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Religion and Society


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Chapter 13: Islam in the Heartlands and Beyond, ca 1000-1600 AD


Religion and Society


Consolidation of Sunni Orthodoxy: After the breakdown of the Caliphate's power in the 10th century, the ulama (Shi'ite and Sunni) became the entrenched power elite of the Moslem communities. From the 11th century on, this was institutionalized through the madrasa, Islamic colleges of higher learning. Madrasa functioned as support organizations for semi-independent teachers who certified their personal students in studied subjects. Despite theological disputes, Moslems defined group identity in terms of what was done—orthopraxy (correct practice)—rather than what was believed. This was defined by the legal scholars of the ulama, rather than the theologians. By 1000 AD, a basic Sunni orthopraxy had set in and scholars became conservative about adjusting it.

Sufi Piety and Organization: Sufi piety stresses the spiritual and mystical dimensions of Islam, focusing on simplicity and humility and the godly life. Some focused on asceticism, others on devotionalism, both with the same goal of mystic union with the divine. By the 11th century, international Sufi brotherhoods developed which shared distinctive mystical teaching, Qur'anic interpretation and devotional practice.

Consolidation of Shi'ite Traditions: Between the 10th and 12th century, Shi'ite tradition took on its long term shape. Two major groups of Shi'ites emerged:

Seveners/Isma'illis: They recognized only 7 Imams, ending with Isma'il. They were often revolutionary groups. Sevener Shi'a focused on mystical traditions and esoteric meanings of the Qu'ran and traditions. The Fatmid Empire in Egypt from the 10th to the 12th century was the political apogee of Sevener Islam.

Twelver Shi'a/Ithna-'Ashariyya: They recognized twelve Imams and tended to interpret the Qu'ran and tradition rather more literally than Seveners. They form the Shi'ite majority (80% today) and are strongest in Iran, where they became the state religion under the Safavids in the 16th century. Twelvers assigned the same authority to traditions derived from the Twelve Imams as from Mohammed, thus embracing various traditions not part of Sunni Islam. In Twelver eschatology, Muhammad ibn Hasan ibn Ali, or al-Mahdi (مهدي transliteration: Mahdī, also Mehdi; "Guided One"), is the twelfth Imam and the Mahdi, the ultimate savior of mankind and prophesied redeemer of Islam. According to authenticated hadith, al-Mahdi will change the world into a perfect and just Islamic society alongside Jesus before Yaum al-Qiyamah (literally "Day of the Resurrection" or "Day of the Standing").
Regional Developments

The Islamic West--Spain and Northern Africa: From 756 on, the Umayyad dynasty ruled Spain from Cordoba; in the tenth century, the city hit its peak as a center of Islamic culture, art, trade, and scholarship. After the death of Abd al-Rhaman III (912-961 AD), however, Spanish Islam broke up into squabbling states which the Christians of Spain began to slowly suppress one by one. By 1085, Christians controlled half the peninsula.

The Almoravid and Almohads: These two Moslem revival movements reunited Spain against the Christians. In 1086, the Morrocan warrior brotherhood, the Almoravids, conquered Moslem Spain and initiated another cycle of wars with the Christians. In 1147-1225, another such brotherhood, the Almohads, controlled northwestern Africa and southern Spain as a Moslem state. They stimulated a revival of Moslem culture in the area. Spain produced three great intellectuals at this time:

Ibn-Rushd (Arabic: ابن رشد), known as Averroes (1126 – December 10, 1198 AD), was an Andalusian-Arab philosopher, physician, and polymath: a master of philosophy, Islamic law, astronomy, mathematics, medicine, physics, and science. He was born in Cordoba, Spain, and died in Marrakech, Morocco. His most important original philosophical work was The Incoherence of the Incoherence (Tahafut al-tahafut), in which he defended Aristotelian philosophy against al-Ghazali's claims in The Incoherence of the Philosophers (Tahafut al-falasifa). Al-Ghazali argued that Aristotelianism, especially as presented in the writings of Avicenna, was self-contradictory and an affront to the teachings of Islam. Averroes' rebuttal was two-pronged: he contended both that al-Ghazali's arguments were mistaken and that, in any case, the system of Avicenna was a distortion of genuine Aristotelianism so that al-Ghazali was aiming at the wrong target.His school of philosophy is known as Averroism. Averroes attempted to reconcile Aristotle's system of thought with Islam. According to him, there is no conflict between religion and philosophy, rather that they are different ways of reaching the same truth. He believed in the eternity of the universe. He also held that the soul is divided into two parts, one individual and one divine; while the individual soul is not eternal, all humans at the basic level share one and the same divine soul. Averroes has two kinds of Knowledge of Truth. The first being his knowledge of truth of religion being based in faith and thus could not be tested, nor did it require training to understand. The second knowledge of truth is philosophy, which was reserved for an elite few who had the intellectual capacity to undertake its study. He has been described as the founding father of secular thought in Western Europe.

