After the “Joseph” post, a post on Islam.
Not in praise of Islam in today’s context (although some people may see some relevant point), but in the context of the world in which it became important and powerful.
This was not the Classical World – the world of Ancient Greece and the Roman Republic. Where people (in many places – although far from all) were either free or slaves.
Slavery certainly existed in the world in which the Muslims went forth on the path of conquest (just as it existed among the Muslims themselves) – but the world they faced was a world where the vast majority of people were semi serfs. Tied to the land, or tied to their urban occupations (tied from birth).
The first thing to go had been the right to keep and bear arms (the classical mark of a free man – in both Ancient Greece and Republican Rome, just as with the Celtic and Germanic tribes). Octavian (“Augustus”) had got rid of most private ownership of, and training in, arms. Useing the argument that he was saving Rome from the dangers of civil war (the repeated civil wars of the Imperial period – where different factions of the army backed different Emperors somehow do not count as civil wars I suppose).
So the Ancient World abandoned the central principle of that great work of classical literature “Starship Troopers” – “everyone fights” (meaning everyone who is to be considered a citizen must be prepared to fight).n And I am not being, entirely, sarcastic – after all Robert Heinlein (the author of Star Ship Troopers) got the idea from Aristotle. In the “Politics”, Aristotle explains how the idea of the armed citizen is not just Greek, how (for example) the men of Carthage are allowed to vote or stand for public office unless they have first accepted military service (of course this rule was later abandoned by Carthage – with tragic results).
Most “citizens” of the new Rome (which now meant the entire Classical world) had no military weapons and were not trained in their use.
Later more and more regulations and restrictions (and higher and higer taxes) were imposed on these “free citizens” – till, in the time of the Emperor Diocletian, they basically became cattle. Tied to the land (if they were peasants) or to their urban occupations (sometimes in state owned factories).
And it even became acceptable to keep these “free citizens” in chains (physcial chains) if it was expected they were going to run away (i.e. no longer farm the land – but run off to the barbarians, or whatever).
And, of course, flogging and all forms of torture (under the Republic only to be applied to slaves) gradually (over the years and centuries of decay) became accepted ways of relating to most ranks of “free citizens”.
Nor were things fundementally different with Rome’s great enemy – the Persians.
The Pathians seem to have tolerated the Greek and other civilizations they became overlords of. But the new (or restored – depending on one’s point of view) regime of the Persians established a new civilization.
With (yes you guessed it) hereditory castes determining a person’s fate in life from birth (much as in Hindu India – accept under the banner of Zorastrianism).
Under the Persians there was also a de facto religous monopoly (how could there not be – the Magi of Zorastrianism were also the magistrates and officials), apart from in the “land of the King” (basically Babylonia – where the King of the Persians ruled directly) where a wide measure of religious tolerance (for Jews and others) was practiced.
The Romans, after the conversion to Christianity, also moved towards a defacto religious monopoly with the persecution of all other forms of belief.
Some Christian Emperors (such as Valentarian) believed this was unChristian. But Emperors eventually adopted the position that it was their role to discriminate against nonChristians – indeed to persecute even fellow Christians over differences in theology.
Of couse in the 7th century the hatred this persecution of Christians by other Christians produced was to have fatal consequences for the Byzantines in the Holy Land – for many Christians (of persecuted types) went over to the Muslims in the middle of the key battle (the fact that these Christians were ethincally Arab was also a factor of course – but Pagan Rome, and Christian Emperors who did not practice persecution NEVER faced defection in the middle of a battle – not even to barbarians of the same ethnic group as troops on their own side).
Augustine, amongst other theologians, provided useful arguments about how using violence, including torture, in matters of religion was not really anti Christian. How did Augustine refute the Hebrew, Amoraic and Greek texts? Well he could not really read any of these languages, so he did not have to.
Ah dear Augustine – it was, of course, him who was one of the leading theologians to ridicule ancient science. And to mock the idea that people could choose to behave decently, none of this “Pelagian” free will for Augustine (that was as bad as being able to read Greek or Hebrew or Amoraic – you know the langugage that that Jesus bloke spoke, why someone interested in the Amoraic words of the Jesus bloke [or the Greek writings of the people who knew him] might be so absurd as to actually visit the land he lived in, which, of course, the wise Augustine never did ). Predestination, and human efforts are doomed, all the way – that is Augustine (he was a true father of the Dark Age).
