Mind of the Musulman: Arab Decadence
Arab decadence in Persia, Mesopotamia, and Egypt— The provinces, relapsed into barbarism temporarily under Arab dominion, are re-born into civilization as soon as they are able to free themselves — General causes of the decay of the Arab Empire: Political nullity — Absence of Creative genius — Absence of discipline — Bad administration — No national unity — The Arab could only govern with the collaboration of foreigners — Secondary causes: Religion, the vehicle of Arab thought — Too great a diversity among the conquered peoples — Despotic power of the prince — Servile position of women — The Islamization of the subject peoples raised them to the level of the conqueror and allowed them to submerge him — Mixed marriages — Negro influence — Diminution of the Imperial revenues — The mercenaries.
IT would be wearisome to follow through all its details the history of the provinces brought into subjection to the Arabs. It may be briefly summarized.
The same causes having produced everywhere the same effects, the various countries conquered by the Arabs followed the example of Spain and worked for the dismemberment of the Empire. In Persia, in Mesopotamia and in Egypt, it was above all nationalist sentiments, awakened by foreign domination and strengthened by religious persecution, that drove the people to revolt.
This movement towards independence reveals a remarkable fact, already noted in the case of Spain: the provinces fallen into barbarism under the Arab by ambition, embarked on civil war which ruined this vast empire and led to its dismemberment.
In 877, a freed Turkish mercenary, Ahmed ben Thoulon, to whom Caliph Al Motamid had entrusted the government of Egypt and Syria, declared himself independent of the Empire. His motive was ambition, but he was aided by the people who were weary of Arab constraint. Once rid of the heavy hand of the Abbassids, the two provinces which had been almost ruined by the exactions of officials and by religious persecution, soon recovered their former prosperity. Ahmed ben Thoulon, who had only recently been converted to Islam, had but a very slight acquaintance with the subtleties of the faith; and being anxious for popularity, he displayed a liberal spirit, calmed the zeal of the fanatics, protected the arts and sciences, raised monuments with the help of Egyptian and Syrian architects, made roads, opened canals and set up markets.
His son, Khomarouiah (884), following his example, allowed complete liberty to the individual, surrounded himself with an elegant court, and distinguished himself by his prodigality. At the instigation of the learned men of the country, he had an immense menagerie built at Mesrah where wild animals of every sort were kept.
The Fatimites, who succeeded the Thoulonids, ruled as they had done with the assistance of the great local families. Moez-Ledinilla (958-975), who was the first Fatimite Caliph of Egypt, and who founded El Kahira, and his successor Aziz-Billah (975-996), by their liberal administration, favoured the development of commerce, of industry, and agriculture; while by their generous treatment they encouraged writers and savants.
Ibn-Younes, the Egyptian, had his observatory, like the astronomers of Irak, and was able to compose his celebrated astronomical tables. The prosperity of this province increased until the revenue from it alone was equal to what had formerly been collected by Haroun-al-Haschid from the whole extent of the Empire.
In spite of the folly of Hashem, a sort of Oriental Nero who distinguished himself by sadistic excesses (996-1020); in spite of the incapacity of Dhaber (1020-1086); in spite of the disappointed ambitions of Abu-Tamin Mostanser (1086-1094), Egypt continued to be prosperous until 1171, when for a time she again fell under the dominion of the Abbassids. From 1171 to 1258, when the last Abbassid died, was a period of barbarism and anarchy further accentuated by the enterprises of the Christian Crusaders, which began in 1096.
The Abbassid Caliphs, weakened by a life of debauchery, were too feeble to offer any effective opposition to the taking of Antioch (1098) or of Jerusalem (1099). It was a Seljuk, Emad-ed-Din Zenghi, who had carved out for himself an independent kingdom between Djezireh and Irak el Arabi, who led the Muslims against the Christians and arrested their advance.
His work was continued by his two sons, Sif-ed--Din and Nour-ed-Din. The latter, notably, took Damascus, then threatened by the Crusaders; while one of his lieutenants, Shirkuk, took Egypt in hand.
Shirkuk's nephew, Salah-ed-Din, the Saladin of our chronicles, overthrew the Fatimites (1171). On the death of Nour-ed-Din in 1174, he became the ruler of Egypt, of Syria, of Mesopotamia, and of Arabia. In 1185, his Empire extended from Tripoli, in Africa, to the Tigris, and from the Yemen to the Taurus mountains. He took from the Christians Acre, Ascalon and Jerusalem (1187). On his death, the ambition of his sons broke up this Empire; one of them took Egypt, another Damascus, and the third took Aleppo and Upper Syria. This was the dynasty of the Aioubites. The two former were dispossessed by their uncle Malk-dhel-Sif-ed-Din, who reunited into one State Egypt and Lower Syria and took Tripoli from the Crusaders (1200-1218).
