Part II: Islam’s Late Antiquity

This essay is part II of a three-part series on “Dawn of the Modern World“. Read Part I, here, and part III, here.

Dawn of the Modern World, Part II: Islam’s Late Antiquity

Just as conventional historiography has typically downplayed the ease with which the philosophical schools of late antiquity segued into the Church Fathers, so it has overplayed the disruption of Islam on seventh-century society. This is because the Arabs’ evangelism was achieved mainly via the sword, a novel means after Judaism’s tribal genesis and Christianity’s martyrs.

Ultimately Islam looks, walks, and talks like a nationalised Judaism for Arabs. Its universalist aspect is almost accidental; a by-product of its semi-unique element: the call to jihad (striving/war).[1] While pagans get short shrift in the Qur’an – a laconic menu of “conversion or death” — several passages argue that non-violence is the best way of dealing with Ahl- al-Kitab “People of the Book” i.e. their monotheistic cousins.[2] These are abrogated, however, by later militant excerpts in which Muslims are urged that the path of God involves war on non-Muslims and that those shirk this duty fail Allah.[3]

During Mohammad’s life, these verses operated (and justified his actions) in an Arabian setting. After his death in 632, however, jihad took his followers across the Levant (642) to Tangier (703) and Narbonne (719). This whirlwind of conquests (the last major victory was Taormina in 902) was halted only by the Spanish (Cantabrian and Iberian) mountains in the West, the Taurus in the East, and the Ferghana range in the Far East.

In the Far East, Talas (751) proved imperialism’s effort-to-gain ratio stopped making sense east of Islam’s barracks, Khorasan. In the Levant, Constantinople’s formidable power was begrudgingly acknowledged. Heraklios, for instance, was admired as a great emperor whose triumph against Iran was supposedly predicted in the Surat al-Rum. In Spain, however, the Christians were deemed barbaric mountain folk who pushed down from Leon and Burgos like slurry through a gutter (not that this haughty self-image prevented intermarriage between the Umayyads and the princesses of Pamplona).[4]

Though the prospect of total victory faded, caliphs upheld their credibility among the ummah by launching symbolic jihad. Al-Mu’tasim, for example, came to the throne by coup d’etat and so sacked Amorion (birthplace of the emperor Theophilos) largely as a flex in 838. Likewise, Muslims razed Santiago de Compostella (another highly symbolic target) in 999.

The pendulum had swung, however. The Eastern Romans took Malatya (934), Tarsus (965), and Antioch (969). Indeed, matters got so bad that armies of volunteers from Khorasan — who demanded that the tide be reversed through jihad — had to be crushed by the Buyids in 966.[5] Worse, riots in Baghdad demanded the caliph lead them in jihad (972).[6] And the political climate looked no better on the other side of the Mediterranean. After the fragmentation of the Cordoba caliphate into factions, the Christians became mercenaries with a danegeld dynamic and took to demanding ever greater quantities of tribute in cash (or even land) from the Taifa rulers in return for their services.

Far from the bookends of the ummah, anarchical bands of Muslims tried their luck. Muslim outlaws took Crete in 827, though it was retaken in 961.[7] Another force set up a pirate base at Fraxinetum in Provence in 891 which operated until 973. Another “emirate” was established at the mouth of the Garigliano river in 881 which – despite raiding prestige sites like Monte Cassino in 883 – survived until 915.[8] These were flies around the cow’s tail, however, compared to the conquests of previous centuries.

To return to the original point, being successful at war hardly disqualifies Islam from late antiquity. Neither does monotheism. In fact, both are leitmotifs of the period. The Arabs, too, had been part of the Middle East’s fabric for as long as anybody could remember.[9] So why do historians take it as axiomatic that Islam knocked the kneecaps off the first civilised chapter of Mediterranean history?

In large part, the answer relies on the fact that — despite belonging to the Mediterranean world for extended intervals — the Arabs took their high culture from Iran rather than Rome.[10] Worse, their low culture was inherited from the jahiliya (pre-Islamic Arabia) with its cult of poetry and warriors, its fierce loyalty to kith and kin.[11] A double (Arabic/Persian) linguistic barrier was therefore erected and it placed even Christian intellectuals (such as Theodore Abu Qurra) and scholars (like Agapius of Manbij) behind it.[12]

Western sullenness at this cultural denouement means it feels justified at dealing all sorts of historiographical sleights of hand. The major one being to compare the Levant of the Abbasids to that of the House of Constantine instead of, say, the Bilad al-Sham of Mu’awiya to the Syria of Heraklios. It’s news to nobody that four centuries (the same interval as Elizabeth II from James I) produces more divergence than two decades.

