HIST 210: The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000

Lecture 15

 - Islamic Conquests and Civil War


In this lecture, Professor Freedman discusses the Islamic conquests.  Although they were in some sense religiously motivated, Arab did not attempt to forcibly convert or eradicate Jews, Christians, or other non-Muslims.  The conquests began as raids, but quickly escalated when the invaders discovered that Byzantium and Persia were too weak to withstand their assault. In a relatively short period of time, the Arabs were able to conquer an area stretching from Spain to India.  Against this background of successful conquests, Islam began to experience deep internal divisions. These began as criticisms of the election of Mohammed’s successors, but broadened to criticize the Caliphate and the ruling family.  Out of this strife came the division between Sunni and Shiite Muslims. Professor Freedman concludes the lecture with observations on the increasingly non-Arab Muslim populations.

Transcript Audio Low Bandwidth Video High Bandwidth Video

The Early Middle Ages, 284–1000

HIST 210 - Lecture 15 - Islamic Conquests and Civil War

Chapter 1: Introduction: Apparent Paradoxes of Islamic Conquest [00:00:00]

Professor Paul Freedman: OK, so Islam, Part Two. I know there’s a lot of new terminology, new narratives. The things that I want you to keep in mind are what we’re really going to focus on today and that is the Islamic conquests, which certainly take place partly because of religious motivation, but nevertheless are not accompanied by some fanatical desire to convert the world. The Muslim conquests have to be understood in terms of religious motivation but not in terms of a determination to wipe out Judaism and Christianity.

What appears to be a paradox makes this era a little hard to understand. Namely, the paradox being that you would have such a rapid expansion of the Arabs and the religion that they carried, which eventually would extend from Spain to India. And at the same time that the Islamic population would be a minority in most of those conquered regions for centuries. There is not a demand for the conversion of the population to Islam, and that although the conversion does take place, in many, in most parts of this imperial caliphate, it doesn’t take place immediately and it doesn’t take place under great pressure. I say apparent paradox because, in fact, the two things are different.

The motivation provided by the religion to conquer does not necessarily mean that you require that everybody that you conquer embrace the religion. Indeed, in part, this is because, as Berkey emphasizes, the distinctiveness of the religion was worked out over the course of its first century, beginning as we said last time in Medina but not fully articulated until the change of dynasty in 750 from the Umayyad to the Abbasids. But the other reason is that there’s no logical connection between conquest and conversion. It’s perfectly possible to be a motivated conqueror and not to require that other people embrace your religion and this is for reasons that we’ll see.

The other apparent paradox, and here I think there really is a paradox, is that the Islamic conquests are accompanied by internal division within Islam from 650 AD. By the time of the Abbasid succession, it is a century later, these two parties can be identified as Sunni and Shiite.

And you’ve read that and you’re aware that this continues to be a division that defines an awful lot of the Islamic world today. It is particularly a problem in those countries such as Iraq, for example, that have both Sunni and Shiite populations. It’s not a problem in Morocco where everybody is Sunni. And it is less of a problem in contemporary Iran where a very large majority is Shiite. But it is a problem that defines both Islam as a religion and the politics of many countries to this day. And so one of the things we have to talk about in a lecture entitled “Islamic Conquest and Civil War” is the origins of the split within Islam. The paradox is that the conquests keep on going even while it would seem that religious unity is falling apart.

Chapter 2: Mohammed’s Successors and the Beginnings of Conquest [00:04:01]

Now as you remember, I hope, after Mohammed’s death, there was no clear succession. He didn’t have a son, and it wasn’t clear what anyone would succeed to. If he was the seal of the prophets, then you couldn’t succeed to prophecy. Was he a religious ruler, was he a military ruler, was he a judicial arbitrator? His father-in-law, Abu Bakr, who we saw was one of the first of his followers, was elected caliph– caliph meaning “successor”, simply. Succeeding to what was not defined, but to some kind of combination of religious and secular rule. As we said last time, religious and secular rule are, in a fundamental way, not separated in Islam, although as we’re going to start to see and as you’ve read, there are some ways in which they do start to separate out, particularly in the later Abbasid period.

