Islam's empire-building tradition

Islamic Imperialism: a History
By Efraim Karsh
Cloth: 288 pp | Yale University Press |  ISBN: 0300106033 | $30
The work of the professor of Mediterranean Studies at King's College, London University, this book is a brisk but dense history of Islam from its origins to modern times. This does not leave much space for discursive reflections and consequently the narrative is somewhat dry.
It is the author's contention that imperialism is intrinsic to the Muslim faith. He is most persuasive in advancing this thesis, opening with four key statements by the four famous Muslims that most people can name: the Prophet Muhammad, Saladin, Ayatollah Khomeini and Osama bin Laden. The chilling factor in these statements, made in AD 632, January 1189, 1979 and November 2001 is that they all say the same thing: as the Prophet put it, "I was ordered to fight all men until they say, 'There is no god but Allah.'" They reflect a certain inflexibility of outlook which Westerners are only recently coming to recognise and understand.
In Karsh's view, we have misread modern Islamism in two ways, either viewing it as a generalised Middle Eastern frustration with the West or as an extremist response to America's own arrogance and imperialism. He believes it is simply the culmination of a programme of empire building that has repeated itself for over 1300 years. The problem of Islam from a western or Christian perspective is that it makes no distinction between God and Caesar, between temporal and religious powers; Muhammad's strong-arm bequest to both his followers and dynastic successors (the caliphs) has ensured that it has cast a long shadow down the centuries, today more acutely than ever.
The Prophet's lifetime following his revelations was marked by raids, battles and local conquests -- a restless quest for converts and booty. Compared with the origins of Christianity as related in the Gospels and Acts, Islam can hardly be described as a religion of peace, as some have claimed. Within 12 years of Muhammad's death in June 632 an aggressive campaign had brought about a huge empire, stretching from Iran to Egypt and from the Yemen to Syria. As the Muslim tribes were forbidden to fight one another -- a rule they did not respect for long -- their constant need for revenue turned them towards the "infidels", those outside the faith. The umma, or community of believers, treated their subject races as inferior citizens or dhimmis, and forced them to provide tribute; they were not allowed to marry Muslim women, could only ride on donkeys, not horses, and had to give up their seats to Muslims when required -- a form of Islamic apartheid.
When Egypt had been wrested from Byzantine rule, a Byzantine official commented presciently: "We have seen a people who love death more than life and to whom this world holds not the slightest attraction." The same could be said of suicide bombers. According to Hassan al-Banna, the 20th century Egyptian founder of the Muslim Brothers (which in its turn led to the Palestinian terrorist organisation, Hamas), the Qur'an commands as much from its true believers; "Death is an art...", he wrote.
Fortunately for the West the Islamic imperialists were checked in their advance north by the Franks at the battle of Poitiers in 732. Karsh quotes the ironic comment of the historian Edward Gibbon on what might have happened if the Christians had been defeated: "Perhaps the interpretation of the Qur'an would now be taught in the schools of Oxford and her pulpits might demonstrate to a circumcised people the sanctity and truth of the revelation of Mohammed." The irony not foreseen by Gibbon is that Oxford now has a large mosque, more loyally frequented than the Christian churches surrounding it.
As Karsh shows, the current Shia/Sunni conflict in Iraq has been an intermittent internal ideological struggle for well over a millennium, the Shia always demanding a purified Islam, hearkening back to the Prophet when the religious and the secular were fused, the Sunnis allowing "Allah's community" to become an ordinary empire under the worldly, absolutist rule of later caliphs. This is not so different from other faiths, with their zealous and their worldly elements; what is particular to Islam is that it has never been possible to separate the religion from the politics for long. Muhammad was commanded to go on jihad; he commanded his disciples; and the disciples have periodically embarked on their holy wars ever since.
What is clear from this narrative is that the Muslim "empire" has always been divided, with Syrians, Iraqis, Egyptians and Iranians periodically falling out with each other, making alliances, breaking them, even collaborating with the infidel for strategic purposes. Karsh demonstrates that it is a pious fiction to view the Crusaders as primitive western "oppressors" of the more civilised Saracens.
There was pragmatic cooperation across the religious divide during the Crusades, which were not seen as a cataclysmic event by Muslims at the time; they only affected Palestine and parts of Syria -- local parts of the Islamic hegemony -- and many 12th century Muslims preferred the Frankish rule in Palestine to that of the Muslim governors. Saladin himself, born in the Iraqi town of Tikrit (the same birthplace as Saddam Hussein by some inauspicious coincidence), despite echoing the uncompromising sentiments of the Prophet possessed "neither the burning spirit of jihad nor unwavering Christian enmity".
The last great Muslim empire, the Ottoman, collapsed at the end of the First World War. One is not surprised to read that it declined, like its predecessors, through centrifugal pressures, poor rulers, corruption and administrative mismanagement. What followed it has been a chequered pattern of nationalist ambitions, new dynasties, pan-Arabism and a recent formidable wave of religious zealotry.
For Ayatollah Khomeini history is "a millenarian struggle between the forces of Islam and the forces of jahiliya" -- pagans and secular Muslims. Osama bin Laden has simply taken this intransigence to a new level of hostility towards "the great Satan" (the US) and her allies. According to the creed of the Muslim Brotherhood, a key influence on both these men, "Allah is our goal; the Qur'an is our constitution; the Prophet is our leader; struggle is our way; and death in the path of Allah is our highest aspiration."
Of the post-Ottoman legacy, only Turkey, under the forceful leadership of Mustapha Kemal (Attaturk) has been able to make the transition to a modern nation-state. Karsh does not discuss whether Turkey should join the European Union, as it hopes to do -- the matter of a possible 70 million more Muslims becoming part of Western Europe. Karsh's focus in this book has been on the religious/military aspirations of Islam over the centuries.
However, since 1970 some 20 million (legal) Islamic immigrants have settled in Europe. Thus it seems to me that what Islamist terrorism cannot achieve in the short term might well be achieved by peaceable means in the long term. The flaws of multiculturalism, a fast-falling birthrate and a catastrophic loss of Christian identity could reverse the great victory of the Franks at Poitiers. Edward Gibbon's fanciful speculation might not be so inexact after all.
Francis Phillips writes from Bucks, in the UK.


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