A specter is haunting not just Europe, but, the entire world. The phantom this time is not nationalism or any philosophy with roots in post-enlightenment Europe. It is the escape from confinement of a genie that once aggressively spread war across three continents. This paper’s objective is an exploration of certain common factors and tendencies underlying the history of Islam in all of its geographical and ethnic diversity. In particular, the author seeks to cast light on the remarkably similar phases occurring in all Islamic societies, of expansion and decline, of intellectual achievement followed by stagnation, and of political liberalism which inevitably turns into despotism and repression. Moreover, it now appears that history is beginning to repeat itself, not as farce but as renewed tragedy.
The author claims no particular expertise in all of the intricacies of Muslim history, theology, law or philosophy. In addition, he has no knowledge of Arabic or of the other languages spoken in the dar-al-Islam. Therefore, heavy reliance is placed upon those historians and social scientists who are recognized authorities both on Islam and within their respective scholarly fields. These sources range from antagonistic to sympathetic in their attitude toward Islam. However, most of the reliance in this study is on authoritative and respected sources. One of the primary authoritative scholars relied upon is Philip Hitti, especially his massive History of the Arabs. Hitti is a respected historian who appears to be quite sympathetic to the subjects of his research. Hitti accounts for some 16% of the citations, in addition to a compendium of significant intellectuals that form the database for a statistical study of Muslim intellectual accomplishment over time. Albert Hourani, another well regarded historian cited, is also very sympathetic to Arab Muslims. Another authoritative source is the famous historian Bernard Lewis some of whose many works are cited to a large but somewhat lesser extent than those of Hitti. Lewis is regarded as the leading living authority on Islamic history, and while generally objective, shows a marked sympathy, in particular to the Ottoman Turks. Ira Lapidus and Efraim Karsh are two noted authorities in the general history of Islam who are frequently cited. Lapidus appears to be generally sympathetic to Islamic culture, while Karsh can be quite critical.
Numerous sources cited are from authorities specializing in particular Islamic or neighboring lands, or else in particular Muslim ethnic groups. Lord Kinross is a well respected authority on Ottoman Turkish history and, while objective, is also notably sympathetic to the Muslim Turks who are the subjects of his study. Speros Vryonis, an expert in Byzantine civilization and history, provides a wealth of information on the Turkish conquest of the Byzantine Empire. While considerably more critical of Islam and of Turks than is Kinross, he also presents his facts in a fair and objective manner. Almost ten percent of the citations refer to Vryonis’ works. A.A. Vasiliev, another authoritative specialist on Byzantium, is cited in several places. He appears to be somewhat friendlier toward Islam than is Vryonis. Also sympathetic to the Turks, in a qualified way, is Herbert Muller, a generalist in world history who did considerable research into the history of Anatolia. Roger Crowley, who takes great pains to be fair to both sides, is a source of much information regarding the fall of Constantinople.
Richard N. Frye, a noted authority on Iranian history is the source of much information on Muslim Iran. He is also an expert on Central Asian history. Another specialist on inner Asia, frequently quoted, is Svat Soucek; both of these authors provide objective and unbiased historical accounts of Islamic rule in Iran and Central Asia. The historian John Keay also provides much objective information on India during and after the Muslim invasions. Will Durant, the famous world historian, adds a rather more chilling perspective to the Indian experience at the hands of the Muslim invaders, as does acclaimed author V. S. Naipaul. Dutch historian Bernard H. M. Vlekke provides a somewhat friendlier account of the spread of Islam from India to Southeast Asia. Arab historians Yusuf Fadl Hasan and Jamil M. Abun-Nasr write of the Arab penetration into Africa. Hasan gives a detailed history of the Arabization of the Sudan, while Abun-Nasr writes of the history of the Maghreb under Islam. Anthropologists Roland Oliver and Brian Fagan also provide quite objective accounts of the Arab penetration into Africa. The specialist in Jewish history, Norman Stillman, provides many details regarding the experience of both Jewish and Christian minorities under Muslim rule.
