Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD
When Islam burst upon the global scene in the 7th century, it faced the Christian (Byzantine, Eastern Roman) Empire in the Mediterranean and the Zoroatrian Empire in Persia. The campaigns of Caliph Omar Ibn al Khattab (r) eliminated the Sassanids, the Persians embraced Islam, and Persia became a part of the Islamic heartland. In the Mediterranean, the Roman provinces of Syria and Egypt were conquered. Expansion continued during the Umayyad period. An attack on the Byzantine capital of Constantinople (Istanbul) by Emir Muawiya (d. 680) was unsuccessful. Success was more forthcoming in the western campaigns. By 712, North Africa and Spain were in the Muslim camp. Muslim armies crossed the Pyrenees Mountains (715), consolidated their hold on southern France (715-730), and pushed north into the heart of the Frankish territories. They were stopped at the Battle of Tours (736) near modern Paris. Thus, the first wave of Muslim expansion succeeded in elbowing out the Byzantine Empire from the eastern Mediterranean and almost succeeded in overrunning the Latin West.
The second wave of expansion came in the 9th century. After the death of Charlemagne (814) and the disintegration of the Carolingian Empire, a political vacuum developed in northern Europe that invited raids from the Vikings (Swedes). The Nordic countries were not yet Christian, and the Viking raids took a heavy toll in Germany, France and Scotland. At about the same time, the Umayyads in Spain and the Aghlabids in Tunisia launched a series of raids on southern Europe. The Spanish Umayyads reoccupied Narbonne and made a thrust towards the mountain passes in Switzerland. The Aghlabids captured Sicily and advancing into the Italian peninsula, occupied Pisa and raided Rome (846). The Muslim powers might have inflicted greater damage were they not divided among themselves. The Umayyads of Spain would not coordinate their efforts with the Aghlabids of North Africa who owed their allegiance to the Abbasids in Baghdad. In the 10th century, the powerful Fatimids in Egypt (969-1172) displaced the Aghlabids. The Fatimids had a different vision of Islam from the Sunnis and engaged in a continuous struggle with both the Umayyads in Spain and the Abbasids in Baghdad. These internal struggles dashed any hope of a coordinated, sustained offensive against southern Europe.
The first Latin thrust at the world of Islam came during the Crusades. The Crusades were proposed by Pope Gregory V as early as 996, but the Europe of Pope Gregory was too weak, and the Islamic world much too strong, to mount a major attack across the Mediterranean Sea. The initial focus of the Crusades was therefore limited to southern Italy and Spain. Pisa and Sardinia were recaptured in 1052, while the city of Toledo in Spain fell in 1085. However, it was not until the 11th century that the full fury of the Crusades was let loose.
In 1095, Pope Urban preached a Crusade to wrest control of Jerusalem from the Muslims. The imagination of Europe was fired up with visions of the Holy Cross and the Church of the Holy Sepulcher. This time, the political climate in the eastern Mediterranean was more conducive to an invasion. The long drawn out struggle between the Abbasids in Baghdad and the Fatimids in Cairo had sapped their energies. The line of control between the Seljuk Turks who championed the Abbasids and the Fatimids ran through the hills of Palestine. The First Crusade succeeded in capturing Jerusalem and establishing a Latin presence in Palestine and Syria (1096). However, the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem was short-lived. A counter-punch by the Seljuks (1130-1170) expelled the Crusaders from northern Iraq. Salahuddin (d. 1193) united Syria and Egypt under his command, brought an end to Fatimid rule in Cairo (1172) and won back Jerusalem (1186) from the Crusaders.
The first Latin drive into the eastern Mediterranean was a military failure, but it did bring the Crusaders face to face with the more advanced Islamic civilization. Soon, the focus of the Crusades in the eastern Mediterranean changed from God to gold. With the Fourth Crusade and the sack of Constantinople (1204), the Latin West accepted the premise that gold was more important than the Cross and moved inexorably away from the age of imagination towards the age of mercantile acquisition.
Subsequent forays by the Latins to occupy Egypt (1218) ended in failure and their attempts to form a coalition with the marauding Mongols (1260) were equally unsuccessful. The finale came when Sultan Baybars of Egypt defeated a combined army of the Crusaders, Armenians and Mongols at the Battle of Ayn Jalut (1261), near the city of Nazareth. However, it was in the Maghrib that the real drama of the Crusades was played out. It was the western Crusades, fought in Spain and North Africa, which altered the flow of global history and ultimately resulted in the ascendancy of Europe over the rest of the world.
Frustrated in the east, the Crusaders turned their full fury at the Maghrib. After the Battle of Hittin (1186) and the failure of the Third Crusade (1193), no serious attempt was made by the Latins to retake Jerusalem. It was a different story in the west. The Second Crusade (1145) succeeded in capturing Lisbon (Hishbunah in Arabic) in Portugal, while Sicily was wrested from the Arabs (1050). The intervention of the Murabitun from West Africa (1086), and of the Al Muhaddith from North Africa (1125) stemmed the Crusader tide for a while. But the disastrous defeat at Las Novas de Tolosa (1212) sealed the fate of the Al Muhaddith Empire and the Christian Crusaders thrust forward. Spain, except for a tiny foothold in Granada, fell to a combined onslaught from Portugal, Castile and Aragon (1232-1248).
For the next hundred years, a military equilibrium prevailed in the western Mediterranean. Hostilities resumed in the 15th century as pressure from the Turks in the eastern Mediterranean increased. In 1415, Portugal captured the important trading post of Ceuta astride the Straits of Gibraltar. This was the first significant hold of the Christian Iberians in North Africa. Tangier fell in 1425. Using these two cities as their bases, the Portuguese expanded their operations on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. Prince Henry, Portuguese governor of Ceuta and Tangier, encouraged these excursions. Since the Maghrib was in political disarray following the collapse of the Al Muhaddith, it was in no position to mount a vigorous counter-offensive. In 1434, the Portuguese sailor Diaz crossed Cape Bajador at the western tip of Africa. This was an important benchmark in that it demonstrated Portuguese capability to sail against the wind. In 1441, the first Portuguese slave raid was made on the coast of Mauritania, in which a “Moorish” couple was captured and enslaved. This was the beginning of the Atlantic slave trade, which in the coming centuries was to transform Africa, Europe and America alike. By the year 1500, there were 30,000 Muslim slaves in Lisbon.
The Portuguese continued their relentless advance down the coast of West Africa. Gaining experience as they went, Portuguese sailors soon discovered that by sailing further west to the Azores Islands and then turning south, they could avoid the opposing currents off the coast of Africa. By 1490, their ships were sailing far into the southern reaches of the great continent of Africa. The farther south they went, the larger was the radius of the arc extending from the Azores to the tip of South Africa. In 1492, during one of those voyages, in an arc that extended far from the shores of Africa, Columbus discovered the West Indies. Granada fell the same year to a determined Castilian onslaught. In 1494, at the Treaty of Tordesillas brokered by Pope Alexander VI, Portugal and Spain divided the world into their respective spheres of influence. In 1496, Vasco de Gama sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, up the coast of East Africa and with the help of a Muslim navigator, Ahmed Ibn Majid, was shown the sea-route to India. Thus the naval thrusts that had started a century earlier to outflank the Muslim Maghrib resulted in the discovery of America and the establishment of naval trade routes to the prosperous Indian Ocean region.