To me it is no accident that the first theologian in England in the Middle Ages to stress the study of Greek and Hebrew, Roger Bacon, was also interested in submarines, aircraft (and so on) – contray to what is often thought there is no contradiction between a love of ancient learning and hopes for a better future. On the contrary it is the book burners (those who wish to destroy the learning of the past) who tend to be the people who strangle the future.
Of course the Western Roman Empire had collapsed by the time of the comming of Islam (although the Byzantines ruled in most of what had been Roman Africa – as well as in Sicily and other parts of Italy). However, the Germanic regimes that had taken over the rest of the Roman Empire in the West had kept the Roman sytem.
Most of the population reduced to de facto serfdom – a population where the “everyone fights” rule (of free citizens of the Classical World, or of the Germanic world itself) was ignored. Is it really any wonder that the Muslims found it fairly easy to conquer vast populations – even thought their own numbers (at first) were small?
The populations the Muslims took over had been treated as cattle for centuries – both in the East and the West, so conquest just meant a change of masters (not a loss of the freedom they did not have anyway).
And the Persians?
With them it was even worse. Insane social/religious experiments (for example trying to share out “all goods and women”) had almost destroyed the Persian Empire (torn it apart into chaos and civil war) long before the Muslims arrived.
The followers of Muhammed (a member of family of traders) might plunder the goods of other people – but they had no truck with denying the rights of private property amongst themselves.
At least where it came to goods – Islamic law as concerning LAND is more contested, which was to prove a major weakness in Islamic civilization, in comparision to that of the emerging “Feudal” law of the West. Such as the Edict of Quierzy of 877 which restated that even a King of France could not take a fief of land from the children of the person who held it, and give it to someone else – which meant that a Western King was a different sort of thing than a Roman Emperor or an Islamic ruler.
Western Kings might rob. rape and murder people – but these remained CRIMES even if the King did them (as King John was to discover), just as a Western King might have mistresses, but not a “harem” and his heir was expected to be from a marriage (not a slave girl).
A Western King might be a terrible hypocrite and criminal – but there was an objective standard to judge them by (unlike a Roman Emperor) and (again unlike a Roman Emperor) independent land holders with large numbers of armed (and trained) men, to hold them to account. “The Emperor’s will is law” would be an outrage to a mind of the Middle Ages.
And as for the powers of the “barons” themselves – a lord who overstepped the mark with free peasants might well get a longbow arrow in his face, at least in later period England (but other forms of death in other places). Remember even in England at the hight of the “Norman Yoke” only half the population were serfs (which means the other half were not). And the Kings of England (and the various lords) were desperate for armed (i.e. free) men to increase their own power, at home and overseas (that is the whole point of “bastard feudalism” – but it goes back a lot further). As early as the time of Henry the first (son of William the Bastard) the King was already desperatly reaching out to Englishmen to fight his Norman brothers (litterally his brothers) and marrying a direct decendent of Alfred the Great to bolster his claim to the throne.
So indeed “everyone fights”. And the Black Death meant the de facto end of what serfdom there was in England – whatever the demented statutes of Parliament said.
But Islam in the 7th century did not face the Kingdoms of the Middle Ages.
It faced the Persian despotism (desperatly trying to recover from its own madness), the despotism of the Byzantines (really the late Roman Empire – although after their defeat by Islam, what survived of Byzantine civilization was to change…) and the recently (well a century or so) arrived Germanic overlords of places like Spain – where the old Roman system (i.e. most people are cattle – unarmed) remained basically in force.
The Muslims were in a way a throw back to the Classical World – “everyone fights” (indeed believers had a religous duty to train and fight). And, amongst themselves, believers (at least in the early stages of Islam) had rights – they could not be treated as cattle (as the “free citizens” of the late Roman world, or of the Persian world, were).
There was even, again in the early stages, an intense Islamic interest in Classical learning and science – and scholars (Christan, Jewish and Muslim) made progress in these areas (although progress rather over stressed by BBC programmes) that was unmatched (at that time) in the Byzantine Empire or the Western Kingdoms.
For the Muslims (at least at first – and for the most part, there were nasty exceptions such as the ruler who burnt what was left of the library of Alexandria) did not know they were supposed to reject the learning of the ancient world (not build upon it), whereas too many of the Christians and too many of the Magi did reject it – because they thought it represented the civilization they had replaced.
Of course, within a few generations the Islamic world started to reject Classical learning and science more than the folk of the Western Kingdoms did.
However, the story of how that came to pass will have to wait for another time – or another person to tell it.