Spiritual Renewal in Post Mongol Islamic World

Spiritual Renewal in Post Mongol Islamic World

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

The word Sufi literally means a practitioner of tasawwuf, a term that derives from the Arabic root s-w-f, meaning purity. In the context oftasawwuf, it means purity of heart. A second meaning derives from the word suf, meaning wool. The Prophet sometimes wore a blanket of wool and hence the word suf hearkens back to a connection with the Prophetic tradition. A deeper connotation for suf comes from its association with Fatimat uz Zahra (r), beloved daughter of the Prophet, who is known to have knit wool. Just as a weaver takes strands of wool and knits a woolen robe from it, so does tasawwuf integrate a holistic worldview from the disjointed inputs of mundane life. In Sufi terminology, the “knitting work of Fatima (r)” connotes purification and molding of the soul and its integration into a holistic self. A third meaning of the word tasawwufderives from Ahl as saff, or people of the first rank, those who have distinguished themselves through self-purification, love of the Prophet and selfless service of humankind.

Tasawwuf grew in the cradle of Islam and was not imported from the Greeks or the Buddhists as some modern writers profess. Most Sufis trace their spirituality to the Prophet through Ali ibn Abu Talib (r) and some trace it through Abu Bakr as Siddiq (r). Abu Dhar al Ghifari (d. 652), a companion of the Prophet, was a well-known Sufi. In functional usage,tasawwuf means intuitive and immediate spiritual knowledge of the love of God. The Sufis express this love through constant remembrance of God (dhikr), selfless service, sublime poetry, devotional songs, ecstatic music, lyrics replete with longing for divine love and a renunciation of worldly gains. Whatever be the origin of the word, there is no question thattasawwuf runs like a mighty river throughout Islamic history, turning its vast landscape into a veritable spiritual garden. In the all too checkered history of Muslims, often punctuated by disagreement, rancor, warfare and mayhem, tasawwuf is one common stream that has drawn freely from all segments of Muslim thought-Sunni, Shi’a, Fatimid, Zaidi and others. Besides the Shariah and the Sunnah of the Prophet, tasawwuf is the only amalgam that has melted and molded together different groups among the Muslims.

Spirituality is innate to Islam. The Prophet himself was an embodiment of this spirituality. His legacy was passed on to the Suhaba (Companions of the Prophet) and after them to the Tabiyeen (those who learned from the Companions) and the Tab e Tabiyeen (those who learned from the Tabeyeen). Successive generations kept this tradition alive. In the first centuries of Islam, as the wealth and opulence of the ruling classes increased, a revulsion to the worldliness of the courts set in among some of the scholars. Among the notable Sufis of early Islam were Hassan al Basri (d. 728), Rabia al Adawiya (d. 802) and Mansur al Hallaj (d. 922). However, tasawwuf as a discipline ran as a sub-stream in the social milieu and did not come into its own until the 11th century. By contrast, the sciences of Fiqh were codified and institutionalized in the 8th and 9thcenturies and the sciences of hadith were well established by the 10thcentury.

Throughout the 11th, 12th and 13th centuries, historical currents moved inexorably in favor of the Sufis. Al Gazzali (d. 1111), through his eloquent writings, bestowed respectability to tasawwuf and brought it squarely into the mainstream of Islam. He took issue with the theologians, the philosophers and the Fatimids and showed that tasawwuf was the only mode through which certainty of knowledge could be assured. In Tahaffuz al Filasafa, he repudiated the rational (philosophical) approach to knowledge as insufficient and inadequate in arriving at the truth. In Ihya Ulum al Din, he argued against the esoteric approach of the Fatimids and their search for an infallible and invisible leader. At the other end of the spectrum, the theologians relied solely on a prosaic interpretation of texts without understanding their spiritual underpinnings. True knowledge, argued Al Gazzali, comes only from illumination of the soul after it has been cleansed.

Tasawwuf grew its roots and had solidified its position in the Islamic world when the Mongol cataclysm descended upon it. Genghiz Khan and his successors destroyed a civilization. Centers of learning and culture like Bukhara, Samarqand, Nishapur, Herat and Baghdad were obliterated. The Islamic heartland extending from Bukhara to Baghdad was depopulated. According to Ibn Kathir, the number of people killed in and around Baghdad itself exceeded one million. Entire regions became depopulated. Dams were destroyed. Agriculture perished. Cities became grazing land. Books were thrown into the Tigris River. Libraries were burned. Mosques were demolished. Men of learning were slaughtered. In summary, the curtain fell on the classical Islamic civilization.

With its political power destroyed and culture decimated, Islam turned inwards to its spiritual roots. It was the Sufis who kept the lamp of faith shining in the darkness of the 13th century. The Mongols killed the rulers, destroyed the libraries, enslaved the scholars, but their sword could not touch the heart of the Sufi. The Sufis persisted, fought a battle of the soul with the Christians and won it with the conversion of Ghazan the Great of Persia (1295). In small cells and in far-away hideouts, the fire of faith continued to burn and when the darkness lifted, it was these small fires that became beacon lights and carried the message of Tawhid to the far corners of India, Pakistan, Indonesia and eastern Europe, transforming the social landscape of Eurasia and profoundly influencing the course of global events. Over a span of more than a thousand years, tasawwuf provided the guiding principle for reform in the far-flung corners of the Islamic world as well as the cutting edge for political movements. If the center of gravity of the Muslim world today is closer to Singapore than to Cairo, it is due not so much to the power of the Sultans or the preaching of the mullahs, but to the spiritual approach of the Sufi shaykhs.

In the generation that experienced the Mongol deluge, one finds a grim determination not only to survive but also to serve and expand the sphere of faith. The genius of the age expressed itself through spirituality. Sufi tareeqas grew up everywhere and provided the life raft for Muslims in their darkest hour. Among the ones that have left a lasting imprint on history were the orders founded by Shaykh Abdul Qadir al Jeelani (Baghdad, d. 1166), Khwaja Moeenuddin Chishti (Ajmer, India d. 1236), Ziauddin Jahib Suhrwardi (Baghdad, circa 1150), Ali al Shadhuli (Egypt, d. 1258), Jalaluddin Rumi (Turkey, d. 1273) and Khwaja Bahauddin Nakhshband (Bukhara, d. 1386). Ibn al Arabi (d. 1240) introduced Sufi thought into Spain about this same time. The Qadariya Order spread throughout the Muslim world and profoundly influenced religious, social and political movements. The Chishti order was the major instrument in introducing Islam in the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent. Ibn al Arabi’s writings influenced the development of tasawwuf the world over. The Shadhuliya School found its followers in Egypt, Syria, Malaysia, East Africa and North Africa. Jalaluddin Rumi’s Mawlawiyya order influenced the Turks and the Europeans. The resilience of Islam, manifest in its spiritual dimension, not only absorbed the shock of the Mongol invasions, it ultimately succeeded in converting the Mongols themselves to Islam.

While not compromising on the Shariah or the Sunnah of the Prophet,tasawwuf melted together Islamic spirituality with local cultures and evolved a folk Islam that spread through the Indo-Pakistan subcontinent, Indonesia and deep into Africa. The history of these regions cannot be understood unless the spiritual dimension of Islam is kept in mind. Many of the movements that sprang up to reform the Sufic bent of the Muslim masses were themselves strongly rooted in Sufic thought. Examples are the reform movements of Ibn Taymiyah (Syria, d. 1326), Ahmed Sirhindi (India, d. 1615), Muhammed al Sanusi (Libya, d. 1859) and al Mahdi (Sudan, d. 1885).

The triumph of the Awliya (sages; friends of God; greatSufis) must be looked at in its historical context. The Afghans had conquered Hindustan (1292) only 25 years before Genghiz Khan’s invasion of Central Asia. Islam had only gained a toehold in the Indonesian islands when Hulagu destroyed Baghdad (1258). The Islam that entered India and the Far East was less the didactic Islam of the ulema, but more the spiritual Islam of the Sufi. Specifically, Sufi movements profoundly influenced the eastern lands of Islam, constituting what are today Persia, Pakistan, Turkey, Central Asia, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia, Indonesia as well as the West African nations south of the Sahara. In the core regions of the Arab world, which escaped conquest and devastation by the Mongols thanks to the victory at Ayn Jalut (1261), Sufi influence was less pronounced and the area remained faithful to the legacy of classical Islam, with a heavier emphasis on the Shariah and political legitimacy. For instance, the ghazispirit of the Ottomans in the 14th and 15th centuries was deeply animated by Bektashi, Naqshbandi and Qadariya influence. Uthman dan Fuduye (d. 1817), who led a struggle to establish Islamic rule in West Africa was a follower of the Qadariya Sufi order. Abdel Qader al Jazairi, a Qadariya Shaykh, led the resistance to French occupation of Algeria (1840). Shamayl Daghestani who resisted Russian occupation of the northern Caucasus in the 1840s was a Nakhshbandi Shaykh. Shaykh al Hajj Umar Tal led the resistance to French occupation of Senegal and Mali(1860). As late as 1911, it was the Sanusi movement in North Africa that resisted the colonial invasion by Italy. Even in modern times, Sufi orders continue to provide the leadership for national independence movements in many of the non-Arab Islamic regions. As an illustration, for over a century, the resistance to Russian rule in the Caucasus has been led by the Naqshbandi order. By contrast, in the 18th century, the battle cry of the Wahhabi movement in Arabia was strict adherence to the Shariah. Modern day Islamic movements in Egypt and Algeria are animated by a call to rule by the Shariah and political legitimacy.

