Monday, November 9, 2020

Review of A History of Medieval Islam by J.J. Saunders

This review is written by Eugene Kernes

Book can be found in:
Genre = History, Empires

Elaborate Description

This book provides the history of Islam from the circumstance that gave rise to Islam, Islam’s rise and fall in Arabia under the Caliphate, Islam’s revival and fall under the Turkish Sultanate, and a brief explanation of what happened after that. Focusing on the time span circa 500 – 1300 C.E. The political and religious weakness of alternative states and empires gave space for Islam to rise. When the Islamic empire was massive, its own political weakness gave momentum to foreign powers to overtake it.

Before Islam, Arabia was tribal. Each tribe had independence without an overarching authority. Confrontations between the tribes was endemic for survival as they fought for scarce resources. Tribes fought but the situation was sustainable, only under external pressure could the situation have changed. That external pressure came from Islam. Islam replaced loyalty to tribe for loyalty to religious believers.

Much of Islam history is about tolerance for those who do not share their beliefs. This cultural aspect comes from the tribal era when each tribe struggled against nature. Hospitality was never withheld from travelers. Those who believed in Islam were favored, but others were allowed free practice of their religion at the cost of a tax. Due to the lack of religious persecution, the native Syrians, Christians, and Jews had no desire to restore imperial rule. Believers of Islam were supposed to be equal, but racial segregation between Arabs and non-Arabs was practiced. Although Muslims were exempt from the religious tax, non-Arab Muslims were forced to pay the tax to keep the state revenue from shrinking. The Omayyads even discouraged conversion to keep the revenue.

Muhammad’s revelations threatened tribal beliefs which created hostility against Muhammad. At least for some time, Muhammad was supported and guarded by familial relations. The fatal flaw of Muhammad was to not consider succession as Islamic division started right after the death of Muhammad. The division comes from the lack of clear succession for leadership. This division would plague the Islamic empire for its entirety. For the first successor, a vote for succession was forestalled, and the successor Omar was chosen due to Muhammad’s request for Omar to be Muhammad’s representative at prayer.

Many tribes wanted to secede due them not having be given a vote for the successor. The tribes were brought to heel. For most Islamic leaders, the question of succession caused intense internal struggle, some of which became civil wars. As Saunders references, the Caliphate was no sacred office, it was a prize to be gained by violence. Internal struggle hampered the Islamic empire, but did not break it. The Islamic empire was broken due to external pressure from Christian kingdoms and Mongolian empire. Due to the internal struggle, the external pressures could not be dealt with.

Much of the rise of Islam has sparse information as most people in Arabia were mostly illiterate and so could not document the events. The rise of Islam gave rise to knowledge and many libraries were built. Some libraries were burnt, but the ones conquered by foreign power, gave the foreign power a mass amount of knowledge. From that knowledge in the conquered libraries, came the West’s Renaissance.

Most of the book is well written with a focus on the internal and external threats. There is very little information about the times of relative internal peace. Some chapter jump from person to person and location to location quickly, making it difficult to understand their importance. Saunders explains many complicated events in great detail without simplifying the situation. The biggest lesson taken from the history of Islam is to have a clear line of succession.

Book Details

Edition ISBN:  9780415059145
Pages to read:   206
Publication:     1996
1st Edition:      1965
Format:            Paperback

Ratings out of 5:
Readability    4
Content          4
Overall           4