But these discoveries in themselves were not sufficient to guarantee the ascent of Europe. While the Iberians were exploring the coast of West Africa, the Ottoman Turks, rising from the dust of Tatar destructions, started a broad offensive in southeastern Europe. This was the third major offensive of the Muslims towards Europe. The Turks were fierce, determined, had the zeal of the ghazis and were more than a match for Europe in military technology. In 1453, Constantinople (Istanbul) was captured and was made the capital of the expanding empire. By the turn of the century, Turkish cavalry was riding on the plains of Hungary and was knocking at the doors of Vienna, deep in Central Europe. When the Ottomans captured Egyypt in 1517, they projected their naval power into the Mediterranean, while their land armies pushed across North Africa, expelling the Spanish who had established their bases along the southern Mediterranean coast. Meanwhile, the powerful Safavids in Persia and the resplendent Moghuls in India were consolidating their empires. To an observer in 1570, it would not be obvious as to whether it would be the Christian Iberians or the Muslim Turks who would conquer and dominate the world.
It was in the last third of the 16th century that the focus of history shifted to northern Europe. The confluence of several critical events helped the North Europeans in their emergence on the world stage. In 1571, the Battle of Lepanto contained the expansion of the Ottoman navy and prevented the Turks from projecting their power into the Atlantic Ocean and the Americas. In 1578 the Moroccans, under Sultan Ahmed al Mansur, crushed the Portuguese at the Battle of al Qasr al Kabir and with it the curtain fell on the Portuguese global venture. Sebastian, the King of Portugal, was killed and within two years after the debacle Portugal itself became a protectorate of Spain. In turn, Spain tried to leverage its position as the colonial power in the Americas to solidify its global naval supremacy. In this effort it was doomed to failure.
The lure of Incan gold from Peru and Aztec silver from Mexico, hauled aboard Spanish ships, was too strong a temptation for English, French and North African pirates. Spain tried diplomacy to stop the piracy but to no avail. In desperation, King Phillip III of Spain attempted an invasion of England. With the combined resources of Spain and Portugal, the Spanish armada sailed towards London. The invasion had the blessing of the Pope who declared a Crusade against England because Queen Elizabeth I (d. 1603) had taken England out of the orbit of Rome and had joined the Protestant League. The planned invasion was a disaster. The Spanish armada was sunk in the English Channel in 1588. The pride of the Spanish and Portuguese navies went down to the bottom of the sea and with it died the Spanish dream of dominating the world.
Meanwhile, a new naval power emerged in northern Europe. Holland, which had been a colony of Spain, threw off the Spanish yoke in 1572 and declared its independence. Antwerp and Rotterdam were important trading and shipbuilding centers for Spain and Portugal. When they wrested their independence, the Dutch inherited not only these trading posts but acquired the shipbuilding docks as well. Following the unsuccessful Spanish attempts to invade England (1588 and 1598), the weakness of Spanish naval power led to increased piracy against its shipping. As piracy took its toll, Spain was forced to increase the rate of production of its ships to replenish its vast fleet. Quality suffered. By contrast, the Dutch focused on improving the range as well as the firepower of their ships. Holland had, in addition, large resources of timber from the Rhineland and a vast reservoir of German mercenaries to draw upon from the northern counties. A weakened Spain, overextended across the globe, could not defend its positions as well as those of its Portuguese allies. By 1620, the Dutch had occupied Brazil, displaced the Portuguese as the dominant naval power in the Indian Ocean and replaced the Spanish as the most important European power engaged in the African slave trade.
From the vantage point of the year 1600, a historian may see a window of opportunity in North Africa and Western Europe. Portugal was defeated and had become a protectorate of Spain. The Spaniards, their ambitions frustrated in North Africa and England, could not defend their far-flung possessions. The Dutch and the English fleets were still in their infancy. This was an ideal opportunity for the Maghrib to venture forth and compete for the wealth that lay beyond the oceans. But it was not to be. North Africa surrendered the Atlantic Ocean to the Europeans. The wheels of fortune turned. Wealth and power gravitated towards northern Europe and left Africa in poverty.
These developments were a logical consequence of the political fragmentation that existed in North Africa in the 15th and 16th centuries. The Ottomans advanced from Egypt to control Tunisia and Algeria (1572), but halted their advance when the Sa’adids of Morocco showed their military prowess against the Portuguese at the Battle of al Qasr al Kabir (1578). In Morocco itself, there was tension between the rulers and the society. Real power in the countryside lay with the Jazuli (belonging to the Shadhuli order) Sufis and the Sa’adid emirs ruled only with the support of the Jazuli shaykhs. Unlike the emirs, the Jazulis had roots in the countryside. They organized local schools around zawiyas, provided social services and spearheaded the resistance to Portuguese incursions in southern Morocco and Mauritania. The money required to support these activities came from ziyara, a charitable contribution offered by the faithful to the local zawiyas, which were often built around tombs of Sufi shaykhs. By the same token, this was money denied the Sultans and emirs. Sources of revenue from the Mediterranean were equally elusive for the central administration. Much of the trade in the western Mediterranean was controlled by Genoa, Italy. The interests of the Moroccan merchants were therefore more closely allied with those of the Italian merchants than with the Sa’adid emirs in Marrakesh. In addition, there were profits from piracy, but the capital for this activity was controlled from abroad, primarily from Italy and France. The Sa’adids were therefore perennially short of cash and became increasingly coercive in their tax collection.
It was the pressure of an empty treasury that drove the Sa’adid Emir, Ahmed al Mansur to his ill-fated invasion of the Songhay Empire in West Africa (1592). Although the emir obtained a substantial amount of loot from this adventure, the long-term effect of the invasion was to disrupt the north-south trade between the Sudan and North Africa, further hastening the disintegration of both. In turn, the resulting dislocations helped the African slave trade, which was at this time gaining momentum in the Sene-Gambia region on the Atlantic shores.
The Jazuli Sufi movement, like its sister movements in Asia, was inherently anti-central, focusing more on individual salvation and the welfare of the local community, as opposed to a centralized administration. Only a centralized power could have mustered the capital to invest in a strong navy capable of competing with European navies. The Sultans of Marrakesh, perennially short of cash, could not afford such major investments. The only Muslim power that did have the resources, namely the Ottoman Empire, was precluded from doing so by the emergence of independent Morocco. The Spanish emperors, from Charles V (d. 1558) onwards, recognized that independent Morocco was a useful bulwark against Ottoman expansion and did everything in their power to encourage this independence. The Turkish navy had no bases on the Atlantic Ocean. As a result, the Atlantic became an exclusive preserve of the European powers, and America an extension of Europe.