The Sufis “conquered” India, Africa and Indonesia and profoundly influenced the politics, language, art, music and culture of the Muslim peoples of the east. The spirituality of the Sufis was uniquely suited to the ancient Asian mind. Hindus and Buddhists alike entered the fold of Islam in droves. Thus it was that Khwaja Moeenuddin Chishti of Ajmer, Baba Fareeduddin of Punjab, Khwaja Khutbuddin of Deccan and Nizamuddin Awliya of Delhi made a more lasting impact on the Indian subcontinent than did Mahmud of Ghazna or Alauddin Khilji. The asceticism of Indonesian Buddhism found Sufic Islam to be more acceptable than the pedantic recitations of mullahs. The animist soul of Africa resonated to the drumbeat of tasawwuf and Africans entered Islam by the millions.

The impact of tasawwuf on subsequent developments in politics, music and culture was no less profound. The Safavid dynasty originated as a Sufi movement. Babur, the first Moghul Emperor, was an avid Sufi as is manifest from his Babur Namah. The early Ottomans were the “Ghazis of Rum”, many of whom followed the Naqshbandi Order. The Moghul emperors Akbar and Jehangir were devout followers of Shaykh Salim Chisti. The Chishtis and the Nakhbandis profoundly influenced Hindustani music marrying devotional singing with classical ragas, as in Qawwali, Naat, Hamdand Ghazals. It is a tribute to the universal genius of Shaykh Jalaluddin Rumi that he is perhaps the most widely read poet in North America today.

Despite its historical triumphs, the absence of empirical criteria opened up Sufism to abuse. In the 18th century, accompanying a general political and social decay of Muslim societies, spirituality and ethics also suffered. Just as religion devoid of spirituality degenerates into rituals, spirituality devoid of the Shariah degenerates into egoism and pantheism. This inherent weakness of the spiritual approach was the target of movements such as the Wahhabi movement in Arabia and the movement of Shah Waliullah of Delhi in India in the 18th century. The French exploited this weakness in the 20th century to foster deviant Sufi practices in West Africa as a means of confusing the Muslim resistance movements. However, it must be kept in mind that the abuse of tasawwuf was not the cause but a result of the political and social decay of the Muslims. In spite of such abuses, tasawwufcannot be dismissed as an aberration in the spectrum of Islamic teachings. It has to be accepted as a mainstream Islamic activity if the historical dimensions of Islam are to be understood. Indeed, it was the principal mechanism in the movement of Islam during the last eight hundred years.

Tasawwuf was the dynamic force that rescued Islam in its gravest hour, conquered the Mongols and propelled the faith deep into Asia, and Europe. Today, it is in the spirituality of Islam that Muslims search for renewal in the face of a global challenge of an agnostic world civilization.

Ghazan the Great

Ghazan the Great

The Conversion of Ghazan the Great

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

The Mamluke victory at the Battle of Ayn Jalut stopped the Mongol advance and ushered in a new struggle between Christianity and Islam to convert the conquering Mongols. In the last third of the 13th century, the geopolitics of Eurasia was dominated by this struggle.

The Christians played the initial gambit in this geopolitical chess game and sent missionaries to the Mongol rulers to convert them (1245-1270). Some of this zeal was motivated by the loss of Jerusalem to Salahuddin (1187) and the inability of the Crusaders to recapture Palestine. In this endeavor, the Christians used other methods as well as military pressure on the Muslims. Christian wives were offered to the heathen Mongols to gain favor. Dokuz Khatun, the chief wife of Hulagu, was a Christian. Mary, a daughter of Emperor Paleologus, was sent as a bride to Hulagu Khan. Hulagu died (1265) before Mary arrived at the Mongol court, so she married his son Abaga (1265-1281).

There was also an internal struggle between the Mongols themselves. The Khans of Russia had accepted Islam and a struggle ensued between the Muslim Khans of Russia and the shamanist Khans of Persia. At the Battle of Kur in Georgia, the Russians were forced to withdraw. But the real challenge to Abaga came from Egypt. Baybars, Sultan of Egypt, followed up his victory at Ayn Jalut with a campaign against the invading Armenians and Crusaders. Syria was cleared of the Crusaders and Armenia was forced to surrender several cities in northern Iraq. Baybars pursued his enemies and met up with the Mongols at Abulistin in 1277. A fierce battle ensued. Baybar’s army was animated with faith and sought the recovery of the Muslim heartland. The Mongols were defeated and half of their army was decimated. Baybars died in Damascus the following year. His death touched off a brief struggle for succession in Cairo. Abaga, sensing an opportunity, marched against the Egyptians but was soundly defeated at the Battle of Hims (1281).

Abaga was an avowed enemy of the Muslims and sought an alliance with the Christian powers for a joint attack on the Egyptians. However, he died in 1284 and his brother Tagadur ascended the throne of the Il-Khans. Although the Christians had baptized him under the name Nicolas, Tagadur accepted Islam and changed his name to Ahmed. Prince Ahmed sought friendly relations with the Mamlukes of Egypt, which were reciprocated. However, the triangular struggle between the Mongols, the Christians and the Muslims was not over yet. Many in his army were unhappy with Ahmed for his friendliness towards the Muslims. He was dethroned and Arghun, the son of Abaga was made the ruler.

Arghun, like his father Abaga, was a bitter enemy of Islam and made several proposals to Christian kings for a joint attack on the Muslims. But before an attack could be mounted, Acre the last stronghold of the Crusaders in Palestine, fell to the Mamlukes (1289). With its fall the fate of the Crusaders in west Asia was sealed. Arghun died in 1291 and a struggle for succession followed.

In 1295 Ghazan Khan ascended the throne of the Il-Khans and proclaimed himself a Muslim monarch. With his conversion, Islam won the battle for the soul of the Mongols. This victory was decisive. From now on Asia would belong to Islam. Christianity was to be relegated to the west.

The accession of Ghazan did not bring to an end the rivalry between the Mamlukes and the Il-Khans. A struggle ensued for the control of the Syrian highlands. Ghazan briefly occupied Damascus but this time the occupation was done in the name of the Qur’an. Ultimately however, the Mamlukes prevailed at the Battle of Marju-as-Suffar (1301). Syria remained closely tied to Egypt rather than to Persia. Ghazan’s armies retreated east of the Tigris.

Ghazan is known in history as the first Great Mongol Khan who attempted to introduce administrative reforms in his empire and to rebuild Persia, Iraq and Central Asia after the devastations of the previous century. A man of piety and good sense, he reduced taxation, reformed the revenue system, helped the peasantry, founded a postal system, organized the administration of justice and punished the Mongol bandits who had roamed the countryside since the days of Genghiz Khan. The Il-Khani era, which began on March 14, 1302, is recognized as a landmark in the benevolent administration of Persia and the Central Asian republics.

Ghazan made Tabriz his capital and adorned it with some of the finest buildings of the era. Utilizing the legacy of Pre-Genghiz artisans, he built a magnificent jamia masjid, founded several universities and invited many of the scholars of the age to teach there. He built roads, hospitals and an astronomical observatory, which was one of the finest in the world. Stipends were offered for advanced studies and the study of Farsi and Arabic was encouraged. Geometry, art, astronomy, architecture and Farsi literature thrived. The Persian highlands once again became a center for Islamic learning.

Ghazan’s conversion provides a benchmark in the history of the Muslim peoples. With the conversion of Ghazan and the consolidation of his power in Persia, the geographical divide between the Mediterranean world and Central Asia was reestablished at the EuphratesRiver, just as it was at the time of Caliphs Amin and Mamun. For 500 years prior to the Mongol invasions, the Arabic language dominated Islamic learning. The scholars in far-away Farghana as well as Andalus wrote in Arabic. The 75 years between Genghiz and Ghazan (1218-1295) was a period of trial during which the fate of the Muslim world hung in the balance. The fall of Baghdad (1258) was the mid-point of this period of trial. With the conversion of Ghazan, a new era dawned and the initiative passed on to the Farsi-speaking peoples. The Mongol invasions had exterminated the urban populations of Central Asia and Persia, including the Arabic-speaking elite. Rural sheikhs who survived the slaughter were more at home with Farsi.

