Islamic societies, generally, pass through three phases of political development. The first phase, the “egalitarian” or “republican” follows the initial invasion of the nomadic carriers of Islam or the founding of trading outposts by Muslim merchants. This political tendency is dominant during the early history of a conquered territory; the tribal “republican” tradition is still strong in these early years. The ruler is regarded as simply the first among equals in the warrior caste. Of course, this egalitarianism has nothing to do with rights for dhimmis, women or other lesser groups such as Muslims already residing in the conquered territory; all of which may be subject to massacre, enslavement or oppressive tribute. In those instances where Islam is established through the conversion of an existing ruler or elite, as in Indonesia, this phase may be absent altogether.
The following phase may be termed the “liberal despotic”. The term liberal is strongly qualified; it simply means that there is a majority or at least large numbers of non-Muslims; Islam has not yet “hardened”. The restoration of peace and incorporation of the territory into a larger oecumene along with the many dhimmis and nominal Muslims in the population engenders a great increase in intellectual activity, architecture, and construction of an infrastructure and communication network. Moreover the rulers and aristocrats tend to be worldly, irreligious or heretical. The Muslims are self confident, as shown by the example of the Byzantine vassal emperor Manuel who was allowed to engage in a religious disputation with Muslim scholars in an atmosphere of relative freedom. However, the state exists in the form of a monarchical despotism. This is often based on Persian or Byzantine models where there is a remote and absolute monarch. While the monarch in this period is often impious or unbelieving, he may, in a Machiavellian manner, cynically make use of Islam to expand his territory, appease the Muslim ulama or eliminate rivals. He may, if he finds it politically expedient, employ fanatical Muslim troops to enslave, slaughter or oppress conquered non-Muslim or even Muslim populations. He may, paradoxically, implement persecutions to obtain favor with the ulama, while simultaneously patronizing favored dhimmi intellectuals and advisors. Or, on the contrary, he may be strong enough to protect useful dhimmi populations.
The final phase is the “repressive despotic”. This usually means the establishment of an absolute theocratic state in which the only curb on the activities of the monarch is that of, a frequently, even more fanatical clergy. Islam has been long established and become hardened and inflexible. Intellectual activity outside of Islamic law and tradition is now discouraged. This is often accompanied by economic depression and stagnation. The ruler may be paradoxically both weak and tyrannical; often he is a fanatical Islamic bigot. Persecution and oppression of non-Muslims is endemic. The two forms of despotism, liberal and despotic, may alternate with each other for long periods, but in the end, it is invariably the repressive despotic imperative that triumphs.
The early rugged individualism of the Arabs was preserved through an elective caliphate. The Arabs formed the electoral class in a type of aristocratic republic. However, the ancient despotic tradition of the conquered masses, that of Persia and Egypt, reasserted itself and combined with the Islamic doctrine of submission. The process began with the Umayyad caliphate in 661and reached its final form in the succeeding Abbasid dynasty. The template for all succeeding Islamic despotisms was set in place.
These three contending political imperatives were in conflict with each other. The egalitarian tribal formation, which tended to dominate at the beginning of each nomadic expansion, inevitably gave way to despotism. At first, this despotism was usually pragmatic, worldly or even tolerant; but the end result was always an intolerant theocracy. This conflict was present from the earliest Islamic times. The tendency toward despotism was one of the factors that propelled the growth of empire. While Muhammad held to the traditional forms of Arab tribal society with its consultations and councils, in reality, he as Prophet was effectively an autocrat. His immediate successors followed his example. The very expansion of Arab Muslim rule, first in Arabia and later throughout the Middle East was facilitated by caliphs becoming more absolute in power. Karsh contends that “by substituting absolutist rule for the pluralistic system of traditional tribal organization, based as it was on a series of agreements among equals, the umma created a powerful drive for expansion.”
The result of this despotic imperative was that, although Islam developed a "welfare state", a powerful military-religious ideology and a series of enormous empires, it never developed the concepts of liberty and secular government that arose in Europe. Ironically this was, in part, due to the more rigid class structure that developed in the West. In Islam there was no aristocracy independent of the monarch; religion and the state were also intertwined. In Europe there was rivalry between the Monarch, Church and feudal aristocracy which, in a few places at least, notably Britain, developed into checks on despotic central authority and to the rise of the urban bourgeoisie who were able to restore ancient republican institutions in many major western cities. Kinross, referring to the Ottoman Empire, gives an example of this difference between Islam and Europe:
…this Ottoman system of land tenure through military fiefs differed essentially from the feudal system in Europe, in that the landholdings were small and above all seldom hereditary. For all land was the property of the state. … The sultans retained absolute ownership of the soil they conquered.
Thus, in Islamic society, there were not the divisions and rivalries within the aristocracy that characterized Western Europe; members of all classes from lowest to highest were regarded as "slaves" of an increasingly autocratic Caliph or Sultan and there was no well developed independent religious institution serving as a check on the Monarch. Hence, while Islamic society stagnated, it was the West that pioneered modern concepts of science, technology, government and secularism.
The term “egalitarian” refers only to members of the conquering military elite and not to the conquered multitudes. The latter, in fact, often received better treatment under the liberal despots. Although the rule of the early caliphs became increasingly arbitrary, they openly espoused the traditional Arab tribal “republicanism”. The caliphs found it necessary, to appease their followers by maintaining, at least the appearance, of the old tribal councils and consultative institutions. Moreover, all “four caliphs of this first period were chosen in some manner by their predecessors or colleagues; none succeeded by hereditary right. … Thereafter the caliphate became, in practice even if not in theory, hereditary”.
Appearances, however, were one thing; reality could be something else entirely as pointed out by Karsh:
Uthman vested all key posts in the hands of his family members … The Medinese elite resented its growing marginalization in the running of the empire, while the provincial leadership was incensed by Uthman’s efforts to increase the central government’s share in the distribution of local revenues…
Thus, from earliest times there was conflict between the centralizing absolutist tendencies of the ruler and the jealous clinging to their privileges on the part of the traditional tribal elite. The Medinese and provincial elite represented the Arab aristocratic republican imperative while the Caliph and his court upheld the idea of a more arbitrary and despotic form of government. Hitti specifically refers to the reign of the first four caliphs as the ‘republican period’. “With the death of Ali (661) what may be termed the republican period of the caliphate, which began with abu-Bakr (632) came to an end. … The hereditary principle was hereby introduced into the caliphal succession”. The idea of Arab egalitarian republicanism persisted into the Umayyad dynasty and the first Umayyad caliphs felt obliged to give to it at least token deference.