The tension between the rulers and the society had disastrous long-term effects on the development of trade and technology in the Maghrib. What was good for the society was not necessarily good for the emirs and vice versa. The emirs and Sultans had nothing to gain from any improvement, which would help either the Jazuli shaykhs, or the rich merchants along the Mediterranean coast. For instance, cultivation of sugarcane, which had been introduced into Morocco around 1570, was abandoned because the primary beneficiaries of this cultivation were the Sufi zawiyas. Even though there was a ready market for Moroccan sugar in Elizabethan England, the Sa’adid emirs saw no advantage in furthering this trade. Similarly, profits that were made by a few merchants on the Mediterranean coast benefited neither the emirs nor the society at large. A few merchants became wealthy from the trade but it did not help the consolidation of political power in the Maghrib or provide a channel for the energies of the masses in the direction of the increasingly important Atlantic Ocean.
In contrast to the accelerating social and political fragmentation in the Maghrib, England went through a political consolidation under the stimulus of similar impulses. English pirates were equally active against Spanish and Portuguese shipping. However, the impact of piracy was to hasten the demise of feudalism in England. Rich merchants, noblemen, even the crown, invested in this trade and benefited from its profits. The infusion of wealth created a new class whose interests lay more in the ships that plowed the ocean than in exploiting the land. As the newly rich made a bid for power, there was resistance from the established feudal lords. Tensions developed between the city and the countryside. Bold forays were made in the Parliament by both sides. After Oliver Cromwell (d. 1658), the debate between the trader and the landlord was decided in favor of the former and power shifted inexorably in favor of the merchants.
The key difference between the experience of England and the Muslim Maghrib lay in the process by which change was internalized and incorporated into the historical experience of the people. In the Maghrib, trade was external to the masses. It benefited neither the rulers nor the peasants. In England, trade became a part of the national experience; change was internalized and became a catalyst for social transformation. Out of the conflicts between the old feudal structure and the new mercantile order emerged a dynamic England that provided a mechanism to channel the energies of the people, and the ocean became the new frontier for the crowded masses in London and Liverpool. Within a century after Elizabeth I (d. 1603), the English navy emerged as the most powerful in the world. In the Maghrib, change was resisted and discarded because it was of marginal benefit to the rulers. The result was that the Maghrib itself became marginalized.
The principal element in this divergence lay in the legitimacy of rule. The Sa’adid emirs, like their counterparts in much of the Islamic world, were absolute monarchs. The interests of the masses were not always the same as those of the rulers. The masses were more in tune with the Sufis and their life revolved around the Jazuli zawiyas. The only contact that the peasant had with the ruler was through the hated tax collectors. The emirs in Marrakesh would not and did not encourage commercial or industrial activities that would further benefit the zawiyas from which the emirs themselves derived no benefit. There was a similar divergence of interests between the emirs and the merchants on the Mediterranean coast. The merchants benefited from the trade and their interests lay in working closely with the Christian Genoese. The benefits did not trickle down to the Berbers in the Atlas Mountains. By contrast, the political processes in England underwent a transformation in the 17th century, accommodating change and giving the merchant and the landowner alike a stake in how the country was governed. The monarchy itself was transformed, reflecting a desire to be more responsive to the emerging merchant classes.
The political and social patterns in the Maghrib around the year 1600 offer insights into the process of decay that overwhelmed the Islamic world a century later. It is instructive to note that the political collapse that engulfed the Islamic world around the year 1700 was global, rather than regional. The Moghul, Safavid and the Ottoman dynasties suffered significant regression almost simultaneously. This suggests that the reasons for the loss of Muslim political initiative in world affairs were not regional; they were global. Regional analyses distort the perspective and provide only partial answers. The issue demands a global perspective.
Legitimacy of rule was an important reason in this political collapse. Indeed, legitimacy of rule has been a recurrent theme in Islamic history since its inception. Differences of opinion regarding rules of succession and the qualifications of a ruler arose immediately after the death of the Prophet. The Ansars felt that they had an equal right with the Muhajirs to rule and demanded a dual power structure at the top. Dissension was contained and the issue was settled with the timely intervention of Abu Bakr (r) and Omar ibn al Khattab (r) and the Caliphate was established. The opinion that Ali ibn Abu Talib(r) was the true heir to the leadership of the community also surfaced immediately but remained submerged until the assassination of the third Caliph, Uthman bin Affan (r) . Uthman’s (r) assassination destroyed the unity in the Madinite community and civil war erupted when Ali ibn Abu Talib(r) was elected the Caliph. The war and the aftermath of Ali’s (r) assassination destroyed whatever cohesion was left and created the Shi’a-Sunni split, which runs through Islamic history like a giant earthquake fault.
The first four Caliphs, Abu Bakr (r), Omar (r) , Uthman (r) and Ali (r) , are considered the Khulafa e Rashidoon (Rightly Guided Caliphs) by Sunni Muslims. Most Shi’a Muslims accept only the Caliphate (and Imamate) of Ali (r), although some (such as the Zaidis and the Ibadis) accept the Caliphate of Abu Bakr (r) and Omar (r) but not that of Uthman (r). Nonetheless, there is agreement among an overwhelming majority of Muslims that the early Caliphate followed the principle of consultation and its legitimacy was accepted and supported by the community. Ali himself acted as the spiritual pole of the Islamic community during the rule of the first three caliphs and the difficult judicial issues were referred to him for his advice.
Only a legitimate ruler can command the willing support and cooperation that is necessary for just rule. Conversely, in the absence of legitimacy a ruler can enforce his writ only by coercion or bribery. Emir Muawiya changed the Caliphate. When he nominated and forced his son Yazid upon the community, the Caliphate became a dynasty. Its character was now closer to the Persian and Byzantine models than the one accepted by the Companions of the Prophet. Alone among the Umayyads, Omar Abdul Aziz (d. 719) tried to stem the tide towards autocracy, attempted to heal the wounds in the Islamic community and ruled with the consent of all segments of the society. For this reason, some refer to him as the Fifth Rightly Guided Caliph. When the Umayyads were displaced and the Abbasids moved their capital to Baghdad (762), the Caliphate underwent further changes and became more Persianized. In the 9th century, the Turks became the kingmakers in Baghdad and without abolishing the Caliphate, replaced it with a new institution, the Sultanate. The caliphs remained as spiritual relics of the past, but the temporal power passed on to the Sultans. Even when they had lost their temporal power, the community recognized the right of the caliph to bestow legitimacy upon a ruler, and Asian Sultans and African emirs alike coveted the honor of recognition from Baghdad.
In the 10th century, a powerful challenge to the legitimacy of the Abbasid Caliphate arose from North Africa. The Fatimids, claiming their decent from Imam Ismail, the sixth in the lineage of Ali ibn Abu Talib(r), burst upon the scene and quickly consolidated their rule over Egypt, Syria, Arabia and North Africa. In the Shi’a tradition, they maintained that only a qualified imam in the lineage of Ali (r) could provide wilayat (guardianship) to the Islamic community. Despite their strong attempts to foster this opinion upon the Islamic world, they were unsuccessful and they remained a ruling elite amidst a preponderant Sunni population. In the 12th century, Salahuddin displaced them (1171) and titular legitimacy reverted to the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad.
