape was razed. It has been estimated that, in Transoxiana and Khorasan alone the Mongols left fifteen million dead. And they were far from finished.

In 1257 CE(655 AH) Genghis Khan’s grandson, Hulagu , returned to Persia and Iraq on a further campaign of terror and violence. This time the aim was to subdue ‘all the lands of the West’. This naturally included the city of Baghdad, where the Abbasid Caliph was still the Commander of the Faithful (if in name only). The atrocious pattern that the Mongols had established in Transoxiana and Khorasan was thus repeated in the Islamic heartland. In 1258 CE (656 AH) Baghdad was besieged by a huge Mongol army and pounded by their artillery for six days. When it was obvious that the city’s cause was lost the Caliph, al-Mutasim, gave himself up to the invaders mercies; he was executed by being rolled in a carpet and trampled to death by horses. The death of the last of the Caliphs was soon followed by the utter destruction of the greatest of all Islamic cities. Upwards of a million of Baghdad’s inhabitants were killed; whatever could not be carried away was burned or smashed. The mosques and palaces, the accumulations of art and literature, the wealth of five centuries of Islamic culture went under in a terrible orgy of destruction. The Mongols marched off with their booty through streets that were choked with corpses. It was an incalculable loss, from which the city, Iraq, and the greater Islamic world, never fully recovered.

Hulagu then pressed on to Muslim Syria. The city of Aleppo offered resistance but fell in 1260 CE (658 AH) and was subjected to the, by now routine, sacking and massacres. Damascus surrendered to the hordes and was humiliated, but spared the worst atrocities. Mamluke Cairo was next in line; it received the usual imperious summons to capitulate – but at a critical moment Hulagu received news from Mongolia that his brother Ogedai, the Mongol Great Khan, had died and he hastily returned home to take part in the election for succession. A Mongol force was left behind in Palestine, but the Mamelukes defeated them and Egypt was saved. This was a turning point for Islam; it was the first time that the Mongols had suffered defeat on this scale, and they never returned. Because Egypt avoided Mongol depredations, and because of its victory over them, Cairo, to a great extent, took over Baghdad’s role and became the repository of the remnants of the old Arabic civilisation.

The Islamic Revanche: the Ilkhanids and Timurids

The classical age of Islam (and Arab ascendancy) ended in 1258 CE (656 AH) with the fall of Baghdad, but it is a testimony to the inherent strength of Islamic culture that it was able to recover from the devastating onslaught of the Mongol invasions and rise to further glories. In fact, some of its great cities never recovered, but a process of recovery began when the descendants of Hulagu converted to Islam and founded the Il-Khanid dynasty. Once their rule was firmly established the Mongols assumed the role of a warrior aristocracy and, almost as a reaction to the destructiveness of the past, became great patrons of the arts and architecture. It took the better part of the 13h century (7th AH), and a period of wholesale reconstruction, for a new Mongol-Islamic art to establish itself, but when it did the Islamic tradition was enriched by an extended repertoire of Far-eastern influences. Il-Khanid architecture continued the Seljuk tradition but on a more massive scale. Unfortunately very little of either art or architecture from this period has survived.

The recovery of Eastern Islam (Iran, Khorezm, Afghanistan) was set back by a further, and final, nomad onslaught with the rise of Timur, who began his appalling career around 1360 CE (760 AH). Timur (Timur-i-leng, Timurlane) nominally a Muslim, was a savage destroyer of cities. His name became a synonym for terror, and his memory is forever associated with the vast heaps of skulls that were piled up beside the cities that he conquered. After Timur’s death there was a period of political chaos, but his descendants, like those of the Mongols, were more inclined to repair, rather than extend, the ravages of their blood-thirsty forebear. In fact the Timurid dynasty oversaw an extraordinary revival of the Islamic faith and culture. The latter was partly made possible because even at the height of their ravages both the Mongols and Timur recognised the worth of craftsmen, they were often spared or taken as captives, so when peace retuned they were able to resume their trades.

