View Printable Version :: Email to a Friend
A History of Medieval Islam
Book Review
Ilhan Niaz


Book Name:          A History of Medieval Islam

Author:                J.J.Saunders

Pages:                 219

Publisher:             Toutledge, London & New York.

Price:                   $ 15


A History of Medieval Islam by. J.J. Saunders is an objective and pleasing account of West-Asian history from 500 AD to 1260 AD. Serious students of Islamic history will probably find the book a bit brief, while casual readers will definitely enjoy its easygoing and highly readable nature. On the whole, it must be noted that Islamic history is a sadly under-represented field that is in great need of such works.

Saunders begins this history with an account of Pre-Islamic Arabia - a backward, weak and divided entity that existed on the periphery of the mutually antagonistic Empires of Sassanid Persia and Byzantium. These colossi were locked in perpetual conflict with one another, often enlisting a Northern Arabian tribe as an ally with the purpose of breaking the deadlock – only to suppress the tribe if it got out of hand. The settled inhabitants of Southern Arabia (modern day Yemen and Oman) did not fare much better than their nomadic cousins in the north during the sixth century AD. The dislocation engineered by Axumite and Sassanid rivalry caused agricultural production to fall, which in turn precipitated de-urbanisation. In the light of such unfavorable objective conditions, it is not surprising that Arabs regard the sixth century as a Dark Age. The question that arises from such an analysis is that if Arabia was regressing economically and politically from 500-600 AD, what was it that transformed this waterless waste into the heart of the greatest empire the world had ever seen?

In discussing the Prophet (sws) and his role in the rise of Islam, Saunders is very objective. He does not try to delve into the vagaries of character analysis as many other western scholars tend to. Instead, he simply places the accomplishments of the Prophet Muhammad (sws) before the reader and relates them to the objective conditions prevalent at that time. Such an approach leads Saunders into defending the Prophet’s integrity, honesty, and judgement.

Saunders points out that the campaign the first caliph, Abū Bakr (rta), launched in order to crush the ‘false prophet’ (Musaylimah) founded the basis of the Islamic military tradition. The Muslims learned to cope with the problems of war management such as logistics, tactics, organisation, formations, and cartography. The sheer scale of the war effort turned Arabia into a disciplined, tough, and highly motivated armed camp, ably led by fearless (and intelligent) commanders. In the light of such factors, it was most wise of the first caliph to keep his restless minions gainfully occupied. The decision to divide the army into three corps, and send it into Syria, Palestine and Mesopotamia was truly ingenious. Saunders pays rich tribute to the manner in which the caliph ‘Umar (rta) tackled the problems of civil administration through a series of regulations, tolerant government, and impeccable strategic decisions. He notes that the Muslims were more tolerant towards the various Christian sects than the were to one another and that the much-criticised tax put on non-Muslims can be thought of as a substitute for military service. By 644 AD, the Islamic Empire stretched from Egypt to Iran, when the second caliph’s untimely death at the hands of an assassin precipitated a war of succession a dozen years later.

The civil wars that followed the murder of the third caliph ‘Uthmān (rta) in 656 AD and ‘Alī’s controversial ascension to the post of caliph are all dealt with in a dispassionate and detached manner by Saunders. He simply puts the facts before the reader, and lets one draw one’s own conclusions. Indeed, as far as he is concerned, the conflict between the two sects that emerged from the civil wars was essentially between those who wanted hereditary succession and those who didn’t. For the casual reader, however, going through the countless intrigues which characterised the period between 656 AD and 684 AD will be quite vexing.

Between 684 - 750 AD, the Umayyads launched an offensive which almost managed to turn their dreams of universal empire into a reality. By 712 AD, the Islamic empire stretched from Spain to Sindh. This expansion was truly remarkable in light of the fact that the Arabs actually managed to digest their conquests – till this day, the territories occupied by the Umayyads remain the heartland of the Islamic world. By 750 AD, however, the empire of the Umayyads had reached the limit of its territorial expansion and no Islamic state has since then unified so large an expanse. Saunders notes that the abolition of the seven hundred year old Roman/Persian frontier created a massive free trade zone, whilst the conquest of Spain and North Africa during this period flooded the treasury with specie. As the mighty Imperial Navy guarded the commercial interests of the empire, the organization of the government along Persian lines greatly enhanced the efficiency of the administration.

The opportunity cost of successful imperialist expansion was that the court at Damascus became a center of conspicuous consumption that contracted sharply with the simplicity of the early Caliphs. The situation was further compounded by a sharp rise in the inflation rate as a result of the injection of so much foreign specie. The expanding bureaucracy and army required higher taxes to be imposed, and gradually, as conquests stopped, and Islam began to face reverses in Spain, and Berber revolts in N. Africa, the hold of the center began to weaken. The masses, never particularly fond of the Umayyads in any case, became alienated from their rulers and the enthronement of a weak caliph in 744 AD set the stage for the Abbasid Revolution. Saunders, aside from giving an informative account of the Abbasid Revolution, notes that it accelerated the trend towards centralised despotism and the ‘Persianisation’ of the Islamic world.