After the 14th century, Farsi became the lingua franca for the Muslims of Asia even while Arabic remained the language of prayer and the sacred scriptures. Sufi masters such as Rumi, poets such Sa’adi, Hafiz, Jami and modern writers such as Muhammed Iqbal wrote in Persian. The Ottomans, Safavids and the Moghuls as well as lesser dynasties in the Indian Deccan used Farsi as their court language. Sufi thought profoundly influenced the Farsi language as well as modern languages such as Turkish, Urdu, Pushtu and Malay. These observations illustrate a major difference in the historical experience of the Muslims of non-Arab Asia as compared to that of the Arab heartland. Whereas the former is more “spiritual”, the latter emphasize Fiqh and Shariah. The differences in the historical experience of Arabs and non-Arabs might explain some of the misunderstandings that arise when Muslims from different parts of the world interact in a melting pot like America.

Islam had conquered the conquerors. The Mongols, along with their cousins the Turks and the Tatars, became the champions of Islam in the succeeding centuries and carried it to India, Indonesia, Malaysia and Africa. But this Islam was different in its approach to the transcendent from the Islam of the classical Islamic era. It was more spiritual and less ritualistic, more intuitive and less empirical and it arrived in the new lands with the great Sufi shaykhs of the era.

The Battle of Ayn Jalut

The Battle of Ayn Jalut

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

Not since the Battle of Badr had the Muslim world stood face to face with extinction as it did at the Battle of Ayn Jalut. Just as the Prophet had triumphed at Badr 600 years earlier, the Mamlukes triumphed over the combined armies of the Mongols, the Crusaders and the Armenians at the Battle of Ayn Jalut. The Muslim world survived by a margin that was as small as any allowed by history to any civilization.

As the Mongols turned back from central Europe after overrunning Hungary and Poland, it became obvious to the Christian powers that Western Europe was safe. At the Council of Lyons (1245) they resolved to seek an alliance with the Mongols against the Muslims. In 1246, one of the delegations under John de Plano Carpini reached Korakorum, the Mongol capital and made representations to Kuyuk, the Great Khan. Two of Kuyuk’s ministers were Christian and John was received cordially. A second delegation under Anselm, a Dominican priest, was dispatched in 1247. Louis, King of France, sent a third delegation under William of Rubruquis in 1253. Hayton, King of Armenia, represented himself and traveled to Korakorum in 1254.

The Christian overtures to the Mongols paid off and were rewarded with promises of military help. The Christian population in the major cities was spared even as the Mongols continued to slaughter the Muslims. For instance, while Baghdad was ravaged and pulled to the ground, the Christian populace of Baghdad gathered under the local cathedral and was spared. Hulagu, the destroyer of Baghdad, had several wives, of whom Dokuz Khatun, a Nestorian Christian, was his chief wife. So enthralled were the Christians at their initial success, that Pope Alexander IV wrote to Hulagu in 1260, expressing his pleasure that the latter was disposed to accept the Christian faith.

The news of the fall of Baghdad (1258) was received with great joy in Christendom who saw in it an opportunity to redress the loss of Jerusalem. It was during this period that the Fatimid Assassins sent a delegation to Henry III of England asking for his help to protect them from the Mongols. The reply from the Bishop of Winchester was curt: “Let those dogs devour each other and be utterly wiped out and then we shall see, founded on their ruins, the universal Catholic Church”.

The Christian-Mongol axis continued its aggression against Muslim territories. While the Mongols devastated Asia, the Crusaders continued their onslaught on the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa. In 1218, a German army invaded Egypt, occupied Damietta and proceeded towards Cairo. The Egyptians allowed the invaders to enter the delta, then opened the dykes on the Nile, trapping and drowning the German army. In 1261, the French attempted an invasion of North Africa, while Spain and Portugal were militarily active on the Moroccan coast.

Meanwhile, Hulagu followed up the sack of Baghdad with the capture of Iraq and Syria. After consulting with his astrologers, he established his base in Maragha. The Atabeg Seljuk Shah was captured near Shiraz and beheaded. In 1260, Aleppo was stormed and its population was put to death. Damascus surrendered without a fight The Mongol commander Kitbogha, the Armenian King Hayton and the Crusader King Bohemund of Antioch marched together in the streets of the ancient Umayyad capital and forced the Muslim inhabitants of the city to kneel before the cross. Summons was issued to Kutuz, the Mamluke Sultan of Egypt to surrender or face annihilation.

The choices before the Mamlukes were stark indeed. They knew that either surrender or a loss in battle would mean annihilation and the last bastion of Islamic culture would be destroyed (Although Delhi was as yet safe from the Mongols, Islam had barely established itself on the plains of Hindustan by the year 1260). Jerusalem, Mecca and Madina would be taken. Summons went forth from Sultan Kutuz for a jihad under General Bayars. The response was overwhelming and a motivated Muslim army advanced through the Sinai towards Palestine to meet the invaders.

The Mamlukes were a Turkish tribe who had made their home in the islands of the Nile. Hence, they are sometimes called Bahri Mamlukes. The word Mamluke derives its origin from the word Malaka (to own). During the 9th and 10th centuries, slave trade was brisk along the River Volga (in today’s Russia) and around the Caspian Sea. The Vikings (Swedes) were the primary vehicles for this trade. In the 9th and 10th centuries, the Vikings were the imperial power around the Baltic Sea. They conducted raids deep into what are today Russia and Germany, as well as the Slavic lands of the Balkans, captured slaves and sold them to Jewish and Muslim merchants. These slaves were adopted by the Turkish sultans, often married princesses of the royal households and rose to become rulers themselves. Thus it was that the transcendence of Islam elevated slaves to kings. In the 13th century both Egypt and India were ruled by Mamluke (slave) dynasties.

The armies of Baybars met the combined armies of the Mongols, the Crusaders and the Armenians near Nazareth at Ain Jalut in September 1261. A great battle ensued. The Mamluke right flank charged against the invaders and forced it back. But the Mongols counterattacked on the left and the Mamlukes hesitated. General Baybars took charge and a battle cry went forth for the defense of Islam. The enemies were routed. Kitbogha was killed. Hayton, King of Armenia and Bohemund, King of Antioch fled. The Mongols were pursued to Aleppo and destroyed. Egypt and with it Hejaz and Palestine were saved. The dark spell that the Mongols had cast across the Eurasian continent was broken.

Ain Jalut was undoubtedly one of the decisive battles in human history, comparable in its importance with the Battle of Tours (765) and the Battle of Plassey (1757). It marked the farthest advance of the Mongols across Eurasia. With the defeat at Ain Jalut, Christendom lost its hope for recovery of Jerusalem and its hold on the Syrian coastline was made untenable. The Armenians receded to their mountain strongholds in the Caucasus Mountains. Had the Mamlukes lost, Cairo would have met the same fate as Baghdad, the Cross would have supplanted the Crescent and the shamanist Mongol would have ruled over the sacred sites of Mecca and Madina.

Upon his return from Ayn Jalut, Baybars displaced Sultan Kutuz, invited a relative of slain Caliph Al Musta’sim to Cairo and re-established the Abbasid Caliphate in Egypt. There the temporal seat of Sunni Islam stayed, until it was displaced by the Ottomans in 1517 and moved to Istanbul.

The Fall of Baghdad

The Fall of Baghdad

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

Genghiz Khan died in 1227. Upon his death, his vast empire was divided up into five parts: (1) Mongolistan consisting of the Mongol home turf, (2) Chagtai, consisting of Khorasan and Farghana Valley, (3) Persia, ruled by the Il-Khans, (4) Russia and Kazakhstan, ruled by the Golden Hordes and (5) China. The Mongols continued their advance after Genghiz. In 1229, they planned three great expeditions. The first was to complete the conquest of southern China. This effort was not completed until 1276 during the reign of Kublai Khan. The second expedition was to complete the conquest of southern Russia, Poland, Hungary and Bulgaria. The Mongols were successful in this campaign and ruled these territories for over two hundred years. The third expedition under General Charmagun was against Prince Jalaluddin of Khorasan.

