Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past. — George Orwell

Moors in Spain - M. Florian

Brief Account of the Mohammedan Empire

Extent of the Arabian Empire.—Causes which led to that Extent.—Continuance of Mohammedanism.—Decay of the Empire.—What led to it.—Spain revolts and sets up a separate Caliph.—Africa.—Egypt.—Bagdad.—Fall of the House of the Abbassides.

The first battle in which the Arabs tried their power against the disciplined forces of the Roman empire was the battle of Muta. Though on that occasion they were successful, the most sanguine could not have ventured to predict that, before the close of a century, their empire would become more extensive than any that had ever before existed. Yet such was the fact. It overthrew the power of the Romans, and rendered the successors of the Prophet the mightiest and most absolute sovereigns on earth.

Under the last monarch of the Ommiade race, the Arabian empire, excepting only an obscure part of Africa, of little account, embraced a compact territory equal to six months' march of a caravan in length and four in breadth, with innumerable tributary and dependant states. In the exercise of their power, the caliphs were fettered neither by popular rights, the votes of a senate, nor constitutional laws: the Koran was indeed, their professed rule of action; but, inasmuch as they alone were its interpreters, their will was in all cases law. The loss of Spain to the empire was more than made up by the conquests in India, Tartary, and European Turkey. Samarkand and Timbuctoo studied with equal devotion the language and religion of the Koran, and at the temple of Mecca the Moor and the Indian met as brother pilgrims. Throughout the countries west of the Tigris, the language of Arabia became the vehicle of popular intercourse; and, although in Persia, Tartary, and Hindostan the native dialects continued in common use, the Arabic was also there the sacred tongue.

We will advert to some of the causes which led to this astonishing success. The leading article of the Mohammedan faith, the unity of God, harmonized with what Jews and Christians universally believed. Mohammed propounded this doctrine, by excluding the Deity of Jesus Christ, so as to fall in with the views of the greater number of the Christian sectaries. He moreover enjoined practices which, in the then corrupt state of religion, were beginning widely to prevail. To the untutored mind of the desert wanderer, his doctrine would thus possess all the attractiveness he might have heard ascribed to Christianity, while his being of the same country would secure for him the greater attention. Systems in which truth and error have been combined are by no means unwillingly received, especially by those who are already superstitious and fanatical, and such was pre-eminently the character of the Arabians. Mohammed's religious, moral, and juridical system was in general accordance with Asiatic opinions; it provided a paradise exactly suited to the imagination and taste of the Orientals; and, as the superstitious are always more powerfully influenced by that which awakens apprehension and appeals to fear than by what enkindles hope, his hell contributed even more than his heaven to multiply disciples.

Still, had no resort been had to arms, the Mohammedan faith would in all probability have been confined to the deserts of Arabia. The whole of Asia was at that time in a state of unprecedented military inactivity, and opportunity was thus afforded for the success of his enterprise. Empires were tottering and powerless; political wisdom had almost disappeared; and to military talents and courage the Arabs alone could make any pretensions. Previous contentions between the Persian and Byzantine empires had entirely destroyed what little remains of internal vigor those governments might otherwise have possessed. Civil revolts, tyranny, extortion, sensuality, and sloth, had annihilated the ambition of universal rule which the Greek and Roman governments had once cherished; and their provinces, neglected or oppressed, became an easy prey to the Moslem power.

The nations were the more rapidly subdued, since to the indomitable ferocity of the desert wanderer the Saracens added those other features which complete a warlike character. They despised death, and were self-denying and energetic to a degree far beyond the soldiers of civilized countries, while they were scarcely less familiar with the military art. The lieutenants of the caliphs soon vied with the Romans generals in skill; and it is by no means difficult to explain their almost uniform superiority, when we bear in mind the character of the armies they respectively commanded. Terror, moreover, is epidemic; and a force already successful commonly finds its victorious progress greatly aided by the prevailing notion of its prowess. Thus we have witnessed, in the wars of more disciplined troops, the tremendous effect of a name alone.

It may be added, also, that the Saracen success is greatly attributable to that ardent and impetuous spirit of religious enthusiasm with which they fought. They deemed their cause the cause of God; heaven, they were persuaded, was engaged in their behalf; every one who fell in their wars was a martyr; and cowardice was tantamount to apostasy.

The religious ardor of the Crusaders, in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, to exterminate Mohammedanism, did not exceed, if it even equaled, that of the Arab soldiers by whom that system had been originally propagated. Whatever secular principles and ambition influenced them, they took credit for fighting in the support of truth and virtue. The sword and the Koran were equally the companions and the instruments of their wars. "The circumstance," says Paley, in his admirable exhibition of the Evidences of Christianity, "that Mohammed's conquests should carry his religion along with them, will excite little surprise when we know the conditions which he proposed to the vanquished: death or conversion was the only choice offered to idolators. To the Jews and Christians was left the somewhat milder alternative of subjection and tribute if they persisted in their own religion, or of an equal participation of the rights and liberties, the honors and privileges of the faithful if they embraced the religion of their conquerors."