Ibn Arabi (Arabic: أبن عربي), was an Arab Muslim mystic and philosopher. He is sometimes described as a mystical philosopher. Even in his lifetime he was acknowledged to be one of the most important spiritual teachers within Sufism, the mystical tradition of Islam. His emphasis, as with any mystic, lay rather on the true potential of the human being and the path to realising that potential, which reaches its completion in the Perfect or Complete Man (al-insan al-kamil). Ibn Arabi wrote at least 300 works, ranging from minor treatises to the huge 37-volume Meccan Revelations (al-Futuhat al-Makkiyya) and the quintessence of his teachings, The Seals of Wisdom (Fusus al-hikam). He was born 1165 in Murcia and died 1240 in Damascus.

Moses Maimonides (March 30, 1135 Córdoba, Spain – December 13, 1204 Fostat, Egypt) was a Jewish rabbi, physician, and philosopher in Andalusia, Morocco and Egypt during the Middle Ages. He was one of the various medieval Jewish philosophers who also influenced the non-Jewish world, especially the Christian Scholastics. Maimonides strove to reconcile Aristotelian philosophy and science with the teachings of the Torah. Although his copious works on Jewish law and ethics were initially met with opposition during his lifetime, he was posthumously acknowledged to be one of the foremost rabbinical arbiters and philosophers in Jewish history. Today, his works and his views are considered a cornerstone of Jewish thought and study.

The Islamic West: Egypt and the Eastern Mediterranean World

The Fatmids: The Shi'ite Fatmids were the strongest Islamic power in the central to eastern Mediterranean from the 10th to the 12th century. They claimed descent from Mohammed's daughter Fatima (as did the Shi'ite Imams through her marriage to Ali). They began as a Tunisian dynasty, then conquered Morocco, Sicily and Egypt by 969 AD. They founded Cairo to serve as their capital. They took the title of Caliph, so now there were three rival Caliphs: Cordoba, Baghdad, and Cairo. They were Sevener Shi'a. For a time, they seized wetern Arabia and most of Syria.

The Isma'ili Assassins: Founded around 1100 AD by a Fatmid defector in Iran. Based at the mountain fortress of Alamut, they were an esoteric, mystical sect who were noted for their use of Hashish and for their assassination of Crusader leaders and those Moslems they disapproved of. Most Moslems saw them as crazed heretics. Hulaghu Khan of the Mongols destroyed them in 1256 AD.

Decline and Fall: In 1171, the Fatmids were conquered by Saladin, a servant of Nur al-Din, the ruler of Syria. After Nur's death, Saladin built up his own state along the eastern coast of the Mediterranean, partly by crushing the Crusader states. Saladin imposed Sunni Islam on Egypt.

The Mamluks(1250-1517 AD): This system of slave soldiers originated in 9th century Baghdad. The mamluk system gave rulers troops who had no link to any established power structure. The local warriors were often more loyal to their tribal sheiks, their families or nobles other than the sultan or caliph. If some commander conspired against the ruler, it was often not possible to deal with him without causing unrest among the nobility. The slave-troops were strangers of the lowest possible status who could not conspire against the ruler and who could easily be punished if they caused trouble, making them a great military asset. Mamluks were frequently used as mercenaries.

Saladin's descendents increasingly surrounded themselves with Mamluks; after the failure of his dynasty to stop Saint Louis, King of France's attack on Egypt in 1249-50, the Mamluks took over Egypt, then stood off the Mongols in 1260. The Mamluk state was semi-feudal, made up of fiefs controlled by the officers of the army. Sultan Baybars (1260-77) crushed the last of the Crusaders and set up a puppet Caliph of the Abassid line in Egypt. Years of prosperity and conquest followed, until the Black Plague devasted their state in the 1340s. They lasted until Ottoman conquest in 1517.



Architecture was the most magnificent Mamluk bequest to posterity. They were also great patrons of scholars.