Abu Bakr was elected, that is the followers of Mohammed, the people who were thought to have some sort of original religious authority, elected him. His rival was Ali, the cousin of Mohammed and the son-in-law, at the same time of Mohammed. Ali had married Fatima, the daughter of Mohammed. But this election was not recognized by many of the tribes that had regarded their loyalty to Mohammed as personal loyalty to Mohammed, not to some institution and not to some permanent coterie of caliphs or successors. So they refused to recognize Abu Bakr’s authority and there ensued what’s called the ridda, R-I-D-D-A, or apostasy, where the tribes rejected the authority of Abu Bakr, and Abu Bakr militarily compelled them back into submission or recognition of his authority.

Abu Bakr ruled for less than two years, but he had already started on a key aspect of the ridda, the apostasy, and, that is, turning the resistance to the apostasy into a war against external enemies. In other words, the military energy that had to be devoted to bringing these tribes back in, once they were brought in, was continued to turn their military energies outward. And outward means to the north, out of the Arabian desert and to the direct north and slightly northeast, meaning Persia, to the northwest meaning the Byzantine Empire.

And already under Abu Bakr , it was discovered that the Byzantine Empire and the Persian Empire were hollowed out and that what began as raids to keep these discontented tribes happy with a spot of plunder turned into a conquest. And as success breeds success– and I don’t think there’s any more dramatic lesson of that cliché– the ambitions of the conquerors changed very quickly; well the ambitions of the raiders changed very quickly, from booty to conquest, from plunder to an expansion of territory.

Remember that the Persians and the Byzantines had fought each other, that in 626 Persia besieged Constantinople unsuccessfully– 626, four years after the Hegira. So from the Islamic/Muslim/Arab point of view, the timing was great. These two great empires had exhausted each other militarily and to some extent spiritually as well. In 634, in other words two years after the death of Mohammed, the city of Damascus fell to the Arabs. Damascus, the capital of Byzantine Syria, indeed one of the oldest cities in the world, mentioned in the Old Testament of the Bible, an extremely important center of government, commerce, and religion fell. The Byzantine Empire was defeated near Jerusalem.

Abu Bakr died in 634 and again Ali was passed over in another election in favor of another companion of Mohammed, Umar, another one of those original followers that we mentioned in the last lecture. Umar would rule from 634 to 644. He was a startlingly effective ruler.

In the ten years of his caliphate, the Arabs conquered the Persian Empire entirely. An empire that had lasted for centuries, that had been one of the great world empires, collapsed and was taken over by Islam,by the Arabs. The Byzantine Empire didn’t completely collapse, but in this period it lost Syria, Palestine, and then its richest agricultural province, Egypt. Alexandria, capitol of Egypt at the time, surrendered in 642.

Chapter 3: Factors Favoring Arab Conquest [00:10:08]

We can list the factors that favor the Arab conquest, though they’re mostly sort of favorable soil, as it were, not the plant itself. Weakness of Persia and Byzantium, I’ve already mentioned. A mastery of desert warfare. We’ll see this with the Vikings at the end of the course. There are peoples who have been able to take advantage of an adverse environment that they are able easily to swim through, travel through, and that a less mobile adversary cannot deal with. So the similarity between the sea and the rivers of Europe and the desert of the Near East is that you can pick and choose your battles. You appear off the coast. “Uh oh. There’s an army there. We’ll just go back and then we’ll raid somewhere else.”

The same is true of the desert. You appear out of the desert where the urban dwellers cannot easily field an army. And you discover that there’s nobody defending the city and you take it. Or you discover there is somebody defending the city. You go right back into the desert; they can’t pursue you there and you pick somewhere else. So the mastery of desert warfare is in part a question of mobility and the ability to move in the desert freely, easily.