There’s the sentiment that Arabs were parvenus, too. In other words, the suspicion that — despite the fact their conquest was neither particularly violent nor destructive for the standards of the time — they should never have had the temerity to engage in the enterprise in the first place. Sure, the Persian invasions (602-28) were far more hellish but at least their hell had pedigree.

Caricatures of the Arabs as simpletons on camels have led to all sorts of misconceptions about the conquests. Most of the conquerors were not nomads, for instance, but came from the settled areas of Yemen. They lived in stone towns on terraced mountainsides. Others came from highly irrigated cultures that had produced wonders of the ancient world such as the Marib dam. These were often men who were more acquainted with the lords of Himyar and Dhu Raydan than the Bedouin life. And they fought in Islamic armies that battled mostly on foot, not horseback.

Perhaps it was the novelty of the initial Islamic tax system that struck a discordant note with historians. Structured around booty from war against the kafir, jizya from the dhimmi (non-Muslims) and the ‘ushr (tithe) that wealthy Muslims had to pay for widows and orphans, it admittedly created confessional chattel on a remarkable scale. It was based on the idea that if the Arabs were to retain their culture and elite status then they had to settle as a (parasitical) class of hereditary pensioners in new cities known as amsar. Famous amsar include Kufa, Basra, Fustat, Qayrawan and Jabiya.[13] This caste lived off their subject peoples through ata‘ (gifts/salaries) and rizq (supplies).[14]

Membership to this exclusive club meant one’s name was recorded on the diwan (register). The politics surrounding these documents caused the caliph some of his biggest headaches. The major problem was that the diwan was hereditary and based on sabiqa (precedence based on actions during conquest and to a lesser extent pre-Islamic status). This status quo was accepted by the first generation, of course. But as time passed and these privileges were handed down the generations, they became frustrated at being financially frozen with the status of their grandparents. Worse, few military virtues were passed down these generations so that within a remarkably short period the corps had morphed from world conquerors into corrupt archetypes of the eighteenth-century janissaries i.e. only taking up arms to defend their privileges.[15]

The localism of the diwan (register) and fay (assets conquered)[16] also meant that no matter how impressive the Arabic empire looked on a map, only a tiny fraction of tax was channeled to the caliph.[17] This led the Umayyads to hire (usually Bedouin) private armies and buy up diya (estates) to shore up their position.[18] The Abbasids – unable to recruit from the same tribes[19] thanks to their support for the opposition – went outside the Islamic world and employed Turkic mercenaries.

More seriously, the ‘ata (gifts the diwan bestowed) was not affordable in the medium-term. Not only did those entitled to receive ‘ata increase with each generation but new demographics were continually integrated in order to co-opt groups for political reasons. Revolts then shook the empire as governors found themselves unable to pay the ‘ata. And ultimately Islamic rulers had to reverse their tax positions. Moving away from the diwan, they shifted back into the fold of typical superpower tax systems and (by the end of the eighth century) demanded the kharaj (land-tax) from land-owners – a very late antique device.[20]

If taxes eventually normalised, perhaps Islam’s real imposition on late antiquity was the mosque; that great inversion of the Byzantine genius. Designed to celebrate the Trinity, it perversely proliferated under the crescent to glorify tawhid (one-ness of God) instead. The mosque also becomes associated with a notional upheaval in which a Hippodamian heaven of fora, temples, theatres, baths, and colonnaded streets was assaulted by narrow streets, private courtyards, mosques, madrasas, funduqs, and suqs; the architectural equivalent of a weasel-eyed street-urchin, an evil Aladdin.

This urban transformation had older roots than Islam, however. Civic autonomy, for example, had evaporated between Aurelian and Constantine. Christianity had closed the temples. The monumental baths fell into disuse as budgets or tastes allowed for much smaller alternatives. Even the theatres that still hosted performances tended to specialise more in acclamations, grievances, or punishments i.e. public politics rather than drama. In sum, urban planning adjusted from representing an aggressive, decentralised pagan society to a defensive, centralised Christian one.[21]

Islam simply pushed this logic to its extreme.[22] The streets narrowed as pack animals and porters replaced wheeled vehicles. Churches gave way to mosques. The political functions (such as the recitation of the ba’ya, the oath of allegiance) of the theatre were transferred to the mosque. The sanctity of family resulted in residences turned inwards. Finally, it is no coincidence that the Islamic hammam resembles nothing quite so much as a sixth-century Byzantine bath.

Many cultures that frame their counterparts as antagonists have their hatred ironed out by tourism or trade. But apart from occasional visits by pilgrims (such as Arculf[23] and Willibald[24]) and the occasional monastery,[25] the Levant was only known to the West through biblical reference points. The irony being that when tourism received a real uptick (from 1000 onwards) it heralded a crusade.