Literature, in the days of Mohammed, was as little regarded as was pure and practical Christianity. His followers everywhere met with an ignorant and easily-deluded people. Both the monuments of science and the means of freedom had been abolished by the barbarians of the North. Philosophy and the liberal arts found no patrons among indolent and luxurious emperors and nobles. Superstition, therefore, naturally took possession of the minds of men, and, as neither fears nor hopes were moderated by knowledge, idle, preposterous, and unnecessary ceremonies easily obtained currency. Mohammed merely changed one set of ceremonies for another; and in this there was little difficulty, since, in the almost universal darkness of mankind, terror and credulity everywhere prevailed.

The continuance of the religion of Mohammed in countries after the Arab dominion over them had ceased, may be also easily accounted for. "Everything in Asia is a matter of regulation; and freedom of opinion being but little permitted or encouraged in the despotic governments of the East, Mohammedanism, when once received, became stationary. The human code is mingled with the divine, and the ideas of change and profanation are inseparable. As the unsettling of the political and social fabric might ensue from a change of modes of faith, all classes of men are interested in preserving the national religion." Besides this, in their own nature religious doctrines are more permanent in their hold than forms of civil government: it may be questioned, for instance, whether, whatever civil changes Scotland might undergo, Presbyterianism would ever cease to be the prevalent faith of its inhabitants. A people may, with the overthrow of usurped civil power, return to their ancient religion, whatever it is: but when once a religion has become, so to speak, indigenous, it is likely to be permanent. Such is the religion of the Koran both in Asia and Africa.

The elements of political weakness and decay soon began to be developed in the chief seat of the Saracen empire. In the earliest days of the caliphate, after the accession of the Ommiade dynasty, the princess of Damascus were regarded as the heads of the Moslem faith; while the governors of Arabia successively obtained, as to civil rule, their independence. To this the widely-extended wars in which the caliphs were engaged no doubt contributed. Other provinces followed the example: and, as the empire enlarged, the remoteness and degeneracy of the Syrian court encouraged the governors to assume to themselves everything except the name of king, and to render their dignities hereditary. All the provinces were nominally connected with the empire by the payment of tribute; but means were easily devised to withhold this, under pretence of prosecuting the wars of the caliph, though really to strengthen his rebellious deputies against him. If in this we discover a want of efficiency in the government, we need not be surprised: the systems of the Macedonian hero and of the Roman conquerors were equally defective; and perhaps we should attribute such deficiency to a wise and beneficent arrangement of Providence, which, that oppression may never become permanent and universal, permits not any empire for a very long time to hold dominion over countries dissimilar in their habits and character, and independent of each other.

To the establishment of these separate states, the luxury and effeminacy of the court at Damascus in no small degree contributed. In the early periods of the caliphate, simplicity and charity chiefly distinguished their rulers; but, as the wealth and power of the Saracens increased, they imitated the splendor and magnificence of the monarchs of Persia and Greece. Abulfeda says of the court in the year 917: "The Caliph Moctadi's whole army, both horse and foot, were under arms, which together made a body of one hundred and sixty thousand men. His state officers stood near him in the most splendid apparel, their belts shining with gold and gems. Near them were seven thousand black and white eunuchs. The porters or doorkeepers were in number seven hundred. Barges and boats, with the most superb decorations, were swimming on the Tigris. Nor was the palace itself less splendid, in which were hung thirty-eight thousand pieces of tapestry, twelve thousand five hundred of which were silk embroidered with gold. The carpets on the floor were twenty-two thousand. A hundred lions were brought out, with a keeper to each lion. Among the other spectacles of rare and stupendous luxury was a tree of gold and silver, which opened itself into eighteen larger branches, upon which and the other smaller branches sat birds of every sort, made also of gold and silver. The tree glittered with leaves of the same metals; and while its branches, through machinery, appeared to move of themselves, the several birds upon them warbled their natural notes."

When, moreover, decline had once commenced, its progress was accelerated by the means taken to arrest it. After the regular troops had been corrupted by faction, the caliphs, for the defence of their person and government, formed a militia; but the soldiers composing this force, not infrequently foreigners, soon governed with a military despotism similar to that of the janizaries of Turkey, the Mamelukes of Egypt, or the praetorian guards of Rome; and, in addition to these causes of decay, a furious spirit of sectarianism tore asunder the very strength and heart of the empire. The colossal power of the successors of Mohammed, suddenly towering to its awful height, almost as suddenly fell, as if to yield more perfect confirmation of the truth, that all earthly things are destined to pass away, while the word of the living God abideth for ever.