Another aspect of the weakness of Persia and Byzantium is the discontent of their religious minorities. Persia was ruled by a Zoroastrian elite and had other religious groups that felt, if not persecuted, at least discriminated against. And as we’ve seen, the Byzantine Empire had a substantial Monophysite population that was persecuted by the orthodox. These people might not exactly fight for the invader but they certainly weren’t unhappy when the invader showed up.

Indeed, remember that I said that in 655, there was a naval battle. How could the Arabs have sailors if they hadn’t seen a year-round river until a few years before this battle? Their sailors were, most of them, from Monophysite populations of Egypt and Syria. They were able to recruit people who would fight for them who were not Muslim.

The third is the channeling of a war-like society towards external fighting. This is like a problem of conservation of energy. You have a certain amount of energy that is being expended in external fighting. If you can turn all those electrons or whatever in the same direction and make them go outward, they will be extremely powerful. Limits of my scientific knowledge, unfortunately, you see displayed. But you understand what I’m talking about. That is, the internecine warfare is now turned outside because the plunder is better, the motivation is better.

And then motivation is a fourth reason. Religious motivation is this thing that is called jihad. Everybody knows what this means. And we’re going to have to grapple with it because our understanding of it is perhaps partial and distorted. Jihad means struggle. It is a struggle against other religions or against other tendencies within Islam. There’s plenty of energy, as we will see, devoted to fights within Islam. Internecine religious fighting if not tribal feuding.

So we use the term jihad with some reservations. It is wrong to think of the Arab conquest as an expression of jihad in the sense that guys with knives in their teeth ride out and offer a terrorized population the choice of death or conversion. Once again, it is possible to have a religious motivation and yet not necessarily want to kill or convert the conquered people. The Quran itself has plenty of information about the jihad but it is not completely consistent. Certainly there is a sense that the unbelievers must be combated. A sense of martyrdom even–that those who died in the struggle to advance the religion will receive special favor.

But there is also a respect accorded to people of other religions, in particular, Jews and Christians. And if you think about it, it is psychologically possible to be convinced that God is following you. God must be following you. After all, you just conquered Jerusalem, you just conquered Alexandria, you just came out of the desert and have started to a roll like a tsunami– an image I don’t think is really in the Quran. Well, let’s say roll like the sands of the desert over ancient civilization. So God must be with you. But the fact that God is with you may indicate that you’re an elite and that the people that you conquered are simply going to stay that way. Or that if they want to become Muslim, that makes sense. Obviously Got favors Islam. If they don’t want to become Muslim, that’s their lookout.

So it does not mean that you have a hostile conquest policy. Jihad is, in this context, not incompatible with tolerance. “Tolerance” is a word I use with caution as well. Because it’s not as if they have a modern ideal of tolerance, of individuality, of “You have your religion, I have my religion.” It is more that they are not bothered by the presence of people of other religions. And we’ll see some of why that is. So, number five, a policy of allowing conquered people to maintain their religion, livelihood, and private lives.

So there are other rapid conquests in world history, and there are other rapid conquests by people who are technologically or culturally or certainly economically behind the people that they conquer. The Mongols conquer an incredible territory. The Vikings, which we will end the course with, are certainly less developed, economically, less civilized, than the Carolingian Empire that they plunder. What is unusual about Islam, and I reiterate something that I’ve said already, perhaps more than once, is that it has a permanent effect. Rather than disappearing back into their yurts, like the Mongols, or disappearing back into the tundra- well that’s an unfair description of Scandinavia- but disappearing back into the north like the Vikings, the Islamic powers not only stay as occupiers but become, themselves, a cultivated, wealthy, highly civilized empire. What is unusual about the Arabs, then, is their ability to consolidate and to hold onto their conquests.

OK, I think I said before there are three startling things about Islam: the career of Mohammed, the rapidity and extent of the conquests, and this business of the cultural adaptability, consolidation, of the Arab conquerors.

Questions so far? I think that the conquest part of this is clearer than the internal divisions.

