Mind of the Musulman: Islam Under the Ommeyads
Islam under the Ommeyads — The Theocratic Republic becomes a Military Monarchy —The Caliphate established at Damascus, where it comes under Syrian influence, that is to say, Greco-Latin — The rivalries which divided Mecca and Medina break out between these towns and Damascus — The conquest of the Maghreb, then of Spain, realized through the complicity of the inhabitants, anxious to get rid of the Greeks and Visigoths — The attempted conquest of Gaul fails owing to the stubborn resistance of the Franks, and marks the limit of Muslim expansion — The Ommeyad dynasty, extinguished in orgies of Byzantine decadence, gives place to the dynasty of the Abbassids.
WITH Maowiah, the dynasty of the Ommeyads begins. The scene of the struggle for power is shifted. The leading Meccan families have emigrated to Syria where, through the favor of the new Caliph, they enjoy all the good things in his gift. It is now the Koreich of Mecca who govern Islam from Damascus. The Medina party, the Old Muslims, the strict believers, faithfully devoted to the doctrine of Mohammed, struggle no longer against Mecca but against Damascus, or rather against Syrian influence. For, while the Koreich of Mecca, now established in Damascus, held power nominally, it was in reality the Syrians who exercised it; that is to say, a non-Arab people, converts of recent date, who had as yet received but a faint impression of Islam. And as the Syrians were of Greco-Latin civilization, the struggle was in the end between this classical influence and Arab mentality.
The Syrians had recovered their former position; for, whereas under the Caliphate of Omar they had been treated as pariahs, under Maowiah they enjoyed untrammeled freedom. A clever people, intellectually emancipated, little troubled by scruples of conscience and capable of adapting themselves to circumstances with wonderful pliability, they had willingly gone over to Islam, since their conversion enabled them to enjoy the same rights and privileges as their conquerors. But, nevertheless, under the outward show of Mohammedanism they had kept intact their own customs and mentality. And as, by their knowledge and education, by their Greco-Latin culture, they were the only people capable of holding administrative posts, it was they who governed on behalf of the Arab conqueror.
Their activity did not stop there. As heirs to the Byzantine civilization, of a culture incomparably superior to any that may have been possessed by the Arabs, they had given to Rome the family of the "Syrian Emperors," who reigned from Septimus Severus to Alexander Severus. Au courant with the latest advances in science, art, and the philosophy of the Greco-Latin schools, they exerted a considerable influence upon every phase of contemporary thought.
In the Damascus of that day the greater part of the Greek and Latin authors were known; many people read them in the original, while numerous Syriac translations placed them within reach of the masses. People were quite carried away by their enthusiasm for the theories of the various philosophers.
Before the Arab conquest, in the time when Christianity prevailed, they carried on controversies on the most strained subtleties of religious metaphysics; they argued about the human and the divine nature of Christ; at Damascus they were monophysite, that is to say they considered any distinction between the two natures impossible, since the divine had absorbed the human nature.
Syrian architects, by combining Greek with Persian art, had created what came to be called Byzantine art. It was they, notably, who constructed the first domes; that of Santa Sophia (582) is the work of the Syrian Athemios of Thrales. We see to how high a degree of intellectual culture the Syrians had attained, and how far superior they were to their Arab masters — rough, coarse soldiers, solely preoccupied with the enjoyment of life without troubling themselves as to what philosophers might think about it.
The Syrians took up the education of their conqueror; they taught the ignorant Bedouin the science and art of Greece; the Bedouin did not understand it all, his brain was not yet sufficiently supple; he retained of this teaching only just so much as was accessible to him, but what he did retain was in its essence exclusively Greco-Latin. "What he acquired was Greco-Latin civilization as assimilated by the Syrians, that is to say, somewhat distorted in transmission through an Oriental mentality.
Those Arabs who had emigrated to Syria came completely under this foreign influence; as primitive creatures, they were at once captivated by the science of luxury, of comfort and of elegance seen at its best in this refined society. The comfortable houses, the baths, the choice food, the dress, the perfumes, the perverted pleasures of sense filled them with delight of which they had had no previous conception.
They made no resistance to the temptation to imitate the Syrians and to live as they did. The Caliph set them the example: Maowiah was an intelligent Bedouin and a hedonist in one. From the time when he was a provincial governor, under the Caliphate of Omar, he had adopted the manners of the country. Raised to supreme power, he continued a mode of life that responded to his tastes. The Muslim Court at Damascus came to resemble the former Byzantine court; it copied, sometimes to the length of caricature, its elegance, its luxury, and its pleasures. Syria may be said to have been the tomb of Arab energy; there the Bedouins attained a certain degree of culture and refinement; but they lost their sobriety and their powers of endurance. Byzantine civilization followed the course of its evolution under Muslim domination, and the conquering Bedouin, incapable, by reason of his ignorance, of giving any sort of direction to this evolution, could only admire from a distance and from below.
