Indian History Part 53B The Medieval Islamic World


Singapore, 27 September 2016

From the time of its origin in the 7th century till the end of the 13th century, the Islamic world represented much of the better aspects of human civilisation. During these nearly six hundred years, Islam ranged from Spain and West Africa to Central Asia and the Indian sub-continent, with the core of the Islamic civilisation resident in the lands between the Rivers Nile and Oxus. In 1258, the Mongols conquered Baghdad and the world of Islam changed for ever.

There are two almost insurmountable challenges to examining early Islamic history and arriving at credible and authentic conclusions after the analysis. One, the period between 600 and 700 is the most important in the early history of Islam. However, there is almost no documentary sources of this period that is available. Almost everything that has documented regarding this period has been written down at later dates, at times by as much as few centuries. Till then the information was orally transmitted. Two, a majority of the available literature originates from within the Muslim world and is steeped in adhering to the rather strict Islamic tradition. Their authenticity, in terms of details, can be questioned.

Literary Sources

The literary sources that are available can be classified into four categories. The first is the sacred text of Islam, al-Kitab, The Scripture or The Book, also known as al-Quran, The Recitation. Second is the commentary on the Quran, called tafsir. The third are the statements attributed to or reports about the activities of the Prophet Muhammad by his companions, called ahadith (singular hadith, in English writing the plural hadiths is often used). The fourth are the narrative reports of the events that took place in the early Islamic community in Medina and subsequently in Mecca, called akhbar (singular khabar). These four literary sources were combined, sometimes as much as two centuries later, to create a cohesive narrative of early Islamic tradition.

According to traditional Muslim accounts, the compilation of the Quran into a single manuscript was done during the reign of the third caliph, Uthman ibn Affan (ruled 644-56). The Quran is God’s speech and not Muhammad’s human teachings and therefore it is believed to be without any error, meaning that its veracity cannot be questioned. In the Islamic tradition no debate regarding the nature or authenticity of the text is tolerated. However, debate regarding the reliability of the other three literary sources is somewhat more acceptable and their genuineness can be called into question by the faithful. Therefore, from a purely analytical or academic point of view, some of the sources could be considered unreliable. However, the same texts were the sources for the development of religious dogma that started to become entrenched in a gradual manner as the religion developed. There are two reasons to doubt the reliability of the literary sources other than the Quran. First, all of them are fully in-house documents, created from inside sources. In these circumstances the influence of vested interests in perpetuating a particular viewpoint cannot be fully ruled out. Second, almost all the literary accounts date to several centuries after the events described actually took place. Therefore, there is a distinct possibility of inaccuracies having crept into the narrative.

Political Character

From the death of Prophet Muhammad in 632, to the sacking and destruction of Baghdad in 1258 by the Mongols, the institution of the Caliphate guided, inspired and protected the spreading Islamic societies. Prophet Muhammad, the founder of the religion, was both a religious and political leader and the initial fledgling community was a voluntary group led by the Caliph. Early sources provide three titles that were bestowed on the leaders of the community immediately following Muhammad and were used simultaneously. They are: Khalif Rasul Allah, meaning caliph and the deputy or successor of the Messenger of God; Amir al-Muminin, commander of the believers; and Imam or the religious leader. The three titles emphasised the caliph’s absolute political, military and religious authority over his followers. In agreeing to invest all the three roles in one individual, the community was in essence giving him the responsibility for being the sole leader with all political and military power over it. In addition he was also the religious leader and in the early days the arbitrator between groups with different theological viewpoints. The office was a lifetime ‘appointment’. Therefore, the one issue that almost always came up during the necessary successions was laying down the criteria for determining the person best qualified to hold the office and lead the community.

From the beginning of the formation of the religious community, there have been three major—and at times competing—groups within the broader fold of Islam. They are the Sunni, Shi’a and Khariji, all of whom had differing and diversified opinions on theology and, more importantly, the issues that related to the selection of the leader.

