The Grandeur and Decline of Islam


I. THE ISLAMIC EAST: 1058–1250

WHEN Tughril Beg died (1063) he was succeeded as Seljuq sultan by his nephew Alp Arslan, then twenty-six years of age. A well-disposed Moslem historian describes him as

tall, with mustaches so long that he used to tie up their ends when he wished to shoot; and never did his arrows miss the mark. He wore so lofty a turban that men were wont to say that from its top to the end of his mustaches was a distance of two yards. He was a strong and just ruler, generally magnanimous, swift to punish tyranny or extortion among his officials, and extremely charitable to the poor. He was also devoted to the study of history, listening with great pleasure and interest to chronicles of former kings, and to works that threw light on their characters, institutions, and methods of administration.1

Despite these scholarly inclinations, Alp Arslan lived up to his name—“the lion-hearted hero”—by conquering Herat, Armenia, Georgia, and Syria. The Greek Emperor Romanus IV collected 100,000 varied and ill-disciplined troops to meet Arslan’s 15,000 experienced warriors. The Seljuq leader offered a reasonable peace; Romanus rejected it scornfully, gave battle at Manzikert in Armenia (1071), fought bravely amid his cowardly troops, was defeated and captured, and was led before the Sultan. “What would have been your behavior,” asked Arslan, “had fortune smiled upon your arms?” “I would have inflicted upon thy body many a stripe,” answered Romanus. Arslan treated him with all courtesy, released him on the promise of a royal ransom, and dismissed him with rich gifts.2 A year later Arslan died by an assassin’s knife.

His son Malik Shah (1072–92) was the greatest of the Seljuq sultans. While his general Suleiman completed the conquest of Asia Minor, he himself took Transoxiana as far as Bokhara and Kashgar. His able and devoted prime minister, Nizam al-Mulk, brought to this and Arslan’s reign much of the brilliance and prosperity that the Barmakids had given to Baghdad in the days of Harun al-Rashid. For thirty years Nizam organized and controlled administration, policy, and finance, encouraged industry and trade, improved roads, bridges, and inns, and made them safe for all wayfarers. He was a generous friend to artists, poets, scientists; raised splendid buildings in Baghdad; founded and endowed a famous college there; and directed and financed the erection of the Great Dome Chamber in the Friday Mosque at Isfahan. It was apparently at his suggestion that Malik Shah summoned Omar Khayyam and other astronomers to reform the Persian calendar. An old tale tells how Nizam, Omar, and Hasan ibn al-Sabbah, when schoolmates, vowed to share with one another any later good fortune; like so many good stories it is probably a legend, for Nizam was born in 1017, while both Omar and Hasan died in 1123–4; and there is no indication that either of these was a centenarian.3

At the age of seventy-five Nizam wrote down his philosophy of government in one of the major works of Persian prose—the Siyasat-nama, or Book of the Art of Rule. He strongly recommended religious orthodoxy in people and king, considered no government secure without a religious base, and deduced from religion the divine right and authority of the sultan. At the same time he did not spare his divine monarch some human advice on the duties of a sovereign. A ruler must avoid excess in wine and levity; must detect and punish official corruption or tyranny; and must, twice a week, hold public audiences at which even the lowliest subject may present petitions or grievances. Nizam was humane but intolerant; he mourned that Christians, Jews, and Shi’ites were employed by the government, and he denounced the Ismailite sect with especial violence as threatening the unity of the state. In 1092 an Ismaili devotee approached him in the guise of a suppliant, and stabbed him to death.