A significant token of the hold which democratic Arabian tribal custom had upon the Umayyads is that notice of the appointment [of Caliph Yazid’s son as his successor] was sent to the governors of the provinces, who almost everywhere obtained promises of adherence to the arrangement.
An extreme pole of the egalitarian republican viewpoint, at that time, was represented by the Kharijites who opposed arbitration between the caliph Ali and his rival Mu’awiya since they believed that the choice of the caliph was with “Allah alone”, thereby denying any form of hereditary dynastic rule legitimacy. The triumph of Mu’awiya established the despotic principle when he “presided over the foundation of Islam’s first imperial dynasty by having his son, Yazid succeed him to the throne.”
The early Ottomans provide another example of the egalitarianism and republicanism of the nomadic warrior tradition. “The first Ottoman rulers were tribal chiefs who maintained their position and succession by the approval of their warriors”. Kinross notes that the “warrior companions” of the early Ottoman sultan Orkhan regarded him “less as a master than as a unifying force and a rallying point among them as brothers-in-arms.” In general, viewing the tribal leader as a “brother-in-arms” was characteristic of nomadic tribal societies. When Babur crossed into India to found the Mogul dynasty, he was certainly not looked upon by his companions as if he were a Persian king.
Anarchy and disorder were unfortunate characteristics of the egalitarian phase. The rule of the first four caliphs and the first years of the Umayyad dynasty were marked by disputes regarding the succession which culminated in civil war, assassinations and inter-tribal conflict. Each additional eruption of nomadic Turks into Anatolia was accompanied by warfare and social disruption. The same can be said of the Arab raids into the Sudan, the early Moors in Spain and the Muslim waves crashing into India. The admirable liberty and social equality enjoyed by individual tribesmen came at a great cost to the settled parts of society, and particularly to non-Muslims.
Liberal Despotic Phase
Islamic societies enter upon the “liberal despotic” phase after the initial incursion with its attendant wars and disorder has ended. The end comes when the tribesmen and the population on which they have preyed has reached a point of exhaustion. An accommodation is reached, whereby the victor in one of the civil wars or inter-tribal conflicts is recognized as ruler. At that point a process of recovery can commence. The periods of disorder and recovery can last for decades and even for a century. The establishment of peace is followed by a period of economic security and expansion, and often by an artistic and intellectual renaissance. What was once a besieged territory drained by perpetual Muslim assaults is now part of the greater Islamic oecumene. New ideas and technical developments drawn from far-flung territories pour in. Most of the population still consists of dhimmis or the descendants of recent converts with the skills and outlook of the older culture. The new rulers maintain order by replacing the tribal organization with an increasingly powerful centralized state along with the splendors and rituals of monarchy.
Although the early Umayyad caliphs made a show of deference to egalitarian Arab tribal forms, despotism soon appeared quite openly. “In 705 Walid, brother of ‘Abd-al-Malik, succeeded him on the caliphal throne, for that is what the caliphate has become, a change from a tribal organization to an empire.” In fact under most of the Umayyads the “liberal” despotic tendency was uppermost. The religious imperative under this dynasty “was largely a façade that concealed what was effectively a secular and increasingly absolutist rule. The Umayyad caliphs adopted a lax attitude toward Islamic practices and mores. They were said to have set aside special days for drinking … Little wonder that Islamic tradition tends to decry the Umayyads for having perverted the caliphate into a ‘kingdom’, with the implicit connotation of religious digression or even disbelief.” Such disregard for religious sensibilities is a common characteristic of liberal despotism. In addition to personal expressions of impiety, such rulers also granted favors to and cultivated friendship with members of the dhimmi community. Under some of the Umayyad caliphs, before the hardening of Islamic attitudes, tolerance, favor and even high office was extended to members of the still majority Christian population of Syria. The Christian physician of Mu’awiyah, the first Umayyad caliph was “made financial administrator of the province of Hims”. Al-Akhtal, the Umayyad poet laureate “would enter the caliphal palace with a cross dangling from his neck and recite his poems to the delight of the Moslem caliph and his entourage.” Of course, such kingly munificence was extended only to the Arab ruling military aristocracy and a few favored upper-class educated Dhimmis.
This liberal tendency was to recur frequently under the Abbasids and subsequent sultanates, emirates and caliphates. However, such impiety was often masked by the freethinking, dissolute or heretical rulers who, cynically, sought to mollify the religious zealots by instituting various forms of persecution against dhimmis or by sponsoring invasions and raids into non-Muslim lands.
The impious Umayyad munificence affected even the two holy cities of Mecca and Medina, both of which became centers of “worldly pleasure and song.” More shocking yet to pious Muslim sensibilities was the assertiveness of aristocratic Umayyad ladies. “Al-Madinah boasted under the early Marwanids the proud and beautiful Sayyidah Sukaynah (ca 735), daughter of the martyred al-Husayn.” This liberated woman ran a salon for poets and jurists, pioneered new fashion and “made complete freedom of action a condition precedent to marriage.” Her rival, ‘Aishah bint-Talbah, granddaughter of the caliph abu-Bakr, “combined with noble descent a rare beauty and a proud and lofty spirit.” She refused under any condition to veil herself. The rival Abbasids turned such open impiety into a useful weapon aimed at the Umayyad dynasty. For example, “so widely spread was the cultivation of the musical art under the last Umayyads that it provided their enemies, the Abbasid faction with an effective argument in their propaganda to undermine the house of ‘ungodly usurpers’.” One of the main factions supporting the Abbasid rebellion, the Shi’ites, embodied an early form of repressive despotism, or at least despotism in a more theocratic form. They enshrined the dynastic principle in the family of the Prophet and contended that “the umma should be headed by a prodigious spiritual leader, or imam, possessing superhuman religious knowledge and interpretive powers, who would act as the community’s political leader”.