Sunni. The Sunnis represented the majority of Muslims in the premodern and continues to be the majority in the modern world. The shortened title ‘Sunni’ is derived from the formal title of the group – ahl al-Sunna wa l-Jama’a, meaning the people of tradition and community consensus. In simple terms the highest value in the Sunni community is placed on the maintenance of the broad unity of the group, the umma. In the Sunni perspective, the caliph only needed to be politically good enough to perform his primary job of maintaining the unity of the community. They were essentially ‘caliph loyalists’ and gave precedence to the political capabilities of the incumbent leader over his other responsibilities.

Shi’a. The name denotes the fact they were derived from a faction (Shi’a) that was constituted by Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali ibn Abi Talib. This group believes that Muhammad had designated Ali as his successor before his death. Therefore, the proclamation of Abu Bakr as the first caliph is considered an illegitimate usurpation of power. The Shi’a adhere to two fundamental doctrines. One, that the rightful caliph had to be a lineal descendant of Muhammad, through the line of Ali and Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter. Two, and also more controversial, that the caliph or Imam was not only the political head, but an infallible religious teacher who was without error in all matters of the faith and morals. The Shi’a emphasis the religious and theological role of the leader, and therefore the person was more likely to be called Imam than Caliph.

Khariji. The word means ‘seceders’, so named since this group disagreed with both the other major factions. The Khariji were purists, believing that the principal criteria to assume leadership of the community was piety and moral purity. These were the all-important characteristics and the genealogy or even military capabilities of the leader did not matter.

In the initial phases of the development of Islam as a religion, these three groups were essentially political divisions. However, with time and continuing antagonism, they evolved into separate religious factions, each with its own theological underpinnings, but continuing as part of the broader Islamic community.

Islamic Law – The Shari’a

In the medieval period, the deepening of the Islamic culture and identity in the early Islamic lands of North Africa and the Middle-East gradually introduced a system of beliefs within the community. It also produced the processes to create a framework for social action and cultural expression. This was the beginning of the evolution of a distinctive ‘Islamic society’. Along with this societal development, there also developed an accepted code of conduct that governed the relationship between individuals as well as between individuals and the governing regime.

Over the course of centuries, religious leaders developed an all-encompassing code of behaviour for the followers of Islam, which came to be called Shari’a. The interaction of an individual with everyone else, as well as all other aspects of his or her life is in principle governed by one or the other aspect of the Shari’a. Although the term Shari’a is sometimes translated as Islamic Law, it is not a formal body of legislation in the modern sense, but conveys the concept of a pathway to leading a pious life.

As the religion became more entrenched, religious scholars, the ulama, sought to determine how Muslims should live in accordance with God’s will as understood and interpreted by them. In theory, this was done by examining each aspect of human behaviour to match it with the scholastic interpretation of the Quran. The process of following the religion was similar in both Islam and Judaism, in that the adherence to the religion was derived from the same concept, even though specific commands were obviously different. Both the religions are based on the idea of a pathway to live and behave in obedience to God. In other words the primary concern is the ‘right behaviour’ in obedience to God, essentially orthopraxis. In comparison, Christianity is concerned primarily with the ‘right belief’ in God, which is orthodoxy. Although this distinction is relatively easy to understand, it is also an oversimplification of the fundamental concepts that underpin the three religions. It does not mean that Islam and Judaism are not concerned with the right theology, or that Christianity is oblivious of proper behaviour. The opposite is the truth. The above explanation is theoretical and meant to emphasise the fundamental aspects of the religions.

The most common theme in the Quran is human kind’s duty to obey God, although it contains only limited legal material. However, commandments, prohibitions and punishments are detailed in a very specific manner. Similarly, the most common theological doctrine in the Quran is God’s mercy and His compassion. It is noteworthy that all but one of the 114 chapters in The Book begin with the same invocation, ‘In the name of God, the Merciful, the Compassionate’. However the Quran was compiled some years after the death of Prophet Muhammad and the Muslims looked towards the early Islamic community and their tradition for guidance to lead the correct way of life.

Muhammad’s infallibility, as perceived now, was not proclaimed in the Quran. It was only by mid to late 8th century that a doctrine started to be developed proclaiming that God had protected Muhammad, as His prophet, from gross moral error. This doctrine was then extended by legal scholars to the argument that since Prophet Muhammad was morally perfect, his personal practices and/or the traditions that he created and followed were the only reliable guide to the right conduct for an individual other than the guidance given in the Quran. Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafii, who died in 820, was one of the most prominent early legal scholars. The Prophet’s practices were recorded in the hadiths, the reports about what Muhammad said or did, which were determined to be authentic. These were then considered authoritative and to be followed by all true believers.