Chapter 4: Arab Conquests [00:18:43]

So let’s proceed with the conquests rapidly. There’s no single regime, there’s no rule issued by the Caliphate for conquest policy. In general, if the population surrendered on terms the way Alexandria had in 642, that was fine. Then the people were allowed to keep their local customs. In other words, they were allowed to keep their houses, their jobs, their religion, their property. The Arabs were intent on plunder, however. Why didn’t they just pillage these people?

Some of it is just wisdom. They are thinking they’re going to have to govern these places and that they might as well harness the industry and enterprise of the population rather than kill them or disperse them. Some of it was, I think, that they had so much plunder available to them from other sources that they didn’t have to bother with some middle-class artisan’s wealth. They could plunder churches. They could seize Church lands. They could take the state treasury. Between them, the state and the Church held so much wealth, that the Arab conquerors didn’t really want to bother with mere private property. The leading nobles tended to flee. They allied their interests with the state. They were very large property owners; that land could be confiscated.

And the reward to the conquerors was to be settled on lands of their own, with tenants of their own, and these lands tended to have belonged to the state or to the Church. They received long leases for these lands from the Caliphate, and they paid a religious tax, a kind of tithe, as members of the umma, the religious community.

Non-Muslims were allowed to keep their property, their land and other property, but they had to pay two taxes that Muslims did not. They had to pay what is called in the English-speaking world a poll tax, which is basically just a head tax. Every person or every household pays a certain amount of money. It’s actually kind of like a flat tax, but it has nothing to do with income. It is simply that you as a person living in this polity pay this as a tax. And then a land tax. Land tax obviously more variable depending on how much land you own. If you own x amount of land, you pay a tax. If you own 8x amount of land, you pay eight times that tax, at least that is the theory.

And given that, as we said, as far back as Diocletian, you need to have very good records to keep track of taxes, then they kept on the old officials who had those records. So the language of administration in Syria remains Greek for quite a while; in Egypt, it remains Greek; in Persia, it remains Persian, because the guys that are running it are basically the same guys who are running it under the old empire. Why would the Arabs want to get rid of them? They would want to get rid of the high officials, the nobles, but the functionaries, the bureaucrats, stayed on. Most people who were Christians or Jews paid no more tax to the conquerors than they had to the Byzantine or Persian Empire. In other words, they were conquered, their lives did not radically change, their taxes did not go up. They didn’t really miss the Persian or Byzantine imperial regimes.

The question, however, is why are the Arabs so tolerant? And this surprises people who assume that Islam has always been spread with a kind of totalizing militancy. In fact, for a time, the conquerors didn’t encourage conversion because you can see the consequences of conversion for taxation. If eighty percent of the population is Jewish and Christian, then eighty percent of the population is in a high tax bracket. If you are running things, it’s to your interest that they not convert to that very low ten percent tax bracket or whatever the zakat, the religious tax is. “Go ahead and have fun. It’s Sunday, go to church, don’t bother me, pay your taxes,” would be a fairly common attitude on the part of the conquerors.

And of course there’s a respect for Christianity and Judaism that I’ve already mentioned. Some of it is confidence that eventually people are just going to see that Islam is more successful. Up until the Abbasid regime, 750, a vast majority of the conquered territory remained in the religion that it had had before the conquest. In other words, in Egypt in 750, a majority of the population were Christian. And indeed in Egypt, to this day, ten percent of the population is Christian. Certainly, Islam would gain. And certainly now, ironically, much more than in 800 AD or 1200 AD or 1500 AD or 1900 AD, it’s tough to be a Christian in Egypt. This is a problem of modernity, not of the period we are dealing with.

Chapter 5: Internal Divisions [00:25:05]

So the process of conquest is very rapid. The process of Islamization is not. They are not to be confused. Amidst all these triumphs, the caliph experiences divisions that culminated in a civil war between 656 and 661.

