By the end of this section, you will be able to:
- Identify the factors that characterized and often united the Muslim ummah after 1500
- Explain the relationships among politics, religion, technology, and trade in the Islamic world after 1500
- Analyze the impact of Islamic political and legal institutions on the larger Muslim community
Beginning with its emergence during the life of the prophet Muhammad at the beginning of the seventh century CE, the religion of Islam spread far and wide for several centuries and led to the establishment of several caliphates, areas under the control of Muslim rulers called caliphs. Early expansion occurred largely through conquests, such as those undertaken by the Prophet himself, the Rashidun Caliphate (the name given to the rule of the four caliphs who succeeded Muhammad), and the Umayyad Caliphate, which emerged decades after Muhammad’s death and was ruled by the Umayyad dynasty based in Syria. These conquests expanded the ummah, or the community of Muslims, into Iran, Spain, and the vast lands in between.
In 750, the Umayyad Caliphate succumbed to rebellion and gave way to the Abbasid Caliphate. This dynastic transformation not only led to the elevation of Baghdad as the capital of the Abbasid world, but it also brought with it a larger political division in the Islamic world. The Umayyads in Spain refused to recognize the new Abbasid rulers and eventually established their own rival caliphate. In the centuries that followed, other parts of the Islamic world did the same. By the year 1000, there were three rival caliphates: the Sunni Abbasids ruling from Baghdad, the Shi‘ite Fatimids ruling from Cairo, and a rival Sunni caliphate, the Umayyads, ruling from Cordoba in Spain.
Over the next few centuries, a combination of trade and conquest expanded the ummah into West Africa and India. The arrival of the Mongols in the thirteenth century resulted in increased expansion but also the end of the Abbasid Caliphate in 1258. During the following few hundred years, the rise of the Ottoman Empire brought a larger Islamic presence to southeastern Europe, and the Safavids came to power in Iran. (The land once called Persia became known as Iran during the Abbasid era, although foreigners still commonly referred to it as Persia until the twentieth century.) Steady Islamic trade in the Indian Ocean also expanded Islam into Southeast Asia. By 1500, the Islamic world was geographically expansive and politically, ethnically, and linguistically very diverse.
Politics and Religion in the Ummah
In the sixteenth century, the ummah was composed of a number of large and small Islamic empires and states. Among the large empires were the Mughal Empire of India (discussed in India and International Connections), the Safavid Empire of Iran, and the Ottoman Empire of the Mediterranean. There were many more small kingdoms in places like Morocco, Indonesia, the Swahili Coast, and parts of central Asia. However, despite this political fragmentation, the various parts of the larger Islamic world maintained an element of cohesiveness derived largely from their religion. Rival Islamic kingdoms might disagree with each other on issues of official doctrine or politics, but members of the ulama, a class of religious clerics and scholars who act as the primary interpreters of Islamic law, engaged in scholarly debates and collaborated with each other through correspondence. Shared basic beliefs and a reverence for the teachings of Muhammad united all Muslims. Religious and political institutions tended to maintain a similar structure and function in different locations: judges oversaw legal and religious disputes, and the ulama advised political rulers and ordinary citizens alike on policy by issuing nonbinding legal opinions called fatwas. In this way, the ulama helped unify the increasingly diverse Islamic world.
Also helping to expand and unify Islam were communities of Islamic mystics called Sufis. Like mystics in other religions, Sufis engaged in ascetic practices, meditation, and ritual prayer in order to have a personal experience with God and directly gain access to divine love and wisdom. Often they used music, poetry, and dancing to transcend their connection to the world and enter a trance-like state in which they could experience the divine presence. Sufism began in the seventh century, during the Umayyad Caliphate. By the sixteenth century, Sufi orders had been established throughout the Islamic world. These orders, often described as “brotherhoods” even though some admitted women, formed around a leader who also served as the group’s religious teacher. Sufis who achieved a special closeness with God were revered as saints, and their graves became sites of pilgrimage. Because Sufi practices often attracted the attention of ordinary people for whom complex theological treatises and abstruse legal debates held little interest, Sufis helped introduce Islam to places as far-flung as North and West Africa, central Asia, and India and served as missionaries of the expanding religion.