After the death of Harūn-al-Rashīd, the political unity of the Islamic world was shattered, as successive caliphs proved unable to deal with the centrifugal tendencies unleashed by growing resentment at Arab colonialism. The Abbasid caliphate further sealed its fate by seeking both the temporal and spiritual leadership of the Islamic world – and failing to gain either. Various inquisitions were unleashed with the result that each wavering sect was given a martyr. One of the sects was the Alid, which was suppressed in 851 AD on the orders of Mutawakkil. The shrine of Hussain at Karbala was destroyed and pilgrimage to it was forbidden. For a while the Alid movement died down, only to rise with great ferocity in the form of the ‘Isma‘īlian Schism’.

Unfortunately, as Saunders admits there is no comprehensive record of the objective conditions that got the Isma‘īlian schism and the Fatimid anti-caliphate going. The paucity of reliable data creates a situation where objective study is very difficult to accomplish. Nevertheless, the author tries to piece together a coherent picture through some logical inferences. The most interesting of these is that since the series of events which led to the establishment of the Fatamid anti-caliphate in 909 AD is so astonishing, there must have been some sort of organised movement involved.

The conversion of many Turkish tribes to Islam in the tenth century AD was as momentous an occasion as the conversion of the Franks to Christianity in 496 AD. The acquisition of high posts by the Turks from the enfeebled Abbasids paved the way for the rise to Turkish dynasties on Arab soil. This infusion of fresh blood reinvigorated the Sunnite cause, but spelt doom for Arab dominance and the Byzantine Empire. In 1071, Anatolia fell to the Seljuks, thus depriving the Byzantine of their largest source of revenue and soldiers. The Turks had arrived just in time to confront the Crusades and the Mongols.

Saunders analyses the crusades in the context of the relative positions of the Christian World and the Islamic World in 1000 AD. At that date, Europe had just begun to recover from the barbarism of the preceding 600 years with the conversion of the Vikings to Christianity. However, Islam had begun to be subjected to a long series of nomadic invasions that would last until 1269 AD. The temporary shift in the balance of power, coupled with Pope Urban II’s propaganda, and the Byzantine Emperor’s desperate squeals for help in the face of growing Seljuk power, set the Crusades in motion.

The Crusades were a military failure for the Christians though they did manage to gain some initial success. Saunders, looking at the overall strength of the Islamic world, notes that they were a nuisance more than a threat. Nevertheless, it took the Muslims almost a century to gain a degree of cohesion under the great Saladin who unified Iraq, Syria and Egypt and then expelled the Crusaders from most of their strongholds. Thanks to his efforts, Islam had recovered a great deal of its unity and prosperity by the start of the thirteenth century. Saunders notes that trade was growing and with the caravans, the Qur’ān too was being spread. Things seemed to have become quite tranquil. Few could have imagined that it was just the calm before the Mongol storm that would destroy much of the scientific and philosophical progress that the Arabs had made over the preceding 450 years.

Saunders concludes his book with an overview of Medieval Islam. This is very helpful if you are just a casual reader of history and are interested in understanding the nature of Islamic history without going too much into the detail. Saunders has written a wonderful little book that is as refreshing as it is concise in its scope. Meaningful in its context, and readable in its presentation.


Courtesy: The Daily Nation Dec 3, 2000


For Questions on Islam, please use our

Replica Handbags Bottega Veneta fake Bvlgari fake Celine fake Christian Dior fake Gucci fake Gucci Bag fake Gucci Wallet fake Gucci Shoes fake Gucci Belt fake Hermes fake Loewe fake Louis Vuitton fake Louis Vuitton Belt fake Louis Vuitton Calf Leather fake Louis Vuitton Damier Azur Canvas fake Louis Vuitton Damier Ebene Canvas fake Louis Vuitton Damier Graphite Canvas fake Louis Vuitton Damier Infini Leather fake Louis Vuitton Damier Quilt lamb fake Louis Vuitton Embossed Calfskin fake Louis Vuitton Epi fake Louis Vuitton Game On Monogram Canvas fake Louis Vuitton Jewellery fake Louis Vuitton Key Holder fake Louis Vuitton Mahina Leather fake Louis Vuitton Monogram Canvas fake Louis Vuitton Monogram Denim fake Louis Vuitton Monogram Eclipse Canvas fake Louis Vuitton Monogram Empreinte fake Louis Vuitton Monogram Seal fake Louis Vuitton Monogram Shadow fake Louis Vuitton Monogram Vernis fake Louis Vuitton Monogram Watercolor fake Louis Vuitton New Wave fake Louis Vuitton Shoes fake Louis Vuitton Since 1854 fake Louis Vuitton Strap fake Louis Vuitton Taiga Leahter fake Louis Vuitton Taurillon leather fake Louis Vuitton Transformed Game On canvas fake Louis Vuitton Utah Calfskin fake Louis Vuitton X Supreme fake Mulberry fake Prada fake YSL fake