This Arab-Syrian society formed a remarkable contrast to that of Medina; in the latter, it was a Muslim society, such as Mohammed had imagined, or such at least as his bigoted disciples had evolved from a too narrow and too strict interpretation of the Prophet's injunctions. In Syria it was a Byzantine society behind a Muslim facade. The two societies could neither understand nor like each other. The violent strife which had formerly divided Islam through the rivalry of Mecca and Medina was followed by the exasperated hostility of Medina against Damascus.
The Medina party set their hopes upon Hassan, son of Ali, who had been proclaimed Caliph at Kufa; but this young man, the degenerate son of the most noble representative of Islam, was nothing but an effeminate voluptuary, leading a life of debauchery and low sensuality surrounded by women and favourites. He would have been quite content to continue his life of pleasure; but his party, amongst whom was Kais, the Defender, son of Saad, a wild fanatic, compelled him to take the field. He resigned himself to their demands, much against the grain, but conducted the war with such indolence and such notorious incapacity that his troops were soon decimated. It is even probable that this cowardly creature tried to insure himself against the future by treating secretly with Maowiah. In any case, he made his first check a pretext for concluding an arrangement with his rival, by which he gave up his claims to the Caliphate in consideration of a magnificent pension.
Kais had to get back to Arabia with a few faithful followers; he took refuge in Medina, where the inhabitants, discouraged and unable to contend openly against the Caliph, were forced to disguise their feelings and hope for better times (661).
Maowiah, relieved from the anxiety of civil war, continued his life of luxury and entertainments; and, as it took a great deal of money to keep up such state, he set himself to get it out of the conquered peoples. Circumstances compelled him to take up the role of administrator, in which he displayed marked ability. He entrusted the government of Egypt to his faithful Amru, who was instructed to squeeze the people. Maowiah even undertook certain conquests. While he was governor of Syria, he had taken possession of the islands of Crete, Cos, and Rhodes (649).
In 655 he had destroyed an important section of the fleet of Constantine II, off the coast of Lycia. He now conceived the idea of attacking Constantinople, but his efforts were in vain. The Greeks had made a discovery which assured them a marked superiority over their adversaries — " Greek fire " — which enabled them to burn ships from a distance and had a terrifying effect upon their assailants.
Greek fire may be said to have prolonged the existence of the Byzantine Empire. Maowiah looked for more easily attainable success in another quarter: he sent an army into Byzacena — the present Tunisia — where, aided by dissensions among the Berbers and by their hostility to the Greeks, this army took possession of the province (665). The Caliph entrusted the government of the conquered territory to a Muslim fanatic, Okba Ben Nafa. Impelled by proselytizing zeal, the latter overran North Africa, burning, slaughtering, and pillaging. He reached the farthest shores of Morocco; and it is said that, carried away by religious exaltation, and finding his task all too soon accomplished, he rode into the sea, and when his horse could go no farther, cried: "God of Mohammed, if I were not held back by these waves, I would go on and carry the glory of thy name to the confines of the Universe! "
It would be a mistake to conclude from the rapid conquest of the Maghreb that Islam had at its disposal any prodigious material force. Okba's troops numbered no more than a few thousand men, but they were war-worn veterans and hungry for plunder. The Greek troops, even less in number, were of poor quality, and the Berbers, who formed the bulk of the population, were hostile to them.
These same Berbers, almost all of them Christians, were not very learned in the matter of dogma; their belief was freely tinged with paganism; the majority of them knew no more than the bare outline of the Christian tenets, and were ignorant of the details of its doctrine and worship. The reason is simple: the language of religion was Latin, and the country Berbers only spoke a dialect allied to Phoenician.
Saint Augustine had frequently insisted upon the difficulties that the general ignorance of the Latin tongue placed in the way of Christian missionaries in Africa. And as the numerous Christian sects, divided by metaphysical subtleties, threw further confusion into the native mind by their discussions and their polemics, the rural populations, incapable of establishing any distinction between Christianity and Islam, not unnaturally mistook for Christians those who spoke to them of a one and only God, of the day of resurrection, of a messenger sent by God, and of a revealed Book, all expressions that could equally be applied to the God of the gospels, to Christ and to the Holy Scriptures. So that from the very first the Berbers received the Muslims without hostility; some of them saw in the invaders Christian schismatics; the majority looked upon them as liberators who came to rid them of their Greek oppressors.
Later on, when they came to know the Arabs better and made acquaintance with the bigoted tyranny of Muslim law, they changed their opinion; but then the time for resistance had gone by.
Thinking to escape from the Greeks, they had fallen into the hands of other masters just as pitiless, and in addition, fanatical.
