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Marginalization of Muslims:

Extract from Critical Moments in Islamic History

by Professor Nazeer Ahmed

In the competition for worlds resources, the verdict of history is without mercy. In the “winner take-allrules 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 fl owing in favor of Europe and away from the Islamic world. Neither was the failure exclusively Islamic. With its singular focus on wealth and power, Europe elbowed out the Muslims in trade and commerce, and as opportunities

developed, moved to dominate not just the world of Islam, but the entire globe. This was a civilizational avalanche in which a Euro centric civilization, emerging out of Northern Europe, over-whelmed the ancient civilizations of Asia, Africa and the Americas. The Muslims lost the race primarily because their  institutions could not compete with those of Europe. The Joint Stock Companies that emerged from Europe proved to be far more efficient in harnessing the energies of men and material, and exploiting historical opportunities, than the despotic bureaucracies in Asia and Africa. Certainly there were other reasons as well. These included legitimacy of rule, absence of an orderly chain of succession, excessive in-fighting, a fatal weakness in naval technology, loss of trade, social rigidity and parochial religious zeal. Over-arching it all was a general decay in spirituality and ethics, which provide the essential binding force for a civilization.

With its singular focus on wealth and power, Europe elbowed out the Muslims in trade and commerce, and as opportunities developed, moved to dominate not just the world of Islam, but the entire globe. 

From a historical perspective, the European thrust in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries was not the first one. Islam and Christianity have jostled each other for turf throughout the last fourteen hundred years.

Five distinct strikes and counterstrikes may be identifyed. The first one led Muslim armies across Egypt and North Africa into Spain and France, and ended with the battle of Tours (736). The second one, a combined assault by the Vikings from the North, and the Muslims from the South, led to the capture of Sicily (831) and the establishment of bases in Southern France and Switzerland. The third was a Turkish thrust at the heart of Europe, which resulted in the conquest of Istanbul (1453), and ended with the second siege of Vienna (1683). Conversely, in the first Christian attack on Muslims, the Latin West hurled itself at the Islamic world, in a broad front extending from Spain to Syria.

The Crusades, which started in 996, and continued well into the sixteenth century, failed to capture Jerusalem but succeeded in conquering Spain and Portugal. The second European assault, which continues to this day, started with the Crusades in the Maghreb. It gathered momentum when the Portuguese sailed around Africa to the Indian Ocean (1496) and disrupted the vast network of trade routes linking its littoral states. The challenge intensified with the advent of the Joint Stock Companies (1600), and ended with the colonization of much of the non-European world in the nineteenth century. The two World Wars (1914-18, 1939-45) weakened the European powers, and provided a coup de grace for political colonization.

However, the reigns of economic control remained in the West, and economic domination only intensified in the second half of the twentieth century. What distinguishes the current phase from previous ones is that it is not a military confrontation. It extends across a broad ideological, economic, political and cultural front. It is not a religious confrontation because the Western civilization is post-religious.

Brushing aside religion itself, it seeks to replace religion with its own material worldview.

When Islam burst upon the global scene in the seventh century, it faced the Christian (Eastern Roman, Byzantine) Empire in the Mediterranean and the Sassanid Empire in Persia.

 The campaigns of Caliph Omar eliminated the Sassanids, the Persians embraced Islam, and Iran became a part of the Islamic heartland. In the Mediterranean, the Roman provinces of Syria and Egypt were conquered. Expansion continued during the Umayyad period. An attack on the Byzantine capital of Constantinople (Istanbul) by Emir Muawiya (d. 680) was unsuccessful. Success was more forthcoming  in the Western campaigns. By 712, all of North Africa and Spain were subdued. Muslim armies crossed the Pyrenees mountains (715), consolidated their hold on Southern France (715-730), and pushed North towards the heart of Frankish territories. They were stopped at the battle of Tours (736) near modern Paris.

Thus, the first wave of Muslim expansion succeeded in elbowing out the Eastern Roman (Byzantine)

Empire from the Eastern Mediterranean, and almost succeeded in overrunning the Latin West.

The second wave of expansion came in the ninth century. After the death of Charlemagne (814),and the disintegration of the Carolingian Empire, a political vacuum developed in Northern Europe, which invited raids from the Vikings (Swedes). The Nordic countries were not yet Christian, and the Viking raids took a heavy toll in Germany, France and Scotland. At about the same time, the Umayyads in Spain and the Aghlabids in Tunisia launched a series of raids on Southern Europe. The Spanish Umayyads reoccupied

Norborne, and made a thrust towards the mountain passes in Switzerland. The Aghlabids captured Sicily, and advancing into the Italian peninsula, occupied Pisa, and raided Rome (846).

 The Muslim powers might have inflicted greater damage were they not divided among them selves.