Liberal despotism, however, was frequently accompanied with periods of ruthless repression. Despotism took on a particularly brutal form in Iraq under the ruthless governor Hajjaj (694-714) who instituted a reign of terror against Muslim dissidents in a manner reminiscent of modern Iraqi dictators. On the other hand, he, like some of his modern Iraqi counterparts, was not a fanatical religious zealot when it came to the dhimmi population under his rule. On the contrary, to protect his revenues, he “took draconian measures to discourage conversion and to drive the new converts back to their villages”.
The Abbasids exemplified the tendency toward despotism to a greater extent than did any of the Umayyad caliphs. “The incoming dynasty [Abbasid] depended upon force in the execution of its policies. For the first time in the history of Islam the leathern spread beside the caliph’s seat which served as a carpet for the executioner, became a necessary adjunct of the imperial throne.” Lewis elaborates on this distinction between the Abbasid caliphs and their predecessors. “Whereas the early Caliphs had been Arabs like the rest whom any man could approach and address by name, the Abbasids surrounded themselves with the pomp and circumstance of an elaborate and hieratic court and could only be approached through a series of chamberlains.” Karsh summarizes this evolution toward increasing despotism:
The growth of monarchical despotism, already noticeable in the days of the Umayyads gained considerable momentum under the Abbasids and was starkly exemplified by the presence of the executioner by the side of the throne. Like the Iranian shahs, the caliph became increasingly inaccessible to his subjects, shielding himself behind a vast cohort of officials, ministers and eunuchs, and leaving the daily running of the empire in the hands of the vizier, a chief executive answerable only to him.
It is striking how this very pattern, down to almost the same exact details, recurs in subsequent Islamic empires. The Iranian Muslim dynasties, the Moguls and, of course the Ottoman Turks exhibit almost identical patterns of despotic monarchical rule. And these occurred at a time when the West was evolving various monarchical forms, from absolute to limited, as well as varieties of parliamentary institutions and even republics with differing degrees of citizen involvement; the republics ranging from aristocratic to petty bourgeois.
Although the Abbasids became increasingly despotic and arbitrary in their government, a number of them partook of the munificence and impiety characteristic of “liberal despotism”. The material indulgence of the early Abbasids is well described by Hitti. “Even when stripped of the glow cast by Oriental romance and fancy, enough of the splendor of court life in Baghdad remains to arouse our astonishment.” The most splendid of these rulers was the famous Harun al-Rashid. “Harun was the beau ideal of Islamic kingship. Like a magnet, his princely munificence and that of his immediate successors attracted to the capital poets, wits, musicians, singers, dancers … and others who could interest or entertain.” And quickly forgetting the criticism leveled by the rebel Abbasids at the Umayyads, aristocratic women were allowed, once again to flaunt themselves in a most un-Islamic manner. Harun al-Rashid’s wife Zubaydah “set the fashion for the smart set and was the first to ornament her shoes with precious stones.” Zubaydah had a rival in the sister of Harun, Ullayah “who to cover a blemish on her forehead devised a fillet set with jewels which … was soon adopted by the world of fashion as the ornament of the day.”
Periods of liberal despotism alternated with periods of repressive despotism. It was also the case that rulers, who were otherwise broad-minded, found it politically expedient to keep their dhimmi subjects in a state of insecurity. The first Fatimid ruler of Egypt al-Aziz (975-96) “extended to the Christians … a measure of toleration never enjoyed before” and employed a Christian vizier. However repression began in the very next reign. Al-Hakim the son of al-Aziz “killed several of his vizirs, demolished a number of Christian churches” and was the third caliph to impose the complete stringent measures prescribed for non-Muslims. The reign of al-Aziz illustrates the common occurrence of a minority Muslim sect building coalitions with non-Muslims. His reign and that of his son also shows that the conquest of Muslim territory by a new Muslim dynasty could initiate a period of liberal despotism which, sooner or later, would be followed by repression.
The Fatimids were followed by the Ayyubids (1171-1250), who, although relatively tolerant found it politically useful to keep their upper-class dhimmis anxious. When the Ayyubids assumed power in Egypt
…stricter enforcement of the dhimma code had already begun. … By the end of Ayyubid rule, most Jews wore a distinguishing mark on their turbans and cloaks, and most Christians wore a special outer belt. Much of the time, members of the dhimmi upper class were still able to evade the requirement, which was considered a mark of humiliation as well as differentiation. Periodic decrees were the way Islamic rulers reminded the upper class dhimmis that they should pay for their exemption, which they did.
Of course, as Jewish historian Norman Stillman also observes:
The reimposition of the dress code over a number of years was not an indication of any great tolerance in the interim. Medieval regimes were woefully inefficient when compared with modern totalitarian states in controlling the daily lives and actions of their subjects. Decrees of many sorts had to be reissued from time to time to demonstrate official resolution.
Thus, even in times of liberal Muslim rule
…there was a tenuousness in the cordiality of interfaith relationships. The non-Muslim could never entirely disembarrass himself of his dhimmi status. There was no lack of preachers and religious reformers to remind Muslims and non-Muslims alike that the Pact of Umar was being violated. … The Muslim community’s sense of propriety could be deeply offended when dhimmis rose too high or became too conspicuous…
Stillman summarizes the insecurity inherent in the dhimmi status even under friendly Muslim rulers. “Even in the best of times, dhimmis in all walks of life could suddenly and rudely be reminded of their true status.”
Periods of benevolent monarchy, inevitably followed by repression, characterized the non-Arab Muslim dynasties as well. The relatively liberal period of the Seljuk Konya sultanate came to an end with their defeat at the hands of the Mongols in 1243. “By then, ineffectual Mongol governors and a large number of Turkish emirs had destroyed the authority of this kingdom. … In this period … justice and security in the kingdom came to an end.” The Seljuk state suffered a premature acceleration of the end of the period of benevolent despotism owing to these setbacks.
