Wednesday, September 2, 2015

Mongol Conquest on the Edge of Muslim Lands

I am reading Guy Burak's Second Formation of Islamic Law.  He brings us back to the Mamluk Sultanate, Ghengis Khan and his descendants, and the streamlining of Islamic law by the Ottomans after the 14th century. Significantly, he divides his history of Isalm into two eras of pre- and post-Mongol conquest.

The Mongol explosion across Eurasia in the 13th century neatly bisects the history of Islamic empire, from the founding of Islam to the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in World War I.
Mongolian Ger (or Yurt)
Here are some markers for this brush between the Islamic Empires and the Mongol Empire:

The Arab Conquest 632-655 A.D.

Starting in a small pocket around Mecca and Medina, following Mohammad's death in 632 A.D., his successors captured all of the Arabian Peninsula, the Levant, Persia, what are today Eastern Turkey and Iraq, and all of North Africa. And they accomplished this in just twenty years.  [Check out the incredibly cool 40 Maps that Explain the Middle East on Vox]

In the process, the Eastern Roman Empire lost Egypt, Palestine, and Syria and retreated to the Anatolian peninsula.

A word of caution is in order when looking at those snazzy Vox maps. Creating the culture that became the Arab Islamic world did not happen overnight. The transition in and out of empires is gradual, incremental. There's a lot more involved than the brief passing of marauding armies. [For a great read of the transition from the Western Roman Empire into the Holy Roman Empire, for example, see Peter Brown's Through the Eye of a Needle]

They say that in 647 A.D. an Arab force of 40,000 marched through North Africa for 15 months and captured Tripolitania. But at the end of this campaign the Arab forces returned to Egypt. Coloring all of North Africa "Islam" in the wake of this 15 months campaign, therefore, seems misleading and a bit premature.

The Rashidun Caliphate 632-661 A.D.

The Rashidun Caliphate refers to the first four caliphs of Islamic rule. The first three of these nominally conquered the empire: 
  • Abu Bakr (632-634)--The first caliph was Mohammad's father in law. He died of illness after a short reign;
  • Umar (634-644)--The second caliph was a senior companion of Mohammad, a great general, and an early Islamic scholar. He was assassinated by a Persian slave after the conquest of Persia;
  • Uthman (644--The third caliph was one of six men selected by Umar to appoint a successor caliph [it reminds me of G.W. Bush putting Dick Chaney in charge of finding a vice-presidential candidate]; he was also a   companion of Mohammad, albeit from a different tribe (the Quarysh); he completed the compilation of the Koran in Arabic; he was assassinated by rebels dissatisfied with his rule in 656; 
  • Ali (656-661)--Mohammad's cousin and son-in-law, who had been previously passed over as caliph, was finally elected as the fourth Rashidun caliph after Uthman's assassination; however, the empire was beset by civil strife in the wake of Uthman's assassination and Ali was in turn assassinated in 661. 

Sunnis and Shias

The assassination of Ali in 661 A.D. is what resulted in the schism between Sunni and Shia muslims. Shia derives from "Shiat Ali," the party of Ali.

Sunni-Shia split in Middle East
We normally hear that Shias are a small minority (15% of total Muslim population), but this is misleading if we focus only on the Middle East and Iran. Total muslim population in Middle East (excluding North Africa and Egypt) is less than 200 million according to a Pew study. Iran is counted as part of Asia, so if we include Iran, Muslim population for Middle East plus Iran is less than 300 million--and of this in excess of 100 million is Shia. In the Middle East plus Iran, Shia constitute 30-40% of the population. If the conflict today in the Middle East is largely a conflict between the Sunni Gulf States and Iran, the Shia-Sunni split we should keep in mind is closer to 65/35 (not 85/15). 

The Umayyad Dynasty 661-750 A.D.

The Umayyad family from Mecca (largely merchants) gained power under the third caliph Uthman. One member of the family was a long time governor of Syria, based in Damascus. After the muslim civil wars that resulted in the assassinations of Uthman and Ali, the Umayyad's managed to consolidate power and continue conquest, expanding the empire into the Caucuses and into Spain. The Umayyad's gradually weakened in the middle of the 8th century, beginning with a defeat by the Byzantine Empire in 717, and ending at the battle of the Great Zab River (Mesopotamia) where they lost to the rival Quarysh tribe from Mecca (the tribe of the third caliph Uthman). 

The Abbasid Dynasty 750-1517 A.D. 

After the battle at the Zab river in 750 A.D. the Abbasid's assumed the caliphate and ruled for 767 years. They established the city of Baghdad, which ushered in a Golden Age of Islam, with a flourishing of mathematics, science, philosophy, and religion, and which saw the translation of much of ancient Greek works into Arabic.  
Extent of Abbasid Empire ca. 850 A.D.
Spain and Morocco were ruled by an off-shoot of the Umayyads
This golden age ended with the sack of Bagdhad by the Mongols in 1258, including the destruction of Bagdad's great libraries. 

The Mongol Empire

The Mongols emerged from the steppes of central Asia under the leadership of Ghengis Khan and his descendants. Ghengis Khan (Temujin) assumed power in 1206 by uniting competing nomadic tribes in the steppes of Northeast Asia into a single political and military force. Together they embarked on a century of conquest and expansion. By 1215, they besieged and captured Bejing. By the time of his death in 1227, the Mongols had captured an empire that stretched from the Caspian sea to the Sea of Japan. Ghengis appointed a successor and divided the empire among his sons and grandsons.

Mongol Empire at the death of Ghengis Khan in 1227
By 1279 the empire reached its greatest extent from China to the Euphrates, to the Baltic Sea. Fifteen years later (1294) its western border had retreated to Ukraine.


As demonstrated by their siege of Bagdhad, the Mongols were not very nice. They demanded unconditional surrender and tribute payments, and they enforced this with utter destruction of anyone who failed to submit. Their success hinged on terror and fear, and they did their best to earn their reputation.
Re-enactment of Mongol warriors

The Mongol empire, and its successor entities, significantly increased the east-west transfer of goods, technologies, commodities, and ideologies across Eurasia.

By 1295 the Ilkhanate, in Persia and modern day Iraq converted to Islam.  By 1370 the ethnic Mongols pretty much retreated to what we still know as Mongolia. In their wake, the Ottoman empire  emerged.






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