On his death there was a further dismemberment. In the thirteenth century, the Muslim Empire was no more than a cloud of small States wrangled over by the representatives of the different dynasties and the partisans of the various sects, of whom the most active at that time were the Ismailiens or Hachichin [“Assassins”], who came to light in Persia about 840, under the inspiration of Mazdeism.
A new race of conquerors, the Mongols, now invaded Asia Minor and added to the general anarchy; after making themselves masters of Tartary and China, Genghis Khan and his successors fell upon the Muslim Empire (1258). Egypt and Syria held out until 1517. Power passed finally out of the hands of the Arabs, who disappeared before more warlike conquerors — the Turks and the Mongols; they had no longer any political existence beyond the confines of the peninsula, and disappeared henceforward from the history of the nations of the Orient.
Having now reviewed the history of the Arab Empire from its origin down to its final collapse, it may not be beyond the bounds of possibility perhaps to unravel the causes of its decline and fall.
There were certain general causes, connected with the Arab temperament and mentality, and resulting from the natural shortcomings of the Arab, from his customs, from the conditions of his existence during centuries in a special milieu — the desert.
Then there were secondary causes, consequent upon the mistakes committed by the Arabs as conquerors.
Taking first the general causes, we find that the Arabs were never a political people, capable of great aims and of patient effort in view of their realization. They were a nomadic people, primitive, simple beings, not very far removed from animalism, obeying their instincts, unable to curb their passions or to control their desires. Powerless to conceive a higher interest, to cherish a lofty ideal, they have always lived a life of indiscipline. Subject to chronic anarchy, the Arab has never been able to subordinate his individual egoism to the pursuit of any great collective task, to the realization of any national ambition.
Even at the time of their greatness and power, they were a sort of federation of egoisms, brought together and kept together by the pressure of circumstances, but ready at any moment to fly at each others' throats.
Incapable of invention, they have copied, but have never been able to create. Incapable of progress, they tolerated the forms of government they found in existence in the lands they conquered, but they could never improve upon those forms, nor replace them by any other.
A homely illustration will explain our meaning.
"The intelligence of an Arab rises as high as the faculty of imitation. Put him on a motor-car or a locomotive engine, and after a certain time of apprenticeship, they will be able to drive it; but if the machine should get out of order, he will be quite incapable of repairing it, and still less could he make a new one.”
In the same way, the Arab conqueror succeeding to civilized peoples such as the Persians or the Byzantines, has been able to take over their system of administration; he has even been compelled to adopt it, since he could not substitute for it any scheme of his own devising; he has been able to assure the working of the adopted system for a certain time; but as soon as circumstances called for some modifications, he has not been able to effect them, since he had no gift of invention or creative genius; and when the system got out of order for want of measures rendered necessary by new conditions, by the evolution of ideas and of manners, he could neither repair it nor replace it by any system of his own. The machine of government wore out rapidly and finally stopped running; and when it stopped, ruin followed.
In Northern Africa, the conquering Arab was unable to repair the barrages and other hydraulic works that had enabled the Romans to endow the country with unexampled agricultural prosperity.
He made what use he could of them, so long as they lasted; but, when they fell into ruin, either by the ravages of time or by wanton destruction, the prosperity of the Maghreb collapsed, drought struck the land with barrenness and the desert took the place of fields and orchards.
The Arab is no administrator. A careless nomad, accustomed to live from hand to mouth, submitting to the accidents of daily life without being able to foresee them, and never dreaming of providing against them, he is quite incapable of government. So true is this that the capital of the Empire has never been in Arabia; it was for a time in Syria, then in Mesopotamia, then in Spain, then in Egypt; that is to say, wherever the Caliphs found foreign collaborators with the talents necessary to make up for their own shortcomings. So long as these collaborators were strong enough to impose their will, behind the facade of Caliphal power, there was some appearance of government. But, when the conquering Arab, intoxicated by his successes or blinded by religious fanaticism, wanted to rule by himself, anarchy immediately succeeded to order and the whole structure went to pieces. At no period did the direction of the affairs of the Empire proceed from Arabia, so that there could never be any national power, any national ideal, national interest or national unity.
The various provinces were always split up by rivalries, because each one of them, in view of the inability of the Conqueror to impose discipline and directive, preserved its own particular ideals, its own ambitions, friendships and hatreds; so that the Arab Empire was never anything better than a mosaic of ill-assorted blocks without bond or cohesion.
The Arab is a barbarian. Up to the time of Mohammed, Arabia was inhabited by shepherds and robbers; there is no evidence of the existence of a society, of any collective organization or intellectual movement. When these primitive beings, solely preoccupied by the satisfaction of material desires, sprang forward to the conquest of the world and fell into the midst of nations far advanced in civilization, they became rapidly corrupted. When the Bedouin, brought up to the rough life of the desert, accustomed to privation and suffering, was transplanted to Damascus or Bagdad, to Cordova or to Alexandria, he soon became a prey to all the vices of civilization; the half-starved creature was ready to burst with indigestion; the Spartan, by necessity, hitherto, became at once a Sybarite.