The scholars did argue regarding the authenticity of each individual hadith. The issue was settled by ascertaining as to which of the hadiths could have been transmitted in an unbroken chain through reliable people, reaching back to the lifetime of the Prophet himself. Even so, since this methodology was reliant on oral transmission, it was not fool-proof and remained open to debate and discussion within the community of religious scholars.

The Shari’a was constructed in two categories that were interdependent. One was the usul al-fiqh, meaning the roots of jurisprudence or the legal theory; and the other the furu al-fiqh, which represented the branches of jurisprudence or the practical application of the law. A detailed knowledge of the Quran and the hadiths was fundamental to the understanding and practice of the science of jurisprudence and the implementation of the Shari’a. The Shari’a was imposed and followed primarily in urban areas because the religious scholars were mainly resident there, the judges and their courts were located in urban centres and the mechanisms to enforce the judges’ decisions were also predominantly available in urban areas. The rural countryside lacked all of the above and therefore Shari’a took a backseat to prevalent local custom and traditions. It is therefore apparent that the methodology of jurisprudence could not be employed or enforced consistently across all the Islamic lands. From a historical analysis point of view, the Shari’a provides an insight into the norms of medieval Islamic world and enhances the understanding of the daily life and practices of the common people.

Islamic Mysticism (Sufism)

Islamic mystics were called Sufis because of their proclivity to wear clothes of wool, the word for which was ‘suf’. In fact the Arabic word for mysticism, tasawwuf, is also derived from the same word, suf. The development of Sufism is rooted in an individual’s search for the proper understanding of the religion. In a simplistic explanation, the Islamic religion was defined by scholars and jurists as a ‘religion of law’ based on the meticulous study and adherence to the Quran and hadiths. The mystics and ascetics on the other hand conceived of it as a ‘religion of the heart’ almost totally based on an individual’s direct interaction with and knowledge of God. In other words, the Sharia-minded majority sought knowledge about God based on revelations by the Prophet and other messengers, whereas the Sufi-minded minority sought knowledge and understanding of God based on one’s own mystical experiences in dealing with God.

Both the Sharia-based outlook and Sufism were, and even today are, not mutually exclusive but only tendencies and trends within the broad spectrum of religious experience and practice of Islam. The interaction and mingling of the two was particularly visible in medieval times. J Spencer Trimingham, the author of the authoritative book, The Sufi Orders in Islam, which is considered a masterpiece in terms of analysing the Sufi expression, divides the development of the Sufi tradition into three distinctive periods.

The first period, called the ‘Khanaqah’ period, is considered the ‘golden age of mysticism’. During this period, Sufism was intellectually and emotionally an aristocratic movement, with the Sufi practitioners, the Sufis, leading itinerant lives. They were guided by masters who encouraged and even pushed them to start and understand a personal quest to experience God directly, without having to take recourse to an intermediary. By around the 10th century, the Sufis had started to build informal lodges, where master and pupil or disciple individually pursued mystical union with God.

The second period, called the ‘Tariqa’ period, lasted for about 300 years, approximately between 1100 and 1400. During this period, the easy-going rituals and practices of the early Sufis started to be formalised and became clearly oriented towards devotional discourse. Further, the ‘paths’ and ‘ways’ to attaining mystical union with God also started to get defined, as opposed to the individual pursuit that had so far been the hallmark of Sufism. Fundamentally the emphasis shifted from an individual’s surrender to God to a surrender to a specified and defined rule.

In the third period, which lasted till about 1800, Sufism transformed into a popular mass movement with numerous methods—ranging from free-flowing and individual communion with God to strictly laid down ritualistic practices—to achieve the ultimate union with God being advocated and practised. Although evolutionary changes took place in the practice of Sufism over the period of thousand years, the essential goal of Sufism remained the same—to achieve and know the ecstasy of direct experience and knowledge of God.