In 1258, Hulagu Khan destroyed Baghdad and with it the classic period of Islamic civilization came to an end. The community was without a spiritual head and a concerted effort was made to continue the institution of the Caliphate. One of the survivors from the Abbasid house, Al Mustansir, found his way to Cairo, where he was proclaimed the Caliph by the ruling Bahri Mamlukes (1261). And there the Caliphate stayed until the Ottomans captured Egypt in 1517. To maintain continuity, the last of the Abbasids, Al Mutawakkil III, was brought to Istanbul and was made to renounce his title in favor of the Ottoman Sultan Salim Yavuz. The Ottoman Caliphate continued in Istanbul until 1924, when the Turkish National Assembly abolished it.
In the 1400 years since the assassination of Ali ibn Abu Talib (r), the model of rule in the Islamic world has been that of a despot king who acquires his power through conquest, heredity or treachery. Some ruled as if they were saints, some were scoundrels, but the model of despotism was constant and unchanging. The ruling structure was an inverted pyramid standing on its tip. When a ruler was capable, his kingdom flourished. When he was not, the kingdom fell apart only to be occupied by a new king. As long as the ruling structure in Europe was similarly despotic, the Muslim empires stood an even chance to hold their own. Indeed their religious cohesion, self-confidence and doctrinal zeal gave the Muslims an advantage over other civilizations. But when the old political structure in Europe disappeared and new institutions evolved, the Muslim world was at a disadvantage. Thus it was when the English and Dutch joint stock companies squared off against the crumbling despotic regimes of Asia. It was the companies, with their superior efficiencies and decentralized management that triumphed.
In the year 1700, the principal Muslim dynasties in the world were all absolute monarchies. The triumphs and tribulations, the hopes and disappointments, the successes and failures of a people depended entirely on the person of their monarch. His training and disposition, his religious inclination or lack thereof, his abilities and foibles all had a direct bearing on the empire. Neither were the rules of succession clearly defined. A reigning monarch could not be removed except through assassination, blinding, imprisonment or military defeat. In much of the Islamic world, the rules of succession followed the Mongol-Tatar-Turkish tradition and had nothing to do with the legacy of Islam. In this tradition, a kingdom was considered a joint property of all the princes. The death of a sovereign, or his illness, was a signal for a “winner take all” orgy of slaughter among the princes. For instance, in Moghul India, the illness of Shah Jehan in 1657 triggered a bloody struggle among his four sons. Dara Shikoh in the Punjab, Shuja in Bengal, Aurangzeb in the Deccan and Murad in Gujrat, each had his own partisans, and his own army. These four armies, totaling more than a million armed men, roamed the vast subcontinent, hunting each other out. When the dust settled, more than a hundred thousand young men had died, Aurangzeb emerged victorious. Shuja and Murad were killed. And the head of Dara Shikoh, the Crown Prince, was presented on a tray to the aging Emperor Shah Jehan. The fratricide left a legacy of bitterness from which the Moghul Empire never recovered.
The law of fratricide was applied with equal ruthlessness in the Ottoman Empire. When Mehmet III became the Sultan in 1595, he executed all of his nineteen brothers, leaving no claimant to the throne beside himself. When Mehmet died in 1603, he left two sons Ahmed, age 14, and Mustafa, age 12. Ahmed became the new Sultan, but the execution of Mustafa was stayed out of concern that if Ahmed were to die before he had a male heir, the Ottoman lineage would come to an end. Ahmed did have a son in 1604 but Mustafa was spared once again because infant mortality was high and the concern about a male heir remained. Instead, Mustafa was confined to the harem, there to spend his time among the eunuchs and the ladies. This was the first instance of the Ottomans not applying the law of fratricide.
The Mongol-Tatar-Turkish tradition of a contest of power between competing princes for the throne had its own ruthless logic. Faced with the prospects of mortal combat, the princes vied with each other to hone their battle skills and cultivate influence in the kingdom. The outcome, presumably, produced a prince most fit to rule. After Ahmed, a new arrangement evolved whereby the throne went from brother to brother until all the brothers in a generation died and then the eldest surviving member of the next generation. Meanwhile, the princes were kept in the harem and had no opportunity to develop their administrative or military skills. Two consequences followed. The ascension of a new prince now became subject to the intrigues of the harem and the eunuchs. In addition, the rules of succession had no criteria of valor or merit built into them. The caliber of the Sultans suffered. As long as the empire was well served by the grand viziers and the centralized bureaucracy, the weakness at the helm of affairs was concealed. But when the Ottomans suffered their first major defeat at the second siege of Vienna (1683), an inexorable process of steady collapse began.
In Safavid Persia, when Shah Abbas I passed away in 1626, all of his brothers and most of his sons who would have a claim on the throne had been either blinded or executed. When no prince from among his own progeny was available, a grandson, Sa’am Mirza was crowned as Safi I. Abbas I, under whom the Safavid Empire reached its zenith, also instituted the practice of confining the princes in the harem. No opportunity was provided to a prospective monarch to learn the affairs of state through training as governor of a province or as commander of a military campaign. The rituals of blinding and execution were carried out with such efficiency in succeeding generations that in 1666, when Safi II was invited before the court nobles for his coronation, he was afraid to leave the harem because he thought he was invited only to be blinded or murdered.
The Islamic paradigm for the selection of a ruler was through consultation. The Mongol-Tatar-Turkish paradigm was through fratricide. Muslim politics had long since moved away from that moment when Abu Bakr (r) was elected the Caliph, or when Ali ibn Abu Talib (r) was nominated as the head of state. It was now governed more by the rules of conquering tribes who had entered Islam 500 years after the death of the Prophet. Tribal customs had supplanted the Sunnah of the Companions. The monarchies were Muslim but the process of ascension to the throne was decidedly tribal.
In the 17th century, the absolute monarchies came up against the joint stock companies. In 1600, Queen Elizabeth I granted a charter to the English East India Company. Two years later, the Dutch granted a similar charter to the Dutch East India Company. In 1613, the Dutch Stock Market opened up in Amsterdam. London followed suit. These were the new institutions of the future with an enormous potential to harness the energies of men and material. With a singular focus on profits, they had no religious baggage to contend with or trainloads of priests looking over their shoulders. They did not answer to the Pope; they answered to a Board of Directors. Their structure was more efficient than anything that the despot kings could conjure up and it gave considerable latitude to the administrators and sea captains of the joint stock companies for local initiative and decision-making.
The first skirmishes were between the joint stock companies and the centralized, despotic structures of Portugal and Spain. The Portuguese governors in Goa, for instance, had to look to Lisbon for instructions on major decisions. By the time a decision arrived, circumstances had often changed, making the decision outdated. By contrast, the Dutch and British administrators of East India Companies could make immediate decisions to take advantage of a local situation as long as it helped increase profits. The efficient structure of the companies prevailed over the despotic structure of the Iberians. The North European trading companies quickly supplanted the Spanish and Portuguese monopolies in the Indian and Atlantic Oceans. By the year 1700, it was the Dutch, the English and the French, who were the real masters of the oceans of the world.