The transition from nomadic egalitarianism to monarchical despotism and finally to repressive tyranny is well illustrated by the experience of the Seljuk’s Ottoman successors. The first Ottoman “sultans had been accessible to their subjects and mixed with them in relative informality. But … there developed an increasing concern for sacredness of the sovereign, together with a habit of seclusion appropriate to majesty”. Mehmed the Conqueror even went so far as to cease sitting with his advisers. “Until now the Sultan had always presided in person over meetings of the council of state … from the seat on which he sat, as his ancestors from nomadic times had done in their tents. … But Mehmed … no longer frequenting the meetings of the Divan”, looked down on them, unseen, from behind a screen. Thus, even while restoring order to the Ottoman domains and extending some measure of self government to the Christian church, the Conqueror also began the process of ending the last trappings of the Ottoman tribal ‘egalitarian’ system. He is quoted as follows by historian Herbert Muller. “It is not my will that any one should eat with my Imperial Majesty; my ancestors used to eat with their ministers, but I have abolished this custom.” Under his successors “the ceremonies grew more elaborate, the costumes more ornate, the titles more grandiloquent, the Sultan more inaccessible.” And, in the same way as the Abbasids aped the court ritual of the Sasanids, among the Ottomans “… the customs and formalities of the Sultan’s court, which in its rigid hierarchy, its pomp and luxury, and its elaborate ceremonial owed much to the Byzantine model”.
Despite the increasingly autocratic rule of the sultans, the early empire was relatively benign and forward-looking, a condition that would inevitably change. Stillman describes how the early promise and rapid deterioration of the empire affected its Jewish subjects. The Ottoman realm in the 16th century was “a brief interlude of brightness in the long twilight of the late Islamic Middle Ages for the Jews of Arab lands. The shadows again began appearing toward the end of the century.”
Finally, Keay gives an example of how the Muslim rulers in India gradually imposed despotic rule and court ritual on all of their subjects, including their fellow Muslims. Delhi Sultan Balban (1246-65) “influenced by all those royal refugees from the north-west … introduced into his court an elaborate system of precedence and protocol modeled on the Persian practice. … Those who would approach the throne must abase themselves … kissing the ground and … kissing the royal feet as they advanced.”
Benevolent, Tolerant or Syncretistic Muslim Rulers
Given the autocratic and absolutist nature of all mature Islamic states, the well-being of the Dhimmi population was, to a large extent, dependent on the character of the ruler. Certain Muslim rulers were relatively benevolent to the Dhimmi populations whether for reasons of pragmatism, a compassionate nature transcending Islamic religious imperatives, freethinking, or even secret sympathies with, or interest in, other traditions.
Umayyad caliphs were notorious among their Muslim subjects as being deficient in proper religious attitudes. The most reprehensible, from the Muslim point of view was Caliph Walid II who “is said to have stuck the Koran onto a lance and shot it to pieces with arrows”. It is, therefore, no surprise that Walid irritated the ulama by showing an interest in un-Islamic ideas while leading a merry existence. “An intensively cultivated man, he surrounded himself with poets, dancing girls, and musicians, and lived the merry life of the libertine, with no interest in religion.”
The Abbasids came to power promising to rid Islam of Umayyad impiety. However, as seen above, their personal conduct did not always conform to such high ideals. Caliph Ma’mun even showed a quite un-Muslim interest in comparative religion. During his reign Farruxzatan a Mazdaean religious leader held a disputation with a Muslim convert and also “summoned Jews and Christians to take part in the argument. The Caliph Ma’mun, as is known, favoured such rhetorical jousts”. Such disputations were allowed to take place under a number of Muslim rulers. It would appear that, once Islam was established and the danger of overthrow ended, certain rulers of a less rigid and more inquiring frame of mind could afford to patronize such conferences and discourses. Of course, as an Islamic state entered its final repressive phase, such openness became impossible.
Under the Fatimid dynasty in Egypt, many caliphs showed favor toward non-Muslims:
The heterodox Fatimids showed relatively more tolerance toward their dhimmi subjects than had most Islamic rulers. Perhaps this was due in part to the fact that the majority of the Fatimid subjects in North Africa, and later in Egypt, were orthodox Muslims who were by and large unfriendly to their Isma’ili overlords.
The Fatimid tolerance was a case of political pragmatism. It was one instance in which a schismatic or upstart ruler might build a political base by showing favor to non-Muslims or to other heretical Muslims. In modern times examples of such political pragmatism are the relative tolerance toward Christians on the parts of the Alawite elite of Syria and of the Sunni Baathists in Iraq.
Saladin, the great founder of the Ayyubid dynasty, despite being a stalwart soldier in the Muslim cause, was widely regarded by friend and foe alike as being an honorable opponent who often showed a mercy that was uncharacteristic of both Muslim and non-Muslim rulers at that time. “Saladin was a brave and capable soldier, a great builder, and a generous and merciful ruler. … Saladin repeatedly expressed admiration for the piety of Christian pilgrims” and reportedly said “that a bad Muslim could never make a good Christian.” Moreover, Saladin’s “lieutenants reminded him frequently of the bloody massacres committed by the Crusaders when they first conquered Jerusalem, yet his mercy was widespread.”
Saladin’s tolerance, however, may also be partly due to the fact that he was rather indifferent to religion; his main interest was in building up his own power:
Reflecting neither a burning spirit of jihad nor an unwavering anti Christian enmity, this behavior epitomized Saladin’s career. For all his extensive holy-war propaganda, an essential component in a socio-political order based on the principle of religion, Saladin’s attitude to the Frankish states was above all derived from his lifelong effort at empire-building. As long as they did not stand in the way of this endeavor he was amenable to leaving them in peace…
Furthermore it was the Ayyubid dynasty founded by Saladin that was later to offer a refuge in Egypt and Syria to Jewish refugees from the persecutions in Almohad Spain. Unfortunately, however, in general few subsequent Muslim rulers lived up to Saladin’s example.
In Anatolia, despite the ravages that the nomadic Turks inflicted on the Christian population, a number of Seljuk rulers showed them great benevolence. Such benevolence was shown even in the early years of the Turkish invasion. Sultan Malik Shah (ca 1090) and Ismail the governor of Armenia are known to have protected churches and monasteries. Tolerant Seljuk rulers also appeared in subsequent centuries. The conditions of the Christians of Melitene “improved considerably in the latter half of the twelfth century thanks to the generosity of Kilidj II Arslan who freed” the church “from paying tribute.” Another benevolent Turkish commander was Malik Danishmend who reportedly treated his Christian subjects kindly.