The Shari’a-based practice co-existed with Sufism, even though there were clear differences between the practitioners of the two systems, especially in the extreme fringes of each. Sufism was condemned as a departure from the true faith and the commandments of the Shari’a while the Sufis considered the Shari’a as too constraining and inhibiting to the development of a true understanding and knowledge of God.

The most famous Sufi saint and an icon of the tradition during the medieval age was al-Hallaj (lived 857-922). He was born in Tus in Iran but moved to Basra in his younger days and made his mark there as an ascetic and preacher. He was arrested in 913 for blasphemy and imprisoned, subsequently being executed in 922. The fundamental belief and emphasis in the practice of Sufism at this time was the importance of the intellect, both as a means and an aid in the perennial search to find God while also acknowledging the known inadequacies of the intellect. The early Sufis based most of their writings and preaching on the teachings of al-Hallaj. One of his famous followers, Kalabadhi, wrote the tome The Doctrine of the Sufis, translated by A. J. Arberry in 1935.

The acknowledged inadequacy of the human intellect, as believed by the Sufi practitioners can be illustrated by the poem by al-Hallaj, given below:

Whoso seeks God, and takes the intellect for guide,

God drives him forth, in vain distraction to abide;

With wild confusion He confounds his innermost heart,

So that distraught, he cries, ‘I know not if Thou art’.

A. J. Arberry (Tr)

The Doctrine of the Sufis, 1935, p. 52

Such poems and equally vague statements that could be clearly understood if one was mystically oriented and which were easily misinterpreted by the adversaries of Sufism became a tool for suppressing the Sufi movement. The catastrophic fate that befell al-Hallaj is a clear indication of the perils of mystical proclamations within a religion that prides itself to be one of law and obedience.

The Concept of Jihad

Jihad is an Arabic noun that conveys the idea of a struggle or strife. In the Quran, the term is often used as part of the phrase ‘jihad fisabil Allah’, meaning ‘striving in the Path of God’. Most Islamic scholars hold jihad as an obligatory task for all able-bodied Muslims, with some going as far as to declare it the sixth pillar of Islam. The textual authority for the doctrine of jihad is found in the Quran and hadiths, both of which are rooted in the life of Prophet Muhammad and the practices that were recorded as having been the norm in the early Islamic community in Medina.

Jihad, explained mainly in the 9th chapter of the Quran, is elucidated both as a defensive as well as offensive concept. It constituted general defensive warfare against those who fought Muhammad, his followers and the ‘right’, but new, religion that he had created. The other part of jihad was offensive warfare against non-believers of all kind. A host of statements attributed to the Prophet extols the virtue and merit of the concept of jihad to conduct a war against the people opposed to the religion, who were considered enemies. This stand is understandable in the context of the time when Muhammad was at war with the Meccans after his hijra to Medina. It was after the death of the Prophet that the same statements were gathered together to form the basis of the ideology of jihad. This slightly nuanced concept was one of the main factors that facilitated the large Islamic conquest during the medieval period.

After the basic Islamic Empire was established, the caliphs continued to support an expansionist concept of jihad, with an eye to further conquest. Some of the caliphs even took part in punitive raids, that they ostensibly led, in order cement their position by demonstrating their commitment to personal jihad. Even in the early days of the Islamic conquest, the ideology of jihad had started to be corrupted for the material benefit of the ruling elite.

Once the Islamic Empire had been well-established and was not anymore in a precarious condition, scholars started to divide the world into two parts. One, Dar al-Islam, the Abode of Islam, which encompassed territories under Islamic political control or domination. The other, Dar al-Harb, the Abode of War, was all the other places that were not under Islamic jurisdiction. Since this division was accepted as correct, the borders of Islam waxed and waned over time, almost on a continuous basis. It is not surprising that throughout the Medieval Era, Islamic armies pursued their primary vocation and did what they did best—they fought wars. At all times they were undertaking jihad. The Islamic armies were engaged in jihad mostly to expand the borders of the Islamic world in Central Asia, Africa, Anatolia, Europe and India. If they were not engaged in this dedicated pursuit, Muslim armies fought other Muslim armies to impose a particular vision of Islam on other ‘non-believers’ practising other abhorrent versions of Islam or to implement a particular form of governance on non-adherents. In all cases jihad was a consuming activity that did not need too much impetus to be commenced.