The Islamic East—Before the Mongol Conquests: The Iranian dynasties of the Samanids at Bukhara (875-999 AD) and the Buyids at Baghdad (945-1055 AD) were the major usurpers of the eastern Abbasid dominions. They reflected the general rise of regional states which hollowed out the Caliphate. They fell in turn to rising Turkish groups which now came to take over many states, such as the Seljuks who replaced the Buyids. They became very zealous Sunni Muslims.

The Ghaznavids: In the far east, the Ghaznavids replaced the Samanids. They conquered part of India, bringing Muslim culture there as a lasting presence. Their greatest leader, Mahmud of Ghazna (998-1030 AD) ruled from western Iran to the Oxus and Indus rivers. He also drew many scholars and artists to his court.

The Seljuk Turks (1055-1194 AD): The Seljuks were a steppe clan who took Baghdad in 1055 and essentially took control of the remnants of the Baghdad Caliphate. Their leader, Tughril Beg (1037-1063) took the title of Sultan ("Authority"), allowing nominal Caliphs to lead in religious affairs while he took temporal power. This division would henceforth become common (and resembled the Shogun / Emperor split in Japan). The Seljuks pushed west into Anatolia, taking it from the Byzantines, and east to secure Iran. They also took control of the eastern Mediterranean and the western coast of Arabia. For a time, new roads were built, canals dug, mosques founded and science and learning patronized.

Al-Ghazali: Abu Hāmed Mohammad ibn Mohammad al-Ghazzālī (1058-1111) (Persian: ابو حامد محمد ابن محمد الغزالی), known as Algazel to the western medieval world, born and died in Tus, in the Khorasan province of Persia (modern day Iran). He was a Muslim theologian, jurist, philosopher, and mystic of Persian origin and remains one of the most celebrated scholars in the history of Islamic thought. Al-Ghazali contributed significantly to the development of a systematic view of Sufism and its integration and acceptance in mainstream Islam. He was a scholar of orthodox Islam, belonging to the Shafi'i school of Islamic jurisprudence and to the Asharite school of theology. Ghazali received many titles such as Sharaful A'emma (Arabic: شرف الائمه), Zainuddin (Arabic: زین الدین), Hujjatul Islam, meaning "Proof of Islam" (Arabic: حجة الاسلام). Ghazali wrote more than 70 books on Islamic sciences, Philosophy and Sufism. His 11th century book titled The Incoherence of the Philosophers marks a major turn in Islamic epistemology, as Ghazali effectively discovered philosophical skepticism that would not be commonly seen in the West until René Descartes, George Berkeley and David Hume. The encounter with skepticism led Ghazali to embrace a form of theological occasionalism, or the belief that all causal events and interactions are not the product of material conjunctions but rather the immediate and present will of God. The Incoherence also marked a turning point in Islamic philosophy in its vehement rejections of Aristotle and Plato. The book took aim at the falasifa, a loosely defined group of Islamic philosophers from the 8th through the 11th centuries (most notable among them Avicenna and Al-Farabi) who drew intellectually upon the Ancient Greeks. Ghazali bitterly denounced Aristotle, Socrates and other Greek writers as non-believers and labeled those who employed their methods and ideas as corrupters of the Islamic faith.

The Islamic East: The Mongol Age

Mongols and Ilkhanids (1261-1335 AD): Under Genghis Khan, the Mongols overran the far eastern Muslim states. Then in the 1250s, Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis, led Mongol forces west through Iran, conquering it. In 1258, he took Baghdad, sacked it, and deposed the Caliph. His rivalry with his kinsma Berke, ruler of the Khanate of the Golden Horde (located in Southern Russia) slowed his advance, and the Mamluks defeated him in 1260 in Palestine. Hulagu pledged fealty to the Great Khan in China and ruled Iran and Mesopotamia as the viceroy (Il-Khan) of the Great Khan, as did his descendents. They ruled tolerantly and eventually converted to Islam. After 1335, their state began to decay.

Timurids and Turkomans: This situation opened the way for a new Turko-Mongol conquest from Transoxiana, under Timur-i Lang ("Timur the Lame", or Tamerlane, 1336-1405 AD). His savage campaigns (1379-1405) wrecked havoc in central asia, killing millions of Nestorian Christians and many others also. In his wake, from Moscow to India, Mesopotamia to central Asia, he left destruction, chaos, and death. He was the last of the great Steppe Nomad conquerors, for the gun now arose, ending their age. His descendents, the Timurids, ruled Iran and Transoxiana from 1405-1494. Turkoman dynasties ruled western Iran.