The assassin was a member of the strangest sect in history. About 1090 an Ismaili leader—the same Hasan ibn al-Sabbah whom legend allied with Omar and Nizam—seized the mountain fortress of Alamut (“Eagle’s Nest”) in northern Persia, and from that stronghold, 10,000 feet above the sea, waged a campaign of terror and murder against the opponents and persecutors of the Ismaili faith. Nizam’s book charged the group with being lineally descended from the communistic Mazdakites of Sasanian Persia. It was a secret fraternity, with diverse grades of initiation, and a Grand Master whom the Crusaders called the “Old Man of the Mountain.” The lowest degree of the order included the fidais, who were required to obey, without hesitation or scruple, any of their leader’s commands. According to Marco Polo, who passed by Alamut in 1271, the Master had arranged behind the fortress a garden peopled like the Mohammedan paradise with “ladies and damsels who dallied with the men to their hearts’ content.” The candidates for admission to the order were given hashish to drink; when stupefied by it, they were brought into the garden; and on recovering their senses they were told that they were in paradise. After four or five days of wine, women, and good food, they were again drugged with hashish, and were carried from the garden. Waking, they asked for the lost paradise, and were told that they would be readmitted to it, and forever, if they should obey the Master faithfully, or be slain in his service.4 The youths who complied were calledhashshasheen, drinkers of hashish—whence the word assassin. Hasan ruled Alamut for thirty-five years, and made it a center of assassination, education, and art. The organization long survived him; it seized other strongholds, fought the Crusaders, and (it is alleged) killed Conrad of Montferrat at the behest of Richard Coeur de Lion.5 In 1256 the Mongols under Hulagu captured Alamut and other Assassin centers; thereafter the members of the order were hunted and slain as nihilist enemies of society. Nevertheless it continued as a religious sect, and became in time peaceable and respectable; its zealous adherents in India, Persia, Syria, and Africa acknowledge the Agha Khan as their head, and yearly pay him a tenth of their revenues.6

Malik Shah died a month after his vizier. His sons fought a war of succession, and in the ensuing chaos no united Moslem resistance was offered to the Crusades. Sultan Sinjar at Baghdad restored the Seljuq splendor for a reign (1117–57), and literature prospered under his patronage; but after his death the Seljuq realm disintegrated into independent principalities of petty dynasties and warring kings. At Mosul one of Malik Shah’s Kurd slaves, Zangi, founded in 1127 the Atabeg (“Father of the Prince”) dynasty, which fought the Crusaders zealously, and extended its rule over Mesopotamia. Zangi’s son Nur-ud-din Mahmud (1146–73) conquered Syria, made Damascus his capital, ruled with justice and diligence, and plucked Egypt from the dying Fatimids.

The same decadence that had subjected the Abbasids to Buwayhid and Seljuq domination had, two centuries later, debased the caliphs of Cairo to the role of Shia priests in a state actually ruled by their soldier viziers. Immersed in a numerous harem, hedged in by eunuchs and slaves, emasculated by comfort and concubines, the Fatimids allowed their prime ministers to take the title of kings, and to dispense at will the offices and perquisites of government. In 1164 two candidates competed for this royal vizierate. One of them, Shawar, asked the help of Nur-ud-din, who sent him a small force under Shirkuh. Shirkuh slew Shawar, and made himself vizier. When Shirkuh died (1169) he was succeeded by his nephew al-Malik al-Nasir Salahed-din Yusuf ibn Ayyub—i.e., the King, the Defender, the Honor of the Faith, Joseph, son of Job—known to us as Saladin.