Through a combination of imperial conquest, trade, Sufi missionary work, and migration, by 1500 the religion of Islam had expanded far and wide. As Muslims migrated to other lands, they usually established familiar Islamic religious institutions in their new communities. This provided a level of consistency for local people as well as for travelers, traders, and visitors. It also facilitated movement and exchange within the Islamic world and helped to unify Muslims as individual polities rose, fell, and were replaced. The result was a great geographic and ethnic diversity of the faith, and in places like India and Indonesia, new converts blended Islamic practices with indigenous traditions (Figure 4.4). Throughout the Islamic world, Arabic script was also adapted to write the local languages, such as Kurdish, Pashto, Urdu, and Punjabi.
Not everyone exposed to Islam or incorporated into the Islamic world adopted Islam. Many Christians in southeastern Europe and southwest Asia continued to practice their religion within the larger Islamic environment. The expansion of Islam into India occasionally invigorated Hinduism and other religions there. While allowed to practice their religions, people in these non-Muslim communities granted protection by Muslim rulers, called dhimmis, were required to acknowledge the sovereignty of Muslim leadership. The dhimmi system was intended to provide religious minorities with official standing within the Muslim community and grant them legal protection, but it usually also included some restrictions on their public lives, such as their clothing choices, and it limited the jobs they could hold and thus their social mobility. The most common hardship was the jizya, or poll tax (Figure 4.5).
Life was often harder for dhimmis than for Muslims of the same social class, and non-Muslims in many places converted to improve their social standing and chances for upward mobility. Merchants often converted to Islam to gain access to Islamic trading networks and potential business partners. Non-Muslim men seeking to marry Muslim women, whether for love or to gain connections to a prominent family, were required to convert. Christian and Jewish women could marry Muslim men without converting, but a Muslim woman could marry only a Muslim man.
Islamic Trade Networks
Islam had arisen in a region defined by trade and travel. Many prominent early Muslims, including Muhammad himself, were traders or members of trading families. And thanks to the institutional continuity specified under sharia, Islamic religious law, trade soon became closely regulated, the taxes levied on imported goods were systematized, and markets were inspected and administered in the same way throughout the Islamic world. By the sixteenth century, the flags of Islam flew from Spain and Morocco in the west to the gates of China in the east. However, these territories were not unified under one political leader. Instead, what brought them together into one collective ummah despite their political, ethnic, and linguistic differences was a network based on trade and travel, which carried Islam farther than its armies ever could.
Trade routes crisscrossed the larger Islamic world, connecting far-flung regions. By sea, Muslim merchants traded from India and Southeast Asia (especially the country of Indonesia) to East Africa, Egypt, and the Arabian Peninsula. Muslims in central Asia and China traded overland with merchants in Iran, East and North Africa, and the Balkans. Caravans crossing the Sahara extended trade into West Africa. Along these trade routes traveled merchants, missionaries, scholars, and many others. Their movement facilitated not only the expansion of Islam but also the spread of languages like Arabic and Persian, which became the languages of commerce, scholarship, and literary expression. It also allowed for the flow and exchange of new technologies, ideas, precious metals, writing and numerical systems, and a great variety of agricultural products once available only in small corners of the world (Figure 4.6).
Dhimmi and other non-Muslim populations were frequently encouraged to participate in trade because of their specializations and contacts in distant areas. Armenian Christians, for example, were heavily involved in the silk trade, and their presence was welcomed in major trade centers. Jewish communities were linked by a trade network they had established between Europe, North Africa, the Middle East, and South Asia. Being exempt from the financial provisions of sharia, which forbade charging interest on loans, Jewish people rose to prominence as moneylenders and bankers, usually serving both Muslim and Christian clients. (Jewish law forbade them to loan money at interest to other Jewish people.) And Muslims traveled and traded widely, guided by Muhammad’s often-cited hadith, or saying, “Seek knowledge, even unto China.”
Islamic communities sprang up along the Silk Roads, the land routes between the Middle East and China, and in other places where Muslim merchants traveled, such as East Africa, West Africa, and India. When merchants established themselves in non-Muslim communities, they often intermarried with the local population, and the children resulting from these marriages were usually raised as Muslims. Members of the existing merchant community often converted to Islam to forge closer relationships with Muslim traders. Once a Muslim community had been established, religious scholars often followed to found mosques, schools, and charitable organizations. In this way, Islam spread throughout Asia, Africa, and the Balkans.
