Islam, a Monolith?
By Dr Zafar M. Iqbal
After the Sassanid Empire (224-651 AD), the Islamic Caliphate began to spread beyond the Arabian peninsula, and continued through the 10 th, covering countries we now know as Afghanistan, Iran and some Central Asian countries (formerly part of the Soviet Union). These areas forming the Islamic frontiers have been in flux, generally and constantly.
At the 127 th Annual meeting (3- 6 January 2013; New Orleans, LA) of the American Historical Society, Robert Haug of the University of Cincinnati presented a paper, “Between the limits and the Gaps: Conceptualizing Frontiers in Medieval Arabic and Persian Geographies,” with his analysis of the medieval writings (9 th and 10 th centuries) from the Arabian Peninsula and Persia. These writings described the limits (‘hudood’) and gaps (‘thughur ’ ) of the Islamic world, both physically and conceptually (“perpetual frontiers,” to Haug).
Records that Haug examined showed an increase in the number of mosques in the frontiers from 9 th to 10th century. In the 10 th century, even after 300 years of Arab rule over these frontiers, the population, according to Haug, was about 50% Muslim. He believes one of the main reasons may be the fact that conversion of the area natives to Islam was initially discouraged by the ruling Arabs who perhaps wanted to keep themselves apart.
Since the Arab rulers also wanted to collect taxes and make serious military and other decisions impinging on the natives, their conversion to Islam would then also entitle the natives to be treated under the Islamic rules, which have restrictions on collecting taxes (and the ways they could and could not use) from fellow-Muslims. There were also economic, cultural and religious problems in these frontier areas, problems that had to be chronically ironed during that period.
As the social and cultural atmosphere began to change, the native populations in these frontiers also adapted and took measures to maintain economic security, position and their group identity. Since these populations lived at the fringes, they were often subject to raids by their enemies, and in order to protect their property and resources, they fortified the silos and other grain enclosures. These were called “ribats,” an Arabic, not a native or local, term.
Later, protection of the fortified farms and food storage areas was viewed as defending/protecting Islam which made the natives more politically and militarily acceptable to the ruling Arabs. These fortifications were also considered potential threat to the Caliphate because they could be used a refuge by their enemies. Adopting Arab terms in a mixed cultural environment with overlapping culture and vocabulary, however, did not necessarily mean they converted to Islam.
Another important thing Haug noticed was the coins minted and used as an indication of the power (both expanding and shrinking) of the Caliphate. Coins minted and used, for instance, in Baghdad generally bore three names (of the Caliph, his heir and the governor of the area), instead of 6 or so on the coins in the frontiers, probably reflecting impending power shifts.
Some may think that the religion, instead of unifying force or incentive, has rather been a source of perpetual conflict, both internally within many Muslim countries professed to be Islamic and between any two such countries. For instance, the Sunni-Shia sectarian conflict has been going on for over 1,300 years across the Islamic world, often-violent and fatal in recent years as in Pakistan, Iraq and other Middle Eastern countries. Long term issues of Palestinians and Kurds still get fractured support from neighboring Muslim countries. Afghanistan and Pakistan are beset with ongoing hostilities, and the problems introduced by Al-Qaeda are seen in various Muslim countries from Mali, Libya to Pakistan, not to mention the host of problems the Muslim countries, in general, already face, and some not entirely baselessly, with the non-Islamic world.
Islam, a unifying monolith, as portrayed by the West, does not quite reflect the political reality on the ground today. Those who think that things have not changed much since the 7th century may not be too far off-base in some ways.