Unable to restrain his instincts, he entered into the enjoyment of an easy life and became perverted. Coarse and ignorant, he succumbed to the influence of subordinates more civilized than himself. He never had any authority but that of physical force; and when that passed from him by reason of his debasement, he forfeited all power. When foreign assistance was withdrawn, he became himself again — the Bedouin Arab.
The Bedouin cannot conceive any condition better than his own; he cannot imagine anything that does not actually exist, that he cannot see, that he does not possess. Driven by the keen desire for plunder, he left his desert and rushed to the conquest of the world. In contact with more civilized people he imitated, copied, and adopted all that he had been powerless to imagine for himself. He borrowed his religion from the Jews and Christians; his scientific knowledge and his legislation from Greco-Latin civilization; but while copying he has often missed the pure spirit of the original and distorted that which was beyond his limited understanding. In so far as he has been thrown into close association with other peoples, he has succumbed to their influence, parodied their luxurious habits and their refined manners; but as soon as this foreign influence has been withdrawn, he has not been able to keep what he has learnt, but has fallen back into his original character as a coarse and ignorant Bedouin. It was in this way that after the fall of the Barmecids, their talented Persian ministers, the dynasty of the Abbassids, which up to then had had a brilliant career, fell suddenly into insignificance and decay.
Taking a bird's-eye view of Arab history, it is seen to be divided into several periods coinciding with the influence exercised by different foreign nations; there is the Syrian period, during the Caliphate of the Ommeyads; the Persian period, during the reign of the Abbassids; then the Spanish and the Egyptian periods, under their successors. During one period only the Arabs acted alone, this was during the reign of the first successors of Mohammed, and it should be noted that during this period the Arabs confined their efforts to conquest, plunder and destruction.
So far as the Bedouin has been submerged by foreigners, he has unconsciously come under their influence, and has been licked into some sort of shape by contact with them; and it was due to this circumstance that a certain expansion of civilization took place that has been falsely attributed to the Arabs, whereas its real authors were the Syrians, the Persians, the Hindus, the Spaniards, and the Egyptians. But as soon as the Bedouin has been left to himself, he has relapsed into his ancestral barbarism, the anarchical barbarism of the desert robber.
These appear to he the general causes that explain the rapid decay and final collapse of the Arab Empire. But there are secondary causes whose influence upon its destinies was less only in degree. These causes are numerous:
In the first place, religion. Islam, as we have already said many times, is a secretion of the Arab brain; it is the adaptation of Judeo-Christian doctrines to Arab mentality. For want of imagination, the Bedouin has failed to animate his belief with any lofty ideal; it is very plantigrade, without horizon, like his own thought. Its ideal is the ideal of a nomad, of a dweller in the desert, of a primitive still floundering in the mud of material things — of animal satisfactions, eating, drinking, enjoying, sleeping — the poor philosophy of a brute whose mind does not penetrate the causes of things: of a fatalist who submits to events and resigns himself to whatever may happen.
Such a doctrine, anything but favorable to the development of intellectual faculties, was further aggravated by the clumsy zeal of fanatics, who, in the second century of the Hegira, succeeded in fixing it immutably, in crystallizing it, and, worse still, in clothing it with a sacred character by alleging its divine origin, thus making of it an intangible whole, and rendering any later evolution, any modification, any progress impossible.
Having thus become ossified, immutable, imperfectible [not corruptible], this doctrine has withstood the action of centuries; it is today what it was at the time of the Abbassid Caliphs. As it was forced upon the subject peoples, and as they, to avoid persecution, finally adopted it, it has stifled free will, together with the power of evolution and of accepting the teachings of experience; it has lowered their minds to the level of Arab mentality. Those countries which were able to free themselves in good time from the Arab yoke and to escape from the Muslim religion, like Spain, Sicily, and Southern France, have kept their capacity to progress, and have been able to follow the course of their destiny as civilized nations; the others who, before their Islamization had shown undoubted aptitudes for progress, such as Syria, Persia and Egypt, have sunk into barbarism since their conversion, and have stayed there.
The deadening influence of Islam is well demonstrated by the way in which a Muslim comports himself at different stages of his life. In his early childhood, when the religion has not as yet impregnated his brain, he shows a very lively intelligence and a remarkably open mind, accessible to ideas of every kind; but, in proportion as he grows up, and as, through the system of his education, Islam lays hold of him and envelops him, his brain seems to shut up, his judgment to become atrophied, and his intelligence to be stricken by paralysis and irremediable degeneration.