The tolerance shown by the early Turkish leaders may also have had deeper motives owing to the very extensive and early hybridization that characterized the Turkish invaders. Many Muslim Turks, even among the rulers, at that time had Christian parents or in-laws. One such, the Seljuk Sultan Alaeddin, was apparently “not only tolerant of Christianity but sympathetic to it”. Another such was the son of the Seljuk sultan Izz-ed-Din who entered the service of the Byzantine Emperor and with “a detachment of his guard remained behind in Constantinople, turned Christian, and formed the nucleus of a corps of Turkish militia”.
The succeeding Ottomans, also with an abundance of Christian relatives and Greek ancestry, likewise produced rulers with tolerant dispositions or even syncretistic and heretical outlooks. In particular Mehmed (Muhammad) the Conqueror is said to have an almost heretical interest in Christianity, the Italian Renaissance and Greek philosophy. As a young man Mehmed “caused concern at Adrianople by his apparent support … of a Persian missionary, leader of a dervish sect which had preached … an affinity between Islam and Christianity.” After the fall of Constantinople there were even “pious hopes that the Sultan might emerge as a potential convert to Christianity. … Such approaches were never likely to influence the Sultan, seeing himself as … the heir to the caliphs, thus wedded spiritually and politically to Islam.” Mehmed is an example of a frequently occurring case among Muslim leaders. He was an unscrupulous and ruthless ruler and impious by Islamic standards. He was also pragmatic in dealing with his non-Muslim subjects and foreigners. He even had some interest in other religions and heretical syncretistic Muslim sects. Yet, he was quite content to use the warlike zeal provoked by Islam to further his worldly ambitions and was not about to chance the storm that would arise if he openly showed disrespect for Islam or threatened its monopoly of power.
Mehmed showed some benevolence to cooperative conquered dhimmis. He confirmed Gennadius as Patriarch, and established the millet system of self government for the various religious communities. He also “treated the Athenians magnanimously, confirming their civil liberties and exemption from taxes” and “granted privileges to the Orthodox clergy.” The Conqueror’s treatment of Athens was undoubtedly a result of his interest in the antiquities of the territory over which he ruled; an interest quite uncharacteristic of a Muslim. “After his army captured Athens Fatih went there in 1459 to see the ruined monuments of the ancient city, for his classical studies had imbued him with a deep reverence for classical Greek culture. Kritovoulos calls him a ‘Philhellene’”. Mehmed’s unusual interest in the Greek classics was exhibited on a visit to Troy:
Fatih visited the site of ancient Troy … which he knew from his reading of Homer. Kritovoulos writes that Fatih’s conquest of Byzantium made the sultan feel that he had evened the score with the Greeks for their victory over the ‘Asiatics’ at Troy, and that he only regretted that he did not have a poet like Homer to extol his deeds.
Once again, this may have been more than just a passing curiosity. In the early days of both Seljuk and Ottoman rule, there appears to have been a consciousness of their pre-Islamic Greek heritage on the part of many members of the Turkish elite who were often of mixed parentage. Such consciousness faded, however, with the hardening of Islamic culture over the centuries.
Mehmed, even after his conquest of Byzantium, continued his interest in Christianity and comparative religion. He
…called on Gennadius … and in their conversations they ranged widely over Christian theology. Gennadius also wrote a summary of his work and had it translated into Turkish for Fatih’s private study. … Spandugino, an Italian who lived in Galata early in the sixteenth century, claims that Fatih took to worshipping Christian relics and always kept many candles burning in front of them.
But Fatih’s interest in Christianity appears to have been superficial, for he seems to have been basically irreligious, and in his observance of Islam he merely observed the forms of the Muslim faith, as was necessary for him as head of state.
Indeed, his son Prince Beyazit reportedly said that his father did not believe in Muhammad. Mehmed was also a highly atypical Muslim in his interest in the Renaissance that was flowering in Italy during his lifetime. The Venetian Senate sent the artist Gentile Bellini to Constantinople at Mehmed’s request. Bellini painted Mehmed’s portrait and also decorated his apartments with erotic paintings.
One strange case of syncretism among Ottoman royalty occurred when the purported son of Sultan Ibrahim was captured as a baby, along with his mother a harem favorite, by Christian pirates.
…the child initially captured by the Maltese on the Turkish galley … was introduced at a certain stage as a possible Ottoman pretender. Now a Catholic priest named Pere Osman, he aspired without success to rally all Ottoman subjects, whether Moslem or Christian, to the cause of a new eastern state, blending the concepts of the Byzantine and the Ottoman empires.
A benevolent Ottoman leader some years later was the Grand Vizier and de facto ruler of the Ottoman Empire Koprulu Ahmed who “relaxed the severity” of his father’s regime. “A strict Moslem, he was nonetheless free from fanaticism, tolerating the beliefs of others, protecting Christians and Jews from injustice, and abolishing restrictions on the building of churches.”
Muslim Central Asia was the scene of an even more unconventional liberal ruler; one who was not simply a patron of learning but an accomplished scientist in his own right. The grandson of the fearsome Tamerlane, Ulugh Beg (1394-1449), ruler of Transoxiana was “a mathematician and astronomer and … patron of other scientists”. The school he established included scholars from Anatolia, Persia and central Asia.
The community could achieve brilliant results in the exact sciences that still matched those of contemporary Europe, if it was stimulated by an inspired sponsor like Ulugh Beg. Without such support, however, scientists had little institutional framework within which to develop and flourish. Moreover, in Central Asia they had to compete not only with conventional learning represented by the madrassa as a theological seminary, but also with a rising tide of religious fervor…
Ulugh’s noted mathematician, Ali Qushchi “ultimately was invited to Istanbul by another enlightened sponsor, the Ottoman sultan Mehmet the Conqueror.” The migration of the mathematician Qushchi to newly conquered Byzantium, illustrates how the consolidation of conquered territory and the establishment of peace under a liberal Muslim despot can engender a temporary high period of culture and learning. The inclusion of the once ravaged territory within the larger Muslim world makes it accessible for scholars and promotes a cross fertilization of ideas. Later, however, the inevitable regression inherent in the Islamic meme comes to dominate. It also shows the small renaissance that might occur under enlightened rulers within a territory long under Muslim rule. Rulers such as Ulugh may come to power following the turmoil accompanying the establishment of a new and often heretical dynasty. Such was the case in Fatimid Egypt and in Safavid Persia. In the wake of the violent rise of the unconventional Muslim empire-builder Tamerlane, there occurred a minor Timurid renaissance in Central Asia, which expressed itself in the science of Ulugh and also in literature and art.
