Saturday, December 12, 2009

Who turned out the lights on the Dark Ages?

Review of Glubb's The Empire of the Arabs

A few weeks ago, I reviewed the first book of this pair, The Great Arab Conquests, by General and Sir John Glubb (1963). This week I conclude with its sequel (1966), which takes the story from the 680's, (the origin of Shiism in the Karballa massacre), 48 years after the death of Muhammed, to the mid-800's, covering both the Umayyad and early Abbasid dynasties of the early Muslim Empire.

Again, I can not praise Glubb's history highly enough. He writes with sweeping knowledge, genuine sympathy, and prenetrating insight, and with some verve as well. His main flaw is that as a thoroughly military product of the late British empire, he naturally concentrates on military affairs and high strategy, writing in a very traditional historical mode. Here is his reflection on the concept of political freedom:
The citizens of Britain and the United States claim today to be free men and to live in free countries, but their freedom is only relative. In practice they have agreed to a compromise. They have consented to surrender their freedom to a vague entity known as the majority, which can make laws which others must obey. In other words, men who live in settled communities are not personally free. In order to enjoy a limited amount of freedom under such circumstances, they agree to surrender the remainder.

The fact that, under this system, we still claim to be free, makes us fail to comprehend what freedom meant to a nomadic Arab. He knew nothing of the majority. He claimed the right to do as he wished, even if every other man on earth disapproved of such action. The nomad really was free, and the key to his perfect freedom was mobility. As soon as these men came to live in cities and acquired immovable property, they lost their mobility and therefore their perfect freedom. But they did not of course think the matter out in this manner. Personal freedom had become to them an instinct. Although living now in houses and in cities, they were not prepared to take anyone's orders. Those who were trying to organize and rule an empire with such subjects soon found the task impossible. p. 208

Westerners are typically unacquainted with the basics of the Muslim empire (I certainly wasn't, only learning the barest bones of Greek and Roman history in school). Yet the Muslim empire was larger than the Roman empire at its height, had a brilliant, if somewhat shorter, run, and is more of a living presence in our own world, as many of its former subjects still yearn (or even take up arms) for its re-establishment. No one wants to re-establish Rome, except in the most loosely metaphorical sense!

Before getting to Glubb's insights on the middle ages, I'll touch on a few themes from the rest of the book. The original impetus for Muslim imperialism was religious, uniting an age-old warrior raiding tradition and pan-Arab peace inspired by Muhammed's charisma and theology into a duty to spread the faith outwards by jihad. Almost on a lark, the newly minted Muslims, earlier content to harry each other and the empires on their frontiers while making a living conveying trade goods from the orient, marched on the Byzantine empire in the Levant, the Persian empire in Iraq, the Byzantine empire in Egypt, and the core of the Persian empire in Persia, in quick succession.

As luck would have it, these adversaries had exhausted themselves in prior wars with each other, leaving the way virtually open. The same situation repeated itself as the Muslims entered North Africa in the 690's to 700's, and Spain in the 710's. Only the Berbers in North Africa put up continuing resistance, ironically after adopting Islam, but then finding that the promise of social and political equality in Islam failed to materialize. It was an Arab aristocracy, as it remains today in the deep feud between Saudi Arabia and the Sunnis (dressed in white, in Umayyad tradition), and Shiite Iran (dressed in black, in Abbasid tradition, or green, in Shiite tradition).

The tenor of government gradually devolved, from the popular acclamation of the first two caliphs after Muhammed (who also followed the religious and ascetic traditions of early Islam), to the nepotism installed by the Umayyads (family of the Umaiya, who were ironically descended from Muhammed's bitterest opponents in Mecca) whose capitol was in Demascus, to the more Eastern-themed despotism of the Abbasids (family of Abbas, more closely related to Muhammed, but not descended from him). The Abbasids rose on the back of rebellion from Persia, using the name Ali to rally the Shia partisans against the family that killed both Muhammed's son-in-law Ali and his son Hussain, of Karbala fame. They also had engineered their rebellion through messianic propaganda, charismatic organizers, intrigue, and secret cells- techniques that would be familiar to any Bolshevik.

Imagine the disappointment when the "Ali" meant by the Abbasids turned out to be quite different from the Ali of Shia veneration. Related, yes, but it was a bait and switch, with the truth coming out only after the Abbasids had authored a Mafia-style bloodbath and seated themselves firmly in power. This remains as one example of the much abused messianism of Iranian muslims, who had thought (mistakenly) that a reign of peace, justice, and light would follow the Umayyad overthrow.