Yet another cause that has hastened the decline of Arab dominion is to be found in the great diversity of the conquered peoples. The Arab Empire was formed haphazard as conquest followed conquest. The conquered nations, tribes, and colonies were divided by different interests, aspirations and necessities; there was no national unity. The chief bond of cohesion in a State is a common language, which brings about a close communion of ideas, and is materialized in a sort of way by the creation of a capital city, a vital centre, the heart as it were of the nation.
The Arab Empire was never conscious of any such unity. The Latins, Greeks, Slavs, Arabs, Persians, Hindus, Egyptians, and Berbers, brought together by the iron will of the conqueror, could neither understand each other nor fraternize nor combine for the pursuit of any common ideal. They formed a shapeless and ill-assorted whole. As soon as the authority that imposed an artificial cohesion upon them disappeared, they parted company and the Empire crumbled.
Another cause of decadence was the despotic power of the prince, at once temporal and spiritual head of the State. While such tremendous power might yield remarkable results in the hands of a man of genius, it became an instrument of ruin when wielded by an incapable; but men of genius are unfortunately rare, and, as we have seen, apart from a few exceptions, the Caliphs were inferior to their task.
The absence of any law of succession was a further cause of decline. By neglecting to fix any rule to regulate the succession, Mohammed left the door open to intrigue and ambition of all kinds; and this element of destruction was still further aggravated by the insubordinate spirit of the Arabs and by the rivalries that split up every tribe.
The servile position of women, imposed by Islam, has been and still remains a cause of decadence for the Muslim community. Relegated to the harem, a beast of burden amongst the poor, a creature for pleasure amongst the rich, the wife, shut off from the outer world, remains the depository of ignorance and prejudice; and as it is she who brings up the children, she inculcates the traditions of barbarism of which the egoism of the male has constituted her the guardian.
The gravest error committed by the Arab conqueror was in compelling the conquered peoples to become converts to Islam. By the fact of conversion, the vanquished became the equal of his vanquisher, entitled to enjoy the same rights, the same privileges; and as in the majority of cases he was his superior in intelligence and intellectual culture, he came to exercise a preponderant influence; so that the conquering Arab, by the very reason of the rapidity and extent of his conquests, found himself, as it were, drowned in a sea of foreign peoples who imposed their manners upon him and corrupted him. They dominated him all the more easily as he was incapable, through want of knowledge and experience of taking the lead and of establishing his moral authority.
The same mistake had been committed by the Romans in former days, when they had granted the citizenship to barbarians.
“An exchange was established between Italy and the Provinces. Italy sent her sons to die in distant lands and received in compensation millions of slaves. Of these, some were attached to the land, cultivated it, and soon enriched it with their bones; others, crowded together in the towns, attentive to the vices of a master, were often freed by him and became citizens. Little by little the sons of freed men came to be in sole possession of the city, composed the Roman people, and under this name gave laws to the world. From the time of the Gracchi, they alone nearly filled the Forum. Thus, a new people succeeded to the Roman people, absent or destroyed.”
The systematic Islamization of the vanquished had a still more fatal consequence for the Arabs. The greater part of the slaves were Negroes, that is to say they belonged to an inferior race, absolutely refractory to all civilization. By accepting Islam, these slaves raised themselves to the level of their masters; mixed marriages were frequent and numerous, and thus the Arab blood was impoverished. This crossing effectively corrupted and debased the Arab race.
Everywhere else, in Syria, in Persia, in India and Egypt, in the Maghreb and in Spain, mixed marriages enabled the subject population to submerge their conqueror. The Arab race was diluted to such an extent that it is impossible to find a single representative of it today, among the Muslim peoples, outside of Arabia.
The Islamization of the vanquished had yet another consequence: it diminished the revenues of the Empire. What constituted the wealth of the Caliphs and enabled them to display a pomp and magnificence that reinforced their authority was the tribute paid by non-Muslims in consideration of the right to preserve their own beliefs. When, after the second century of the Hegira, the fanatics compelled the vanquished by their persecutions to become converts to Islam, the new Muslims became the equals of the Arabs, they ceased to pay tribute, and the treasury of the Caliphs was soon emptied.
When, through the increasing effeminacy of the Arabs who had lost their warlike qualities of strength and endurance, and had betaken themselves to mercantile pursuits, the Caliphs could no longer recruit Arab soldiers, they were obliged to have recourse to foreign mercenaries. This was the origin of the Turkish, Slav, Berber and Spanish troops, who, under the last Caliphs, ended by disposing of power and choosing the sovereign. Mercenary troops, who by their turbulence had hastened the downfall of the Roman Empire, in the same way contributed to the ruin of the Arab Empire.
Such were the multiple causes that brought about the decadence and final collapse of Arab dominion.