Al-Huda Foundation, USA
the Message Continues ... i3/4
story so far...
of Muslims (continued)
Moments in Islamic History by
Professor Nazeer Ahmed
the competition for worlds
resources, the verdict of history is without mercy.
In the winner
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.
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
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.
tension between the rulers and the society had disastrous long-term effects on
the development of trade and technology in the Maghreb.
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.
...to be continued in the next issue.