And the origins of it seems to be the murder of Caliph Umar in 644. He was murdered by a Persian Christian. So it’s not a Muslim assassination. But it ushered in another disputed election. And Ali, poor guy, presented himself yet again as the successor of Mohammed.And again he was defeated, this time by Uthman. Uthman, along with Abu Bakr and Umar, we mentioned him as one of the original followers of Mohammed. Uthman was a member of a prominent clan, the Umayyads, a high status Mecca family. High status, but the Umayyads had opposed Mohammed. Uthman was an exception but his family were among those people of Mecca who had been the most steadfast in opposing this upstart guy.

So to some, especially the followers of Ali, Uthman appeared to be a representative of a not really staunch Islamic family. They were not fervent new followers. Why was Ali passed over so many times? It’s not clear. Here again, we are in a very controversial area in which a lot of later tradition elaborates reasons for things that may not have anything to do with what the reality was in 644. You start to have pro-Ali parties or traditions. This is what would become the Shiite party and pro-Umayyad or pro-Caliphate traditions, that of the Sunnis. Neither of which is completely to be relied on because obviously they are biased.

Under Uthman, the pace of conquest continues. This naval battle in 655 took place– the Battle of the Masts– in which the Byzantine navy was defeated by the Arab navy. This meant that islands in the Mediterranean start to fall to the Arabs. Cyprus was conquered in 649, Rhodes in 654. Meanwhile, in the former Persian Empire, the eastern part of Iraq, tending over towards Persia, was conquered in 651-653. Armenia, north and west of Persia, east of Anatolia, the area where the earthquake was recently, was conquered in 653-655.

But Uthman was particularly disliked by much of the population. Unlike Umar, unlike the early caliphs, he was regarded as lethargic and as a sensualist, let’s say. Lethargic and profligate, a lover of luxury, a monarch rather than a leader, a corrupt ruler. And he was murdered by a Muslim in 656. Here we have the first assassination of a caliph by another member of the faithful.

And Ali was proclaimed as caliph. The problem here is that Ali was proclaimed caliph by the people who had assassinated Uthman. Or at least he was perceived as taking the title from the bloodied hands of assassins. Whether he knew in advance of the plot against Uthman is doubtful. But he starts off in a somewhat false position as caliph. He is opposed bitterly by the Umayyad family. But more than that, his claim to the caliph is tarnished by the circumstances under which he came into it.

And an Umayyad rose up against him and starts the first civil war of Islam. This is Mu’awiya, the governor of Syria who revolts in Damascus and leads a party against Caliph Ali. In fact, this gives rise to a militant group of people who hate both claimants. Ali is assassinated, and Mu’awiya is wounded. Now Mu’awiya survives but the tendency within Islam to dispose of enemies by violent means has been sanctioned by the events of this period.

So 661, the civil war is over. Mu’awiya moves the capital from Medina to Damascus. He establishes the Umayyads as a dynasty, and they would rule as caliphs until 750. What does this move from Medina to Damascus mean? It certainly is a part of the de-Arabization of the definition of the caliphate. Damascus is not an Arab city, at least in its origin. It was part of the Byzantine Empire. It is more centrally located than Medina in terms of administering the Empire. It’s also more cosmopolitan. It has a lot of different kinds of people.

So the move is away from the Arab heartland to a place where the population is not necessarily Arab. It is part of the transformation of the caliph from what we would call religious leadership to that of a kind of kind of monarch, king. The caliph lives in a city. He lives in a palace. He has an immense entourage. The days of the tents in Arabia or of quasi-nomadic followers of Mohammed are definitively over with the defeat of Ali. Defeat, but it’s not a complete defeat.

Sh’ia means party or to its opponents faction. And for a long time, the Shiites are like the perpetual losers who cannot at the same time be eliminated. They are a minority within Islam. They are, at various times, seemingly overwhelmed by the wealth, armies, power of the caliphs. But they never go away and they never abandon their claims. They form, thus, a permanent dissenting group within Islam. What is the nature of that dissent? What don’t they like about Islam as it’s practiced by the majority? Any sense of that from this admittedly busy reading? It’s key that you understand what Shiism is and what its grievances are.

Student: Do they reject the caliph as a religious figure?