After crossing the Indus at the Battle of Attock in 1221, Jalaluddin sought refuge with Altumish, the able Mamluke Sultan of Delhi. But Altumish knew the risks associated with giving refuge to a foe of Genghiz. Although he was treated with the dignity befitting a prince, Jalaluddin knew that his welcome mat in Delhi was very thin. In 1223, he returned to Isfahan via Sindh and Makran, suffering the ravages of that inhospitable desert, much as Alexander had done fifteen centuries earlier. Soon, with the help of his brother, Jalaluddin was in possession of what was left of Khorasan, Mazanderan and Iraq. In 1225, he marched against the Caliph Al Nasir to seek revenge against an enemy of his father. The armies of the Caliph were routed and Baghdad was besieged. Jalaluddin continued his march into Georgia and occupied Tiflis in 1226. This infuriated the Georgians who made an alliance with the Mongols and the Russian Kipchaks against Jalaluddin.

Jalaluddin now had to face the combined armies of the Georgians, the Russian Kipchaks and the Mongols. At the Battle of Isfahan in 1227, he defeated the Mongols. His strategy in war was to face the Mongols in the open field and to avoid the pitfalls of his father who had tried to hole himself up in one fort after another. This gave him the advantage of mobility and rapid enveloping movements, tactics that the Central Asian horsemen were masters of. In 1229, he made peace with the new Caliph Al Muntasir (1226-1242). But now his good fortune ran out. The Mongol armies of Charmagun caught him unprepared on the Moghan plains (1230) and Jalaluddin narrowly escaped with his life. Shortly thereafter a Kurdish robber assassinated him.

Thus perished the bravest of Muslim soldiers who was the only one amongst the kings and princes of his era, Muslim or Christian, to face the Mongol hordes in open combat and defeat them on several occasions. Brilliant as he was in war, Jalaluddin suffered from a lack of organizational skills required of a statesman. He was always restless, moving from battle to battle. It would have taken a combination of his prowess with the wisdom of a Nizam ul Mulk (d. 1091) to contain the fierce Mongols.

In the meantime, the devastation of Khwarazm continued. The Mongols revisited the cities and provinces they had already destroyed and what was left after the invasions of Genghiz Khan was devastated once again. In 1251, Mangu was elected the Chief Khan of all Mongols. His first act was to launch two expeditions, one under his brother Kublai Khan to conquer southern China and the other under Hulagu Khan to bring an end to the Caliphate in Baghdad. On both counts, the Mongols were successful.

Hulagu established himself in Isfahan and methodically moved to eliminate all resistance. His first objective was the Assassins who posed a potential threat to his rear guard. Hulagu knew that the Assassins, an offshoot of the Fatimid sect, were a major factor in the instability of the Muslim world during the 11th and 12th centuries and had terrorized successive Muslim dynasties by assassinating generals, viziers and sultans alike. It was the dagger of an assassin that had brought to an end the life of the brilliant vizier, Nizam ul Mulk (1091). During the year 1256, Hulagu attacked the hideouts of the Assassins, eliminating them one after the other.

In the winter of 1257, Hulagu moved towards Baghdad. A de-facto alliance was formed between the Christian powers and the Mongols to eliminate Islam. The Crusaders and the Armenians attacked in northern Syria diverting some of the Turkish contingents that might have been available for the defense of Baghdad. Al Musta’sim was no military match for Hulagu. Suffering from the same kind of fatalistic self-delusion that had characterized the encounter of Shah Muhammed of Khwarazm with Genghiz Khan, Al Musta’sim failed to organize an effective defense of the capital. The treasury of the Caliph that could have been used to raise a large army remained closed. Hulagu sent a summons to Caliph Musta’sim to surrender. When the Caliph refused, Hulagu laid siege to the Abbasid capital and methodically moved to reduce it.

In June 1258, the city of Baghdad surrendered. No description can do justice to the horrors that followed. The sack of Baghdad lasted a week. More than a million inhabitants were slaughtered. Al Musta’sim was wrapped in a carpet, beaten with clubs and tramped to death by Mongol horses. Mosques were pulled down. Libraries burned. Great men of learning were tortured to death. Artisans were enslaved. Women were dragged, abused and left to die along far-away roads. The dams on the Tigris and the Euphrates that the Abbasids had built up over a period of five centuries were demolished. The destruction of dams throughout Central Asia depressed agriculture and slowed population and economic recovery for many centuries. Baghdad, which was once the premier city of the world, became a ghost town.

The fall of Baghdad marked a major event in world history. With it, the curtain fell on the classic Islamic period. Baghdad had been founded and established by the Abbasids as the capital of orthodox Islam after Madina and Damascus. It was the seat of the Caliphate and the vortex of Islamic political life. It was to Baghdad that kings and sultans alike turned, seeking legitimacy for their temporal power and guidance on spiritual matters. With the demolition of the Caliphate in Baghdad, Muslims had to reinvent that institution so that the temporal and spiritual life of Islam might continue to have a focus.

Hulagu established himself in Hamadan from where he organized more expeditions. All of Iraq was subjugated. Aleppo in northern Syria fell in 1260 to the combined onslaught of Mongol, Armenian and Crusader armies. Palestine lay ahead and held the key to Egypt and the cities of Mecca and Madina. Only the Ganges plains of India escaped the Mongol conquests thanks to the resistance of the Mamluke sultans of India and the statesmanship of Altumish and his daughter Razia Sultana. The hour was dark indeed. It appeared that the light of Islam that had been lit six hundred years earlier might be physically extinguished.

The classic Islamic civilization was the light that had kept learning, art and culture alive for 600 years while Europe lay in the stupor of its Dark Ages. This civilization, even in its waning years, was at once spiritual and empirical, absorbing and transforming the best that the ancient civilizations of Greece, India, Persia and Egypt had to offer. After the fall of Baghdad, Islam went through a process of self-renewal. It turned increasingly inward, towards tasawwuf and the sciences of the soul. It was this Sufic Islam that was to conquer the conquering Mongols, win the hearts of millions in India, Indonesia and Africa and shape the destiny of three continents for the next 400 years.

Thus it was in the year 1258 that a civilization died even as it renewed and expressed itself on a different plane.


History Of Genghiz Khan

Genghiz Khan

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

It was the century when three powerful traditions-Islamic, Medieval Christian and Mongol-collided. The aftermath of this collision transformed all three traditions in ways that were profound and basic. The cataclysm of the Mongols was a global event, which left its indelible mark upon human history. It destroyed ancient dynasties, remade human races and fundamentally changed the way people approached religion and culture. The impact of the Mongols is to be felt even in the geopolitics of the world today.

To view the events of the 13th century from a Muslim perspective, one must look at the geopolitical situation of Eurasia in the year 1200. To a Muslim living around the turn of that century, the prospects for Islam could not be better. Salahuddin Ayyubi had thrown off the yoke of the Crusaders and had liberated Jerusalem (1187). Muhammed Ghori had conquered Delhi (1191) and had established the Delhi Sultanate. The Al Muhaddithin had defeated the Christian Crusaders at the Battle of Alarcos (1196) and retained Muslim rule in Spain. The Fatimid schism in Egypt had ended. Imam Ghazzali’s dialectic had overcome the challenge to orthodox (Sunni) Islam both from the Fatimid Gnostics and the philosopher Agnostics. Islam was taking root in Hindustan and had established a foothold in the IndonesianIslands.

Yet, in the midst of these triumphs, dark clouds were gathering on the distant horizon. Indeed, within a generation after 1200, the Muslim world came close to physical extinction. Never have the Muslims faced annihilation as they did during the 13th century. And never in Muslim history has Islam triumphed in its darkest hour as it did in the 13thcentury.

Between the years 1200-1220, three rulers of vastly different capabilities dominated the geopolitics of Central Asia: Caliph Al Nasir of Baghdad, Sultan Alauddin Muhammed Shah of Khwarazm and Timujen (later known as Genghiz Khan) of Mongolia.

Sultan Alauddin ascended the throne of Khwarazm in the year 1200. Ambitious, egotistical and haughty, he was gifted with three able sons and soon consolidated his empire from the Amu Darya in the north to the Persian Gulf in the south. The lush and fertile valley of Farghana with its legendary cities of Samarqand and Bukhara were part of his domain. His successes evoked a jealous response in Baghdad from Caliph Al Nasir (1180-1225). Relations between the two went from bad to worse. Alauddin marched on Baghdad (1205) with the intent of replacing the caliph. As it sometimes happens at critical moments in history, Caliph Al Nasir was saved by the vagaries of nature. A powerful winter storm dumped enormous amounts of snow in the mountains of southwest Persia and Alauddin had to retire to Khorasan without a victory. Al Nasir did not forgive the shah for this intrusion and sent word to Genghiz Khan in far-away Mongolia inviting him to teach Sultan Alauddin a lesson. Historians record that a messenger’s head was shaved, the message tattooed onto his shaven head, the hair allowed to grow back and the messenger sent through the territories of the Shah to Genghiz Khan. The latter, however, did not respond since he was busy with campaigns to the east in China.