When the centralized, despotic structures in the Muslim empires came up against the far more efficient structure of the trading companies, they fared no better. In the match between the soldier and the merchant, the merchant won hands down. The two operated in different paradigms and played by different rules. For the soldier-king, personal trust was of paramount importance and a treaty was an instrument that was to be honored and kept. By contrast, to the managers of a joint stock company, a treaty was but a milestone on the way to more profits. It could be overlooked when convenient. Deception couched in diplomacy and backed by intelligence, was a devastating tool in the hands of the company managers. For instance, the English East India Company discarded the treaty it signed with Hyder Ali of Mysore (1781) at Madras as soon as Hyder Ali died. The British proceeded to form an alliance with the Nizam of Hyderabad and the Marathas of Central India to isolate and destroy the growing power of Mysore (1789-1799). The despotic structure of the kings, an inverted pyramid pivoted around the monarch, provided abundant opportunities to the merchants. As long as the king was the sole owner of wealth and power, some in his entourage aspired to his riches. The company men were alert to opportunities for bribes, or promises of advancement, to topple the king. Thus it was that Nawab Siraj ad Daulah of Bengal fell in the Battle of Plassey in 1757 through the perfidy of his own Chief of Staff, Mir Ja’afar and Tippu Sultan fell in the Battle of Srirangapatam in 1799, through the treachery of his Finance Minister, Mir Saadiq. In the competition for wealth, the merchant enjoyed a significant, perhaps decisive advantage over the soldier. Greed has been a more potent force in history than valor.
The emergence of the joint stock companies was a decisive factor in the triumph of Europe over the ancient civilizations of Asia and Africa. The older civilizations could not match the opportunism, efficiency and virility of the trading companies. They succumbed one by one, like old elephants trapped by hungry foxes, to the intrigues of Europe.
The only significant institution evolved by the Muslim world in the last thousand years has been the Sufi zawiya. The zawiyas served the Muslims well. In Asia, they safeguarded the remnants of the community after the Mongol invasions. In North Africa, they provided social cohesion amidst the disintegration following the breakup of the Al Muhaddith Empire. In the subcontinent, they acted as the focus of spiritual activity and helped bring millions of Indians to Islam. By the very nature of tasawwuf, however, the zawiyas decentralized society. The focus was on individual salvation and local community service. Scant attention was paid to the central authority of the state. Frustrated, the kings and emirs sometimes tried co-opting the Sufis, and at other times opposing them. Neither approach worked; the Sufis remained an independent decentralizing force. Only on occasion was there coordination between the Sufi movements and the reigning monarchs in response to foreign threats, as happened during the Battle of al Qasr al Kabir in Morocco (1578).
The confrontation between a mercantile Europe and Sufi Islam was along civilizational lines. The Sufis were focused on spiritual fulfillment of the individual. The merchants were focused on group dynamics to achieve maximum profits. The two had different value systems. The North Europeans had discarded any religious pretense for their global thrusts. The joint stock company was geared towards economic and political centralization. By contrast, the Sufis were focused on the local communities. The one valued accumulation of wealth and power; the other shunned them. The Islamic civilization of the 17th century, despite its dazzling brilliance, was essentially inward looking, where wealth was looked upon with ambiguity. Certainly, there was respect and fear of the ruling elite, but the population reserved the highest honor for the Sufi shaykhs. In the competition for political ascendancy, the more efficient system of the European traders won.
Considering the stakes involved, the resistance to European penetration was minimal and was limited to a few soldier-kings. The general population was not involved in the contest. The contingent of company troops used by Robert Clive at the Battle of Plassey (1757) was so small that if every Bengali who stood by as an onlooker during the fateful battle had thrown a stone, the Company troops would have been decimated. But it was not to be. The Bengalis continued to watch as bystanders even as Mir Ja’afar, the Chief of Staff of Nawab Siraj ad Daulah, switched sides with his troops just before the battle began. The fate of Bengal was sealed. The wheels of fortune turned and the focus of history shifted from Delhi and Cairo to London and Paris.
Second only in importance to institutional weakness was the loss of initiative in trade and naval technology. The two were interrelated. A review of the relative naval strengths of the Muslim powers with Europe shows a regional pattern. In the western Mediterranean, the ascendancy of European powers became apparent as early as 1450 and it spilled over into the Indian Ocean after 1500. In the eastern Mediterranean, the Ottoman navy demonstrated a toughness and resilience until the year 1600, after which it too went into decline. Examining each of these theaters in some detail, the Portuguese and the Spaniards demonstrated their superiority over the Maghribi emirates in naval technologies throughout the 15th century. The Maghrib was in political disarray just at a time when the Iberian Christian powers were flexing their muscles. Moreover, having surrendered the Mediterranean trade to Genoese merchants, North Africa passed up the opportunity to experiment with naval technology and learn from it. By contrast, the Portuguese and the Spaniards learned from their fellow Christians in Venice and Genoa; and the more advanced technologies available in the eastern Mediterranean were transferred to the Iberians. Specifically, the know-how for sailing close to the wind, to negotiate the sea in a direction opposite to the direction of wind flow and the technology for the manufacture and use of the cannon were learned from Venice and Genoa. A mastery of these technologies required a commitment from the emperors and noblemen and a willingness to be open to technological input. The Portuguese found a patron for their naval aspirations in Prince Henry, who as the governor of Ceuta and Tangier encouraged naval explorations along the coast of Africa. The Spanish and Portuguese monarchs were willing to finance explorations and voyages by known sailors. A scientific culture had grown up on the Andalusian peninsula, thanks to the legacy of the brilliant Muslim civilization in Spain. By contrast, North Africa was splintered into warring factions. The emirs were perennially short of cash and had to resort to coercion and war to raise funds. These factors combined to give the Christian powers of Portugal and Spain an edge over Muslim North Africa in the race to explore the Atlantic Ocean.
The Portuguese, in particular, rapidly exploited their technical superiority. In a move to outflank the Muslim Maghrib and reach for the gold and ivory of the Sudan, they captured, in fairly rapid succession, the cities of Ceuta, Tangier and Arzila. Using these cities as naval bases, the Portuguese navy ventured forth further south along the African coast. The charting of the sea was methodical and information gathered during the voyages was treated as a state secret and kept confidential, so that other nations might not gain access to the profitable trade. In 1496, Vasco da Gama appeared in the Indian Ocean. The first visit was a scouting mission. He returned in 1502 at the head of a flotilla of 25 ships, mounted with the most deadly cannon in the Portuguese inventory. His mandate was to destroy the Muslim hold on the Indian Ocean trade and capture it for the King of Portugal. It was at this point of history that the technological weakness of the Muslim powers in the Indian Ocean showed up. That a small armada from a tiny European country could devastate a coastline extending from Shofala in southeast Africa to the Straits of Malacca in Malaysia tells the whole story. None of the littoral states and prosperous cities along the vast Indian Ocean, whether they were Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, could match the Portuguese at sea. Within a span of 15 years, the Portuguese had occupied almost all of the important trading cities in the Indian Ocean. The only feeble resistance came from the Egyptian Mamluke navy, based in far away Suez; but it was unsuccessful.
