Western Islam



THE Near East was but a part of the Islamic world. Egypt under the Moslems resurrected her Pharaonic glory; Tunis, Sicily, and Morocco recovered orderly government under Arab leadership, and a passing brilliance illuminated Qairwan, Palermo, and Fez; Moorish Spain was a peak in the history of civilization; and later the Moslem Moguls, ruling India, would “build like giants and finish like jewelers.”

While Khalid and other conquerors subdued the East, Amr ibn al-As, only seven years after Mohammed’s death, set out from Gaza in Palestine, captured Pelusium and Memphis, and marched upon Alexandria. Egypt had ports and naval bases, and Arab power needed a fleet; Egypt exported corn to Constantinople, and Arabia needed corn. The Byzantine government in Egypt had for centuries used Arab mercenaries as police; these were no hindrance to the conquerors. The Monophysite Christians of Egypt had suffered Byzantine persecution; they received the Moslems with open arms, helped them to take Memphis, guided them into Alexandria. When it fell to Amr after a siege of twenty-three months (641), he wrote to the Caliph Omar: “It is impossible to enumerate the riches of this great city, or to describe its beauty; I shall content myself with observing that it contains 4000 palaces, 400 baths, 400 theaters.”1 Amr prevented pillage, preferring taxation. Unable to understand the theological differences among the Christian sects, he forbade his Monophysite allies to revenge themselves upon their orthodox foes, and upset the custom of centuries by proclaiming freedom of worship for all.

Did Amr destroy the Alexandrian Library? The earliest mention of this story is found in Abd al-Latif (1162–1231), a Moslem scientist;2 it is more fully given in Bar-Hebraeus (1226–86), a Christianized Jew of eastern Syria, who wrote in Arabic, under the name of Abu-’l-Faraj, an epitome of world history. In his account an Alexandrian grammarian, John Philoponus, asked Amr to give him the manuscripts of the library; Amr wrote to Omar for permission; the Caliph, we are told, replied: “If these writings of the Greeks agree with the Book of God, they are useless, and need not be preserved; if they disagree they are pernicious, and should be destroyed”; legend shortens this probably legendary answer to “Burn the libraries, for they are contained in one book”—the Koran. According to Bar-Hebraeus, Amr distributed the contents of the library among the city’s public baths, whose 4000 furnaces were fueled for six months with the papyrus and parchment rolls (642). Against this story it should be noted that (1) a large part of the library had been destroyed by Christian ardor under the Patriarch Theophilus in 392;3 (2) the remainder had suffered such hostility and neglect that “most of the collection had disappeared by 642”;4 and (3) in the 500 years between the supposed event and its first reporter no Christian historian mentions it, though one of them, Eutychius, Archbishop of Alexandria in 933, described the Arab conquest of Alexandria in great detail.5 The story is now generally rejected as a fable. In any case the gradual dissolution of the Alexandrian Library was a tragedy of some moment, for it was believed to contain the complete published works of Æschylus, Sophocles, Polybius, Livy, Tacitus, and a hundred others, who have come down to us in mangled form; full texts of the pre-Socratic philosophers, who survive only in snatches; and thousands of volumes of Greek, Egyptian, and Roman history, science, literature, and philosophy.

Amr administered Egypt competently. Part of the oppressive taxation financed the repair of canals and dikes, and the reopening of an eighty-mile canal between the Nile and the Red Sea; ships could now sail from the Mediterranean into the Indian Ocean.6 (This canal was again choked with sand in 723, and was abandoned.) Amr built a new capital on the site where he had pitched his camp in 641; it was called al-Fustat, apparently from the Arabic for tent; it was the first form of Cairo. There for two centuries (661–868) Moslem governors ruled Egypt for the caliphs of Damascus or Baghdad.

Every conquest creates a new frontier, which, being exposed to danger, suggests further conquest. To protect Moslem Egypt from flank attack by Byzantine Cyrene, an army of 40,000 Moslems advanced through the desert to Barca, took it, and marched to the neighborhood of Carthage. The Moslem general planted his spear in the sand some eighty miles south of the modern Tunis, built a camp, and so founded (670) one of Islam’s major cities, Qairwan—“the resting place.” Realizing that the capture of Carthage would give the Moslems control of the Mediterranean and an open road to Spain, the Greek emperor sent troops and a fleet; the Berbers, forgetting for a moment their hatred of Rome, joined in defending the city; and it was not till 698 that Carthage was subdued. Soon thereafter Africa was conquered to the Atlantic’s shores. The Berbers were persuaded, almost on their own terms, to accept Moslem rule, and presently the Moslem faith. Africa was divided into three provinces: Egypt with its capital at al-Fustat, Ifriqiya with its capital at Qairwan, Maghreb (Morocco) with its capital at Fez.

For a century even these provinces acknowledged the Eastern caliphs as their sovereigns. But the difficulties of communication and transport were increased by the removal of the caliphate to Baghdad; and one by one the African provinces became independent kingdoms. An Idrisid dynasty (789–974) ruled at Fez, an Aghlabid dynasty (800–909) at Qairwan, and a Tulunid dynasty (869–905) in Egypt. That ancient granary, no longer robbed of its product by foreign masters, entered upon a minor renaissance. Ahmad ibn Tulun (869–84) conquered Syria for Egypt, built a new capital at Qatai (a suburb of al-Fustat), promoted learning and art, raised palaces, public baths, a hospital, and the great mosque that still stands as his monument. His son Khumarawayh (884–95) transmuted this energy into luxury, walled his palace with gold, and taxed his people to provide himself with a pool of quicksilver on which his bed of inflated leather cushions might gently float to win him sleep. Forty years after his death the Tulunids were replaced by another Turkish dynasty, the Ikshidid (935–69). These African monarchies, having no roots in the blood or traditions of the people, had to base their rule on military force and leadership; and when wealth weakened their martial ardor their power melted away.