Timujin, born in the year 1162 into a Mongol tribe, had to struggle in his early years to retain the leadership of his clan. By the year 1206, he had succeeded in unifying the Mongol tribes and had taken the title Genghiz Khan. Successful raids into northern China followed and the northern Chin Empire was brought under his sway by the year 1215. From the Chinese, Genghiz acquired the latest technology of the day in tunnel engineering, siege engines, defensive silk armor and most important, gunpowder.

Relations between Genghiz Khan and Alauddin were at first friendly, although skirmishes had taken place in Sinkiang between the forces of the two empires over succession issues of the local princes. However, a fateful turn of events took place in 1218. Genghiz bought stock in the goods of three Khiva merchants and with them sent Mongol representatives to obtain Khorasani products. Nasiruddin, the governor of the frontier province Otrar, suspected that the Mongols were spies and asked the permission of Alauddin to execute them. The permission was granted and the merchants were slain. Furious, Genghiz sent an ambassador to Nasiruddin and demanded retribution. With the haughtiness and self-delusion that has so often characterized Muslim interfaces with other civilizations, Nasiruddin put the envoy to death. This was an insult that Genghiz Khan could not tolerate. The drums of war were beaten.

Genghiz gathered the Mongol tribes and preparations for war began. Great conquerors pay as much attention to the detailed preparations for war as to the strategies of war itself. Men, horses and supplies were carefully planned and the great mountains of Central Asia were successfully crossed in the winter of 1218-1219. Genghiz was a general par excellence. The first skirmish between Alauddin and the Mongols took place at Otrar on the Amu Darya. The outcome was indecisive. But the Sultan, in his characteristic haughtiness, declared victory, distributed presents to his troops and retired towards Samarqand.

It was at this historic moment that Alauddin Muhammed made a strategic military blunder. He divided up his armies into two main columns and sent smaller contingents to fortify the cities in the Farghana Valley. He thought that the Mongols would withdraw after looting border areas and thus chose a defensive strategy to protect his cities. This gave Genghiz the initiative to focus overwhelming military power at any given geographical point without the risk of facing the full might of the Shah’s forces.

The contrast between Genghiz Khan and Alauddin Muhammed was as marked as it ever was between two generals who have squared off against each other. Genghiz was a warrior, cruel, merciless, relentless, master of deception but who led his armies with the skill becoming of a great conqueror. Alauddin, by contrast was lacking in skills both of tactics and strategy and was a coward who fled with his own men without giving battle. Genghiz always gathered intelligence about his adversaries before combat. Alauddin knew nothing of his mortal enemy but provoked him into war. This was a civilizational encounter wherein the Mongols had the advantage of technology, skills, intelligence, tactics and leadership. The Sultan, by contrast, demonstrated a fatalistic self-delusion and knew nothing of the technologies, skills, tactics, motivation or capabilities of his enemies.

Genghiz followed up his assault on one city after another. In the year 1219 the cities of Otrar, Jhand, Khokand, Bukhara, Samarqand and Signac fell one after the other. In each city the pattern was similar. Men, women and children were slaughtered except those needed as slaves for work during the military campaigns. Agricultural land was turned into grazing ground for Mongol horses and the cities were razed to the ground.

Dams were destroyed, libraries burned, mosques demolished and learned men tortured to death. Shah Alauddin Muhammed fled before the Mongols and was hunted from city to city. During the year 1220, Balkh, Nishapur, Ghazna as well as the provinces of Kuchan, Isfahan and Damgan fell. The Shah finally escaped to an island in the Caspian Sea where he died a pauper, leaving a legacy of cowardice rarely matched in Islamic history.

The Mongol armies split up and rampaged through central and western PersiaAfghanistan and northwest India. Only one valiant prince, Jalaluddin, had the backbone to stand up to the marauding invaders. Jalaluddin, the third son of the Shah, fought the Mongols at every turn and on one occasion in 1220, inflicted a defeat upon a Mongol division in Afghanistan. Pressed further by the Mongols, the Prince retreated eastward and took a stand by the Indus River near Attock. With the great river to his back and a high ridge to his left, Jalaluddin charged like a lion towards the Mongol center where Genghiz Khan was stationed. He succeeded in reaching the spot. But man plans and God disposes. Despite the most well thought-out human plans, the outcome of great wars is a moment of Divine intercession. As providence would have it, Genghiz had dismounted his horse at that moment and had gone off to attend to other matters. Genghiz escaped and the wheels of history turned. Jalaluddin’s bodyguard was cut to pieces. Desperate, the undaunted prince plunged his horse from a ridge into the Indus and as he swam the great river towards Hindustan, Genghiz is said to have exclaimed: “Proud should be a mother who bore such a son!”

By 1222, when Genghiz finally retreated towards Mongolia, he had destroyed what are today the states of Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrigistan, Turkmenistan, Tadzighistan, Persia, Afghanistan and western Pakistan. The great cities of Samarqand, Bukhara, Merv, Herat, Ghazna, Kabul and Neshapur were razed to the ground. In the words of Ibn Kathir, not even one hundredth of the population of the area survived. This was only the beginning. After the death of Genghiz Khan, the Mongols continued their advance into west Asia and central Europe, destroying whatever lay before them and reshaping the destinies of Asia and Europe alike.

Thus it was that in the first two decades of the 13th century, the opening gambit of the great geopolitical game between the worlds of Islam, Medieval Christianity and the Mongols was played and the stage was set for the global struggles that were to follow in the latter part of the century.

Shajarat al Durr, Queen of Egypt

Shajarat al Durr, Queen of Egypt

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

Fourteen years after Razia ascended the throne of Delhi (1236), another remarkable lady, Shajarat al Durr, became the queen of Egypt (1250). Like Razia, Shajarat al Durr was a Mamluke and a Turk. Specifically, Shajarat belonged to the family of Bahri Mamlukes, the Turkish tribe who had settled in the islands that dot the Nile.

Those were turbulent times for the world of Islam. There existed at the time a de-facto alliance between the Crusaders and the Mongols to wipe out Islam. Genghiz Khan had devastated Asia. His successors were knocking at the gates of Baghdad. Besides Egypt, only India had escaped the Mongols, thanks to the diplomacy and resolute stand of Altumish, father of Razia. Samarqand, Bukhara, Kabul, Herat, Neshapur, Multan and Tabriz had fallen to the Mongols (1219-1242). Persia, Khorasan, Afghanistan and Iraq lay in ruins. The Crusaders, after being ejected from Palestine, had converged on Spain and taking advantage of the internal convulsions in Andalus, had captured much of the Peninsula. Cordoba, capital of the Omayyad Caliphate in Spain, fell to them in 1236. All of Andalus had been lost except for the tract of land around Granada. The thrust of Crusader attacks had now shifted to Egypt and North Africa.

It was the Mamluke Turks who withstood the combined onslaught of the Mongols and the Crusaders. Even as the Arabs, Persians and Andalusians lay prostrate before their enemies, it was the Mamluke shield that stopped the Crusader-Mongol armies at the gates of Jerusalem and at the banks of the Indus River. The victory of Sultan Baybars at the Battle of Ayn Jalut (1261) saved Mecca and Madina from the same fate as had earlier befallen Jerusalem in the year1096.

As a Mamluke, Shajarat al Durr was born into slavery. Like Razia of India, she rose to become the queen of Egypt. Two aspects of this rise from slavery to Sultana need re-emphasis. It is the egalitarian spirit of Tawhidthat breaks down the barriers between master and servant, black and white, owner and owned. Within the great fold of the believing ummah, all human beings-men and women, rich and poor-have the freedom to realize their full existential potential. Within this fold there is no master and no slave. The transcendence of the Divine makes insignificant the petty differences between humans based on wealth, position, race and tribe. All humans become equal in the eyes of God and equal before the Law. This egalitarian spirit was lost with time as the law of despots displaced the Divine Law and as the rulers segregated themselves from the ruled and hid behind hajibs. Secondly, the devastation wrought by the Mongols and the Crusaders destroyed the old aristocracy in the Muslim world. The Umayyad Emirate in Spain disappeared in 1236 with the fall of Cordoba and the Abbasids in Baghdad were eliminated in 1258. The destruction of the old social and political order gave an opportunity to the former slaves, the Mamlukes, to assert their authority and create a new social and political order. In this new order, as opposed to the old aristocratic order, there was room both for men and women, following the tradition of the Turks.

