Islam in Late Middle Ages and the Modern Era

Islam in Late Middle Ages

The Mongols —nomads of central Eurasia—dominated world history during the thirteenth century. The Mongols invaded many postclassical empires and built an extensive cultural and commercial network. Led by Chinggis Khan and his successors, the Mongols brought China, Persia, Tibet, Eurasia Minor, and southern Russia under their control. The Mongol Empire also opened trade routes—primarily along the Silk Road —as well as lines of communication between Asia and the Middle East. Under Hulegu Khan, the Mongols sacked the Abbasid capital at Baghdad and decimated much of the Islamic civilization. They killed the last Abbasid caliphate and established the Ilkhanate, which ruled Persia until the fourteenth century. The Ilkhans embraced many religions, particularly Christianity, in their quest to create an alliance with Europe. However, beginning in 1295, the Ilkhans converted to Islam. (48)

The Crusades—a series of religious wars launched to restore Christian control of the Holy Land—began in 1096 and were the most conspicuous sign of the rise and expansion of Christian Europe. The first crusade resulted in the division of Syria and Palestine into smaller Christian kingdoms, although subsequent crusades had less successful outcomes. Under the Muslim ruler Saladin, most of the Holy Land was reclaimed for Islam by the late 1100s; by 1251, Muslim armies had expelled all Christian kingdoms. The impact of the Crusades was twofold: first, they established a precedent for the rift between Western Christendom and the Middle Eastern Muslim world and second, they intensified commercial contact between the two regions. While Europeans were interested in obtaining textiles, scientific knowledge, and medicine from the Muslim world, Muslims had little interest in European goods or culture. (49)

A map of Afro-Eurasia shows the extent of the Ottoman Empire in the sixteenth centuries, stretching from North Africa, the Middle East, and Eastern Europe.
Figure 8-3: Ottoman Empire is licensed under CC-BY-SA 4.0.

Two powerful Muslim empires emerged in the Middle East in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. The Ottomans ruled Asia Minor, eastern Europe, northern Africa, and parts of the Middle East, while the Safavids built an empire that included present-day Afghanistan and Iran. Both, however, possessed a religious zeal for the expansion of Islam. The Ottomans emerged in the wake of Mongol defeat: they invaded the Balkans, captured Constantinople, and toppled Byzantium, forging a military state ruled by a sultanate and dominated by a warrior aristocracy. The Safavids also rose to power in the wake of the Mongol invasions. The Safavids were Shi’a Muslims who claimed leadership and established rule by a shah and his court. Both the Ottomans and the Safavids encouraged Islamic learning and cultural advancement while also bolstering trade. (50)

Islam in the Modern Era (1924–present)

By the nineteenth century, the Ottoman Empire was in decline. The Ottomans, their imperial holdings much reduced since their heyday in the sixteenth century, became increasingly dependent on European resources to buoy their empire. Beginning in the late 1800s, Ottoman leaders embarked upon a policy of reform that they believed would modernize their state by implementing constitutional government, educational systems, new technology, and new industry with European monies. As a result of this financial dependence, many European powers began to dominate or annex Ottoman holdings in the Middle East in the 1800s. With the outbreak of World War I in 1914, the Ottomans allied themselves with the Central Powers—Austria-Hungary and Germany—but were defeated by the Allied forces in 1918. (51)

The collapse of the Ottoman Empire, the end of World War I, and the discovery of oil allowed European powers to gain new influence in the Middle East. Near the end of World War I, Britain and France negotiated for the partition of the Middle East between them, proclaiming territorial “mandates.” In addition, Britain promised European Zionists a Jewish homeland in Palestine. Not only were Britain and France interested in expanding their influence in the Middle East, but they were keen on exploiting the Middle East’s primary resource: oil. Oil fueled the development of industrial Europe, and by mandating control over Middle Eastern countries; Britain and France were guaranteed access to sought-after petroleum products.

Beginning in 1940s, Britain and France abandoned their protectorates and ended their mandates in the Middle East, largely due to conflicts that erupted between local governments and their foreign occupiers. Between 1941 and 1947, Iran, Lebanon, Syria, Jordan, Iraq, and Egypt (with the exception of the British-dominated Suez Canal) became independent of European rule. And in 1948, Zionists established the state of Israel, a declaration that precipitated the 1948 Arab-Israeli war and decades of subsequent conflict. However, while many Middle Eastern nations became independent of British and French rule in the 1940s, the onset of the Cold War attracted new foreign interest in the region. As a result, the United States and the Soviet Union vied for control of the Middle East throughout much of the twentieth century. (52)

The Islamic Revolution of 1979 (also known as the Iranian Revolution) overthrew the reigning shah (king) and established a theocratic state. The leader of the revolt, a Shi’ite Muslim cleric, proclaimed himself Ayatollah—or “supreme leader”—of Iran.

The Ayatollah asserted the importance of the Islamic faith and decried Western influence and policy. The revolution established an important precedent in the Middle East by encouraging the proliferation of an Islamic ideology throughout the region. As a result, in the 1980s and 1990s, many fundamentalist Muslim groups emerged, including Al Qaeda and the Taliban. Many of these groups embraced an extreme strain of Islam as well as violent anti-Western sentiment. Islamic fundamentalists were responsible for numerous terrorist attacks against Western powers, including the 1998 embassy bombings in Africa and the September 11, 2001 attacks in New York City. (53)

At the same time, new Muslim intellectuals are beginning to arise, and are increasingly separating perennial Islamic beliefs from archaic cultural traditions. Liberal Islam is a movement that attempts to reconcile religious tradition with modern norms of secular governance and human rights. Its supporters say that there are multiple ways to read Islam’s sacred texts, and stress the need to leave room for “independent thought on religious matters.” Women’s issues receive a significant weight in the modern discourse on Islam. (45)