Jihad and Civil Wars

Civil and internal wars plagued the early Islamic community, especially during the Rashidun (632-61) and Umayyad (661-750) caliphates. This was followed by the Abbasid Revolution in the late 740s, which established the Abbasid Caliphate that lasted till 1258, when the Mongols destroyed it after they sacked Baghdad.

The Almoravids (1062-1147) and the Almohads (1130-1269) the two major revivalist movements used the concept of personal jihad to set right what was then perceived as corrupt practices of essentially Muslim regimes in North Africa and Spain. They also fought the Christian monarchs in Spain within the same concept.

Considering the common use of the ideology of jihad to achieve the material ends of empire, it is not surprising that some scholars considered those engaged in jihad as soldiers of fortune and even bandits. There is some justification for this attitude, since the altruistic concept of jihad had become warped to cater for individual vanities and rampant materialism. On the contrary, the explanation and understanding of jihad amongst the followers of the mystical Sufi tradition and the more pious scholars were two-pronged. They argued that Jihad could be divided into two types. First and the greater jihad was the internal struggle within oneself against temptation and evil. This was a jihad of piety and persuasion. Second, and a relatively lesser form of jihad, was the military one. The tangible results of victory in the military jihad, the jihad by the sword, was almost immediately visible and therefore it became the more preferred jihad that was waged. Since the victory in a jihad against temptation and evil took place in the mind, it was not easily appreciated by the lay person. More importantly, this victory was not visible to anyone but the individual and therefore did not satisfy the ego-centric need of the common man. It is no wonder that military jihad predominated the medieval times, as it does the present 21st century activities of the Islamic ‘armies’.

Warfare in Early Islamic History

From the time of his arrival in Medina, Muhammad was continually engaged in a number of minor, and at times unsuccessful, raids on caravans that belonged predominantly to merchants from Mecca. During the ten years that he spent in Medina, he fought a number of battles. Three military conflicts stand out in terms of their importance to the development of the new ideology and the furtherance of Muhammad towards his final position as the Prophet: the Battle of Badr in mid-March 624; the Battle of Uhud in mid-March 625; and the Battle of the Trench in late-March 627. The details of each of these battles and their aftermath is not being discussed in this chapter as they are not directly connected to the spread of Islam in the Indian context. However, in a general manner they provide an insight into the politics and the conduct of warfare in the earliest Islamic times.

Muhammad was invited to Medina to arbitrate a solution between two feuding tribes, the Aws and the Khazraj. However, the invitation and more so the acceptance of his political and religious authority was not universal at that time. The Jews of Medina, a segment of rich, noble and influential part of the population, particularly were unwilling to accept Muhammad’s religious teachings and his claim to prophet-hood. As his influence and following grew within Medina, Muhammad eliminated the Jewish opposition by destroying the power and authority of the three major Jewish families/clans. He forced into physical exile two of these families because of which they forfeited their wealth and lost all influence. He executed the men and enslaved the women of the third clan, thereby getting rid of all opposition to his vision of the new religion and his own position as its Prophet.

The battles that were fought indicate the characteristics of warfare of the time. It also demonstrates the fact that the nature of war has always been political and the desired end-state is politically defined. This fact holds true for the wars and conflicts being fought even in the 21 century. The battles fought by Prophet Muhammad has been reported in detail at a much later date, the descriptions derived from the details as transmitted through the oral tradition. Therefore, it is difficult to consider these accounts as being fully authentic in terms of its content and analysis.

Military Slavery – The Mameluke Institution

In the 9th century, cavalry started to replace the infantry as the primary arm of the army. The cavalry units, mainly mounted archers of great skill, became the core group within the fighting forces. Around the same time the institution of the Mameluke was also becoming established. Initially it started as a means of recruiting and training the ‘right’ soldiers for the cavalry units. Mamelukes were soldiers who had been enslaved as boys and raised to the profession of arms, forming special cavalry units.