Shajarat’s career bridged two dynasties. She was married to Malik al Saleh, the last Ayyubid ruler of Egypt. Al Saleh died in 1250 while Egypt was under attack by a combined French-German Crusader army led by King Louis IX. To avoid demoralization in the ranks, Shajarat worked with the army commanders to keep the news of her husband’s death a secret. King Louis of France was personally in charge of his troops. Under Shajarat’s leadership, Louis was soundly defeated and taken prisoner. A large number of French and German Crusaders were taken captive. During this critical time, al Saleh’s son Turan Shah was absent from Cairo. Shajarat sent word to Turan asking him to return forthwith to the capital. Upon his return, she entrusted him with the reigns of power. But Turan proved incompetent. He alienated the powerful Mamluke generals who assassinated him (1250) and asked Shajarat to be the queen of Egypt.

Legitimacy of rule in Sunni Islam flowed from the Caliphs in Baghdad. Shajarat, as a Turk was a Sunni following the Hanafi Fiqh. Al Mustansir, 46th in the Abbasid dynasty, was the caliph in Baghdad. Shajarat sought the consent of Al Mustansir and while Baghdad was considering her application, she ruled as the sovereign of Egypt. She minted coins with her inscription and the khatibs at al Azhar read the Friday khutba in her name.

However, Shajarat was not successful in obtaining the title of Malika from the Caliph. Politically, there was less pressure on Baghdad to recognize a woman as a head of state in Cairo than in Delhi. To the east, in India, the presence of loyal Sultana Razia provided some insurance against the Mongols who had devoured all of the Asian provinces of the Caliphate and were knocking at the doors of Baghdad. By contrast, Cairo was far away from the Mongol front lines and was still very much in the spiritual orbit of the Abbasids. There was opposition also from the more conservative ulemaof the Maliki School in Cairo. Al Mustansir, therefore, refused to recognize Shajarat as the Sultana of Egypt. The Mamluke guard, desperate for legitimacy of their mushrooming role in Cairo, nominated one of their own generals, Izzaddin Aibak, as the Sultan. Baghdad accepted this nomination and Mamluke rule began in Egypt. It was to last until the Ottomans captured Cairo in 1517.

Shajarat was not to be pushed aside so easily. She was a resourceful lady and a consummate political warrior. Determined to stay on the main stage in Cairo, she married Izzaddin Aibak. The two lived happily for seven years. The name of the queen was printed on the coins and blessed in the Friday sermons, along with that of the new sultan.

Shajarat was a learned lady and a patron of learning. She established several colleges in her name. She was also beautiful, witty, a good writer, a convincing speaker and an astute player in political life. However, fate was to intervene against her once again. Sharing of political power meant that the queen and the sultan remain faithful to each other in a monogamous relationship. But the geopolitics of the day required the sultan to have many wives. When Izzaddin decided to marry the daughter of the Turkish Atabeg Badruddin of Mosul, Shajarat could not reconcile the thought of sharing her husband and her power with a third party. Unable to dissuade her husband from the second marriage, she planned to murder him. Jealousy did its trick, an elaborate scheme was hatched and Izzaddin was assassinated as he visited a palace bath. Unfortunately for Shajarat, the Mamluke generals discovered her role in the murder. She was killed and her body was thrown over the ramparts of the Cairo Fort. She was later buried in the compound of one of the schools she had established.

The lives of these two remarkable ladies, Razia of India-Pakistan and Shajarat of Cairo, demonstrate how difficult it has been for women to occupy political or social space in Islamic history. We have outlined how this happened gradually in Islamic history. First, the caliphs isolated themselves from the ruled. Muawiya introduced personal guards. Harun al Rashid delegated the responsibility for the Friday khutba to a professionalkadi. Later caliphs, with a few notable exceptions, appointed hajibs as intermediaries between themselves and the people. The ummah of the Prophet and of the first four caliphs became the amah of later rulers. The rulers secluded themselves in their palaces and their harems. Enormous bureaucracies grew up to institutionalize the separation of the throne from the sweat of the farmer. Women felt the brunt of this political isolation in two ways. First, in accordance with the major schools of Fiqh, which were developed during the Abbasid period, women were excluded from thejuma’a prayers. A woman, by definition, could not be a caliph. Second, the seclusion of women from public or social activity received sanction from the political establishment of the Fatimid, Umayyad and Abbasid courts alike. As history unfolded, there became institutionalized two levels of hijab. At the first level, all Muslims, men and women alike, were marginalized and subjected to a hijab (concealment, separation) from their rulers. At the second level, women were subjected to an additional hijab from public life. The separation of women from political and social life was total and complete. Finally, when the Muslims lost their military-political power and the Caliphate ended, they were caught totally unprepared to cope with the challenge of modern civilization, which forced its way onto world stage with slogans of individual rights, equality for women, freedom and responsibility

Razia, Sultana of Delhi

Razia, Sultana of Delhi

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

Islam liberated men and women from the shackles of slavery and made them masters of the world. The history of the Mamlukes illustrates this observation. In the 9th and 10th centuries, there was a brisk slave trade down the Volga River, near the Caspian Sea. The Vikings raided Europe with unrelenting ferocity in search of booty and slaves. Eastern Europe, fossilized as it was between local fiefdoms, was a particular target of these raids. Men, women and children were captured in northern and eastern Europe, brought down the Volga River and sold to Muslim and Jewish merchants. Ibn Fadlun gives a graphic picture of the deplorable conditions in the Viking slave ships.

The root word in Arabic for Mamluke is m-l-k (malaka, to own). The European slaves were in great demand in Muslim courts because the men made excellent soldiers and the women were sought for their fair skin. Young Mamluke men were trained in special camps as bodyguards, taught the precepts of Islam and inducted into the army. The Spanish court of Cordoba as well as the Fatimid court in Cairo employed Mamluke bodyguards. However, it was with the rise of the Turks that the Mamlukes came into their own. The Turks displaced the Arabs and the Persians from the centers of power in Asia during the 9th and 10th centuries and became kingmakers. As the Mamlukes were inducted into the armies and the Turks dominated the armed forces, the slaves came to be referred to as Mamluke Turks. Some of the slaves were from Turkish tribes (prior to their conversion to Islam) in which case there was both an affinity of blood with their Turkish owners as well as an affinity of profession.

According to the Shariah, a Muslim may not hold another Muslim as a slave. Therefore, as the Mamlukes became Muslim, they became free men and women, with full privileges accorded to all believers. In an age when the path to kingship led through the army, the Mamlukes were not only great soldiers but were in close proximity to the center of power. Through their exploits they rose through the court ranks, married the daughters of the sultans and themselves became kings and sultans. Islam had taken them from the slave ships of the Vikings to the luxurious thrones of Asia and Africa. It was from the ranks of these Mamlukes that the 13th century dynasties of India and Egypt emerged.

Razia was the daughter of Altumish, a Mamluke who was a slave of Qutbuddin Aibak, Turkish sultan of Delhi. Altumish demonstrated such extraordinary abilities as a soldier that he was rapidly promoted to be a general officer in the army. Qutbuddin gave his own daughter in marriage to Altumish. After the death of his father-in-law, Altumish ascended the throne of Delhi (1211). He proved himself to be not only a first class soldier but an outstanding statesman as well. When Genghiz Khan descended upon Central Asia (1219), Altumish kept him out of India through consummate diplomacy and a determined military posture. Delhi and Lahore were saved from the ravages of the Mongols. Altumish had three sons and one daughter, Razia. The sons proved to be incompetent, more interested in wine and song than in the affairs of the state. Altumish therefore nominated his daughter to be his successor, against the advice of some of his courtiers and kadis. In accordance with her father’s wishes, Razia ascended the throne of Hindustan in the year 1236.

Altumish was an exceptional monarch not only because he rose from being a slave to become the sultan of one of the most powerful dynasties of the age, but because he broke with tradition and nominated his daughter as his heir-apparent in recognition of her merit and ability over his sons who were incompetent. Razia immediately faced a challenge from her brother Ruknuddin who had killed his own brother to intimidate Razia and force her to abdicate. Razia, a consummate politician, went public and in the Jamia Masjid of Delhi, appealed to the general populace for justice. The common folk displayed their intrinsic love of fair play. Ruknuddin was arrested for the murder of his own brother, tried before a Shariah court and executed.

Razia wasted no time in establishing her authority as the sovereign of Hindustan. She ordered coins minted in her name as “Pillar of women, Queen of the times, Sultana Razia, daughter of Shamsuddin Altumish”. The juma’a khutba was read in her name. However, her authority was not legitimate until the Caliph in Baghdad accepted it. Even though he had lost all of his dominions in Asia to the Mongols, the Caliph was still the spiritual and titular head of Sunni Islam and he carried the title of Emir ul Momineen (leader of the believers). Only he could bestow legitimacy upon a sultan. Razia, a Turk and a Sunni, declared her allegiance to the Abbasid Caliph with the following proclamation: “In the time of Imam al Mustansir, Emir ul Momineen, Malika Altumish, daughter of Sultan Altumish, she who increases the glory of Emir ul Momineen”. The Caliph recognized her as the “Malika” of Delhi (1237), in part because he needed a Sunni bulwark to the east of the vast territories now controlled by the Mongols, who were closing in on Baghdad itself.

