Al-Huda Foundation, USA


the Message Continues ... i3/4


The story so far...



Marginalization of Muslims (continued)

Excerpt from Critical Moments in Islamic History by Professor Nazeer Ahmed

 In the competition for world’s resources, the verdict of history is without mercy. In the “winner take-all” rules of global competition, civilizations with the most efficient institutions win out. By the end of the seventeenth century, it was apparent that the tide of history was flowing in favor of Europe and away from the Islamic world.

 The Portuguese continued their relentless advance down the coast of West Africa. Gaining experience as they went, Portuguese sailors soon discover ed that by sailing further West to the Azores islands, and then turning south, they could avoid the treacherous currents off the coast of Africa.

By 1490, their ships were sailing far into the Southern reaches of the great continent of Africa. The farther South they went, the larger was the radius of the arc extending from the Azores to the tip of South Africa. In 1492, during one of those voyages, in an arc that extended far from the shores of Africa, Columbus discovered the West Indies. Granada fell the same year to a Spanish onslaught. In 1494, at the behest of the Pope, Portugal and Spain divided the world into their respective spheres of influence.

In 1496, Vasco de Gama, sailed around the Cape of Good Hope in Africa, up the coast of East Africa, and with the help of a Muslim navigator, Ahmed Ibn Majid, visited the Malabar Coast in India. Thus the naval thrusts that had started a century earlier to outflank the Muslim Maghreb resulted in the discovery of America and the establishment of naval trade routes to the prosperous Indian Ocean region.

But these discoveries in themselves were not sufficient to guarantee the ascent of Europe. While the Iberians were exploring the coast of West Africa, the Ottoman Turks, rising from the dust of Tartar destructions, started a broad offensive in Southeastern Europe. This was the third major offensive of the Muslims towards Europe. The Turks were fierce, determined, had the zeal of ghazis, and were more than a match for Europe in military technology. In 1453, Istanbul was captured and was made the capital of the expanding empire. By the turn of the century, Turkish cavalry was riding on the plains of Hungary and was knocking at the doors of Vienna, deep in Central Europe.

When the Ottomans captured Egypt in 1517, they projected their naval power in the Mediterranean, while their land armies pushed across North Africa, expelling the Spanish who had established their bases along the Southern Mediterranean coast. Mean-while, the powerful Safavids in Iran and the resplendent Moghuls in India were consolidating their empires. To an observer in 1570, it would not be obvious as to whether it would be the Christian Iberians or the Muslim Turks who would conquer and dominate the world. It was in the last third of the sixteenth century that the focus of history shifted to Northern Europe. The confluence of several critical events helped the North Europeans in their emergence on the world stage.

 In 1571, the battle of Lepanto contained the expansion of the Ottoman navy, and prevented the Turks from projecting their power into the Atlantic Ocean and the Americas. In 1578, the Moroccans under sultan Ahmed al Mansur, crushed the Portuguese at the battle of Al-Qasr al-Kabir, and with it the curtain fell on the Portuguese global venture. Sebastian, the king of Portugal, was killed, and within two years after the debacle, Portugal itself became a protectorate of Spain. In turn, Spain tried to lever-age its position as the colonial power in the Americas to solidify its global naval supremacy. In this effort, they were doomed to failure.

The lure of Aztec silver from Mexico, hauled aboard Spanish ships, was too strong a temptation for English, French and North African pirates. Spain tried diplomacy to stop the piracy but to no avail. In desperation, King Phillip III of Spain attempted an invasion of England. With the combined resources of Spain and Portugal, the Spanish armada sailed towards London. The invasion had the blessing of the Pope who declared a Crusade against England because Queen Elizabeth I (d1603) had taken

England out of the orbit of Rome and had joined the Protestant League. The planned invasion was a disaster. The Spanish armada was sunk off the river Thames in 1588, the pride of Spanish and Portuguese navies went down to the bottom of the sea, and with it died the Spanish dream of dominating the world.

Meanwhile, a new naval power emerged in Northern Europe. Holland, which had been a colony of Spain, threw off the Spanish yoke in 1572, and declared its independence. Antwerp and Rotterdam were important trading and shipbuilding centers for Spain and Portugal. When they wrested their independence, the Dutch inherited not only these trading posts, but acquired the shipbuilding docks as well. Following the unsuccessful Spanish attempts to invade England (1588, 98), the weakness of Spanish naval power led to increased piracy against their shipping.

