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Monday, December 04, 2006

The Decline and Fall of Arab Civilization: The Influence of the Crusades and the Jihad

In a powerful look at the crusades from an Islamic perspective, Amin Maalouf asks pointedly:

"At the time of the crusades, the Arab world, from Spain to Iraq, was still the intellectual and material repository of the planet's most advanced civilization. Afterwards, the center of world history shifted decisively to the West. Is there a cause-and-effect relationship here? Can we go so far as to claim that the crusaders marked the beginning of the rise of Western Europe -- which would gradually come to dominate the world -- and sounded the death knell of Arab civilization?" (The Crusades Through Arab Eyes, p 261)

To which Maalouf answers with a qualified "yes": Islam was already suffering from certain weaknesses which the crusaders "exposed and aggravated, but by no means created" (ibid); the unmaking of Islamic civilization owed as much to Islam as it did to the crusaders. Let's see why.

The Abbasid caliphate based in Baghdad, at the height of artistic and scientific achievements in the 8th-9th centuries, lost control of its destiny in the 10th, when the rival Fatimid caliphate established itself in Cairo (969). Palestine and Syria were now caught between two dynasties -- the Shi'ites (Fatimids) of Egypt and Sunnis (Abbasids) of Iraq/Iran. Then in the 11th century, the Abbasids became virtual puppets when the Seljuks of Turkey (converts to Sunnism) conquered Iraq/Iran, and were "welcomed" by the Abbasid caliph (1055). From this point on, the Abbasids would be dominated by foreigners (Turks and Kurds), unable to nurture the achievements of their earliest years.

"Dominated, oppressed, and derided, aliens in their own land, the Arabs were unable to continue to cultivate the cultural blossoms that had begun to flower in the seventh century. By the epoch of the arrival of the [crusaders], they were already marking time, content to live on their past glories... Their decline had begun." (Ibid, p 262)

But their decline continued -- even after they were reunited by the end of the twelfth century. Saladin (a Kurd) succeeded in overthrowing the Fatimid Caliphate in 1171, established his new Ayyubid dynasty in Cairo, and in another fifteen years wrested control of key cities: Damascus (1174), Aleppo (1183), and Mosul (1186), finally with the "blessings" of the Abbasid caliph. With the Muslim world in his fist, he could now take Jerusalem back from the crusaders, which he did in the fateful year of 1187. And yet, despite this new unity,

"The Muslim world turned in on itself. It became over-sensitive, defensive, intolerant, sterile -- attitudes that grew steadily worse as world-wide evolution continued. Henceforth progress was the embodiment of 'the other'. Modernism became alien." (Ibid, p 264)

What led to this stagnation of Islam? The very thing which led to its reunification under Saladin: the jihad revival, in reaction to the success of the First Crusade (1099). This didn't happen overnight. Christopher Tyerman explains:

"Jihad rhetoric and action came partly in consequence of a religious revival, partly because it was good politics. The qadi of Aleppo, Ibn al-Khashshab, who organized resistance to Frankish attacks in 1118 and 1124, urged a principled stand against the infidel. During the campaign leading to the defeat of Roger of Antioch at the Field of Blood in 1119, Ibn al-Khashshab rode through the Muslim lines 'spear in hand' preaching the virtues of jihad, the novelty of such clerical interference causing some resentment. A generation later, such clerical cheerleading would have seemed normal." (God's War: A New History of the Crusades, p 271)

Indeed, by the 1140s the jihad was effectively underway. The warrior Zengi demolished the crusader County of Edessa (1144), prompting in turn the Second Crusade. Contemporaries portrayed him as a champion of the jihad, and his son Nur al-Din explicitly invoked it in his own war against crusaders and Muslim rivals. Saladin brought the jihad to its fruition, taking back Jerusalem (1187) and calling forth the Third Crusade. Islam was now reunified, but the Abbasids remained puppets, ineffective and powerless; in 1258 the caliphate was finally destroyed by the Mongols, who in turn were countered by the new and highly centralized Mamluk dynasty (more militant than even Saladin's Ayyubids). It wasn't long before the crusaders themselves were expelled for good in 1291.

The decline and fall of Arabic civilization, then, owed to its fragmentation in the 10th-11th centuries (which the crusaders exploited), and then its reunification under jihadist regimes in the 12th-13th centuries (in reaction to the crusaders, and which the crusaders couldn't hope to prevail against for long). It's a great irony that the Muslim world reacquired the holy lands at the expense of its cultural sophistication, while Christendom, as it relinquished those lands, was able to take from abroad and propel itself into the Renaissance.

In the next post, we will look at the jihad a bit more and see how it differed from the crusades in theory and practice.


Andrew Criddle said...

The overthrow of the Abbasid caliphate in 1258 is the responsibility of the Mongols not the Mamluks.

The importance of Genghis and his heirs for the weakening of Islam in the 13th century was very important.


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