The greatest of the African dynasties reinforced its military supremacy by associating itself with an almost fanatical religious belief. About 905 Abu Abdallah appeared in Tunisia, preached the Ismaili doctrine of the seven Imams, proclaimed the early coming of the Mahdi or Savior, and won such a following among the Berbers that he was able to overthrow the Aghlabid rule in Qairwan. To meet the expectations he had aroused he summoned from Arabia Obeidallah ibn Muhammad, alleged grandson of the Ismaili prophet Abdallah, hailed him as the Mahdi, made him king (909), and was soon put to death by his king’s command. Obeidallah claimed descent from Fatima, and gave her name to his dynasty.

Under the Aghlabids and Fatimids North Africa renewed the prosperity it had known in the heyday of Carthage and under imperial Rome. In the youth of their vigor the Moslem conquerors in the ninth century opened three routes, 1500 to 2000 miles long, across the Sahara to Lake Chad and Timbuctu; northward and westward they established ports at Bône, Oran, Ceuta, and Tangier; a fructifying commerce bound the Sudan with the Mediterranean, and Eastern Islam with Morocco and Spain. Spanish Moslem refugees brought to Morocco the art of leather; Fez flourished as a center of exchange with Spain, and became famous for its dyes, perfumes, and rimless cylindrical red hats.

In 969 the Fatimids wrested Egypt from the Ikshidids, and soon thereafter spread their rule over Arabia and Syria. The Fatimid Caliph Muizz transferred his capital to Qahira (Cairo): as Qatai had been a northeastern extension of Fustat, so Qahira (“the victorious”) was a northeastern prolongation of Qatai, and, like its predecessors, began as a military camp. Under Muizz (953–75) and his son Aziz (975–96), the vizier Yaqub ibn Qillis, a Baghdad Jew converted to Islam, reorganized the administration of Egypt, and made the Fatimids the richest rulers of their time. When Muizz’ sister Rashida died she left 2,700,000 dinars ($12,825,000), and 12,000 robes; when his sister Abda died she left 3,000 silver vases, 400 swords damascened in gold, 30,000 pieces of Sicilian textiles, and a hoard of jewelry.7 But nothing fails like success. The next caliph, al-Hakim (996–1021), went half mad with wealth and power. He arranged the assassination of several viziers, persecuted Christians and Jews, burned many churches and synagogues, and ordered the demolition of the Church of the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem; the execution of this order was a contributory cause of the Crusades. As if to repeat the career of Caligula, he proclaimed himself a god, and sent missionaries to establish his cult among the people; when some of these preachers were killed he took Christians and Jews back into favor, and rebuilt their shrines. He was assassinated at the age of thirty-six.

Despite these royal prerogatives Egypt prospered as the commercial link between Europe and Asia. Increasingly the merchants of India and China sailed past the Persian Gulf and up the Red Sea and the Nile into Egypt; the wealth and power of Baghdad declined, those of Cairo grew. Nasir-i-Khosru, visiting the new capital in 1047, described it as having 20,000 houses, mostly of brick, rising to five or six stories, and 20,000 shops “so filled with gold, jewelry, embroideries, and satins that there was no room to sit down.”8 The main streets were protected against the sun, and were lighted at night by lamps. Prices were fixed by the government, and anyone caught charging more was paraded through the city on a camel, ringing a bell and confessing his crime.9 Millionaires were numerous; one merchant, a Christian, fed the whole population at his own expense during five years of famine caused by the low level of the Nile; and Yaqub ibn Qillis left an estate of some $30,000,000.10 Such men joined with the Fatimid caliphs in building mosques, libraries, and colleges, and fostering the sciences and the arts. Despite occasional cruelties, wasteful luxuries, the usual exploitation of labor, and the proper number of wars, the rule of the Fatimids was in general beneficent and liberal, and could compare, in prosperity and culture, with any age in Egyptian history.11

The wealth of the Fatimids reached its peak in the long reign of Mustansir (1036–94), the son of a Sudanese slave. He built for himself a pleasure pavilion, and lived a life of music, wine, and ease; “this,” he said, “is more pleasant than staring at the Black Stone, listening to the muezzin’s drone, and drinking impure water” (from Mecca’s holy well of Zemzem).12 In 1067 his Turkish troops rebelled, raided his palace, and carried away, as loot, priceless treasures of art, great quantities of jewelry, and twenty-five camel-loads of manuscripts; some of these served the Turkish officers as fuel to heat their homes, while exquisite leather bindings mended the shoes of their slaves. When Mustansir died the Fatimid empire fell to pieces; its once powerful army broke into quarreling factions of Berbers, Sudanese, and Turks; Ifriqiya and Morocco had already seceded, Palestine revolted, Syria was lost. When, in 1171, Saladin dethroned the last Fatimid caliph, one more Egyptian dynasty had followed its predecessors through power and pleasure to decay.

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