 “The tension between the rulers and the society had disastrous long-term effects on the development of trade and technology in the Maghreb.

What was good for the society was not necessarily good

for the Emirs, and vice versa.”

 As piracy took its toll, Spain was forced to increase the rate of production of its ships to replenish its vast fl eet. Quality suffered. In particular, the Dutch focused on improving the range as well as the firepower of their ships. Holland had, in addition, a vast reservoir of German mercenaries from the Northern Counties to draw upon. A weakened Spain, over ex-tended across the globe, could not defend its positions as well as those of its Portuguese allies. By 1620, the Dutch had occupied Brazil, displaced the Portuguese as the dominant naval power in the Indian Ocean, and replaced the Spanish as the most important European power engaged in the African slave trade.

 From the vantage point of the year 1600, a historian may see a window of opportunity in North Africa and Western Europe. Portugal was defeated and had become a protectorate of Spain. The Spaniards, their ambitions frustrated in North Africa and England, could not defend their far-lung possessions. The Dutch and the English fleets were still in their infancy. This was an ideal opportunity for the Maghreb to venture forth and compete for the wealth that lay beyond the oceans. But it was not to be. North Africa surrendered the Atlantic Ocean to the Europeans. The wheels of fortune turned. Wealth and power gravitated towards Northern Europe and left Africa in poverty.

 These developments were a logical consequence of the political fragmentation that existed in North Africa in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. The Ottoman Turks had advanced from Egypt to control Tunisia and Algeria (1572), but had halted their advance when the Saadids of Morocco showed their military prowess against the Portuguese at the battle of Al-Qasr al-Kabir (1578). In Morocco itself, there was tension between the rulers and the society. Real power in the countryside lay with the Jazuli (belonging to the Shadili order) Sufi s, and the Saadid Emirs ruled only with the support of the Jazuli Shaikhs. Unlike the Emirs, the Jazulis had roots in the countryside. They organized local schools around zawiyas, provided social services, and spearheaded the resistance to Portuguese incursions in Southern Morocco and Mauritania. The money required to support these activities came from ziyara, a charitable contribution offered by the faithful to the local zawiyas, which were often built around tombs of Sufi Shaikhs. By the same token, this was money denied the Sultans and Emirs. Sources of revenue from the Mediterranean were equally elusive for the central administration. Much of the trade in the Western Mediterranean was controlled by Genoa, Italy. The interests of the Moroccan merchants were therefore more closely allied with those of the Italian merchants than with the Saadid Emirs in Marrakesh. In addition, there were profits from piracy, but the capital for this activity was controlled from abroad, primarily from Italy and France.

 The Saadids  were therefore perennially short of cash and became increasingly coercive in their tax collection. It was the pressure of an empty treasury that drove the Saadid Emir, Ahmed al Mansur, to his ill-fated invasion of the Songhay Empire (1592). Although the Emir obtained a substantial amount of loot from this adventure, the long-term effect of the invasion was to disrupt the North-South trade between the Sudan and North Africa, further hastening the disintegration of both. In turn, the resulting dislocations helped the African slave trade, which was at this time gaining momentum in the Senegal-Gambia region on the Atlantic shores.

 The Jazuli Sufi movement, like its sister movements in Asia, was inherently anti-central, focusing more on individual salvation and the welfare of local community, as opposed to a centralized administration. Only a strong center could have mustered the capital to invest in a strong navy capable of competing with European navies. The Sultans of Marrakesh, perennially short of cash, could not afford such major investments.

The only Muslim power that did have the resources, namely the Ottoman Empire, was precluded from doing so by the emergence of independent Morocco. The Spanish Emperors, from Charles V (d. 1558) onwards, recognized that independent Morocco was a useful bulwark against Otto-man expansion, and did everything in their power to encourage this independence. The Turkish navy had no bases on the Atlantic Ocean. As a result, the Atlantic became an exclusive preserve of European powers, and America an extension of Europe. The tension between the rulers and the society had disastrous long-term effects on the development of trade and technology in the Maghreb. What was good for the society was not necessarily good for the Emirs, and vice versa. The Emirs and Sultans had nothing to gain from any improvement, which would help either the Jazuli Shaikhs, or the rich merchants along the Mediterranean coast. be continued in the next issue.