The cannon, in combination with deep ocean ships, emerged as a key technological system in the ascent of Europe. Several observations may be offered as to why this technology did not evolve either in West Africa or in the Indian Ocean. In the Maghrib, as we have discussed in some detail, there was tension between the state and society. The Moroccans learned the use of gunpowder technology at about the same time as the Portuguese. The components of gunpowder are saltpeter (sodium nitrate), carbon and sulphur. Saltpeter was available in plenty in North Africa and was sold to English merchants throughout the 15th century. However, the trade benefited the local merchants who supported the Sufi zawiyas rather then the emirs in Marrakesh. There was no incentive for the emir to further this trade, or to encourage innovations and developments in technology. By contrast, the Portuguese and the Spaniards worked for their monarchs, who maintained a monopoly on all trade and benefited from technological improvements. A key technological development was the storage of gunpowder in barrels during long sea voyages. In order for gunpowder to function properly, the ingredients have to be mixed uniformly and sufficient spaces must exist between contiguous particles for pressure to develop before ignition takes place. Otherwise, the powder “fizzles” but does not “roar”. On long sea voyages, the saltpeter (sodium nitrate) tends to gravitate to the bottom of the barrel because of its higher density. The Portuguese developed a method of preventing this by stuffing the gunpowder with fine tattered rags, or with fine sawdust. Similar techniques were developed in England in the latter part of the 15th century. No such development took place in the Maghrib or the Sudan.
In the Indian Ocean, the use of ship-mounted cannon was unknown. Giant ships there were, but the use of firearms was limited to small caliber muskets. India, Persia, East Africa, Indonesia and Malaysia were definitely behind Europe in this important technology. This time lag may be explained by the vagaries of history and geography. Gunpowder, invented by the Chinese, was introduced into Central Asia and Persia by Genghiz Khan’s troops. The Tatars and the Turks, who often worked as allies of the Mongols, learned its use from the Mongols. As the Tatars accepted Islam, and the Turks expanded into Anatolia and Egypt, the use of gunpowder became known in the Mediterranean world. The knowledge rapidly spread westward through Muslim influence and Venetian traders, and by 1450 was available in Morocco, Spain and Portugal. The Indian Ocean was far from the major battle routes of the Mongols, Tatars and the Turks. Through much of the 15th century, Central Asia, Persia and West Asia were sorting out the aftermath of the Timurid invasions (1376-1402). India had broken up into small kingdoms during the reign of Muhammed bin Tughlaq (d. 1355). Rajas and Sultans ruled in Bengal, Gujrat, the Deccan and the south. The only power that could have provided this technology was China. But the China of the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) had retreated into itself after the great voyages of the Muslim Admiral Zheng Yi (1402-1415).
Asia therefore fell behind Europe in adopting the technology of gunpowder for naval warfare. When the Portuguese cannon roared (1502 onwards), there was no one in the littoral states of the Indian Ocean to answer it. The situation did not change much in the succeeding centuries. The Safavid dynasty rose in Persia (1500), and the Moghul Empire consolidated its hold on India (1526). But their naval records were dismal. It took the Safavids more than a hundred years to expel the Portuguese from the Straits of Hormuz, and they accomplished it only with the help of the British (1622). As for the Moghuls, they made no attempt to expel the Portuguese either from Goa or Diu and Daman, accepting instead Portuguese protection for Moghul shipping in the Arabian Sea. Only Emperor Shah Jehan made a feeble attempt to protect Bengal from Portuguese piracy but it too fizzled out after his tenure. A century later, Tippu Sultan of Mysore made a serious attempt to build a navy. The Mysore navy occupied the Laccadive Islands and challenged the rising power of the British. But this attempt proved to be too little, too late. Tippu fell in battle with the British in 1799.
Alone among the Muslim powers, the Ottoman Turks built a credible navy. Sultan Selim (d. 1520) took the initiative in this direction. Sultan Sulaiman the Magnificent (d. 1566) expanded on the legacy of his father. From 1530 onwards, the Ottomans were active both in the Mediterranean Sea and the Indian Ocean. Drawing upon the considerable experience of Algerian corsairs and the ship building expertise of the Egyptians, a formidable navy was built up. By 1560 they had stopped Portuguese marauding in the Indian Ocean and had established their naval supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean. The Battle of Lepanto (1571), however, contained Turkish expansion into the Atlantic Ocean. In the east, the Turks continued their missions in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean through much of the 16th century. In 1588, in an encounter off the southern coast of Zanzibar, a Portuguese squadron sent from Goa defeated a Turkish naval patrol. This encounter marked the farthest reach of the Turkish navy in the Indian Ocean. Thereafter, the coastal areas north of Zanzibar remained Islamic whereas those located further south fell into the Portuguese orbit.
However, even the powerful Ottomans treated the navy as a stepchild, allocating to it only a small portion of the total budget. For instance, in 1652, during the reign of Mehmet IV, the total expenditures for the Ottoman Empire were slated at 16,400 purses of silver. Of this amount, 10,000 purses were allocated to the army, 960 purses were allocated to the emperor’s kitchen, 255 purses to the Emperor’s stables and 988 purses were allocated to the navy. The navy occupied about the same position in the budget as the maintenance of the royal kitchen.
The neglect of the Ottoman navy showed up in the 17th century. After a promising start in the mid-16th century, when the Ottomans dominated the Mediterranean Sea and challenged the Portuguese in the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean, their naval forces regressed into a second tier position. By 1645, the Venetians were able to successfully blockade not only the Aegean Sea but also Istanbul itself. The siege was lifted in 1657 only after a determined effort made by Grand Vizier Kurpulu. In the Indian Ocean, the Turkish presence became only symbolic. When the Dutch and the British entered the Indian Ocean in the 17th century, the Ottomans were not a factor in the ensuing struggle for supremacy in Asia.
Loss of initiative at sea meant a loss of trade. Between 1502 and 1530, the Portuguese severely disrupted the Indian Ocean trade. Occupying important choke points in Malacca, Goa, Hormuz, Mombasa and Zanzibar, they instituted a pass system and levied taxes on all ships passing through those points. Not even the hajjis could go for hajj unless the Portuguese agents stamped their papers. Indian pepper flowed to Lisbon on Portuguese ships and from there to the ports of Europe, bypassing West Asia. Alexandria in Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean experienced an economic depression. With the rise of Ottoman naval power (1530-1570), an equilibrium developed wherein Turkish as well as Portuguese ships shared in the trade. After the Battle of Lepanto (1571), the Turkish navy went into a steady decline although sporadic attempts were made to revive it. After the year 1600, the Dutch and the British displaced the Portuguese and cornered the Indian Ocean trade. Trade by land routes continued but the initiative increasingly passed on to Europe. After 1700, with the advance of the Russian armies towards the Black Sea, it was the Armenians and not the Persians or the Turks who controlled the land trade across Russia to Europe. Bereft of trade, West Asia withered, its economies shrank and it lost its initiative in world affairs. At about the same time, the dismantling of the Moghul and Safavid dynasties (1720-1760) severely disrupted the land trade through the passes in Afghanistan, further contributing to the economic and social disintegration of the entire region.
