Wednesday, November 11, 2009

History of Islamic Societies (1)

Ira Lapidus’s A History of Islamic Societies has become a contemporary classic history. Originally published in 1988, with a second edition in 2002, it is a one-volume history of an entire civilization from its origins to the present.

The book begins by setting the context in a brief but brilliant survey of the growth of human societies in the Middle East. I am not as convinced as Lapidus that priestly rule predates kingly rule in Mesopotamia, but he sets the scene between local structures of family and clan and integrative forces of empire and faith very well. This is a history very much focused on institutional structures and developments—very much to my taste in these matters.

I also disagreed on the matter of Palmyra: while it is clear enough that the Roman Empire (and Sassanid Empire) both alternated between relying on a tributary buffer state and direct rule, Palmyra’s demise also had something to do with its attempt to conquer the Roman East.

Lapidus then describes the situation in Arabia leading up to Muhammad’s preaching, disunited and caught between two large (monotheist) civilisations—the Christiann Eastern Roman Empire and the Zoroastrian Sassanid Persian Empire—with Mecca being the key commercial and religious centre.

I was particularly struck by Lapidus’s summary of religious developments. Briefly delineating the shift from animism to a concept of gods as distinct personalities controlling natural forces, he draws a striking contrast between pagan and monotheist conceptions. That the former sees a fragmented self in a fragmented world, the latter an integrated self confronting a world controlled by a single divine personage.* The former doing little to bind people beyond ties of blood, the latter providing ties of belief to trump ties of blood (pp16-17). (Particularly attractive, of course, to those who lacked such strong ties: such as the clanless in the city of Mecca, or situations where ties of blood were not enough to integrate a relevant community, such as the feuding oasis of Medina.)

Into this was born Muhammad, whose life is the subject of Chapter 2. Which includes a helpful genealogical chart, showing the family connections to the later Umayyad, Abbasid and Fatimid Caliphal families. Lapidus conveys an acute sense of the context in which Muhammad operated, what was new, what was adaptation of existing, what stuck and what didn’t and how Muhammad created the fundamental pattern of Islam—a mixture of personal belief and membership of a community of believers. Reading Lapidus’ account, one can see how Muhammad confronted the imperatives of preaching, which molded his message.
Muhammad, through preaching and conquest, unified Arabia, something never before done. After he died, the “Patriarchal” or “Rightly Guided” caliphs destroyed the Persian Empire and conquered the richer and more populous half of the (Eastern) Roman Empire. We see how the Arab-Muslim imperium expanded, operated and evolved over time and its effect on trade patterns:
the net effect of the Arab conquests was prosperity in Iran, a redistribution of the pattern of development in Iraq and the economic decline of Mesopotamia, Syria and Egypt (p.40).
The principle of dynastic succession in Islam was established with the triumph of first the Umayyads and then the Abbasids. The Shi’a also accepted dynastic rule, but argued for Ali’s family. When his family was dethroned from the Caliphate, a dynasty of religious leaders was established until the disappearance of the twelfth Iman. The kharijis, who argued for Caliphs elected by the Muslim community at large—holding office only so long as they were sinless in doing so—were never able (despite some temporary successes) to manage the sustained organising efficacy of the dynasties. Muhammad—the ultimate charismatic personal ruler—failed to create an institutional structure able to entrench any alternative to dynastic rule.

This more personalist and familial structure has all sorts of on-going implications. Particularly given Islam is a central organising principle in society, including of military forces.

One of the great strengths of Lapidus’s work is that one builds up a good sense of Islam’s evolution over time, its institutional structures (particularly Chapter 10) and recurring patterns. Until quite recently, in Islam, the Ulema functioned as the organizing hierarchy. Waqf as the vehicles of welfare/charity. Sufi brotherhoods did the bulk of teaching/preaching/parish work. There was not even a remote equivalent of Catholic monasteries within Islam as technological innovators and disseminators.

Classical Caliphate
Lapidus takes us through Cosmopolitan Islam (the Islam of the imperial elite, including literature and science) and Urban Islam (the Islam of the religious elite, including law and theology). He considers the dynamic nature of the development of Islamic civilisation, both imparting and absorbing, and the underlying continuities:
The Islamization of the Middle East did not transform the basic institutions of the economy, or of family, tribe, and empire. Rather, Islam seems to have infused inherited institutions with a new vocabulary, concepts and value preferences, as well as a new definition of personal, social and political identity. (p.100).
Islam both united and divided. The C9th attempt to establish Caliphal doctrinal authority by declaring the Qur’an to be a created thing, and therefore its interpretation subject to Caliphal authority, was defeated. The transcendent nature of the Qur’an was asserted, leaving interpretation in the hands of the ulema. This both damaged the authority of the Abbasid caliphate and entrenched the division between courtly/cosmpolitan/imperial Islam and urban/religious/scholarly Islam (p.102).