The Timurids became lavish patrons of the arts and architecture. The vast Imperial projects that they initiated, which continued the Il-Khanid tastes for monumentality of design and magnificence of decoration, promoted all the crafts associated with building and were responsible for a Renaissance of all the arts. The synthesis of Mongol-Turkic and Arabic styles created at this time brought entirely new and highly refined forms both in architecture itself, in architectural decoration and in the arts of the book, which they were also keen to promote. All of these developments were to have a lasting effect on the course of eastern Islamic art.

The Timurids moved their capital from Samarqand to Herat, but like so many before them, their brilliance as patrons was not matched by the sort of political and military skills that were necessary to stay in business at that time. During the 15th century CE (9th A.H) their territories were constantly being encroached upon by aggressive Turcoman tribes. Eventually their Empire was reduced to Herat and the province of Khurasan, where the final flowering of Timurid culture took place.

The early-modern Islamic States

The Timurids were the last great Islamic dynasty of nomadic, steppe origin. The adoption of fire-arms and more advanced military techniques effectively put an end to further large-scale invasions from the Eurasian steppes. But the next stages of Islamic expansion and consolidation were dominated by states that were ruled by Turkish dynasties; these included - the Mamelukes, rulers of Egypt and Syria; the Ottomans, whose Empire eventually encompassed North Africa, Asia minor, most of the Near East and Arabia; the Safavids who ruled Persia and Afghanistan; and the Moguls who gradually conquered much of the Indian sub-continent; Each drew on the art and architecture of their immediate predecessors, but went on to develop their own styles; all departed from the modes of classical Islam in various distinctive ways.

The Mamelukes were originally the Turkish slaves of the Ayyubids. Although their rule was turbulent, with a frequent turnover of ruler, this period (1250-1514; 648-923 AH) was generally a prosperous one for Egypt and Syria, as a result of which culture and the arts thrived.

The Ottomansfirst emerged in the late 13th century CE (7th AH) as one of many small tribes of Turcoman tribesmen, and were loosely attached to the Seljuks. Very gradually they took over Asia Minor (including Constantinople in 1453 (857AH), overran a large part of the Balkans, captured Egypt in 1514 (923 AH) and Hungary in 1526 (932 AH).

Their heyday followed on the conquest of Constantinople, which became the centre of western Islamic civilisation.

The Safavids were Turkish-speaking, but after establishing monarchical rule in 1501 (907 A.H) they imposed Shi’ism as the state religion and claimed semi-divine status as reincarnations of the Shia Imams. These moves provoked perpetual hostility from their Sunni neighbours (particularly the Ottomans), but gave Persia a distinct Islamic and national identity that it has retained to this day.

The reign of Shah Abbas (1588-1629) is recognised as the Safavid golden age, with the Shah building his magnificent new capital at Isfahan in 1596 (1005 AH).

The Mogul Dynasty was founded by Babur, a Chaghatay Turk descended from both Genghis Khan and Timur. In 1504 (910 AH) he raided Northern India, but the dynasty was only firmly established by his son Humayun (1555 (962 AH). The most glorious period of Mogul rule followed with the Emperor Akbar who reigned for the fifty years from 1556 (963 AH). Akbar was followed by other capable rulers whose patronage allowed Islamic-Indian culture to develop distinctive styles in art and architecture. The Mughals gradually declined as a power, until the dynasty was finally deposed by the English in 1858 (1274 AH).

Spain and the Maghreb

The far west of the Islamic world, which included the interacting cultures of Spain and Morocco, was never entirely unaware, or uninfluenced, by the tumultuous events in Eastern Islam, but its location tended to place it outside the main stream of Islamic history – which did not prevent it from having a fairly turbulent one of its own.

The Spanish peninsula was invaded during the early Islamic conquests, when Arab and Berber crossed the Straits of Gibraltar in 711 CE (92 AH). The first important dynasty was established by the Umayyad prince Abd-ar-Rahman, who was a fugitive and the sole survivor of the Abbasid massacres of the Umayyad dynasty in Iraq. The western Umayyads made Cordova their capital, which by the 10th century (4thAH) was a flourishing centre of culture, trade and manufacture – comparable in size and wealth only to Cairo and Baghdad. The dominant figure of this period, and the greatest ruler of the dynasty, was Abd-ar-Rahman III, who adopted the title of Caliph and Commander of the Faithful.