The conservative religious establishment in the Muslim world played a role in delaying the introduction of new technologies and new ideas. The history of the printing press offers an illustration. Block printing was invented in China some time before the second century. As early as the year 875, in the reign of Harun ar Rashid, it was known in Baghdad. The technology traveled westward and was introduced into Europe through contacts with the Muslims of Spain and Sicily. Over the years the Europeans made improvements in the art of printing and by 1445, mechanical printing plates were widely used in Germany. Mass printing facilitated a wide circulation of new ideas and was a principal factor in the success of the Protestant Reformation of Martin Luther (d. 1546) and John Calvin (d. 1564). By contrast, there was resistance to the introduction of printing in the Muslim world, where a whole industry had grown up around the art of hand copying and reproducing the Qur’an. The katibs resisted the introduction of the printing press because it meant a loss of their livelihood. Their position was supported by conservative kadis who felt that the Word of God must not be defiled by contact with a machine. It was not until the 18th century, well after political decay had set in and Europe had seized the initiative in technology and politics that the kadis and katibs relented. In 1721, the Ottoman Grand Vizier Ibrahim Pasha sent a delegation to Paris and instructed it to report back on the arts and technologies that might be introduced in the empire. Following the return of this delegation, the first printing press was established in Istanbul in 1727, more than two hundred years after it had been introduced into Germany, France and England. It was introduced into the decaying Moghul and Safavid empires shortly thereafter. This time lag held back the development of art, science and technology in the Muslim world at a time when Europe saw a rapid introduction of new ideas and new technologies. The political disintegration that enveloped the Muslim world in the 18th century only increased the technological gap. By the time Napoleon invaded Egypt (1799) and the British defeated Tippu Sultan of Mysore (1799) and consolidated their hold on India, it was already too late.
Parochial religious zeal played an important part in the disintegration of two of the principal dynasties, namely the Moghuls in India and the Safavids in Persia. We have discussed at length in earlier chapters how Islam turned inwards after the Mongol disasters and how the Sufi awliya saved the day for the Muslims. It was this new wave of Islam, spiritual in content, amalgamated with the cultures of the new nations entering the fold of faith that spread into Persia, Central Asia, India, Indonesia and Africa. We have used the term “folk Islam” to describe the composite culture that emerged after the Mongols.
The religious establishment, consisting of kadis and ulema, were suspicious of any departure from strict adherence to the Shariah and were not reconciled to the power of the Sufis. Within the Islamic world itself, there was a tension between the Sufis and the ulema. (The tension continues to this day as a not-too-polite debate between the “Sufi” and “Salafi” partisans among Muslims). The 16th century produced several kings and emperors who resonated to Sufi culture, founded new dynasties and expanded them into major empires. The real or perceived excesses of these monarchs produced a reaction in the more orthodox circles. By the latter part of the 17th century, the orthodox had prevailed over the Sufis in the centers of political power. The triumph of the conservative ulema increased tensions between Muslims and non-Muslims, between Shi’a and Sunni and played a direct role in the disintegration of the Moghul and Safavid empires.
In India, the Great Moghul Akbar, a consummate statesman who knew the value of folk Islam, produced a Sufi fusion of Islamic and Hindu elements and solidified the Moghul Empire (1565-1605). Akbar was a zealous adherent of folk Islam and treated the Chishti Sufis with the highest honor. His initiatives created a cosmopolitan Moghul-Persian-Afghan-Rajput culture that survives to this day in India and Pakistan. Although there was an orthodox reaction, the principal exponent of which was Shaykh Ahmed Sirhindi (d. 1526), Akbar’s reforms survived and prospered during the reign of Jehangir (d. 1627) and Shah Jehan (d. 1666). By 1650, this cosmopolitan culture had produced the Taj Mahal and the Jami Masjid of Delhi, while the Hindus found it possible to rise to the highest posts in the empire. Rai Raghunath served as the divan (prime minister) of Shah Jehan, while Rai Chandra Ban Brahman was the chief of his secretariat. The syncretic tendencies of folk Islam showed themselves in the person of Dara Shikoh, heir apparent to Shah Jehan. Dara was a follower of Mian Pir, a Sufi shaykh of Lahore. When Mian Pir passed away, Dara became a follower of his disciple, Mulla Shah. Dara was a scholar of first repute and wrote several books including Majma-ul-Bahrain (1655) and a Farsi translation of the Upanishads. His works were translated into Latin in the 19th century and had a major impact on the German Schopenhauer and the American Emerson.
Dara did not survive the struggle for succession after Shah Jehan. The Orthodox Sunni wing, led by Aurangzeb Alamgir (1656-1708) carried the day. Aurangzeb made the Moghul Empire an Islamic state. Jizya was reimposed on the predominantly Hindu population of India (1679) and their access to the higher offices of the state virtually disappeared. Discriminatory custom duties were imposed on goods belonging to the Hindus. The Rajputs who had provided their muscle for the empire, and had built familial ties with the emperors, withdrew their support. The Marathas in western India rose up in revolt. In the Punjab, the Sikhs were restless. As long as Aurangzeb was alive, his indefatigable energy, resilient character and puritan drive held the empire together. Within 15 years of his death (1707), the empire collapsed. Regional despots established their rule, only to be swallowed up one after the other by the British East India Company.
In Persia, the Safavid dynasty was a product of the Safaviyya Sufi movement in eastern Anatolia and Azerbaijan (1500). It was the energy, zeal and commitment of the Safaviyya that enabled Shah Ismail I to consolidate his hold on Persia. Throughout the 16th century, the Safaviyya Sufis and their military arm, the Qazilbash, played an important part in the Safavid state. By the year 1600, however, the Safaviyya had lost their revolutionary zeal and had become a part of the establishment. The reforms introduced by Shah Abbas I weakened the power of the Safaviyya and neutralized the power of the Qazilbash. Specifically, the standing army raised by Shah Abbas with recruits from Georgia and the Caucasus meant a decrease in the power of the Qazilbash, who resisted but lost the struggle. With a decrease in the power of the Sufis, the qanqas that had provided much needed social services in the countryside since the days of Hulagu Khan (1258) lost their effectiveness. The religious vacuum left by the Sufis was filled by the traditional ulema who had no stomach for the esoteric doctrines of the Sufis.
