Nipissing University

History 2805 -- History of Islamic Civilization

Nomad Empires in the Middle East

Steve Muhlberger

In the previous lecture, we looked at one episode from the Middle Period of Islamic History that most people in this part of the world are reasonably familiar with -- the Crusades.  The major point I tried to make in that lecture is that the Crusades were important in the development of Western Europe, and especially in the development of European Christian attitudes toward Islam.  But as far as Islamic civilization itself was concerned, for all  the fame of the Crusades in our historical tradition, they were actually of  very little importance.

In this lecture, we are going to look at a situation that is precisely the reverse.  We are going to look at a situation that most of us know next to nothing about, but which had a tremendous amount of impact on the development of Islamic civilization.  That subject is the rise and fall of new nomadic empires in the Middle East, in the years between 1000 and 1500 A.D.

You will recall that a few lectures back I talked about more or less this same period, 1000-1500 A.D., in terms of how Islam came to terms with decentralized government. Now I’m talking about empires again in connection with the same area, and empires are usually considered to be the exact opposite of decentralized government.   But I will hope you will see, as the lecture goes along, that I’m not contradicting myself.

Before we looked at how Islamic life was organized near the grassroots, and how Islamic law and custom was one of the major factors that tied individual communities together, despite the ebb and flow of  high politics.

But, if we now raise our eyes to the plane of high politics during the same period, we see quite a different picture, and one that is equally important for our understanding of the development of  Islamic civilization.

Back at the beginning of the course, I talked at length about the dynamic tension between urbanites and tribal people, in which the attractions of urban and agricultural wealth  for the tribespeople and the need for urban civilizations to accommodate themselves with surrounding tribal people created a cycle of empires

This cycle did not cease to operate after the Arab conquests.  For a long time, the Umayyad and Abbasid caliphates were strong enough to discourage would-be conquerors from outside the Middle East, or the rise of strong nomadic forces within the Middle East.

After 900, however, with the caliphate falling apart as a practical political community, nomadic groups had their opportunity, and some took it.

Where did these new nomads come from?

This area was a tremendous reservoir of nomadic tribes; it was on some of the main trade routes between Europe, the Middle East and China; it had its own oasis-based urban centers;  in other words, it was an area where there was a constant interaction between tribal and urban cultures.  And, strategically speaking, it was right next door to the Islamic heartlands of Iraq and Iran.  The nomads of this area -- and many of the townspeople too -- spoke one Turkic language or another, and so we can call them Turks.   We must remember that there were many different forms of Turks and many different Turkic languages -- just as there are many different “Latin” languages today.   In particular, we can’t identify these Central Asian Turks with the Turks of present day Turkey, though there is a historical and linguistic connection.

The influence of Turkic Central Asia on the politics of the heartland came in two forms.

The nomad empires rose and fell dramatically, as a result of the usual dynamic, over the period 1000-1500.

The  three most important nomad based empires of  the period were:

What was the impact of  these invasions?

The nomad empires spread Islam into areas where it had never existed before. The years between 1000 and 1500 were therefore a distinct era in the life of Islamic civilization.  It had both its positive and negative aspects.

On the negative side, the older centers of Islamic life suffered very badly, especially but not only during the Mongol conquests of the thirteenth century.  Baghdad was reduced from the cultural metropolis of the Islamic world to an impoverished provincial town; Iraq and many other areas that had developed on the basis of irrigated agriculture had their infrastructure seriously and permanently undermined.

At the same time, new areas were drawn into the Islamic orbit.   The conquerors were or soon became Muslims, and introduced the religion and the culture that had originated in the Middle East into areas where it had never existed before.  The nomad empires, especially the Mongol one, are famous among world historians for their opening up of communication between Europe, India, the Middle East and China, resulting in wider trade, and  technological and cultural exchanges.  The Mongol conquests made possible the journeys of Marco Polo and diplomatic contact between Paris, Rome, and Karakorum, the Mongol city of the Khans.   This is the western European view of the wide open roads of the era around 1300.   But from the Islamic view, one of the most important things being carried along those open roads was the message of the Holy Qur'an.   In some ways this was an era of crisis; but the Islamic world came out of it much larger than before.

Copyright (C) 1999, Steven Muhlberger.