Another aspect of the decline from Muhammed's original vision was the increasing violation of his commandment that Muslims were not to kill each other. The first civil war, involving Ali and the Umayyads, produced profound shock among those familiar with the original traditions. But as the decades passed, the empire descended into a welter of civil wars, and the energies once devoted to expansion (which effectively ended by 715) turned inward. Glubb seems to get a rise out of punctiliously reporting the various severed heads transported great distances through the empire, usually to inform the caliph of some great news, whether good or ill. Few chapters pass without such a scene. One can almost sympathize with the recent extremists in Iraq who expressed their nostalgia for the long-lost caliphate with such beheadings.


Now let me focus on the most fascinating chapter of the book, about the European dark ages (entitled "The End of Mare Nostrum"). Glubb digresses to argue that Muslim sea power in the Mediterannean accounts for the sudden autarky of Europe after the long centuries of Roman rule and commerce. The Arabs were far from natural mariners, at first keeping from naval engagements entirely, then gingerly hiring Egyptian and Lebanese ships and crews and using them as platforms to engage hand-to-hand with the enemy. But after several more decades, the Muslims gained regular fleets and control of the Mediterranean, which was the highway of the Roman Empire, early and late. The Byzantine empire was essentially confined to Greece and the Adriatic by ~700.

Glubb observes in one example that papyrus by the boatload was used throughout Europe to keep records, such as at the Merovingian court in France. But that ground to a halt abruptly with the Muslim defeat of Egypt, and Europe was forced to use parchment instead. One can imagine how devastating this was to government, commerce, and learning in general. The Arabs eventually learned the art of paper making from the Chinese, and relayed this to Europe centuries later. In the mean time, the Muslim empire cut Europe off from virtually every trade route of the ancient world- to Africa, to Egypt, to India, and to China and points east. Only Russia, the Baltics, and Byzantium remained in contact, and the latter only tenuously, through a sea lane that made Venice so wealthy.

Likewise with gold:
In the same manner, the supply of gold was cut off. The Merovingians at first alloyed their gold coins with an increasing admixture of silver, but eventually even this became impossible. In Charlemagne's time, only silver coins were in use. When Charlemagne became the ruler of France and Germany in 771, he found himself at the head of an inland state with no external commerce. p. 143
This, despite the Muslim empire virtually swimming in gold and other fruits of their industry and trade with the orient in the days of the Abbasid dynasty.

The question Glubb fails to pose is why- why didn't the Muslim empire continue the trade that was so profitable previously? Why did the Muslim control of the Mediterranean take the form of piracy (up to the US's defeat of the Barbary pirates in 1815, indeed!). Long-distance trade lay at the heart of traditional Arab life, so this is quite puzzling. But traditional Arab life meant raiding and plunder as well, on a freelance basis, so perhaps the net result was anarchy on the sea lanes. Also, once the Muslim empire moved inland from Damascus to Baghdad and became more Persian-oriented during the Abbasid period, its interest in the Mediterranean declined. Much later in the book, he does offer this paragraph:
There was little or no trade between the Arab Empire and Europe, owing to the unending hostility between Islam and Christendom. The Mediterranean, in Roman times the greatest highway of trade in the world, had become a no-man's-land and only war fleets or pirates sailed on its blue waters. A commercial trickle passed from the Arab countries by the Black Sea to Byzantium, chiefly through the hands of the Khazars of the lower Volga.

The only "neutrals" between Islam and Christendom were the Jews, who were permitted to live and trade in the countries of both "blocs". They had the entry alike to France, Spain, Constantinople, Egypt, Syria, and India. Individual Jewish merchants even travelled from France to Suez and thence to India and back.
Such widespread commerce naturally required corresponding financial arrangements, and a system of banking, making use of letters of credit and cheques, was available to merchants. Indeed our English word cheque is derived from the Arabic sek. p. 324

While the decline of Rome is mostly due to endogenous economic factors (such as vast inequality of wealth, with few land-owners and many landless workers), the final blow to the old Roman commercial system was its maritime disappearance at the hands of the Muslims, plunging Europe into isolation, feudalism, and darkness. The Muslim empire would also decline from its heights in the early Abbasid era, and face its own dark age at the hands of the Tatars and Mongols, just in time to send some of its fleeing intellectuals to a re-awakening Europe.

But this kind of thing also didn't help, as noted on page 124:
The Goths who conquered Spain were few in number and constituted merely an aristocratic ruling class, who lorded it over the slaves and serfs, as their Roman predecessors had done. In 587, Reccared, King of the Goths, was converted to the Catholic faith, and in 616 began to persecute the Jews, who were extremely numerous and prosperous in Spain.

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