Two notable social scientists specializing in Islamic societies, frequently cited, are Reuben Levy and Raphael Patai. In the field of comparative religion, two scholars quite sympathetic to Islam, John B. Noss and Huston Smith, provide much material regarding the early history of Islam, Muslim sects and comparisons with other religions. Ignaz Goldziher, a recognized early twentieth century expert on Islamic law also provides information on Islamic law and society. The respected translation of the Koran by the convert Mohammed Pickthall is cited a number of times as background.
Quantitative historian and Islamic specialist, Richard W. Bulliet, provides much material on the process of the conversion of conquered non-Muslims to Islam. In addition, he gives estimates of the progress of that conversion in a series of statistically derived conversion curves. Social scientist and statistician Charles Murray, also working in quantitative history, provides both general background on, and rankings of, significant figures in various civilizations including that of Islam. C. D. Darlington, an evolutionary biologist, brings the perspective of his science to the study of human history. His observations on Islamic history have provided much useful material. Another expert in the field of human genetics, L. Luca Cavalli-Sforza, is briefly cited. The mathematicians Carl B. Boyer and Uta C. Merzbach provide historical perspective on the history of Muslim mathematics, in particular the development of algebra and the Arabic numbers.
Four researchers who are cited a number of times, and whose work must be viewed as having points of view quite unsympathetic to Islam, are Robert Spencer, Serge Trifkovic, Ibn Warraq and Bat Yeor. However, they are cited primarily for the general historical information contained within their works. In addition to the above major authors, a large number of minor sources are also cited with attitudes toward Islam, similarly, ranging from friendly to questioning to hostile. Social commentator Howard Bloom provides some unflattering analyses of the Islamic “meme.” The total citations, for both critical views and general historical background, for all writers with an anti-Islamic polemic, amount to about twelve percent.
This study has relatively little to say on the many reports of massacres and atrocities committed by the soldiers of Islam; these are well enumerated in many other sources. It must be stated at the outset that the behavior of Muslims in war was not necessarily worse than that exhibited by most other peoples both before and since the time of Muhammad. However, the scriptural inspired military prowess of Muslim warriors and their consequent success, may have given them many more opportunities for slaughter and atrocity than was the case for non-Muslims. In that, ironically, they are similar to the much vilified contemporary Serbs whose greater military skills gave them an advantage over opponents who would otherwise have happily indulged in equally egregious, though certainly less reported, behavior. Similarly, this paper only briefly treats of the modern legend of Islamic tolerance toward, and compassion for, those of other faiths. This academic myth has also been convincingly debunked by a number of recent authors.
This paper is not meant to be a comprehensive history of Islam. For one thing it covers only the earlier periods in the history of the various Muslim polities and does not, generally, extend into recent times. Furthermore, it simply endeavors to uncover those common factors facilitating the spread of Islam. Some of these factors are, however, rather obscure and are only implicit in the standard histories; this study seeks to draw these out and make them explicit. By bringing together numerous distinct sources a coherent picture of the similar historical tendencies common to all Islamic societies begins to emerge. The paper also attempts to show how some of the very factors responsible for the triumph of Islam contribute to its subsequent decline. Furthermore, it illuminates the remarkable similarities in expansion and decline that characterize the different Muslim conquests.
Chapter 1, A Powerful and Dangerous Meme, discusses Islam in terms of the concept of the meme, an idea or constellation of ideas that may explode over time affecting entire nations and even civilizations. In chapter 2, The Flawed Prophet, there is a discussion of the originator of the Islamic meme. The prophet Muhammad, a man of considerable gifts and great personal magnetism, had a number of defects that he was unable to discard before he embarked upon his great mission. These flaws were to have some unfortunate consequences which manifested themselves throughout the history of the religion that he founded.