A great deal of information about Sultana Razia has come down to us through the writings of Ibn Batuta, one of the greatest world travelers, who visited and lived in India (1335-1340) a hundred years after Razia. According to him, Razia rode the horse into battle dressed like a soldier, administered justice, conquered new territories and presided over the affairs of state. But the jealousy of men knows no bounds. To the Turkish generals and noblemen, the ascension of a woman to the throne was a difficult pill to swallow. Razia was young, beautiful and unmarried. Many of the noblemen made marriage proposals to her. She spurned these proposals. Instead, she fell in love with an African slave of the court, Jamaluddin Yaqut, who was the keeper of the royal stables. The rumor mill of Delhi, fanned by the jealousy of spurned and disappointed generals, went to work. Her case was brought before the kadis of Delhi. Accusations were made that she had gotten too close to a man. The kadis ruled that Razia had violated the Shariah and should therefore step down, get married and retire behind the veil. They nominated a Turkish general Altuniya as her successor. Undaunted, Razia marched out of Delhi Fort to meet the general in battle. As fate would have it, she was defeated and was taken prisoner. Razia was not only a splendid monarch; she was also a beautiful young woman. The victorious Altuniya fell in love with his prisoner and married her. The two advanced together towards Delhi to recapture the city that was hers as her father’s legacy. Unfortunately, once again, the combined forces of Razia and Altuniya suffered defeat. Razia fled the battlefield. Exhausted and hungry, she took refuge in a farmer’s hut. As she slept, the farmer noticed that his guest, who was dressed like a man, wore a garment embroidered in gold. He killed her in her sleep but was caught by the townspeople as he tried to sell the gold ornaments.

In an obscure lot in the old city of Delhi lies buried this stalwart lady. The alleys to her tomb lead a visitor through decrepit buildings and nauseous open gutters. A simple inscription marks the entrance to her tomb, hidden from the gully. Encroachments have all but consumed the site, blocking the sun from her wistful tomb. Her husband Altuniya lies by her side and the graves of two infants of unknown origin lie near their feet. Such is the fate history has accorded to one of the most celebrated women the world has known.

Ibn Batuta records how the common folks venerated their queen. By the year 1335, when Ibn Batuta visited Delhi, her grave had become a venerated tomb and a place of pilgrimage. A beautiful mausoleum with a dome had been erected on her grave. India was by now a land influenced by Sufi movements and Razia had become a saint. No wonder!

Razia had triumphed in her tragedy. She had changed history. The common man and woman saw in her one of their own who rose from being the daughter of a slave to becoming the first Muslim queen of one of the most powerful empires in the world. She rose like a star and like a meteorite she fell, illuminating the world both in her rise and in her fall. She demonstrated in her brilliance that a woman could be the head of a Muslim state, in spite of the constraints put upon her by tradition and custom. Women throughout the ages would invoke her name in defense of their rights and her name would forever be inscribed indelibly in the lyrics and folklore of the vast subcontinent of India and Pakistan and in the languages of distant lands in all continents.

Women Sovereigns in Islam

Women Sovereigns in Islam

Contributed by Prof. Dr. Nazeer Ahmed, PhD

History is not created with a big bang. It moves in subtle, almost imperceptible steps in which all men and women participate. It is an edifice on which the action of every human, no matter how humble, has left its imprint. Great events do occur, but they merely mark the milestones in the continuing unfolding of history.

In recreating the critical moments in Islamic history that have molded and shaped the present, a student of history cannot but be awestruck by the majesty of the human processes that have led up to those moments. Much like the buildup of stresses in an earthquake fault, the actions of ordinary men and women create tensions in the flow of history. When these tensions finally do culminate in historical moments, they are very much like the sudden shift of geological plates that mark the onset of an earthquake.

Very often, in focusing on the deeds of mighty men who made war and won battles, the mundane struggles of ordinary men and women are overlooked. Yet, it is from the ordinariness of these struggles that great events emerge. The lowly peasant is as much an actor in the drama of history as the mightiest king. It is in this context that one must examine the contributions of women in Islamic history.

There have been great women, those heroic ladies of the past, who made their way to the top of the historic edifice despite the obstructions placed in their way. Their achievements were even more remarkable when we measure them against a background of the gradual marginalization of women in Muslim societies. The exclusion of women from public space occurred gradually over centuries and must be understood in the broader context of the fragmentation of the unitary Caliphate and the separation of the masses from the rulers. When looked at in this context, the achievements of great women like Razia of India and Shajarat al Durr of Egypt who, despite heavy odds, became Sultanas and queens, stand out as even more remarkable.

Islam liberated women from the constrictions imposed by pre-Islamic Arab society. It opened up the spiritual, economic, social and political space to them. Women were bestowed an individuality. They were to live with men on a platform of equity and justice, partners in the creation of a universal community enjoining what is noble, forbidding what is evil and believing in God. The Prophet built such a community in Madina. The focus of life for this community was the Prophet’s mosque, built adjacent to his house and it was from here that he elaborated on religious and social issues, adjudicated legal matters and discussed war and peace. There are three important issues to remember here. First, there was no distance between the head of the community and members of the community. The young and the old, the poor and the rich, immigrants and locals, Madinites as well as foreigners had equal access to the leader. Second, the leader of the community was not just a political and military figure. He was also the religious and social authority who led the congregation in prayer and had responsibility before the Shariah. Third, the social, political and religious space in the mosque was open to women. Although congregational prayer was not obligatory for women, they were not prevented from praying in the mosque. Women prayed in the mosque in rows behind the men. They had equal access to the Prophet to seek counsel and advice on social, religious and political matters.

When the Prophet passed away, the Companions reaffirmed the continuity of Islam as an historical process by the establishment of the Caliphate. As defined by Ibn Khaldun, (Muqaddamah, p. 476, op. cit.), “the function of Caliphate was to enable the amah (common folks) to live in accordance with the injunctions of the Shariah.” In other words, it was to establish divine patterns in the matrix of human affairs. The Caliphate was rule by law. It differed from the despotism of kingship both in its structure and its functionality. In a kingdom, the word of the king was law; he could make or break it as he saw fit. In a Caliphate, it was the divine law that was the governing paradigm. The Caliph was accountable before the law just as much as the lowliest mendicant. Legitimacy of rule originated from a consensus of the community. The selection of the Caliph was through a process of consultation. The political, judicial, economic, religious and social space was shared between the ruler and the ruled. Even the most humble of citizens, man or woman, could question the Caliph on his decisions, or demand justice in accordance with the law Thus the Caliphate was fundamentally different from kingship in its doctrinal underpinnings, its institutions and its operations.

The Caliph occupied the central stage in a four dimensional religious-judicial-military-economic space, which was shared with all members of the community, men and women alike. Through a process of consultation, Abu Bakr as Siddiq (r) became the first Caliph of Islam. In the tradition of the Prophet, the Caliph had four principal responsibilities. First, he was the religious head of the community. As such he led the congregation in prayer. Second, he was responsible for the implementation of divine law. He was expected to know the Shariah and to implement its injunctions in practice. Thus, he was the supreme judge. Third, he was responsible for the defense of the state. He led the army in times of war. Fourth, he was responsible for the economic well-being of the community. He ensured fair taxation, administered public works and arranged for correct and complete documentation of contracts and civil transactions.

These functions of the Caliph were compromised in time, one by one, some by historical necessity, others for the convenience of the Caliphs. The first to fall by the wayside was the religious function. The civil wars that erupted after the assassination of Caliph Uthman (r) (656) unleashed the forces of extremism. The deadly attacks of the Kharijites on Caliph Ali ibn Abu Talib (r), Emir Mu’awiya bin Abu Sufyan and Amr bin al As (661) demonstrated that the person of the Caliph was vulnerable to would-be assassins. The Kharijites were mortal enemies of anyone who disagreed with them. Extremism begets extreme reactions. Muawiya bin Abu Sufyan (d. 680), who fought his way to power and became the Caliph in 661, took the first step in this direction. He surrounded himself with a guard as a precaution against possible assassination. When he entered the mosque, the guard ensured that the common folk maintained a certain distance from the emir. The Omayyad Caliphs of Damascus, with the sole and notable exception of Omar bin Abdul Aziz, followed this practice of surrounding themselves with a guard. This was the first step in the bifurcation of political space between the ruler and the ruled.

