The Genius of Islam


THE Moslem world had sustained, from 1095 to 1291, a series of assaults as violent and religious as those by which it later subdued the Balkans and changed a thousand churches into mosques. Eight Crusades, inspired by a dozen popes, had hurled the royalty, chivalry, and rabble of Europe against Mohammedan citadels in Asia Minor, Syria, Palestine, Egypt, and Tunisia; and though these attacks had finally failed, they had gravely weakened the order and resources of the Moslem states. In Spain the Crusades had succeeded; there Islam had been beaten back while its survivors were crowded into a Granada whose doom was leisurely delayed. Sicily had been taken from Islam by the virile Normans. But what were these wounds and amputations compared with the wild and ruinous descent of the Mongols (1219–58) into Transoxiana, Persia, and Iraq? City after city that had been a haven of Moslem civilization was subjected to pillage, massacre, and fire—Bokhara, Samarkand, Balkh, Merv, Nishapur, Rayy, Herat, Baghdad.... . Provincial and municipal governments were shattered; canals, neglected, succumbed to the swirling sand; commerce was put to flight; schools and libraries were destroyed; scholars and scientists were scattered, slaughtered, or enslaved. The spirit of Islam was broken for almost a century. It slowly revived; and then Timur’s Tatars swept across western Asia in a fresh desolation, and the Ottoman Turks cut their way through Asia Minor to the Bosporus. No other civilization in history has known disasters so numerous, so widespread, and so complete.

And yet the Mongols, Tatars, and Turks brought their new blood to replace the human rivers they had shed. Islam had grown luxurious and supine; Baghdad, like Constantinople, had lost the will to live by its own arms; men there were so in love with easeful life that they half invited death; that picturesque civilization, too, as well as the Byzantine, was ripe to die. But so rich had it been that—like ancient Greece and Renaissance Italy—it was able, by its salvaged fragments and memories, to civilize its conquerors. Persia under the Mongol Il-Khans developed an enlightened government, produced good literature and majestic art, and graced history with a noble scholar, Rashidu’d-Din. In Transoxiana Timur built almost as impressively as he had destroyed; and amid his ravages he paused to honor Hafiz. In Anatolia the Turks were already civilized, and poets among them were as plentiful as concubines. In Egypt the Mamluks continued to build like giants; and in West Africa Islam fathered a philosopher-historian beside whom the greatest pundits of contemporary Christendom were midges snared and starved in the cobwebs of Scholasticism. And meanwhile Islam was spreading through India to the farthest reaches of the East.


When Marco Polo set out across Persia (1271) to see the China of Kublai Khan, he found himself within the Mongol Empire almost all the way. History had never before recorded so vast a realm. On the west it touched the Dnieper in Russia; in the south it included the Crimea, Iraq, Persia, Tibet, and India to the Ganges; in the east it embraced Indochina, China, and Korea; in the north lay its original home, Mongolia. Throughout these states the Mongol rulers maintained roads, promoted commerce, protected travelers, and permitted freedom of worship to diverse faiths.

Hulagu, grandson of Genghis Khan, after destroying Baghdad (1258), established a new capital at Maragha in northwest Persia. When he died (1265) his son Abaqa became khan or prince of Persia, loosely subject to the distant Kublai Khan; so began the Il-Khan dynasty that ruled Persia and Iraq till 1337. Greatest of the line was Ghazan Khan. He was almost the shortest man among his troops, but his will was stronger than their arms. He broke off allegiance to the Great Khan in Mongolia or China, and made his state an independent kingdom, with its capital at Tabriz. Envoys came to him from China, India, Egypt, England, Spain.... . He reformed administration, stabilized the currency, protected the peasants from landlords and robbers, and promoted such prosperity as recalled Baghdad in its proudest days. At Tabriz he built a mosque, two colleges, a philosophical academy, an observatory, a library, a hospital. He set aside the revenues of certain lands in perpetuity to support these institutions, and secured for them the leading scholars, physicians, and scientists of the age. He was himself a man of wide culture and many languages, apparently including Latin.1 For himself he raised a mausoleum so majestic and immense that his death (1304) seemed a triumphal entry into a nobler home.

Marco Polo described Tabriz as “a great and glorious city.” Fra Oderic (1320) pronounced it “the finest city in the world for trade. Every article is found here in abundance.... . The Christians here say that the revenue the city pays to its ruler is greater than that which all of France pays to its king.”2 Clavijo (1404) called it “a mighty city abounding in riches and goods,” with “many fine buildings,” magnificent mosques, and “the most splendid bathhouses in the world.”3 He calculated the population at a million souls.

