Ch. 17. Introduction to the Islamic World

    This book is all about the modern transformation, the change from traditional to fully modern society all around the world. Some readers may have wondered why it starts off with a description of the origin and operation of tribal society. The reason is that, in the last forty years, the most difficult problems and the highest level of revolutionary violence have been happening in countries whose traditional form of society was mostly tribal. This includes about half of all the countries in the modern world. 1

    The modern transformation began five hundred years ago in the aristocrat-peasant states of western Europe. It spread through North America, central and eastern Europe, into the Ottoman Empire and Latin America, and then around the world to Japan, Persia, India, China, Korea, and Vietnam. The majority of these countries have not yet completed the modern revolution, but they are well into the second half which is a lot less violent. These are countries with a largely aristocrat-peasant heritage. They led the way for the modern transformation. Now, the countries with a mostly tribal past are following along the same path. It has always been a very difficult and violent journey. 2

Law of the Desert

    There is a huge swath of desert and semi-desert land that starts on the Atlantic coast of North Africa and runs across the continent into the Middle East and on through central Asia. Desert has always been a difficult environment for human society. The population was so thin and so mobile that it was usually impossible to have fixed government institutions that could maintain any kind of rule of law. “Law of the Desert” was the usual result. The toughest tribal warriors mounted on their best horses or camels could pretty much raid anywhere, commit any atrocity, and disappear back into the desert. There was little that kings or governments could do to stop it. 3

    We are talking about tribal warrior chiefdoms or sheikdoms. This was the most violent kind of human society. They raided the settled communities and each other, taking anything of value including the women. These were people who knew that their fate was not in their own hands. They could not control the rain or the sandstorms. They could not stop the raids or the blood feuds. It was a difficult life. 4

Islam and Sharia

    In the 7th century, the Islamic religion appeared in Arabia. It was developed by desert tribes for desert conditions. Since their fate was not in their own hands, it must rest in the hands of God. This was a very fatalistic outlook which permeated the new religion. 5

    Islam included its own legal code. This was not just some new religious law imposed by religious leaders. It was also a codification of the practices that had evolved among the desert tribes because they seemed to be the best fit for desert conditions. Since secular government was most conspicuous by its absence, Sharia included criminal and commercial law as well as family and religious law. The ulema (judges) were essentially scholars who studied and interpreted Sharia law as it had been revealed through the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad. 6

    The Islamic religion very quickly brought unity to the Arab tribes and launched them on an extraordinary campaign of imperial conquest. Arab armies rode west all the way to Morocco and east to the borders of China, spreading the Muslim religion across the vast swath of desert and semi-desert geography. This included Egypt, Mesopotamia, Persia, and the Indus Valley with their irrigated fields and aristocrat-peasant societies. Islamic merchants and Sufi missionaries also converted the trading principalities that ringed the Indian Ocean to their religion. A new Islamic civilization developed with a mixture of tribal, long-distance mercantile, and aristocratic institutions. 7

The Islamic Golden Age

   There was an amazing fusion between the highly-mobile tribal culture of the desert Arabs, the aristocrat-peasant societies of the ancient agricultural river valleys, and the maritime trading states of the Indian Ocean. There were great cities, ancient learning, huge irrigated valleys, trade routes, and tribal people who were accustomed to long journeys. All of these ingredients were combined together and unified by the Islamic religion under a single set of laws. Religion, trade, scholars, technology, and ideas flowed back and forth from Spain and Morocco through Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia, Persia, India, and Central Asia. Local rulers often competed with each other to attract the best religious scholars, linguists, mathematicians, poets, and scientists. 8

    From the late 8th century through the mid 13th century was a golden age for Islamic civilization. Commerce, technology, and learning were also made available to Europe through Spain and Italy. This was important in pulling medieval Europe out of the Dark Age and helping to put it on the path to modern development. The cross fertilization of Europe, Africa, the Middle East, and much of Asia was a wonderful thing, but it was still traditional society. Islamic cities were fed mostly by peasants from the surrounding area who continued to deliver a portion of the harvest without being paid. 9

Political Institutions

    The ruling governments were conquest dynasties. Some of them were fairly stable for two or three centuries although the majority did not survive that long. Rulers came and went depending on who won the last battle. This did not always create as much difficulty as it might have. The victor would become the new emir or sultan but the defeated family was not always executed. Sometimes the new ruler would be married into the old dynasty and carry on his reign as a legitimate successor with a minimum of disruption. Many governmental functions were administered through the Sharia law code. This was supervised by Islamic scholars who were interpreting God’s law, which could not be changed by the rulers. 10

Conflict and Military Institutions

    In the wide-open spaces of this arid Islamic world, the only effective military organization was large numbers of horse archers. The Arabs originally conquered from horseback and ruled by right of conquest. Over time, the Arabs assimilated to a grater or lesser extent with Berbers, Egyptians, Syrians, Iraqis, and Iranians—whose elite families became part of the aristocratic ruling class. The battles over leadership were relatively modest in size. Violence was generally kept to an acceptable level. 11

    Asia also had other horse tribes, especially Turks and Mongols. Seljuk Turks appeared in the 11th century and gradually seized control of western Asia from Iran to Palestine. This was done in a relatively chivalrous way in moderate size battles between armed horsemen. The peasants and commoners were mostly left to go about their business as before. The new Seljuk rulers assimilated to the Islamic ruling structure and the golden age continued. 12

    When the Mongols appeared in the 13th century, it was a different story. Persia and Mesopotamia were devastated. Major cities and agricultural villages suffered alike. In a few generations, Islamic civilization was even able to assimilate and tame the Mongols, but it never regained its former glory. There were many reasons for this, including long term issues of desertification and salt build-up on irrigated land. The golden age was over. 13

    Around 1500, Ottoman Turks were seizing control of the western half of the Islamic world, and the Moguls were conquering a large part of the eastern half. There was just enough room left in between for the Safavid dynasty to flourish in Persia. Until the 1700s, these were powerful and wealthy dynasties, but it was not the same as before. Trade, travel, and scholarship were all in decline. After 1700, political decay set in. Out in the provincial areas, local warlords fought for control. 14

The Modern Transformation

    The modern transformation originated in Europe when peasant farmers were set free to use new methods to increase food production in a market environment. They learned new skills, developed new technology, and increased yields. Other forms of production took notice and began the same process of development. This modern transformation began slowly and took a long time to mature; the end result is democratic-market society. 15

     The peasant farmers of the Islamic world were unlikely to develop into market farmers on their own. In the irrigated river valleys with lots of sun, they were already getting much higher yields than European peasants could hope to achieve. In the large areas of dry-land farming, the success of the cereal crop was not under the farmer’s control. Market incentives were not the issue; everything depended on the rain. The peasants and commoners of the Islamic world were not going to achieve economic independence, create more wealth, and leverage that productive capability into a route to political power. They were not going to be the original innovators who would pioneer modern development. 16

    In the 19th century, Islamic leaders from Turkey to India tried to promote industry and introduce modern reforms. There was some success but not on a major scale. The fatalistic attitude of the traditional tribes may have been a factor. These very conservative people were not major innovators. They were used to rolling with the punches and trying to survive. 17

    The ancient ways would continue. Power would remain in the hands of whoever had the most capable army. At the end of the 19th century, that was the European imperialists. Most of the Islamic world came under the imperial dominance of Britain, France, and Russia. The modern transformation would not begin in earnest until after World War II.  18