The causes underlying Islamic expansion are elucidated in the next set of chapters. The ideology of Islam and Holy War are described. The incentives to the holy warriors in terms of material and sexual advantages are analyzed. Chapter 3, Shadow of the Sword, surveys the various conquests made in the name of the Prophet’s militant religion. The vanguard of Islamic imperialism, the newly unified Arabs, was followed by subsequent cohorts of warriors up to and including the Ottoman Turks and the Moguls of India. Chapter 4, Limits of Empire, describes the factors which finally brought the various conquests to an end. Chapter 5, Patterns of Treason, illustrates a recurring pattern of collaboration with Muslim invaders from within the infidel camp. In chapter 6, Triumph of the Faith, the reasons for the ultimate triumph of Islam through mass conversion of the defeated populations are uncovered. The emergence of Islam as the majority religion turned the conquered territories into permanent Islamic bastions. Another important factor in Islamic expansion, the institutionalization of sexual slavery, which, along with polygamy, constitutes an important part of the Muslim breeding system, is analyzed in chapter 7, Culture of the Harem. Finally, chapter 8, The Slave Society discusses another important cause of the Islamic transformation of entire populations, that of mass slavery.
However, in chapter 9, Strategies of Cultural Survival, it is shown that the triumph of Islam was never total. The submerged cultural imperatives of the vanquished had a way of re-emerging. Resistance to Islamic invaders took the form of the survival of indigenous cultural traits and nationalisms often expressed as schismatic, heretical or mystical Muslim sects.
The next two chapters illustrate the recurring patterns of social, political and cultural evolution under Muslim rule. Chapter 10, Phases of Islamic Political Development, shows the remarkable parallels in the evolution of Islamic political systems occurring subsequent to all the major Muslim conquests. There is a marked similarity in the change from the tribal egalitarianism of the first conquerors toward increasing Oriental despotism and repression. There were periods of liberalism under benevolent or, at least, cynically practical rulers. However, repression and theocracy inevitably triumphed in the end. Chapter 11, The Parasitic Civilization, shows the same tendency in terms of Islamic intellectual life; an initial flowering is quickly followed by decline and permanent stagnation. Moreover, it is shown, how the attainments as well as the victories of Islam are invariably fueled by the financial, technical and intellectual resources of non-Muslims and recent indigenous converts.
The last chapters provide a number of perspectives regarding the contemporary revival of Islam. Chapter 12, The Islamic Reformation, discusses current prospects of reform in the light of Muslim religious history. Chapter 13, Myth and Reality, briefly describes the misconceptions regarding Muslim history that are prevalent today. Chapter 14, The Fire This Time, analyzes the current challenges posed by resurgent Islam in a comparative historical context.
The following is a brief outline of the theory of Islamic expansion and decline. In the first phase, invasion and conquest, Muslims expand into a new territory. The actual work of invasion is commonly carried out by a recently converted nomadic vanguard. In some cases the expansion occurs rapidly through war, in other cases it occurs through a slow process of raiding or infiltration.
Conquest is followed by a period of recovery varying from decades to several centuries. The newly annexed territory is invariably devastated. The new Muslim authorities may attempt to stabilize conditions, if only to turn their new conquest into an economic asset. However, this is frequently disrupted by conflicts within the ranks of the original invaders and by a series of destructive secondary nomadic incursions. Eventually, one faction of invaders succeeds in establishing hegemony and a strong central government capable of re-establishing order. This phase is often characterized by a legacy of tribal egalitarianism, limited, of course, to the ranks of the invading warrior elite.
In many cases the period of recovery is followed by an Islamic golden age. However, this is simply a continuation of the preceding civilization in a new form and is crucially dependent on the work of dhimmis and recent converts. The golden age is made possible by the re-establishment of peace and order, the re-opening of trade routes and the cross-fertilization of ideas and technologies from the many cultures brought into the larger Islamic civilization. The peak of the golden age is marked by the patronage of scholars and architects on the part of a wealthy and powerful elite who are themselves often descended from recent converts. However, the tradition of austere tribal egalitarianism is replaced by increasing oriental despotism and magnificence.
The final stage is invariably one of decline and stagnation. Islamic civilization is characterized by a parasitic dependence on the economic, technological and intellectual resources of the dhimmi population. Eventually that population is reduced to a minority through conversion, polygamy and concubinage, and slavery. With the passing of time Islamic attitudes harden, the pre-Islamic culture is largely forgotten and the Muslim mind closes. The state becomes a repressive theocracy, ruled by increasingly despotic caliphs or sultans, and dominated by a rigid and intolerant clerical class.