Uljaitu continued the enlightened policies of his brother Ghazan. His reign saw some of the noblest architecture and illumination in Persian history. The career of his chancellor, Rashidu’d-Din Fadlu’llah, illustrates the prosperity of education, scholarship, and literature at this time. Rashidu’d-Din was born in 1247 at Hamadan, perhaps of Jewish parentage; so his enemies held, citing his remarkable knowledge of Mosaic Law. He served Abaqa as physician, Ghazan as premier, Uljaitu as treasurer. In an eastern suburb of Tabriz he established the Rab’-i-Rashidi, or Rashidi Foundation, a spacious university center. One of his letters, preserved in the Library of Cambridge University, describes it:

In it we have built twenty-four caravanserais [inns] touching the sky, 1,500 shops surpassing pyramids in steadfastness, and 30,000 fascinating houses. Salubrious baths, pleasant gardens, stores, mills, factories for cloth weaving and paper-making .... have been constructed.... . People from every city and border have been removed to the said Rab’. Among them are 200 reciters of the Koran.... . We have given dwellings to 400 other scholars, theologians, jurists, and traditionalists [Hadith scholars] in the street which is named “The Street of the Scholars”; daily payments, pensions, yearly clothing allowances, soap money and sweets money have been granted for them all. We have established 1,000 other students... and have given orders for their pensions and daily pay... in order that they may be comfortably and peacefully occupied in acquiring knowledge and profiting people by it. We have prescribed, too, which and how many students should study with which professor and teacher; and after ascertaining each knowledge-seeker’s aptness of mind and capability of learning a particular branch of the sciences... we have ordered him to learn that science....

Fifty skilled physicians who have come from the cities of Hindustan, China, Misr [Egypt], and Sha’m [Syria] have all been granted our particular attention and favor in a thousand ways; we have ordered that they should frequent our “House of Healing” [hospital] every day, and that every one should take ten students capable of learning medicine under his care, and train them in the practice of this noble art. To each of the opticians and surgeons and bonesetters who work in .... our hospital we have ordered that five of the sons of our servitors should be entrusted so as to be instructed in the oculist’s art, in surgery and bonesetting. For all these men... we have founded a quarter behind our hospital .... their street is called “The Street of the Healers.” Other craftsmen and industrialists too, whom we have transferred from various countries, have been established, each group in a particular street.4

We must marvel at the industry of a man who, while actively sharing in the administration of a kingdom, found time and knowledge to write five books on theology, four on medicine and government, and a voluminous history of the world. Moreover, an admiring Moslem assures us, Rashidu’d-Din could give to his writing only the time between morning prayer and sunrise; however, there are cloudy days even in Azerbaijan. He labored seven years on his Jami’ut-Taivarikh, or Compendium of Histories; he published it in two tremendous volumes, which in English would make seven. Here were substantial accounts of the Mongols from Genghis Khan to Ghazan; of the various Mohammedan states and dynasties in Eastern and Western Islam; of Persia and Judea before and after Mohammed; of China and India, with a full study of Buddha and Buddhism; and a chasteningly brief report on the doings and ideas of European kings, popes, and philosophers. Those who have read these volumes—not yet translated into a European tongue-pronounce them the most valuable and scholarly work in all the prose literature of Persia. Not only did Rashidu’d-Din use the archives of his own government; he engaged Chinese scholars to secure for him Chinese treaties and other documents, and he appears to have read these—and Arabic, Hebrew, Turkish, and Mongolian authorities—in their original languages.5

To transmit this Compendium to posterity despite time and war, Rashidu’d-Din sent copies to scattered libraries, had it translated and disseminated in Arabic, and assigned revenues for making two copies every year, one in Arabic, one in Persian, to be presented to some city of the Moslem world. Nevertheless much of it has been lost, along with his other works, and perhaps as the result of his political disaster. In 1312 Uljaitu associated with him Ali-Shah as co-chancellor of the exchequer. Under Uljaitu’s successor, Abu Sa’id, Ali-Shah spread divers charges against his colleague, and persuaded the Khan that Rashidu’d-Din and his son Ibrahim had poisoned Uljaitu, The historian was dismissed, and soon thereafter was put to death (1318), at the age of seventy, along with one of his sons. His properties were confiscated, his foundations were deprived of their endowments, and the suburb Rab’-i-Rashidi was plundered and destroyed.

Abu Sa’id made belated amends by appointing another son of the historian his vizier. Ghiyathu’d-Din governed wisely and justly. After Abu Sa’id’s death a period of anarchy brought the dynasty of the Il-Khans to an end, and their realm was divided into petty states ravaged by war and redeemed by poetry.

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