Professor Paul Freedman: They reject the caliph as a religious figure. Do they reject him because he’s not the descendant of Ali? Partly. Part of this is a succession question. They reject the caliph because he’s illegitimate. So it’s kind of like a dynastic question. The only real caliphs– and they don’t use the term caliph. They start to use the term “imam” as you’ve read. The only real religious leader is not the guy sitting in Damascus in his palace with the splish-splashing fountains and scented perfumes everywhere. But to what extent do they reject the caliphate as such apart from the dynastic question? How would you describe Shiite political theory? If the Sunnis are monarchical, if they are comfortable with a caliph who rules over an Empire of unbelievable extent, what might the Shiites prefer to see? OK, Spencer?

Student: The government of the consensus of the umma, the community of the faithful.

Professor Paul Freedman: And something more informal. Indeed, although I hesitate to use this term, they are republican. Republican, not in the twenty-first or twentieth century American sense. What does republican mean in this context?

Student: Choosing representatives to then carry out the will of the people.

Professor Paul Freedman: Yes, anti-monarchical. They regard the caliph as a sort of George III of the Muslim world. They don’t want to have a single ruler who is a political ruler. They’re comfortable with rulership in at least some sense. But the rulership should be either elected or inspired. They are radicals, in part because they’re dissenters. They’re on the out, in part because they are really angry and they countenance violent tactics of opposition. They are egalitarian and that’s sort of what I mean by republican. It’s not so much that they necessarily believe in a representative system as that they believe in a system in which one class of believers is not exalted over another. And one person is not ruling merely because he comes from a certain background.

Now what happens when religious movements are frustrated? That is, when they are objects of repression? Because indeed the Shiites were not particularly tolerated by the caliph. Often, such religious groups become fixated on a future in which their claims will be vindicated. This certainly makes sense.

The Christians persecuted under the Roman Empire wrote the granddaddy of all prophetic texts, prophetic of the destruction of your enemies: the Book of Revelations. I suggest that you take a look at that anyway as it’s always interesting reading. And it is the book of the Bible that has the most relevance, for better or worse, to the current world we live in because it’s the one that talks constantly about the future and what’s going to happen. Is that future the Apple computer future where everybody’s wonderfully connected and we all can just float in some kind of great brain that we participate in? Or is the future some terrible ecological disaster in which we’ll be cannibals and stuff? Or is the future the visitation of those angels, those candlesticks, those flowing rivers of molten metal as in the book of Revelations? Trumpets all over the place. Will 1/3 one-third of the population be wiped out one day and then another  third the next day? The narrator of the Book of Revelations cannot wait for this to happen.

It is in the nature of apocalyptic thinking that it is violent, because your enemies, who are right now persecuting you, are going to be confounded. And they’re not going to be confounded in the, “Oh gee, I’m really sorry I persecuted you,” sense. They are going to be split apart and pulverized. And you’re going to be watching and you’re going to be applauding while they’re split apart and pulverized and tortured. That’s the nature of messianic, apocalyptic thinking. Apocalyptic meaning the end of the world in some kind of conflagration, messianic meaning the presence of a savior. The two are not the same thing, but they tend to go together because there’s going to be somebody who’s going to come and, amidst the bloodshed and the fire, usher in a millennial world. That is to say, a world in which bad things have been purged. And that messiah may be Jesus Christ at the second coming. It may be the messiah of Jewish tradition. Or in Shiite Islam, it may be the imam, the rightly guided imam. The Shiites have a leader. I just said that they are republican and egalitarian, but they’re not some kind of Occupy Wall Street, we don’t have any leaders, anarchic group. They have leaders but they are leaders who are inspired, not merely administrators of a huge bureaucracy. And these imams succeed each other and are recognized by the Shiite faction until the death of the eleventh imam – the death of the eleventh imam without any obvious successor. Who is the twelfth imam? And we enter into this period of what the book calls “occultation”. Not a word that you find used. Well, it’s got some sort of medical meaning too. Occultation, meaning what? Come on, this is in the reading.