In addition to security concerns, the administration of a vast empire, extending over three continents, required a person of exceptional caliber to organize, manage and provide oversight to the executive functions. This person was called the vizier. The word vizier derives from mawazah, meaning to facilitate. As such, the vizier was the principal facilitator of the wishes of the sovereign, chief among which were defense, administration, finance and foreign affairs. During the Umayyad reign in Damascus (661-750), with the expansion of the empire in Asia, North Africa and Europe, the institution of the vizierate acquired enormous importance. The vizier became not only the functional arm of the empire, but also its principal think-tank and chief executive. He was privy to the Caliph’s thinking as well as the inner workings of the court circles. The office of the vizier continued when the Abbasids seized power (750) and moved the capital to Baghdad.

With time, the functions of the vizierate were transformed. The Omayyad dynasty in Spain (760-1031), to put a distance between itself and some of the unpopular aspects of the defunct Omayyads of Damascus, de-emphasized the importance of the office of the vizierate. This they accomplished by splitting the vizierate into several departments. In place of a powerful single vizier formerly serving the emperor, there were now several viziers. This proliferation of the title had a secondary consequence. Coordination between the different viziers and communication between the sovereign and the vizierates required a new official. This official was called ahajib.

The word hajib derives from the root Arabic word h-j-b, meaning, to hide or conceal. The principal function of the hajib was to conceal the sovereign from the prying eye of the common folks, to protect the security of his person, to provide him with privacy and to act as a conduit for his wishes to the functioning viziers. Since the hajib had the ear of the sovereign, his position was considered higher than that of the viziers and he occupied the most spacious quarters, next to the sovereign, in the palace compounds. Sometimes, a grand vizier combined in himself the functions of a hajib and the supervision of the various viziers.

With the advent of the hajibs, the separation of the ruler from the ruled became institutionalized. Many of the Caliphs gave up the practice of leading the congregational prayers. Harun al Rashid (d. 809) was the first Caliph to employ professional khatibs to lead the prayers. Thereafter, with rare exceptions, it was the khatib, not the Caliph, who stood in front of the community of believers to give the Friday sermon. With time, the position of the khatib degraded to that of a professional mullah who came to regard the pulpit as his personal domain much as the ruler regarded the throne as his personal property. The khatib, who owed his job to the ruler, prayed for the health and well-being of the ruler in the khutba. Whenever there was a change in dynasties or when a new strongman took power, his name was promptly substituted for the old ruler. Similarly, the privilege of administering justice and giving fatwas (legal opinions) on matters of jurisprudence was also delegated to hired kadis.

The degree of separation between the Caliph and the common folks varied with the urbanization of a dynasty. The greater the urbanization, the greater was the separation. For instance, the Omayyads in urban Spain, employed hajibs, whereas the Murabitun and the Al Muhaddith who followed them, did not. The latter dynasties were held together more through tribal and racial cohesion than through attachment to dynastic rule and they delegated the functions of security, administration and management to their own kinsmen.

In the 10th century, when the Turks rose to power, they supplanted the institution of the Caliphate with the new institution of the Sultanate and the separation of temporal rule from religious authority was complete. The sultan became the political and military ruler. The caliph remained the nominal and titular head of the community, bereft even of dispensing religious fatwas because that responsibility was delegated to professionalkadis. The separation of political and military authority from religious responsibility before Divine Law led to the rise of despots. The farther a ruler was from the ruled, the more disdainful he was of the common man. Whereas the caliphs were only representatives selected to enforce Divine Law, the emerging despots were self-appointed political military authorities who forced their own law upon their subjects.

The Seljuk Turks continued the practice of employing viziers and hajibs. In the Ottoman courts, the hajibs were called mabayeen. In the medieval world, the concentration of such enormous power in the vizier was an invitation to ambitious men to usurp royal privileges for themselves. Over the centuries, many an incompetent sovereign found himself displaced by his own vizier.

Security of the sultans took on urgency with the rise of the Assassin Movement in the 10th and 11th centuries, which became the nemesis of Sunni sultans. As the Turkish Empire expanded, the hajibs were given further responsibilities to oversee the security of the palace grounds, greet royal visitors and supervise the royal kitchen. Thus the impact of the Assassin Movement in the 10th and 11th centuries was similar to that of the Kharijites in the 7th century, namely, to further isolate the ruler from the amah (common folk).

The unitary concept of the Caliphate as the central focus of political, religious, judicial and administrative space was shattered and in its place sprang up separate spaces occupied by the sultan and his hired professionals. Certainly, there were exceptional rulers, such as Omar bin Abdul Aziz (d. 719) and Sulaiman the Magnificent (d. 1565) who sought to reverse this trend and made concerted attempts to live up to the ideals of a caliph. But such cases were few and far between. Through most of Islamic history, the Caliphate survived as a fossilized replica of its pristine self.

The threat of assassination, the fossilization of the caliphate and the rise of the sultanates, the emergence of the viziers, the hiring of professionalkhatibs and the appointment of hajibs, all contributed to the isolation of the ruler from the ruled. Within the isolated political and social space of the common folk, women found themselves even more isolated. The process was slow and subtle. It was a requirement that a caliph lead the congregational prayers. The qualifications for this function were addressed in all the major schools of Fiqh, which developed between 765-950. This was a period of global expansion of Muslim political power. Accompanying this expansion there was an influx of ideas from Greece, India, China and Africa. Islam was faced with the challenge of defining its interfaces with other civilizations while strengthening its own ideational structure in the face of alien ideas. Fiqh (jurisprudence) was the doctrinal response of the Islamic civilization to the challenge of these older civilizations.

The five major schools of Fiqh (Hanafi, Maliki, Shafi’i, Hanbali and Ja’afariya) came up with different answers as to whether a woman was qualified to lead a congregational prayer. In the opinion of the Hanafi, Shafi’i and Ja’afariya Schools, a woman may lead a congregation of other women and children but not of men. The Maliki and Hanbali Schools were stricter. Since a woman could not lead juma’a prayers, this automatically barred her from aspiring to be a caliph or imam. However, the spiritual and religious space remained open to women during the early Caliphate. During the Caliphate of Omar ibn al Khattab (r), women prayed behind the men, took part in the discussions in the mosque and on many an occasion, questioned the caliph about affairs of state. In the great mosques built during the 8th and 9th centuries, provision was made for a separate section for women.

In the 9th century, as the Turks entered the fold of Islam in large numbers and the sultanate became the mechanism of temporal power, it was the sultan, not the caliph, who defended the ummah from its enemies, appointed executive functionaries and implemented the tenets of the law. Following their own cultural traditions, the Turks were more open to the entry of women into the political, judicial and military space. Turkish women rode into battle with men, took part in the affairs of state and sat next to sultans and jurists advising them in the dispensation of justice. This pattern of women’s participation in public affairs continued in later centuries in the courts of the Turkomans, the Great Moghuls, the Africans of the western Sudan and the Indonesians.

Since a sultan was not necessarily required to lead the prayer, this function having been delegated to professional khatibs, a woman was not precluded from becoming a sultan. However, further historical developments impeded the access of women to political and social space. The 9th century saw an influx of Greek rational thought and Greek culture into the courts of Baghdad. The Mu’tazilites emerged as champions of rational thought and were embraced with open arms by the caliphs. But then the Mu’tazilites overstepped their bounds and applied their methods to Divine revelation. They claimed that the Qur’an was created in time. This position drew a determined and persistent reaction from the ulema and the Mu’tazilites were repudiated. What emerged triumphant from this caldron of ideas was a doctrinal Islam that was even more conservative in its approach to social and cultural matters. This was the period when Imam Ahmed ibn Hanbal codified the Hanbali School of Fiqh, which is the most conservative of the four major Sunni schools of jurisprudence.

The infusion of Greek culture had brought dancing girls into the palaces of Baghdad and Muslim jurists, fearing an assault on the order and stability of society, took a hard stance against the intermingling of men and women. This was done presumably for the protection of women. With time however, the position hardened and women were precluded from social and political life altogether. Legal opinions were offered that would even bar a woman from the mosque.

The universal brotherhood and sisterhood that was created by the Prophet was shattered and in its place emerged class distinctions between the ruler and the ruled and sex distinctions between men and women. The masses were secluded from political life and among the masses, women were even more secluded.

It is a tribute to the inexorable spirit of humankind that the masses never give up. Those who are excluded continue to challenge the status quo and it is through these tensions that human progress ensues. With the introduction of Turkish and African blood into Islam and the later infusion of Mongol, Indian and Indonesian elements, the rigid separation of women from politics and culture was challenged. And it was from among these “newcomers” that the great queens of Islam emerged, women such as Razia Sultana of Delhi, Shajarat al Durr of Cairo and Noor Jehan of the Great Moghuls, who distinguished themselves in the political space and left their indelible mark on Islamic history.