The ultimate fate of the enlightened, but unfortunate, scholar-sultan Ulugh Beg exemplifies both the inevitable triumph of repressive despotism and the decay of science under Islam. Ulugh’s son Abd al-Latif rebelled and “marched on Samarkand with an army and defeated his father … Ulugh Beg returned to the city as a … prisoner of his irate son; worse still, the religious authorities, never fond of the prince-scientist, issued a fatwa mandating his deposition and execution. He was … beheaded on 27 October 1449.” Ulugh’s fate also shows how the beginning of repression in one Islamic territory may provide an opportunity for an enlightened neighboring ruler. Thus, the mathematician Qushchi who was close to Ulugh, found a welcome in the Conqueror’s domains. A similar welcoming of refugee Jewish intellectuals from Spain by the Ayyubids of Egypt was another such example.
In Muslim India there were a number of instances of tolerant, progressive and even syncretistic rulers. One example, the Khalji Sultan Ala-ud-din (ca 1310), a ruler who verged on the edge of heresy, is described by Keay:
The sultan was no Islamic bigot: ‘there is no instance to show that Ala-ud-din oppressed some people simply because they were Hindus and favored others just because they were Muslims.’ Indeed, if one may judge by his reported interest in founding a new religion centred on his own illustrious person, his faith was decidedly unorthodox. … Like his assumption of the title ‘The Second Alexander’ on his coinage, it was a case of the megalomaniac getting the better of the Muslim.
Another Muslim ruler, Muhammad bin Tughluq, despite his severity and cruelty, “was comparatively free of religious and ethnic bigotry. Perhaps he more than any of the sultans glimpsed the potential of an Indo-Islamic accommodation.” Nevertheless, despite his dabbling in science and philosophy, Tughluq “killed so many Hindus that there was constantly in front of his royal pavilion … a mound of dead bodies”. In Bengal, Ala-ud-din Husain Shah (1493-1519) “though a Muslim, indeed an Arab, is said to have honoured … the leader of the Vaishnavire bhakti movement … In return the Hindus” honored the sultan “as an incarnation of Lord Krishna.”
But by far the most daring of all the heretical Muslim rulers was the great Mogul emperor Akbar who exhibited an abiding passion for pursuing religious truth in whatever direction it might lead:
Akbar’s curiosity about his subjects and their beliefs also became markedly eclectic. … he installed a veritable bazaar of disputing divines and presided over their heated debates … To the Quranic arguments of Sunni, Shia and Ismaili were added … numerous Sufi orders, the bhakti fervour of Saiva and Vaishnava devotees … naked Jains, and the varied insights of numerous wandering ascetics, saints and other … recluses.
Also welcome were … disciples of Kabir … and Guru Nanak … founder of the Sikh faith. … included … were Portuguese priests … from Goa…
In the end “Akbar improvised an ideology based on the only element in which he had complete confidence, his imperial persona.” His faith “centred on himself, but whether as God or His representative is not certain.” His threat to orthodox Islam led to a major rebellion, but Akbar with considerable Hindu military support managed to crush it. Aided by his Hindu vassals, he also added considerable territory to his domains.
Akbar was the boldest and most successful of all the syncretistic rulers, but, unfortunately even his religious reforms embedded as they were in an Islamic social and political matrix, could not survive his death. The cult of personality he developed in order to carry through his reforms prefigured that which, centuries later, was to be promoted by Ataturk.
A later royal Mogul heretic was Dara Shikoh, Shah Jahan’s favorite son and Aurangzeb’s rival. Dara Shikoh “inspired deep suspicion amongst orthodox Muslims … he consorted with Sufis, Hindus and Christians … translated the Upanishads into Persian … advanced the idea ‘that the essential nature of Hinduism was identical with that of Islam’.” After his defeat by Aurangzeb “he was condemned and cut to pieces” and then “paraded through the streets.”
On the periphery of the Muslim world, in areas where Islam spread by more peaceful means, relatively tolerant rulers following a more relaxed and syncretistic version of the religion were common. In Indonesia “the stories of the Mahabharata and the Ramayana continued to serve for the aristocracy as a school of chivalry and to be enjoyed by the people. The culture of the Javanese princely courts remained essentially Hinduistic-Javanese up to very recent times.” One overtly apostate ruler was Sultan Amangkurat of the Javanese state of Mataram who in 1674 had some six thousand Muslim clerics killed. “Amangkurat … did not share his father’s sentiment toward Islam. He rejected the title of ‘sultan’ and preferred the Javanese one of ‘susuhunan’. He … restricted the jurisdiction of the religious courts. Thus, his reign constituted a marked reaction against the growing Islamization of Javanese society.” Like Dara Shikoh and Ulugh Beg, Amangkurat came to an unfortunate end when his orthodox Muslim enemies rebelled and overthrew him.
West Africa was also the scene of many unconventional rulers who fell short of the strict standards of Muslim orthodoxy. Under the newly converted rulers of Sub Saharan West Africa, many pre-Islamic customs remained intact. “As a good Muslim, there were aspects of life in Mali which Ibn Battuta found shocking – above all, the freedom given to women, who went about unveiled and chose whom they would as their companions.” Since the oppression and degradation of women was one of the prime factors in Islam’s successful expansion, such freedom would be looked upon as quite egregious by orthodox Muslims.
Repressive Despotic Phase
Islamic states invariably, until the era of Western intervention, end up as rigid theocracies ruled by a small class of bigoted officials under an aloof and arbitrary tyrant. As we have seen, in earlier years such repression was often interspersed with intervals of rule by relatively enlightened or tolerant caliphs or sultans. Arab historian Hourani describes how the increasing Islamization of the population inevitably put an end to toleration and cemented the second class status of non-Muslims.
In the early centuries of Islamic rule there appears to have been much social and cultural intercourse between adherents of the three religions. … As time went on … the barriers became higher. The conversion … to Islam turned a majority into a diminishing minority. … Islam … developed its own social institutions, within which Muslims could live without interaction with non Muslims.