The religious transformation in Persia is illustrated by the changes in the inner court circles. In 1587, when Shah Abbas ascended the throne, his vakil was Murshad Kuli Khan Ustanjlu, a Turkoman and a Safaviyya Sufi. A hundred years later, when Sulaiman ascended the throne in 1694 as Shah Hussain, it was the traditional ulema who were at the center of power. Shah Hussain was so fastidious in his religious observations that some called him “Mulla Hussain”. Under the influence of the theologians, he turned Persia into a Shi’a Islamic state. The most influential of the theologians was Muhammed Baqi Majlisi (d.1699), a great scholar, but a man with limited political vision. He curtailed the privileges that had hitherto been enjoyed by the Zoroastrians, Armenians, Jews and Sunni Muslims. He zealously pushed Shi’a tenets on the population, backed up by the state apparatus. Persia, like Moghul India, turned its back on the composite folk religion of Sufic Islam and opted to become an Islamic state with Shi’a Islam the state religion just as Sunni Islam had become the state religion of India under Aurangzeb. Majlisi’s grandson, Mir Muhammed Hussain, became the principal theologian after him and followed his grandfather’s policies. Intolerance bred sectarian schisms.
The rising power of the ulema was in direct proportion to the lack of interest shown by Shah Hussain in state affairs. The forcible introduction of Shi’a ideas into non-Shi’a areas bred open rebellion. The first to erupt was Qandahar in southern Afghanistan, a predominantly Sunni area that had been wrested from the Great Moghuls of India by Shah Abbas I. Following the conquest, Shah Abbas settled the Abdali and Ghalzay (Sunni) tribes in the areas of Herat and Qandahar. These tribes were, in general, loyal to the Safavid throne in Isfahan and opposed repeated attempts by the Great Moghuls to recapture Qandahar. In the compulsive religious atmosphere introduced by Shah Hussain, they shifted their allegiance and looked to the Moghul governor in Kabul for help. Reaction from Isfahan was swift. The Shah dispatched Gurghan Khan at the head of seasoned Georgian troops to punish the Ghalzay. Gurghan discharged his responsibility with ruthless efficiency, captured their leader Mir Vais and sent him as a prisoner to Isfahan. Mir Vais, a shrewd politician, cultivated the friendship of the Shah and was soon let go. Gurghan Khan died in 1704. In 1709, the Afghans rose up again under Mir Vais and in 1711 inflicted a major defeat on Safavid forces at the Battle of Qandahar. At about the same time, the Sunni Abdalis in Herat also rebelled and moved away from the orbit of Safavid central power.
Rebellions broke out in other Sunni areas as well. The Azerbaijanis evicted the Safavid troops and appealed to the Ottomans for help. The Kurds rose up and moved on Hamadan. The Sultan of Oman occupied Bahrain and the islands in the Persian Gulf. Sensing an historic opportunity, Czar Peter of Russia moved south and occupied Darband. While the empire was aflame with open rebellion, the Shah was apathetic and the task of defending the empire fell on the Grand Vizier, Fath Ali Khan. Fath Ali, a Sunni from the Caucasus, tried to stem the tide of rebellion but fell victim to a Shi’a court conspiracy and was eliminated. His death infuriated the Turkomans of Shirvan who occupied Shamakhi and placed it under Ottoman protection.
Meanwhile, in Qandahar, a young soldier Mahmud became the leader of the Ghalzay. In 1721, he marched on Kirman at the head of 20,000 Ghalzay, Baluchi and Hazara Afghans and captured it. Continuing his march toward the capital, he was met by a Persian force of 40,000 near the village of Gulnabad on the outskirts of Isfahan. The demoralized Persians had no unified command, with the new Grand Vizier Muhammed Kuli Khan Shamlu and the vali of Arabistan sharing the command structure. The Afghans carried the day while the Persians retreated in disarray.
Even at this late stage, Shah Hussain made no attempt to raise a new army. He was under the influence of the theologian Mir Muhammed Hussain, grandson of Muhammed Baqir Majlisi. Mir Hussain had no aptitude for military affairs and his advice was consistently wrong. Under his influence, the Shah refused to evacuate the capital. In 1722, Mahmud laid siege to Isfahan. The Shah could not feed the huge population of the city. Food ran out. The situation was desperate. On October 22, 1722, the Shah surrendered and abdicated in favor of Mahmud. The Safavid dynasty disappeared, a victim of the excessive parochial zeal of the Shi’a ulema.
Sensing the demise of the Safavids, the Ottomans and the Russians agreed to carve up Persian territories in the northwest among themselves. In 1723 the Ottomans occupied Georgia, Kirman and Hamadan. The Russians moved deeper into Azerbaijan and occupied Baku. In Isfahan, the Ghulzay dynasty was short lived. Internal feuds broke out among the Afghans. In 1736, Nadir Quli Beg Afshar, belonging to the Afshar tribe, displaced the Ghulzay and ascended the throne of Persia under the title of Nadir Shah.
Over-arching all these factors, there was a general decay in spirituality and ethics among the Muslims. By the end of the 17th century, the rot pervaded the entire body politic, from top to bottom. Gone was the faith that had propelled the mujahids from the deserts of Arabia to the hills of Andalus. Gone also was the zeal of the ghazis that had taken the Turks to the outskirts of Vienna, in the heart of Europe. Greed had replaced valor. Chicanery had taken the place of integrity. Perhaps the most eloquent testimony to this sad state of affairs is to be found in a letter written in 1704 by Aurangzeb Alamgir to his third son Azam. In words that are as full of pathos as they convey the heartrending loneliness of a pious emperor, the Great Moghul laments:
“My son, my soul, life of my life . . . Hameeduddin is a cheat . . . Siadat Khan and Muhammed Amin Khan in the advanced guard are contemptible . . . Kulich Khan is worthless . . . Sarbarah Khan, the Kotwal, is a thief and a pickpocket . . . Arshi Khan gets drunk and smells of liquor . . . Akbar is a vagabond in the desert of infamy . . . Kam Baksh is perverse. I myself am forlorn and destitute and misery is my lot.”
It was this decaying Muslim body politic, spiritually spent and ethically exhausted, that came up against the expansive European companies in the 18th century. The Muslims, smug in their self-righteousness, did not understand the nature of the European challenge. As opposed to the Europeans who were keen observers of the crosscurrents in the Islamic world and exploited them to their advantage, the Muslims had little intelligence about their adversaries. This smugness is as characteristic of Muslims today as it was 200 years ago. Few Muslim institutions of higher learning train scholars who are as conversant with the philosophy, religion, ethics, sociology and culture of non-Muslims as they are with Islamic sciences. All too often, modern sciences are marginalized as secular and “Western”.
Institutions do not grow in a vacuum. They are a product of the legal, spiritual and historical experience of a people and provide them with a framework to work together, so that they can achieve uncommon results. The triumph of the West over the Islamic world raises a most profound and troublesome question for a Muslim thinker: Have the Muslims wandered so far away from their ethical roots that other civilizations have overtaken them in spirituality and ethics, which provide the binding cement for a civilization?
*This article was submitted to the Encyclopedia of Islamic History (www.historyofislam.com) on March 1, 1995. This date may be used as the first date of publication. The article is based on lectures given by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed in the 1967 to 1992 period.