When merchants arrived in a new city, they usually selected a prayer leader, often a member of the ulama who also served as a judge. A Muslim market inspector vouched for the accuracy of weights and measures, verified business contracts between Muslim merchants, certified the sizes of loads being shipped out, and ensured that businesses adhered to sharia. The consistency with which Muslim merchants and traders operated was a key advantage of contracting with them to transport goods long distances. Another benefit was the widespread use of letters of credit, which were recognized in other Islamic lands and allowed merchants to travel without carrying large amounts of gold.
Trade earned profits for participating states in two ways. The first was by bringing in direct income from importing and selling goods, including spices, ivory, salt, silks, and other luxury items, as well as enslaved people. Given their central location at the crossroads of Europe, Africa, and Asia, Muslim merchants frequently acted as intermediaries who purchased goods from one area and sold them to merchants from another. The second financial benefit of trade was the receipt of taxes that states levied on goods being transported through their territory.
Given the profit potential of the goods traded, robbers and bandits were a constant threat. Governments thus sponsored inns called caravansaries at regular intervals on major trade routes, usually one day’s journey apart, where traders could rest and store their goods securely (Figure 4.7). Wealthy individuals might also build caravansaries, providing shelter for travelers as an act of piety. Weak states that could not guarantee security for traders and travelers often found trade routes shifting out of their territory if they became too risky.
In addition to the shipment of material goods like agricultural products, precious metals, and spices, the transportation of enslaved people was also facilitated along Islamic trading routes. Since sharia forbids Muslims from enslaving other Muslims, it became common practice to enslave non-Muslims from regions within reach of Islamic slavers. Common sources included North and sub-Saharan Africa, central and eastern Europe, India, and Indonesia. Enslaved people being moved around the Islamic world were traded for a great variety of goods like cloth, pottery, glassware, and precious metals. Muslim traders also acted as intermediaries, passing enslaved people from Africa to merchants in central Asia and Europe, and they were the primary traders engaged in transporting enslaved people across the Sahara Desert (Figure 4.8).
Within the Islamic world, women outnumbered men among the enslaved two to one. Men were primarily employed in domestic work or service within the estates of the rich, laboring on irrigation projects and in mines or taking care of animals. Most women were kept in wealthy households, where they became domestic servants such as nursemaids or were kept for sexual purposes. Although enslaved people did have legal recourse if mistreated or abused, it was difficult for them to access the courts without the aid of a sympathetic free person. There was no social stigma to prevent a slave owner from recognizing his children with an enslaved woman; the children were born free, and the mother gained her freedom upon the death of her owner.
Muhammad encouraged the freeing of enslaved people, and many Muslims did so. Enslaved men and women were also allowed to purchase their own freedom. This, together with the fact that the children of enslaved women and their owners were born free, meant that it was difficult to maintain a permanently enslaved population in the Islamic world or to make the enslaved population self-reproducing. Those who sought to use enslaved workers thus frequently needed to replenish their labor force by making new purchases, ensuring that the trade in enslaved people remained important in the Islamic world until the nineteenth century.
Technology in the Islamic World
Despite the absence of centralized political authority, communication across long distances was possible in the Islamic world because Arabic, the language of the Quran, also served for most scholarly and administrative purposes as well as religious ones. Scholars were widely scattered but rarely were they isolated, and most traders carried letters across long distances as part of their cargo. Scientists were thus able to compare their observations, students learned from advisers and mentors in far-off lands, and members of the ulama sought counsel from colleagues they might never meet.
Because of the dominance of trade and travel in the Islamic world, scientific and technological innovations that supported these endeavors were especially prized. Mapmaking, for example, was particularly valued. Maps were created by geographers who collected information about the known world through either their own observations or knowledge disseminated by others. For example, in 1513, the Ottoman admiral and cartographer Piri Reis completed a map of the known world (Figure 4.9). To do so, he relied on observations made by Christopher Columbus, Portuguese explorers in India, and several Arab sources. Unfortunately, only about one-third of his map has survived.
One of the travelers who produced a wealth of geographic information for Islamic mapmakers was Ibn Battuta, a fourteenth-century Moroccan reputed to have traveled more than seventy-three thousand miles during his lifetime. He initially journeyed to Mecca to perform the hajj, the Islamic pilgrimage to Mecca, but then decided to continue exploring north and east of Arabia instead of going home. He eventually made his way to China, returning via East Africa and crossing the Sahara to Mali as an envoy of the king of Morocco. Toward the end of his life, Ibn Battuta dictated his memoirs of his travels, which not only were important for mapmakers of his time but also remain a valuable primary source for historians today. Other travelers also produced hajj narratives that pilgrims often used as guides to the lands they passed through.