Pressures upon Jews and Christians may have come mainly from the urban masses, particularly in times of war or economic hardship, when hostility might be directed against the non Muslim officials of the ruler. At such moments, the ruler might respond by enforcing the laws strictly, or dismissing his non Muslim officials…
Persecution of the remaining non-Muslims was accompanied by, and undoubtedly was one of the reasons for, the decline in intellectual accomplishment in general, and the diminishment of freedom even for Muslims. Harbingers of such decline were present at a very early date. The Umayyad caliph Umar II enforced the dress code for Christians and Jews and barred them from holding public office. The, otherwise munificent, Abbasid caliph Harun re-enacted those decrees. Finally, the “stringent regulations against dhimmis culminated in the time of al-Mutawakkil, who in 850 and 854 decreed that Christians and Jews should affix wooden images of devils to their houses” among other severe measures. Indeed, the generally tolerant and worldly outlook that marked Umayyad rule became increasingly rare among the Abbasids.
The claim to divine inspiration was exemplified in the strong messianic overtones of the throne names adopted by all Abbasid caliphs and was accompanied by public indulgence of religious figures and institutions. … The relaxed Umayyad attitude to religious observance gave way to strict public enforcement of religious codes of behavior and zealous persecution of heretics.
To be sure, even under the early Abbasids the two competing models of despotism, the enlightened and the repressive, continued to war with each other despite the religious pretensions of the dynasty. In the same way as “the Umayyads sought often to buttress their credentials through spectacular religious acts, such as the building of the Dome of the Rock”, so the “Abbasids complied with the stipulations of …religious law”, but “only to the extent it served their needs”. In private they “indulged in the same vices – wine, singing girls, and sexual licence – that had given the Umayyads their bad reputation.” Furthermore, “scathing criticism was leveled at Ma’mun and his two immediate successors … for their endorsement of the philo-Hellenistic Mu’tazilite school of thought … Yet even when the caliph Mutawakil (847-61) … reestablished the orthodox dogma, this did not mean greater religious observance at the personal level.” Repressive despotism became fairly well entrenched by the time of the Abbasid caliph Qahir (932-34) “who took strict measures against wine-drinkers and singing girls” and this despite the fact that he “was hardly ever sober.”
Muslim Spain, despite the propaganda of the proponents of the myth of Andalusia, was subject to the same fall from a tolerant progressive outlook into repressive despotic rule. The Spanish vizier and de facto ruler al-Mansur (ca. 980), “to ingratiate himself with the ulema … burned all the books in the library of al-Hakam [961-76] dealing with philosophy and other subjects blacklisted by those theologians.” This is an example of another common pattern whereby policies of repression and religious reaction are instituted by weak or usurping rulers to curry favor with the ulama.
Following another brief period of liberalism under some of the “party kings”, the final stage of repression in Muslim Spain began with the overthrow of the Abbadid dynasty of Seville by the Murabits (Almoravids) in 1090. “Under the Murabits, fresh converts to Islam and heirs to a barbarian legacy not yet dead, an outburst of religious fervour on the part of theological zealots resulted at the beginning of the twelfth century in suffering for many Christians, Jews and even liberal Moslems. Under the devout ‘Ali (1106-43) … al-Ghazzali’s works were put on the black list or committed to the flames in Spain and al-Maghrib”. Although the succeeding early Muwahhids (Almohads) are described by Hitti as a “Dynasty puritanic in theology but liberal in its patronage of philosophy”, they were even more fanatical in the persecution of Christians and Jews.
In Egypt, the liberal phases occurring under the Fatimids and Ayyubids were finally ended by the repression of the Mamluks. Under these “slave” sultans there was strict enforcement of dress and building codes directed against the dhimmis. There were also decrees against non-Muslim doctors among “a number of innovative anti-dhimmi measures taken in the Mamluk period.” Indeed, the “last one hundred years or more of Mamluk rule weighed heavily upon all of the subjects of the empire – Muslim and non-Muslim.” The Mamluk Sultan Barsbay (c. 1422) in response to an outbreak of plague regarded it as punishment for the people’s sins and “prohibited females from going outdoors and sought to make atonement by fresh exactions from Christians and Jews.”
The Seljuk Turkish rulers became increasingly despotic when, in the latter days of the formerly tolerant Konya sultanate, the government came under increasing pressure from nomadic Turkmen and Mongols. As a result the population was plagued by rapacious officials and tax farmers. “The sultan ‘Ala al-Din III Kaykubad enacted such fiscal oppression that finances were thrown into confusion and many villagers fled their homes.”
The Ottomans inevitably followed in the dolorous footsteps of their Islamic predecessors. One early harbinger of the more repressive despotism to come occurred when Sultan Selim the Grim in 1514 decided “to follow one campaign against Moslem heretics in Anatolia with another designed to force Anatolian Christians to recant or face the sword”. He desisted only after the Seyhulislam, the chief judge of Islam, pointed out that payers of the jizya had a right to preserve their faiths.
The shift from the liberal to the repressive despotic stage in the Ottoman Empire accelerated after the death of Suleiman’s favorite concubine Roxelana. Suleiman “had withdrawn within himself, growing more than ever silent, more melancholy … more remote from human contacts.” At one time his court had been enlivened by music. But as the Sultan grew more fearfully religious “the instruments were thus broken up and consigned to the flames. In response to similar ascetic scruples he took to eating off earthenware instead of silver plate, moreover banned the importation into the city of all wine”.
One exemplar of the increasing Ottoman despotic repression was Mehmed III, who although a weakling
…was to have his nineteen brothers strangled by mutes – the largest fratricidal sacrifice in Ottoman history. … Meanwhile six pregnant slaves, their favourites from the harem, had been sewn up in sacks and thrown into the Bosporus, lest they give birth to claimants to the throne. Later Mehmed put to death his own chosen son Mahmud, a young man of spirit who had begged to be given command of the armies fighting the rebels in Anatolia, and this had inflamed his father’s jealous suspicions. His mother and his favourite companions … suffered the same fate.
Worse still was the very embodiment of the Oriental despot, Murad IV (1623-1640) whose reign of terror, well described by Kinross brought about the end of a period of military anarchy:
His trusted henchmen and well-trained spies scoured the city of Istanbul on his orders, tracking down the known traitors … executing them on the spot … flinging their corpses into the Bosporus to be washed up on shore before the populace. Bloodshed similarly swept through the provinces.”