He was born (1138) at Tekrit on the upper Tigris, of Kurd—non-Semitic—stock. His father Ayyub rose to be governor first of Baalbek under Zangi, then of Damascus under Nur-ud-din. Saladin, brought up in those cities and courts, learned well the arts of statesmanship and war. But with these he combined orthodox piety, a zealous study of theology, and an almost ascetic simplicity of life; the Moslems number him among their greatest saints. His chief garment was a coarse woolen cloth, his only drink was water, and his sexual temperance (after some early indulgence) aroused all but the emulation of his contemporaries. Sent with Shirkuh to Egypt, he gave so good an account of himself as a soldier that he was put in command over Alexandria, which he successfully defended against the Franks (1167). Made vizier at thirty, he devoted himself to restoring orthodox Mohammedanism in Egypt. In 1171 he had the name of the Shia Fatimid caliph replaced in the public prayers by that of the Abbasid caliph—now merely the orthodox pontiff of Baghdad. Al-Adid, last of the Fatimids, was at the time ill in his palace, and did not notice this ecclesiastical revolution; Saladin kept him fully uninformed, so that the wastrel “might die in peace.” This the Caliph did presently, and as no successor was appointed, the Fatimid dynasty came to a quiet end. Saladin made himself governor instead of vizier, and acknowledged Nur-ud-din as his sovereign. When he entered the caliphal palace at Cairo he found there 12,000 occupants, all women except the male relatives of the Caliph; and such wealth in jewelry, furniture, ivory, porcelain, glass, and other objects of art as could hardly be rivaled by any other dignitary of that era. Saladin kept nothing of all this for himself, gave the palace to his captains, and continued to live, in the vizier’s chambers, a life of fortunate simplicity.

On Nur-ud-din’s death (1173) the provincial governors refused to acknowledge his eleven-year-old son as king, and Syria verged again on chaos. Alleging fear that the Crusaders would take the country, Saladin left Egypt with a force of 700 horsemen, and in swift campaigns made himself master of Syria. Returning to Egypt, he took the title of king, and thereby inaugurated the Ayyubid dynasty (1175). Six years later he set out again, made Damascus his capital, and conquered Mesopotamia. There, as at Cairo, he continued to display the stern orthodoxy of his faith. He built several mosques, hospitals, monasteries, and madrasas or theological schools. He encouraged architecture, discountenanced secular science, and shared Plato’s disdain for poetry. All wrongs that came to his knowledge were speedily redressed; and taxes were lowered at the same time that public works were extended and the functions of government were carried on with efficiency and zeal. Islam gloried in the integrity and justice of his rule, and Christendom acknowledged in him an infidel gentleman.

We shall not detail the medley of local dynasties that divided Eastern Islam after his death (1193). His sons lacked his ability, and the Ayyubid rule in Syria ended in three generations (1260). In Egypt it flourished till 1250, and reached its zenith under the enlightened Malik al-Kamil (1218–38), friend of Frederick II. In Asia Minor the Seljuqs established (1077–1327) the sultanate of “Rum” (Rome), and for a time made Konya (St. Paul’s Iconium) the center of a lettered civilization. Asia Minor, which had been half Greek since Homer, was now de-Hellenized, and became as Turkish as Turkestan; there, today, Turkey holds its precarious seat in a once Hittite capital. An independent tribe of Turks ruled Khwarizm (1077–1231), and extended its power from the Urals to the Persian Gulf. It was in this condition of political atomism that Jenghiz Khan found Asiatic Islam.

Yet even in these declining years Islam led the world in poetry, science, and philosophy, and rivaled the Hohenstaufens in government. The Seljuq sultans—Tughril Beg, Alp Arslan, Malik Shah, Sinjar—were among the ablest monarchs of the Middle Ages; Nizam al-Mulk ranks with the greatest statesmen; Nur-ud-din, Saladin, and al-Kamil were the equals of Richard I, Louis IX, and Frederick II. All these Moslem rulers, and even the minor kings, continued the Abbasid support of literature and art; at their courts we shall find poets like Omar, Nizami, Sa‘di, and Jalal ud-din Rumi; and though philosophy faded out under their cautious orthodoxy, architecture flourished more splendidly than before. The Seljuqs and Saladin persecuted Moslem heresy; but they were so lenient to Christians and Jews that Byzantine historians told of Christian communities inviting Seljuq rulers to come and oust oppressive Byzantine governors.7 Under the leadership of the Seljuqs and Ayyubids Western Asia again prospered in body and mind. Damascus, Aleppo, Mosul, Baghdad, Isfahan, Rayy, Herat, Amida, Nishapur, and Merv were in this period among the best adorned and most cultured cities in the white man’s world. It was a brilliant decay.

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