Worse, when it came to trade the only thing the West possessed that Islam wanted was slaves — preferably of the occidental variety — sold mainly in Venice.[26] A fact that produced farcical diplomatic exchanges such as when the Margravine Bertha of Tuscany — looking to butter al-Muktafi up in 902 — struggled to think of anything she could add to her gift of Slavic ladies, and eventually had to settle on some swords. The pious fiction that enslavement was fine in the West because the victims were pagan Slavs was threadbare, too, as a travel account by the Bernard the Monk makes clear. In his Itinerarium, he recounts how he took a ship bound from Taranto to Alexandria with nine thousand Christian captives who’d been taken in raids on Italy.[27]

Despite the above, perhaps Islam’s iconoclasm is a better answer as to why it was jettisoned from late antiquity. While Judaism sustained similar beliefs, its aniconism was insular and rarely affected society at large. In Islam’s hands it was a different creature. Quite apart from the friction caused when Muslims assaulted icons and processions, iconoclasm was often the most convenient casus belli for Islamic violence in general. Examples include efforts to forcibly convert Christian Bedouin and the eruption of riots around churches and monasteries — the worst occurring after the death of caliph Harun al-Rashid in 809.

The death of this caliph also signalled the arrival of another stage of ‘otherness’ in the Islamic identity. In the civil war that followed al-Rashid’s demise, the Abbasids were only able to re-establish their rule by recruiting Turkic and Iranian horsemen from the Steppes. Most of these new troops were mounted horse-archers. Deadly on the battlefield and expensive off it, not only was their image[28] foreign to the West but their involvement in politics — namely, taking caliphs hostage in their complex at Samarra — was inimical to the feudal loyalty valued there too.[29]

With the caliphs reduced to puppets, the empire frayed at the seams. Provinces such as Khorasan drifted away, never to return. Egypt had to be reconquered (and even then its yields evaporated). Perhaps most devastating was the Zanj revolt in the Sawad — the jewel of the empire — where East Africans (who cleared salt off the fields) caused chaos for fourteen years (869-883), even sacking Basra. Worse, the salinization of the soil (caused by continuous irrigation and lack of proper drainage) accelerated. All these trends collapsed the tax base, which rulers tried to reverse by handing out state revenues and assets as iqta’ (tax fiefs) to generals. As a result, all control was lost over both the collection of taxes and payments of salaries. Marking in a very real sense an end to the Islamic chapter of late antiquity.