It was likely also not good for the further development of Islamic science. The form of Christianity that most worships The Word of God—also in opposition to centralised doctrinal authority—is the most anti-scientific (though, ironically, is strongest in the most technophile of societies, which adds to its adherents' sense of being culturally besieged). But to not accept the Qur’an as the transcendent Word of God became to be not Muslim.

Abbasid rule ran into succession problems. It then developed slave soldiers—a major innovation in Middle Eastern history—that further isolated it from the surrounding society (p.104).
Bureaucratic and small landowning elites who favoured centralized government were replaced by large-scale landowners and military lords who opposed it (p.111).
The Caliphate increasingly lost control of peripheral regions. Finally, in 945, it lost control of Baghdad itself.

Warrior rulerships
With the collapse of the Abbasid empire, Islam was transformed, in similar ways as Latin Christendom had been transformed by the collapse of the Western Roman Empire in the C5th. Though not as disastrously: the economic decline was not as great, except in Iraq where the agricultural collapse was not completely recovered from until C20th (p.110). Unified rule was replaced by small states. The conversion of the Turks (which moved ghazis away from that frontier, undermining the defence against the Turks [p.117]) led to Turkish rule, injecting the further instabilities of nomad rule (back) into Islam. As well as the creation of the institution of the Sultanate, reducing the Caliphate largely to a source of legitimacy (p.121).

Middle Eastern Islam has done best under “universal” rule—the alternative is unstable, conflicting rulerships.

Lapidus plays particular attention in his narrative to the taxation arrangements (which consumed up to half of peasant incomes, p.37). Including the (disastrous) impact of various forms of iqta (tax farming). One of the notable patterns of Eurasian history outside Europe and Japan is the way that imperial regimes tend to fissure and the dramatic ebb and flow of realms. The tax-farming-warrior model resulted in elites that were poorly connected to their wider societies. Both fissure and replacement were thereby made easier.

Hence much of Islam did not so much have a series of stable states, as a series of fluctuating rulerships. The most obvious exceptions—that is, those areas were more stable state-structures evolved—being Iran, Turkey, Egypt, Tunisia and Morocco. The last four all having geographical coherence. The first cultural distinctiveness, though it took some centuries for an Iranian state to be re-established.

Lapidus interweaves a very useful discussion of the difference between the political and property forms of medieval Latin Christendom and of post-Abbasid Islam, comparing and contrasting European feudalism with Middle Eastern “equivalents” (esp. pp123ff).

Breakdown of Abbasid rule coincided with breakdown of local social structures. A breakdown that encouraged mass conversion to Islam since local landowning notables no longer provided effective protection or a supporting matrix for previous religions (p.143). With the development of a mass Islamic peasantry, the ulema came to take on the role of protective notables. But, being neither a military nor a territorial elite, were not the basis for communal self-government. Power rested with nomadic conquerors and slave warlords (p.145).

Political literature became about what made a good prince:
the underlying premise of Muslim “political literatures” is that the good state is the product of good human beings (p.155).
Islam developed sophisticated legal and philosophical systems, but very much as personal ethics: with deep ambivalences about public life’s corruptions, and other divergences, from Islamic ideals. A religion that was so much of-the-world was also one that had deep problems developing any sense of the world having independent and legitimate logics. Islam has never developed a full equivalent of Augustine’s City of God and City of Man distinction. But then, the Qur’an has nothing remotely similar to Matthew 22:21.

Lapidus regards the Middle Eastern origins of Islam as crucial in its formation and in the way it has impacted on other regions it has spread to (p.193). In Part II, Lapidus surveys Muslim society and its basic structures. He then looks at the ways Islam spread and the impact of Europe
the crucial common factor in the decline of Muslim regimes was the rising power of Europe (p219).
Lapidus divides his story into regions and looks at historical development of Islam in each of the regions its has spread to from the C10th to the C19th. Looking first at the Middle East, then Central and Southern Asia, then Africa. Including the population and trade crash when the Mongols conquered Iran and Central Asia.

In Part III, which is almost half the text, Lapidus looks at Islam in the C19th and C20th, again by regions.

(I continue this in my next post.)

* James Ault draws almost exactly the same contrast between the integrated life of the fundamentalist Christian’s he studies and fragmented life of the academics and urban professionals from which he came. That modern progressivism is—in some ways—a revival of pagan perspectives is a point various folk have made.

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