Beyond developing devices useful for trade and travel, Islamic innovators also devised systems for using location and compass headings to calculate the qibla, the direction toward Mecca that Muslims must face while praying. Early methods relied on crude directions (“Mecca is east”), but by the ninth century, mathematical calculations were being used. By the fourteenth century, mathematics had progressed to the degree that Shams al-Din al-Khalili, the official timekeeper of Damascus, applied advanced trigonometry to calculate the qibla for a range of locations with such precision that today’s satellite technology is barely able to improve on it. These and other efforts to fix a person’s location on the globe led to advancements in astronomical measurements, as did the need to calculate prayer times each day based on the sun’s position in the sky.
Military technology, especially the use of gunpowder, also greatly advanced in this period. Originally developed in China, gunpowder was transmitted to the Islamic world in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, possibly first introduced by the Mongols. By the fifteenth century, the Janissary corps of the Ottoman Empire were using firearms like the arquebus, an early long gun, in battle. And it was the Ottomans who famously used artillery in the siege of Constantinople in 1453. The Ottoman Empire was not the only Islamic state to use and improve upon gunpowder arms. Both the Safavids in Iran and the Mughals in India were famous for their ability to arm their soldiers with firearms like the powerful matchlock rifle (Figure 4.10).
In 1974, historians Marshall G. S. Hodgson and William H. McNeill theorized that the adoption of gunpowder technology was what led to the rise of the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal realms, coining the term “gunpowder empires” as a description of them. Today that theory is largely disputed, but the name has remained. What these empires had in common was their conception of the entire state as a military force, in which all political, economic, and cultural resources were coordinated by the central government to strengthen the army and maintain internal and external security. Their view of the state and their ability to consolidate resources in order to pay for technological advances also enabled these three empires to research, develop, and deploy new military technologies, including firearms and cannon, much more quickly than their enemies did. For more than two centuries, they were among the strongest and most stable economies in the world, and their patronage of art and culture produced works of visual art, architecture, and literature that are still considered among the best ever produced. Collectively, the so-called gunpowder empires earned the awe, envy, respect, and fear of their contemporaries in Europe, Africa, and Asia.
Perspectives on Trade in the Muslim World
An emphasis on how Muslims should conduct business affairs is found in some of the hadith or sayings of the prophet Muhammad, himself a trader. Sunni Muslims consider hadiths collected by al-Bukhari, Abu Dawud, and Ibn Majah among the most authentic guides to behavior. Shi‘ites place more faith in stories narrated by Muhammad’s daughter Fatima and her husband, Muhammad’s cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib, whom they recognize as the Prophet’s direct successor as leader of the Muslim community.
There will be three types of people whom Allah will neither speak to them on the Day of Resurrection nor will purify them from sins, and they will have a painful punishment: They are, (1) a man who possesses superfluous water along the road who withholds it from travelers. . . . (3) a man who sells something to another man . . . and swears a false oath that he has been offered so much for it whereupon the buyer believes him and buys it although in fact, the seller has not been offered such a price.
—Sahih al-Bukhari 7212
Hakim asked [Muhammad]: “A man comes to me and wants me to sell him something which is not in my possession. Should I buy it for him from the market?” [Muhammad] replied: “Do not sell what you do not possess.”
—Sunan Abi Dawud 3503
Transactions may only be done by mutual consent.
—Ibn Majah Vol. 3, Book 12, Hadith 2185
Almost a millennium later, the philosopher and historian Ibn Khaldun wrote about the importance of governments allowing trade:
As we have stated, the dynasty is the greatest market, the mother and base of all trade. [It is the market that provides] the substance of income and expenditures [for trade]. If government business slumps and the volume of trade is small, the dependent markets will naturally show the same symptoms, and to a greater degree. Furthermore, money circulates between subjects and ruler, moving back and forth. Now, if the ruler keeps it to himself, it is lost to the subjects. This is how God proceeds with His servants.
—Muqaddimah, Chapter 3, section 40
- According to the hadith, what are some of the ethical standards that should govern business? Why do you think these were made part of religious law?
- According to Ibn Khaldun, why is allowing trade important for a government? What would happen if governments restricted it?