The Umayyads of Spain would not coordinate their efforts with the Aghlabids of North Africa who owed their allegiance to the Abbasids in Baghdad. In the tenth century, the Aghlabids were displaced by the powerful Ismailis (969-1172), who had a different vision of Islam from the Sunnis, and engaged in a  continuous struggle with the Umayyads of Spain for control of North Africa. These internal struggles dashed any hope of a coordinated, sustained offensive. The first Latin thrust at the world of Islam came during the Crusades.

The Crusades were proposed by Pope Gregory V as early as 996, but the Europe of Pope  Gregory was too weak and the Islamic world much too strong, to mount a major attack across the Mediterranean Sea. The initial focus of the Crusades was therefore limited to Southern Italy and Spain. Pisa and Sardinia were recaptured in1052, while the city of Toledo in Spain fell in 1085. However, it was not until the eleventh century that the full fury of the Crusades was let loose. In 1195, Pope Urban preached a Crusade to wrest control of Jerusalem from the Muslims.

The imagination of Europe was fi red up with visions of the Holy Cross and the Church of Holy Sepulcher. This time, the political climate in the Eastern Mediterranean was more conducive to an invasion. The Ismailis who controlled Egypt and Syria were a spent force. The global struggle between the Abbasids in Baghdad, and the Ismailis in Cairo, had sapped their energies. The line of control between the Seljuk Turks who championed the Abbasids, and the Ismailis ran through the hills of Palestine. The First Crusade succeeded in capturing Jerusalem and establishing a Latin presence in Palestine and Syria (1096). However,

the Latin kingdom of Jerusalem was short lived. A counter punch by the Seljuks (1130-70) expelled the Crusaders from Northern Iraq. Salahuddin (d. 1193) united Syria and Egypt under his command, brought an end to Ismaili rule in Cairo (1172), and won back Jerusalem (1186) from the Crusaders. The first thrust of the Latin West at the world of Islam was a military failure, but it did bring Europe face to face with the more advanced civilization of Islam.

Soon, the Crusaders in the Eastern Mediterranean changed their focus from God to gold. With the Fourth Crusade, and the sack of Constantinople (1204), the Latin West accepted the premise that gold was more important than the Cross, and moved inexorably away from the age of imagination towards the age of mercantile acquisition. Subsequent forays by the Latins to occupy Egypt (1218) ended in failure, and their attempts to form a coalition with the marauding Mongols (1260) were equally unsuccessful.

The finale came when Sultan Baybars of Egypt defeated a combined army of the Crusaders, Armenians and Mongols at the battle of Ayn Jalut (1262), near the city of Nazareth.

However, it was in the Maghreb that the real drama of the Crusades was played. It was the Western Crusades, fought in Spain and North Africa, which altered the flow of global history, and ultimately resulted in the ascendancy of Europe over the rest of the world. Frustrated in the East, the Crusaders turned their

full fury at the Maghreb. After the battle of Hittin (1186), and the failure of the Third Crusade (1193), no serious attempt was made by the Latins to take Jerusalem. It was a different story in the West. The Second Crusade (1145) succeeded in capturing Lisbon (Hishbunah in Arabic)  in Portugal, while Sicily was wrested from the Arabs (1050). The intervention

of the Murabitun from West Africa (1086), and of the Almohads from North Africa (1125) stemmed the Crusader tide for a while. But the disastrous defeat of Las Novas de Tolosa (1212) sealed the fate of the Almohad Empire, and the Christian Conquistadors thrust for-ward.Spain, except for a tiny foothold in Granada, fell to a combined onslaught from Castile, Portugal and Aragon (1232-1248).

For the next hundred years, a military equilibrium prevailed in the Western Mediterranean. Hostilities resumed in the fifteenth century as pressure from the Turks in the Eastern Mediterranean increased. In 1415, Portugal captured the important trading post of Ceuta astride the Straits of Gibraltar. This was the first significant hold of the Christian Iberians in North Africa; Tangier fell in 1425. Using these two cities as their bases, the Portuguese expanded their operations on the Atlantic coast of Morocco. Prince Henry, Portuguese governor of Ceuta and Tangier, encouraged these excursions.Since the Maghreb was in political disarray following the collapse of the Almohads, it was in no position to mount a vigorous counter-offensive. In 1434, the

 Portuguese sailor Diaz crossed Cape Bajador located at the Western tip of Africa. This was an important benchmark in that it demonstrated Portuguese capability to sail against the wind. In 1441, the first Portuguese slave raid was made on the coast of Mauritania, in which a Moorishcouple was captured and enslaved. Thus began the Atlantic slave trade, which in the coming centuries was to trans-form Africa, Europe and America alike. By the year 1500, there were 30,000 Muslim slaves in Lisbon.

 The Portuguese continued their relent-less advance down the coast of West Africa. Gaining experience as they went, Portuguese sailors soon discovered 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...  

to be continued...


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