Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Gen Eds H7c: Medieval Arabia, India, China, and South America

The Hajj in Mecca
This is the third and final post in my seventh unit of world history: "The Age of the Church and Jihad."

These are posts in the World History part of my "General Education in a Nutshell" series. This series involves ten subjects you might study in a general education or "liberal arts" core at a university or college. The first topic in the overall series was philosophy. So far in the world history section:
The Rise of Islam
1. Mohammed was born around 570 in what is Mecca, Saudi Arabia today. At the time, the Arabian peninsula was a combination of Jews, Christians, and polytheists who believed in many gods. It was a place of competing tribes.

When he was in his forties, Muhammed thought he began to receive revelations from the angel Gabriel, and he would receive them until his death in 632. Like most in his day, he was illiterate, so these teachings were collected and written down by others. Today we know these teachings as the Qu'ran.

There are "five pillars of Islam." They are:
  • The profession of faith--"There is no god but Allah and Mohammed is his prophet."
  • prayer, five times a day toward Mecca
  • giving to the poor (originally a tax or tribute to Mohammed, the zakat)
  • the month of fasting (Ramadan)
  • pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj)
2. The material of the Quran is not presented in chronological order, but can be divided into two basic time periods. The earlier material of the Quran relates to the time when Mohammed was in his home town of Mecca. This is the more peaceful material to which moderate Muslims often appeal today when they are in dialog with other religious groups. At that time Mohammed enjoyed a life of relative ease.

But in 622 Mohammed was forced out of Mecca and took up residence in Medina, a move known as the Hijra. The Muslim calendar starts in this year. The material in the Qu'ran dating from this later period is much more combative, and it is from this part of the Qu'ran that militant Islamists draw their notions of jihad.

In this phase of Mohammed's life, his followers began to fight against competing tribes and they would eventually take Mecca itself in 629. Some of Mohammed's opponents in Medina were Jewish tribes, leading to some of his clarifications on the relationship between Islam and Judaism. Islam was thought to give a more accurate understanding of God's promises to Abraham through Ishmael rather than Isaac. Mohammed would also clarify his sense that while Jesus was a prophet, he was not as great a prophet as Mohammed.

3. Islam was radically expansionist in the days immediately following Mohammed's death. Even in the final years of Mohammed's life, treaties were entered into with northern Arabian tribes whereby they agreed to pay the "zakat" to Mohammed. In the two years after his death, Abu Bakr, Mohammed's political successor, would be in control of the entire Arabian peninsula.

The successors of Mohammed divide into two basic groups, the Shia who claim that Mohammed's son-in-law Ali was chosen by God to be the first caliph of Islam. The other group are the majority Sunni, who look to Abu Bakr as the first caliph. Since history is told by the winners, the majority of Muslims are Sunni and look to Abu Bakr as the true successor. Ali was assassinated in 661. [1]

There is no doubt that Abu Bakr was the one who dominated Islam in the first two years after Mohammad's death. Tradition has it that it was he who directed the oral teachings of Mohammed to be written down in the Qu'ran. In his brief period, Islam began to eye an expansion into the Persian empire to the east and the Byzantine empire to the north and west.

This expansion especially took place during the ten year caliphate of Umar [2]. He would take over two-thirds of the Byzantine empire (the remaining Roman empire ruled from Constantinople). And he would conquer the Persian empire of the day (modern day Iran), the Sassanian Empire. This was a vast territory that included territory from northern Africa in the west to Persia in the east to eastern Turkey in the north. It included Egypt, effectively ending Alexandria as a primary center of Christianity. He took Syria, effectively ending Jerusalem and Antioch as major centers of Christianity. [3] At his death, he ruled from Libya to the Indus River (in modern day India).

Islam came upon these regions soon after the two empires had just finished warring against each other, when they were depleted in strength. The Muslim fighters were united in a common cause with a common religious fervor. Those who were conquered could either convert to Islam or, if they were a Jew or a Christian, be a "dhimmi," a "protected one" who paid a tax.

4. By 713, most of Iberia (Spain) was taken from the Visigoths by the Berbers, seeing an opportunity and pushing north from Tangiers. As we mentioned in the previous post, Charles Martel would stop their advance north in 732 at the Battle of Tours.

The Muslim "Moors" would hold territory in the Iberian peninsula for almost 800 years, until Grenada was finally retaken in 1492. Jews and Christians were again allowed to live under the Moors as dhimmis, as long as they paid the zakat. Jews fared much better under Muslims than under the conquering Christians, who insisted they convert or die.

The Moors were pushed back steadily over the centuries, the "reconquista," especially after the Church declared a crusade against them. Portugal became its own kingdom in 1139, for example.

The Golden Age of Islam
5. From a Western perspective, we might call the centuries from the late 700s to the Mongol invasions of the mid-1200s the "Golden Age" of Islam. [4] During this period, Baghdad was the center of Islam, a city founded by the Abassid caliphate or dynasty in 762, just north of where the ancient city of Babylon had stood.