The Spread of Islam Beyond the Heartlands: Islam between 1000 to 1500 now spread into new areas. India, Malaysia and Indonesia all became major centers of Islamic political and commercial power, though often it was Moslems ruling over populations which retained older traditions.

Merchants: In Southern India, Moslem merchants settled to conduct the Indian Ocean trade.

Moslem warriors vs. Rajputs: Moslem conquerors of India spent centuries fighting the Hindu warrior group, the Rajputs, eventually defeating them because of their inability to unite against the Moslems.

Moslem States in South Asia:

Dehli Sultanate: From the 1200s to the 1400s, a series of dynasties ruled portions of India under Moslem rule from the city of Delhi, despite Tamerlane's invasion in the late 14th century.

Bahmanids (1347-1527 AD): This Moslem state in south-central India (The Deccan), founded by a revolt against the Dehli Sultanate, was a center of culture and art. The Bahmani contested the control of the Deccan with the Hindu Vijayanagara empire to the south. The sultanate reached the peak of its power during the vizierate (1466–1481) of Mahmud Gawan. The Bahmanis were responsible for large scale massacres and slaughter of the south Indian Hindu population and destruction of temples, often overshadowing the atrocities conducted by Turks and Mughals in north India. After 1518, it began collapsing into five states.

Indonesia: Islam spread erratically along trade routes into modern Indonesia. Many localized traditions challenged and discarded aspects of traditional Sunni orthopraxy—the Haj (Pilgrimage to Mecca) was discarded by some as an Arab practice unncessary to the faith. Some traditions mixed native sorcery and superstition with Islam. Conflicts between urban coastal rulers and interior chieftans became entangled with conflicts over orthopraxy.
Religious and Cultural Accomodation: Islam was strongest in Northern India and the Deccan. By 1500, it had become well established in India. The ruling class were Muslim Persianized Turks and Afghans, but some lower level folk also converted. Ghazis ("warriors") spread Islam by force of arms; others spread it more peacefully, especially in the lower classes by the Sufis. Indian society treated Muslims as seperate castes. Persian was the language of intellectual and cultural life for the Moslem elites. This period also saw the rise of a new language which combined Perso-Arabic and Indian elements—Urdu-Hindi. Urdu-Hindi developed to create a way for the invading Moslems and the native Indians to communicate. Moslem and Indian piety influenced each other. Sufi piety and Hindu bhakti had similar elements and various thinkers tried to reconcile the two systems of religion.
Hindu and Other Indian Traditions: Moslem conquests wiped out what remained of Indian Buddhism. Hindu religion continued to flourish. Vaishnava Brahman Ramanuja (d.1137) provided a theological basis for reconciliation of bhakti with the Upanashadic religious tradition. The goal of proving the Vedantic legitimacy of the popular conception of a personal deity and a genuine personal identity essentially characterizes Ramanuja's project. Bhakti piety undergirded the 12th century masterpiece of Hindu love poetry, Jayadeva's Gita Govinda, which is devoted to Krishna, the most popular of Vishnu's avatars. The Gita Govinda ("Song of the Cowherd") is a work composed in the 12th century by the great poet, Jayadeva of Puri, Orissa. It describes the relationship between Krishna and the gopis (cowgirls) of Vrindavana, and in particular one gopi named Radha. What the Gita Govinda presented was a completely changed perception of Vaishnavism (Vishnu worship). It neither looked for a divine aura nor for a monarchical frame, which had so far defined its Vaishnava God or even Krishna as one of the Vaishnava incarnations. Jayadeva had seen that Indian kingship, once possessed of divine aura, was unable to sustain against Islamic onslaught and was fast waning. Maybe, he hence thought it better to separate his God from this monarchical frame and let Him be one like masses. This not only humanised Him but also turned an abstract concept into a living reality that one could feel and realise. The Gita Govinda hence wove its theme around Krishna, its hero, who it conceived as a humble cattle-grazing cowherd, very much like others, and enshrined in him Vaishnava Godship. This transformed Vaishnavism into a thing of masses. Contrary to Puranic position, the Gita Govinda attributes all Vaishnava incarnations to Krishna, not Vishnu. Here Krishna is seen as the prime manifestation of God incarnating in various forms. Each incarnation has a specific role but Krishna hasn't any, not even his crusade against evil forces.


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