He’s gone into hiding. Occult means hidden. There is a twelfth imam. We just don’t know where he is. He’s in a cave somewhere. And there are imams and imams after him. Either he is deathless or there are other imams. But they’re all hidden because they’re not ready yet. But when they are ready, centuries of grievance are going to be revenged.

So there’s a notion of a corrupt and misguided Islamic establishment and of a true subterranean occult, righteous level of the practice of the religion.

So Shiism tends to apocalyptic thinking, to prophecy. It exalts Ali and his followers. And it feels that it is in touch with the original desert, austere, egalitarian roots of Islam that have been corrupted by the monarchical, suspect purity of the Sunni caliphate.

Who becomes a Shiite? This is a hard question to answer because it is more than just a party or faction. If it was just a party or faction, it could not have lasted into the contemporary world with the force that it has. Who is discontent under Islam? It would seem logical that the people who would be discontent would be non-Arabs because there is increasingly, as the Islamic world takes shape, a population of people who do convert to Islam who were not Arabs. We’ve said that the pace of Islamization was slow but, nevertheless, it was persistent and logical. It’s logical that people should have converted to Islam, not only because it is a religion that to this day attracts lots of converts because it has a religious appeal and, as I have argued, it’s a do-able religion.

It’s a religion that does not have a huge number of self-mortifying precepts. It is a way of living a righteous life in the world and performing certain duties that are not tremendously onerous or very subtle and involve a lot of mental internal dialogue. So people are converting to Islam. These people are known collectively as mawali, singular, mawal. A mawal is a non-Arab Muslim. In the early years, by definition, a convert.

The day that Damascus fell, there were no Muslims in Damascus except maybe for some Arab traders. As of the death of Mohammed, all Muslims were Arabs. But within decades of this, with the conquests and conversion, there are lots of non-Arab Muslims. They may need to learn Arabic to understand the Koran. They’re supposed to go to Mecca and so forth. But they are not Arabs. Are they equal to Arabs? Well, Arabs are always, to this day, going to feel themselves to have a special relationship, a special status should we say, because Mohammed was an Arab and the movement starts in Arabia.

But as I’m sure you know, the largest countries from the point of view of population that are Islamic are not Arabic, almost at all. Indonesia is the largest Muslim country in the world. India is the second largest Muslim country in the world even though its population is so large that Islam is a minority there. Pakistan is the third largest, I think. These all are countries without Arabs. Iran is not Arabic. It is, as we all know, an Islamic republic. The world of Arabs is very numerous, but the world of non-Arab Muslims is more so.

And it is starting to become that way in the period that we’re talking about. The Arabs are simply a small number of conquerors. And particularly in Persia, where the pace of conversion is faster than that of say Egypt or Syria, there are a lot of mawali. At some point, some of the benefits of conversion, the fiscal benefits of conversion, are eliminated because the state, the Caliphate can’t afford to have a population that is only paying the low religious tax. So it would seem that the moment at which you say, “OK, we’re happy that you’re becoming a Muslim. You’re still paying land and poll taxes because we can’t actually aspire to make all Muslims equal from a fiscal point of view.” At that point you would have some angry malawi, at least so one would think. And so, one would think, these would be proto-Shiites or Shiite recruiting grounds.

There’s a lot of debate about this. Berkey kind of skirts over this issue. Other scholars doubt that this is the case. They don’t actually think there’s such a close connection between the Shiite party and discontented people. Or at least there is a connection between the Shiite party and discontented people, but the discontented people are not discontent because of their tax position.

The presence of discontent within Islam is a constant. The presence of prophecy within Islam is a constant, even though the teaching of the religion has been that Mohammed is the last prophet. It’s very hard to put a stop to prophecy in the Christian religion, in the Jewish religion, in the Muslim religion. Once you have started to talk about inspired religious leaders, they’re going to crop up even after you’ve declared an end of religious charisma. And the consequences of that and the splendor, nevertheless, of the Abbasid Empire will form our subject for the next lecture.


[end of transcript] 

Back to Top
mp3 mov [100MB] mov [500MB]