The "House of Wisdom" was founded in Baghdad, and the goal was set to translate all the world's wisdom into Arabic. Greek, Indian, and Persian texts were translated in subjects like mathematics, astronomy, medicine, chemistry, and so forth. Baghdad was the largest city in the world and the Abassid kingdom the largest kingdom in the world at the time.

The greatest thinkers of the early medieval period were not in Christian Europe. The works of Aristotle were preserved largely by Muslim scholars (Christianity at this time was largely Platonic). ibn Sina (Avicenna, 980-1037) wrote on a host of subjects from Persia. ibn Rushd (Averroes, 1126-98) wrote from Spain.

These writers would influence Christian thinkers in France, and Aristotle's influence on Christianity would be sealed through Thomas Aquinas (1225-74). These thinkers also influenced Judaism through the most important Jewish thinker of the age, Maimonides (1135-1204), who lived out his life under Muslim rule.

This flourishing of human thought in the Muslim world would soon come to an end, however. The religious revivals of the eleventh and twelfth centuries largely shut down scientific and philosophical investigation.

6. We have already encountered the Seljuk Turks, who prompted the Crusades because of their advance in Turkey, taking over much of the Byzantine empire. Saladin (1137-93) is the most famous of their leaders and the one who stopped the Crusader advance against Palestine. The Seljuk Turks buffered Europe from the Mongol invasions of the 1200s.

The Ottoman Turks took over the caliphate in 1517 from the Abassids, and had already ruled in Turkey for a couple hundred years before. They conquered Constantinople in 1453 and were only stopped in their westward advance at the Battle of Vienna in 1683. The Ottoman's continued their reign until their kingdom was parceled up after World War I.

7. Islam reached into sub-Saharan Africa as early as the late 600s. The Mali Empire in particular was a key Muslim center in Africa below the Sahara Desert. [5] The famed Timbuktu was a major center of individualized study in the late Middle Ages.

Medieval India
In India, the Golden Age is usually placed from the 300s to the 500s AD, during the Gupta dynasty. This was an era where extensive study of mathematics, science, astronomy, art, and many other fields we now recognize as central to civilization were studied and developed. It is here that the decimal system we currently used was invented. The number symbols we use today (1, 2, 3, 4) came to us from the Indians to the Arabs to us, which is why we call them Arabic numbers.

Slightly later to the south, Brahmagupta (598-late 600s) would use the concept of zero to advance mathematics as well. He was probably the greatest mind of his day in the whole world. What we used to think of as Indian culture reached a kind of mature form during this period. This would include the caste system. The Mahabharata, the longest epic poem in existence, reached its final form at about this time.

The Gupta dynasty came to an end with the invasion of the Huns from the east in 550. The most famous Hun is of course Attila the Hun (406-53), who invaded as far west as Gaul (France) and Italy.

Medieval China
Two main dynasties dominated this period of history in China: the Tang dynasty (618-907) and the Song dynasty (960-1279). The Tang dynasty had its capital at Xian, and was a period of flourishing as far as Chinese poetry is concerned. Du Fu (712-77) is often concerned the greatest Chinese poet of all times, and others such as Li Bai and Wang Wei date from this period. Buddhism was well-established as the dominant religious influence by this time.

The Song dynasty established the first paper currency. Gunpowder and the compass both came from this period of Chinese history. It was put to an end, however, by the Mongol invasions of the 1200s. Kublai Khan destroyed the last Song emperor in 1279.

The Mongol Empire itself started with Genghis Khan (1162-1227). We mentioned him above as the one who ended the rule of the Abassid caliphate in Baghdad. He was brutal and genocidal. One benefit of his rule was the unification of the Silk Road between China and Europe. Marco Polo (1254-1324) would later popularize this trade route with China.

  • No kingdom lasts forever.
  • Most religions have both peaceful and horrific followers.
  • The fanatical and militant almost always find a way to destroy the advance of civilization. The intellectual eventually falls before the violent.
  • Every culture has its day. Every culture has its geniuses.
Next Week: History 8a: The Roman Empire

[1] Sunnis consider Ali to be the fourth caliph.

[2] The Shia of course consider Ali to be the true caliph during this entire period.

[3] Umar allowed Jews to return to Jerusalem. The Romans had kicked Jews out of the city after the bar-Kokhba revolt of 132-35 and built a temple to Jupiter on the Temple Mount.

[4] Muslims divide up the early history of Islam into "caliphates," periods when various dynasties ruled. The first were the immediate successors of Mohammed, the Rashidun (632-61), including Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali. The second caliphate were the Umayyads (661-750), who ruled from Damascus in Syria. The third caliphate were the Abassids (750-1517), who first ruled from Baghdad, which they founded in what is now Iraq. Rule from that location ended in 1258 when the Mongols sacked the city. Then from 1261 they ruled from Cairo, Egypt. The Abassids did not control the entire Muslim world after the early 900s. Parallel caliphates arose in north Africa and Spain.

[5] Tunisia was also a key center of Muslim culture in north Africa from the late 600s. It had a center of learning at Kairouan that has been compared to the medieval university in Paris.

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