Read Part III: From Pirate-State to Third Rome: The Ethnogenesis of the Rus
1 I’ve qualified “unique” because a doctrine of crusading is discernible in Heraklios’ reign. “Unique” is still the correct word, however, because neither the Torah nor Bible explicitly states that violence is a religious duty unlike the Qur’an (see T. M. Kolbaba, “Fighting for Christianity,” Byzantion, Vol. 68, No. 1 [1998] 194-221). 2 R. Firestone, Jihad (1999) 69-73. 3 Ibid. 84-91. 4 Similarly, many of the Abbasid caliphs were sons of Byzantine concubines. Indeed, there is no record of high-status Muslim women having relations with Christians until Zaida and Alfonso VI’s relationship at the end of the eleventh century. 5 Ibn Miskawayk, Eclipse (1921) I, 234-42. 6 Ibid. 326-28. 7 These reprobates had been expelled from Al-Andalus and then from Alexandria. Their polity sustained itself by indulging in slave raids and sales. 8 The West’s states were often too at odds with one another to provide the Church with any coherent power. In the case of Garigliano, the cities of Gaeta and Amalfi were more concerned with upholding their independence and sustaining their trading opportunities with the Muslims to make a war against the latter viable. It was not until Pope John X (at the head of an army from the papal states) teamed up with the Eastern Roman Empire (which sent its general Nicholas Epigingles with another army) that the Muslim statelet perished at the Battle of Garigliano (915). 9 The historical peoples of these areas were divided by language into Greek, Syriac (a north Syrian and Mesopotamian version of the Aramaic lingua franca of the ancient Near East which also developed as a literary language) and Arabic speakers (who mostly inhabited the desert margins but also places like Damascus and Hira). Greek was mainly spoken in settlements along the Med coast, Syriac in the hinterland. Jews also had large contingents in Antioch, Edessa and the towns of Galillee, the Golan and southern Palestine. While the Samaritans’ HQ was Neopolis/Nablus. 10 A cultural heritage – perpetuated by the dehqan landowners that remained when the Yazdigird III fled east – that reached a triumphant conclusion in Firdausi’s Shahnama c. 1000. Its place at the Islamic table was secure thanks to the desire rulers had to absorb the previous Persian tax administration so it could get the most out of important resources like the awad of Iraq, which had once been dil Iranshahr (the heart of Iran). 11 Collections of poems and legends relating to the ayyam, the “days” or battles of the pre-Islamic tribes were venerated almost as much as Mohammad himself. This corpus was to the Arabs what the pagan equivalent was to the Christian world. 12 See S. H. Griffith, Arabic Christianity in the Monasteries of Ninth-Century Palestine (1992). 13 Interestingly, Jabiya was never settled in large numbers. Muslims in Syria preferred to inhabit the ancient cities like Damascus, Homs and Qinnasrin. This was probably because Syria had been partially Arabised. Many of the conquerors, for instance, came from tribes already resident in Syria or its frontiers such as the Kalb of the Palmyrena or the Lakhm and Judahm of southern Palestine. 14 The fattest calf was the sawad of Iraq, which contributed roughly four times as much revenue as its nearest competitor, Egypt (see H. Kennedy, “The Middle East in Late Antiquity,” Fiscal Regimes [2015] 391). It had been conquered by tribesmen from northern and eastern Arabia who joined the Islamic force at a relatively late stage and continued to emigrate after the battles had been won in order to win booty in the campaigns against Iran. These were very different Arabs to those of the Quraysh and other tribes of the Hijaz who formed the elite of early Islamic society. 15 Sanctioned by no less a figure than caliph Umar I, the system was seen not just as part of the conqueror’s dunya (earthly rights) but their din (religion). Arabs waxed lyrical about the payments but were reluctant to provide the corollary military service. In 695, for example, a fellow was brought before al-Hajjaj for claiming he was too ill to go on jihad and that he’d happily return his salary to the treasury. Al- Hajjaj, however, was not in a good mood and had him executed (Al-Tabari, Ta’rikh, II, 858). 16 When al-Mukhtar wished to recruit mawali into his ranks (mawla was used at this stage to refer to freedmen or non-Arabs who attached themselves as clients to Arab tribes to become part of the Muslim community. It died out at end of Umayyad period as word acquired other meanings) Ibn Muti’ rallied crowds of Arabs against him, saying “Oh people, these people are fewer than you and wicked in religion. Go out against them, defend your women, fight to protect your misr (territory) and defend your fay (assets)” (Al-Tabari, Ta’rikh, II, 627). 17 Dennett, for instance, estimated that no more than five per cent of the revenue of Egypt was forwarded to Damascus in the reign of Marwan II (d. 750). Indeed, Arab politics often revolved around powerful men trying to gain further office by adding new names to the local registers. In 683 for example ibn Ziyad, in seeking to take over Basra, claimed that he had increased the number of the Basrans recorded on the diwan from 70,000 to 80,000. Others squabbled over who had the futm, the right to recruit young men to the diwan. Some even dangled the prospect of a place on the diwan as bait to get men to join unpopular military campaigns (Al-Tabari, Ta’rikh, II, 463-44; 1020). 18 For example, there were 5,000 Dhakwaniya commanded by the mawla Muslim ibn Dhakwan and raised by the Umayyad prince Sulayman ibn Hisham (Al-Tabari, Ta’rikh, II, 1871-82). 19 The tribes of pre-Islamic Arabia had their genealogies written up and elaborated in great detail in the eighth century, with thousands of names supposedly arranged with their correct precedence like a giant decentralised Debretts. This erudition gave a spurious clarity to the question of nomad descent. 20 The development of a new professional standing army led the governor of Iraq, al-Hajjaj, to feel able to send his forces into difficult regions such as eastern Sistan and Zabulistan. The treacherous campaigns, however, resulted in the rebellion of “native” i.e. “Iraqi” men, and from henceforth they were excluded from the army. 21 A. Wharton, Refiguring the Post Classical City (1995). 22 Despite the Islamic reputation for cramped, dark cities within fortifications, the urban citadel didn’t become a typical part of the Islamic landscape until the arrival of the Seljuks in the eleventh century. Marw being the classic example in that century, though Damascus also acquired a citadel at roughly the same time. 23 See De locis sanctis. 24 See Vita Sancti Willibaldi. 25 Such as the monastery and hospice Charlemagne had erected in Jerusalem in the late eighth century. 26 These slaves were usually exchanged for spices like pepper and cinnamon, incense for churches and textiles. The only other major items the West could exchange were furs and timber. 27 Itinerarium Bernardi Monachi Franci, 309. 28 The supremacy of the horse-archer ended in 1514 when Ottoman canon demolished the conventional Qizilbash forces of the Safavid empire. 29 The abandonment of Samarra was due to a number of factors: the gravelly plateau on which it was built prevented the use of canals; the distance from the Euphrates meant that grain could not easily be imported from al-Jazira; while the sawad was further away down the course of the Middle Tigris. Large amounts of money were spent by the caliphate trying to bring water to the city but without effect.

Henry Hopwood-Phillips is a Byzantine historian from London. He writes at

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