Spain, as has been seen, was the first distant province of the Arabian empire which succeeded in separating itself and setting up an independent caliph. As this country had been brought under the Moslem yoke by means chiefly furnished from the northern states of Africa, its independence was likely to produce a corresponding effect upon those states. They were governed in the name of the Bagdad caliphs; but for nearly a century they had been growing into independence, under rulers usually known, from the name of their progenitor, as the Aglabite dynasty. Early in the ninth century, the throne of Mauritania, Massilia, and Carthage was seized by Obeidollah, whose successors assumed the title of Mihidi, or directors of the faithful. The districts of Fez and Tangiers, which had been already wrested from the princes of Bagdad by the real or pretended posterity of Ali, were soon brought under his dominion; and, before the end of the tenth century, all acknowledgment of the Abbassidan rule was obliterated by the suppression of public prayers for the princes of that race. A succession of changes distracted the country for some five centuries afterward; but, about the year 1516, the descendants of Mohammed were raised to the throne of Morocco, which has been transmitted, without interruption, in the same line, to its present possessors. Moez, the last of the African princes of the house of Obeidollah, who seems to have depended for his dominion more on his prowess than on his supposed descent from Mohammed, transferred his court to Grand Cairo, a city which he had built in Egypt after his conquest of that country. Africa was to he held as a fief of this new empire. Large tracts of Syria and the whole of Palestine acknowledged the supremacy of his descendants, commonly known as Fatimites, from their supposed relationship to All, and to Fatima, the Prophet's daughter. They possessed also the sovereignty of the Holy Land: against them, therefore, the crusades of Europe were chiefly directed. During these formidable wars the caliphs of Egypt sought assistance from those of Bagdad; and Noureddin, a prince of that empire, protected them against their Western assailants. The weakness of Egypt, however, came thus to be known to the crafty and powerful caliphs of Bagdad, and in a short time its Asiatic dominions were seized upon by Noureddin and Saladin. As Adhed, the last caliph of Egypt, was dying in the mosque of Cairo, these generals proclaimed Morthadi, the thirty-third caliph of Bagdad, as his successor. Saladin, whose name, from his activity, courage, and success against the crusaders, is better known to the readers of European history than that of almost any other Mohammedan prince, soon made himself master of Egypt; but his successors could not maintain the power he had acquired. The country was afterwards governed by the celebrated Mohammed Ali, nominally as viceroy of the Turkish emperor, though he was in reality a sovereign and independent prince.

The caliphs of the house of Abbas, having built the city of Bagdad soon after their accession to the throne, transferred thither their court and the seat of power. For five centuries they reigned there with various degrees of authority; but foreign wars and domestic revolts gradually dissolved the empire, and their dominion at length passed away. Radhi, the twentieth caliph of the race, was "the last," says Abulfeda, "who harangued the people from the pulpit; who passed the cheerful hour of leisure with men of learning and taste; whose expenses, resources, and treasures, whose table and magnificence, had any resemblance to those of the ancient caliphs." "During the next three centuries," says a modern historian of the Arabian empire, "the successors of Mohammed swayed a feeble sceptre. Sometimes their state was so degraded that they were confined in their palaces like prisoners, and occasionally were almost reduced to the want of corporeal subsistence. The tragic scenes of fallen royalty at length were closed; for, towards the middle of the seventh century of the Hegira, the metropolis of Islamism fell into the hands of Houlagou Khan, the grandson of Zenghis Khan, and emperor of the Moguls and Tartars, who reigned at that period with absolute and unmixed despotism over every nation of the East. The caliph Mostasem, the thirty-seventh of his house, was murdered under circumstances of peculiar barbarity, and the caliphate of Bagdad expired. Though the dignity and sovereignty of the caliphs were lost by this fatal event, and the soul which animated the form had fled, yet the name existed for three centuries longer in the eighteen descendants of Mostanser Billah, a son, or pretended son, of Daker, the last but one of this race of princes.

"Mostanser Billah and his successors, to the number of eighteen, were called the second dynasty of the Abbassides, and were spiritual chiefs of the Mohammedan religion, but without the slightest vestige of temporal authority. When Selim, emperor of the Turks, conquered Egypt and destroyed the power of the Mamelukes, he carried the caliph, whom he found there a prisoner, to Constantinople, and accepted from him a renunciation of his ecclesiastical supremacy. On the death of the caliph, the family of the Abbassides, once so illustrious, and which had borne the title of caliph for almost eight hundred years, sunk with him from obscurity into oblivion."