Despite its relative isolation from the rest of the Muslim world, and the difficulties in maintaining central rule in such a geographically diverse country, Islamic culture in Spain under the Umayyads reached great heights. It finally disintegrated in the early 11th century (5th AH) as a result of the usual combination of internal rivalries and external pressures. The Umayyads finally disappeared in 1031 (422 AH) after which there was a period of political fragmentation into innumerable factions (taifa). The capture of Toledo by the Christians in 1058 (418 AH) prompted an appeal to a North African warrior tribe, the Almoravids, 1054-1147 (446-541 AH), who conquered the whole of Muslim Spain by 1090 (483 AH). The unity they imposed did not last however, Another wave of invaders, from the Atlas mountains in Morocco, the Almohads 1130-1269 (523-668 AH) added to the ‘Africanisation’ of Islamic Spain in this middle period.

After the demise of the Almohads three smaller principalities came to dominate the Maghreb in the late Middle Ages – the Marinids in Morocco 1196-1465 (592-869AH); the Zayanids of western Algeria 1236-1555 (634-962AH); and the Hafsids of eastern Algeria and Tunisia (1229-1574 (626-982 AH). From the 16th century (10th AH) most of the Maghreb fell under Ottoman rule.

In Spain, the late medieval history of Islam was marked by a serious diminution of its territories. Cordova and Seville were lost to the Christians in 1212 (609 AH), leaving Granada alone as an isolated Emirate. Miraculously, the Nasrid dynasty managed to maintain an Islamic presence here for a further two and a half centuries, 1232-1492 (630-897 AH); miraculous too, is the fact that this small besieged outpost continued to be an important cultural and manufacturing centre, famous for its poets and scientists, its textiles and pottery, and of course for its marvellous royal palace, the Alhambra.

Granada finally fell to the Catholic alliance of Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492 (897 AH), the very year that Columbus discovered America.

Imperialist Encroachment and Islamic Decline

During the period described as the Middle Ages in Europe the Islamic world was at the height of its power, wealth and creativity. For much of this time European Christendom was on the defensive against Islamic, particularly Turkish, policies of expansion. The turning of the tide of Islamic pre-eminence as a world culture in favour of its quarrelling European rivals is marked by three important dates. Islam still mourns the loss of Spain in 1492, an event that effectively marked the end of the Medieval and the beginning of the Modern period for western Europe. This period also marked the beginning of European imperialism, much of which was to be at the expense of the Islamic word. Islamic expansion into Europe came to an abrupt end in 1683, with the failure of the Ottoman siege of Vienna. From this time Islamic forces suffered defeat after defeat when confronted by Europeans. The British gradually gained control of Mughal India; the Russians pushed ever further into North and Central Asia; the Portuguese went into Africa and Indonesia. In 1789 Napoleon occupied Egypt (and was soon supplanted by the British).

By the early 20th century most of the Islamic world had been incorporated into one or other of the European Empires (principally those of Britain, France, Russia and the Netherlands). The Turkish Ottoman Empire, which had been in decline for the past century, was defeated in 1918 and its territory partitioned between the victorious British and French Empires. In a move that had enormous implications for modern Islam Turkey was liberated by secular nationalists in 1922, who then went on to abolish the Caliphate in 1924 as part of their policy of modernisation. The rest of the Islamic world fought its way clear of imperial domination in the years after the Second World War, but was then faced with seemingly intractable problems of adjusting to modernism, particularly that of forming a loyalty to a nation-state, an alien concept to traditional Islam. The lingering sense of religious unity, but one without even the vestige of an overarching spiritual authority, still presents the greatest difficulty to modern notions of an Islamic identity, and by extension, to a distinctive modern Muslim culture.

  1. The Islamic calendar (denoted AH = Anno Hijra) dates from the Hijra (emigration) of the Prophet from Mecca to Medina; it is a lunar-based system.