The Abbasid Caliph al-Mutasim (ruled 833-42) is credited with raising the first effective Mameluke cavalry corps, comprising mainly of Turks from Central Asia. The formation and the superior performance of this corps brought about a major change in the Abbasid military system that had been in vogue till then. It brought to a conclusive end the dominance of Arabs in the Islamic armies of the medieval era. From then onwards, ethnic minorities from the fringes of the empire—Turks, Berbers, Armenians—became the core of the Islamic army. The success of the Mameluke army was such that the Caliph al-Mutasim built a new city, Samarra, to house the new troops.

Mameluke is an Arabic word meaning ‘one who is owned’. However, the term is only used to denote a particular type of military slavery that was custom-designed to produce elite forces of mounted warriors who were given a higher social status than normal soldiers. The domestic servants—slaves within an agrarian society—were referred to by the terms ‘abd’ and ‘khadim’, and held the lowest status in society. These slaves were also normally ill-treated, being the recipients of all kinds of debased abuse, similar to the manner in which slaves were treated in Southern USA before the abolition of slavery as an institution in that country in the mid-1800s.

In the medieval Islamic world being enslaved as a boy and then being raised as an elite warrior, a Mameluke, was a more uplifting than degrading experience. After the tradition had been well-established, the Mamelukes served in important positions not only in the military, but also in the broader government, gaining wealth and status in society. According to early Islamic law, only people residing in the ‘Abode of War’, the non-Muslims, could be enslaved. This was the reason for the Mamelukes being ‘recruited’ from the outer fringes of ‘The Abode of Islam’, the Islamic Empire, like sub-Saharan Africa, Greece and India. Clearly the preference was for Central Asian Turks, bought as boys from the thriving slave markets. The term Turk in this context had a very broad usage and indicated a person who was a pastoral nomad from the Central Asian steppes. The owners of Mamelukes, normally called ustadh, particularly nobles and others from the higher strata of society, at times looked on the more capable ones as ‘sons’. It was not uncommon for a Mameluke ‘son’ to be declared the heir and inheritor to the owner. This was the reason for the establishment of the Mameluke dynasties that ruled in Egypt and India a few centuries later.

The Mameluke tradition endured for many centuries, evolving with the needs of the time. Although initially a well-defined institution, over a period of time it became difficult to define a Mameluke. It is clear from reports and authentic records that not all military commanders who were referred to as Mamelukes were enslaved people. Some who were never slaves, but were part of the fighting units mainly made up of Mamelukes, adopted the title to identify themselves with the elite cadre. On the other hand, even when a Mameluke was manumitted, he continued to refer to himself, and be called a Mameluke; almost as a badge of honour. The institution of Mamelukes was unique and gave rise to the so-called Slave Dynasty in medieval India. The important historical fact is that this dynasty was responsible for establishing the first viable Islamic kingdom in the Indian sub-continent. It is obvious that the term Mameluke that has been equated to ‘slave’ was a misnomer, if ever there was one.


From the very beginning of its inception as a religion, Islam was a warring concept with the ideology of jihad, personal conflict or war, being built into the meaning of worship. This duty to defend the beliefs and to offensively spread its ‘goodness’ was combined with the implicit belief in an eclectic combination of religious worship, day-to-day living and strict adherence to rules and laws that were laid down. The combination bound the community together as never before seen. All the binding forces were derived from the life of the Prophet and the early Islamic community that was established in Medina. Since these traditions were passed own by word of mouth for few centuries before they were written down, they were open to interpretation in the medieval era. They continue to be debated by scholars even today.

© [Sanu Kainikara] [2016]
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About Sanu Kainikara

Sainik School Kazhakuttam (Kerala), National Defence Academy 39/A, 108 Pilot's Course IAF, fighter pilot, QFI, FCL, psc, HACC, Voluntary Retirement as Wing Commander. Canberra-based Political and Defence Analyst specialising in military strategy, national security, and international politics. PhD in International Politics from University of Adelaide Executive Masters in Public Adminsitration (ANZSOG) Adjunct Professor, University of New South Wales, Distinguished Fellow Institute For Regional Security (IFRS) Distinguished Fellow Centre for Air Power Studies (CAPS)

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