Later, to deprive the public of its centers of reunion and possible trouble, he closed all cafes and wineshops in the cities of the Empire – on no temporary basis but for the rest of his reign – and made the smoking of tobacco illegal. Offenders caught at night smoking a pipe, drinking coffee, or flushed with wine might instantly be hanged or impaled, and their bodies thrown out into the street as a warning to the rest.
As time went on Murad became carried away by the thirst for blood. At first his executions were justified by unquestionable guilt; then they grew more sweeping … eventually he was killing, heedless of any suspicion, for the sake of killing, from wanton caprice or impulsive ill humour. …
His cruelties became legendary. Disturbed by the boisterous merriment of a party of women … he had them all seized and drowned. He murdered one of his own doctors … He impaled a courier for informing him mistakenly that the Sultana had given birth to a son … He beheaded his chief musician for singing a Persian air … In five years it is said that twenty-five thousand men perished at his orders, many of them by his own hand.
In India it was Sultan Aurangzeb who initiated the full repressive despotic phase of the Mogul regime. Keay describes how under his severe rule
…dancers, musicians and artists were dismissed from the imperial employ. Their places were taken by bearded jurists and Quranic divines … The tax on Hindu pilgrims, lifted by Akbar, was reimposed … revenue endowments enjoyed by temples and brahmans were rescinded; Hindu merchants were penalized … newly built or rebuilt temples were to be destroyed. … Finally, in 1679 … the reimposition of the detested jizya…
But even Aurangzeb did not try to force the conversion of non-Muslims. “He was too shrewd; they too numerous.”
The Shiite Safavids also, eventually followed the path to repressive Islamic despotism. “In 1656, Shah ‘Abbas II granted extensive powers to his wazirs to force Jews to become Muslims. Al-Majlisi persuaded Shah Husayn (1688-1726) to decree the forcible conversion of Zoroastrians.”
Paralleling the phases of Islamic political development were the phases of Muslim intellectual life. Islamic “golden ages” followed the re-establishment of peace and security under the auspices of the new regime. The time lag between the conquest and the peak of the golden age varied from a few decades through several centuries in different Muslim lands. However, these golden ages were a result of the parasitic exploitation of the intellectual and economic resources left over from the preceding civilization. When these were exhausted intellectual achievement went into a rapid decline. The phases of Muslim intellectual life are analyzed in the following chapter.
 Karsh, Islamic Imperialism, p. 18.
 Kinross, The Ottoman Centuries, p. 33.
 Lewis, The Middle East, p. 140.
 Karsh, Islamic Imperialism, p. 29.
 Hitti, History of the Arabs, p. 183.
 Levy, The Social Structure of Islam, p. 281.
 Karsh, Islamic Imperialism, p. 30.
 Darlington, The Evolution of Man and Society, p. 384.
 Kinross, The Ottoman Centuries, p. 41.
 Frye, The Heritage of Central Asia, p. 208.
 Karsh, Islamic Imperialism, pp. 30-31.
 Hitti, History of the Arabs, p. 196.
 Ibid, pp. 237-39.
 Ibid, p. 278.
 Karsh, Islamic Imperialism, p. 35.
 Ibid, p. 34.
 Hitti, History of the Arabs, p. 107.
 Lewis, The Arabs in History, p. 83.
 Karsh, Islamic Imperialism, p. 41.
 Hitti, History of the Arabs, p. 113.
 Ibid, p. 112.
 Ibid, p. 302.
 Ibid, p. 620.
 Ibid, pp. 620-21.
 Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands, p. 68.
 Ibid, pp. 68-69.
 Ibid, p. 62.
 Ibid, p. 63.
 Vryonis, The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor, p. 244.
 Kinross, The Ottoman Centuries, p. 143.
 Ibid, p. 139.
 Muller, The Loom of History, p. 303.
 Kinross, The Ottoman Centuries, p. 142.
 Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands, p. 91.
 Keay, India, A History, p. 248.
 Warraq, Leaving Islam, p. 42.
 Frye, The Cambridge History of Iran Volume 4, p. 544.
 Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands, p. 43.
 Trifkovic, The Sword of the Prophet, p. 102.
 Payne, The Dream and the Tomb, p. 211.
 Karsh, Islamic Imperialism, p. 83.
 Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands, p. 61.
 Vryonis, The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor, pp. 197-99.
 Ibid, p. 211.
 Muller, The Loom of History, p. 281.
 Kinross, The Ottoman Centuries, p. 38.
 Muller, The Loom of History, pp. 302-3.
 Kinross, The Ottoman Centuries, p. 88.
 Ibid, p. 115.
 Ibid, p. 128.
 Freely, Inside The Seraglio, p.19.
 Ibid, p. 20.
 Ibid, p. 24.
 Ibid, p. 26.
 Kinross, The Ottoman Centuries, p. 316.
 Ibid, p. 338.
 Soucek, A History of Inner Asia, pp. 127-29.
 Ibid, p. 131.
 Keay, India, A History, p. 259.
 Ibid, p. 271.
 Durant, Our Oriental Heritage, p. 461.
 Keay, India, A History, pp. 287-88.
 Ibid, pp. 316-17.
 Ibid, p. 317.
 Ibid, pp. 339-40.
 Vlekke, Nusantara: A History of Indonesia, p. 87.
 Ibid, p. 175.
 Oliver and Fagan, Africa in the Iron Age, p. 175.
 Hourani, A History of the Arab Peoples, p. 118.
 Hitti, History of the Arabs, p. 353.
 Karsh, Islamic Imperialism, p. 42.
 Ibid, pp. 42-3.
 Ibid, p. 43.
 Hitti, History of the Arabs, p. 532.
 Ibid, p. 542.
 Ibid, p. 581.
 Stillman, The Jews of Arab Lands, pp. 72-3.
 Hitti, History of the Arabs, p. 696.
 Vryonis, The Decline of Medieval Hellenism in Asia Minor, p. 246.
 Stewart, Life World Library: Turkey, p. 45.
 Kinross, The Ottoman Centuries, p. 252.
 Ibid, p. 288.
 Ibid, pp. 305-10.
 Keay, India, A History, pp. 342-43.
 Ibid. p. 343.
 Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies, p. 243.