Before his death, Maowiah, under the advice of the Koreich emigrants in Syria, and with a view to benefiting his own family, wished to make the Caliphate hereditary. To avoid the election which it had hitherto been customary to hold, he appointed his son Yezid as his successor Yezid, the son of a high-spirited Bedouin mother, had been brought up in the desert in the rough and dangerous life of a nomad. Blunt in speech, he despised the pomp of palaces, the etiquette of courts, the hypocritical diplomacy of refinement. He was a haughty Bedouin, rough, generous, capable of the worst violence and of the most crazy liberality, with no other rule of conduct than the gratification of his passions. He loved sport, the pleasures of the table, women, wine, and play; he troubled himself but little about religion, but believed just about enough in God and his Prophet to be a Muslim; but any strict observance of the Koranic commandments was not to be expected of him.
As he was wont to give expression to his thoughts crudely, without tact or reserve, and as he treated the faithful believers as hypocritical bigots, he was looked upon by the Old Muslims of Medina as a horrible pagan. Having the support of the Syrians, who regarded him as a worthy successor to Maowiah, a young wild animal whom they proposed to tame, he was able to laugh at the indignation of the pious party.
He had a difficult start: the Hedjaz and Irak, judging the moment propitious, rose in revolt for various reasons. The peasants of Irak, who had only been broken to Islam by the worst acts of violence, loathed the Arabs, whose exactions had ruined them; they longed to escape from the necessity of paying the heavy tribute demanded by the conqueror, and to regain their liberty.
The people of the Hedjaz claimed to conserve the right of proclaiming the sovereign, in the hope of nominating one of themselves, and of keeping the seat of the Caliphate at Medina.
This was the old opposition of the men of Medina to Damascus and the Ommeyads; and it was further increased by the contempt with which Maowiah had treated the Arab provinces. He had forced upon them governors of inconceivable brutality, such as Ziad, his adopted brother, who, accompanied by spies and executioners, mercilessly stamped out every show of insubordination.
It was in these circumstances that Hassan, the eldest son of Ali, the former adversary of the Caliph, had been poisoned at Medina; that Aisha, the intriguing widow of the Prophet, had been killed; that Hejer, an important personage in Kufa, too devoted to the cause of the Alids, had been executed, and that at Bassora eight thousand rebels had been exterminated in a few months. In short, the men of Medina, who had always been staunch in their bigoted puritanism, would not allow the highest dignity in Islam to be entrusted to a prince who in their opinion was a Muslim in name only.
The rebels confided the defense of their cause to Hussein, the second son of Ali, who was distinguished by his energy and by his hatred of the Ommeyads. When he heard of the coming of Yezid, he exclaimed: "Never will I recognize Yezid as my sovereign; he is a drunkard and a debauché, and is mad upon hunting."
Impetuous by nature, Hussein took up the struggle with more vigor than ability; and being drawn into an ambush he was killed (680). When the news of his death reached the Hedjaz, the fervent Muslims were astounded; it seemed as if the divine protection had forsaken them; they were plunged into depression, when Abd’Allah, son of the Zobeir who had been Ali’s enemy, came to revive their resentment and had himself proclaimed Caliph at Medina. It was an act of madness. Yezid, with considerable forces at his command, took possession of the town and treated it with implacable rigor. He handed it over to pillage for three days; the mosque, containing Mohammed's tomb, was turned into a stable for the horses of the cavalry; women were violated; children were either massacred or taken into slavery. As for the survivors, they were only spared after they had acknowledged themselves Yezid’s slaves and had given him the free disposal of their property. The former nobility of Mecca, who had emigrated to Syria, avenged themselves upon the new religious aristocracy of Medina.
The Medinans had to resign themselves to their fate. But there were some, of proud soul and ardent faith, who preferred to seek a refuge in exile rather than submit. In their search for a new country far enough away from the conqueror for them to be able to live in peace, they found a refuge in the Maghreb where they formed very vigorous communities. It is in these communities that are to be found the origin of the Zaouias, or centres of religious propaganda. By their unremitting piety the refugees exercised a powerful influence over the Berbers of whom they gradually made a complete moral conquest. It is to them that certain portions of the population of the Maghreb owe their attachment to Islam and their bigoted fanaticism.
Even down to the present day, nowhere in all the provinces of Dar-el-Islam is the Muslim religion observed and practiced with such fervour. It is the old spirit of Medina that, driven out of Arabia, has remained alive and active among the Berbers through all the intervening centuries.
Yezid intended to continue his work of pacification; but death cut it short (683).
There followed a fresh period of anarchy, with all the provinces in a state of effervescence, each one of them claiming the right to choose the Caliph, and, lest they should be anticipated, actually nominating him. The Hedjaz nominated Abd’Allah, son of Zobeir, but he lacked the boldness that compels fortune to yield her favours. Syria chose Maowiah II, son of Yezid; but, as the son of a drunkard, brought up in the effeminate manners of the palace, he was a feeble creature who dared not face battle, and who, moreover, worn out by precocious indulgence in pleasure, died soon afterwards. Some thought of Walid, grandson of Abu-Sofian and a former governor of Medina, but the plague carried him off. Others thought of Khalid, the brother of Maowiah II, but he was still a child.
There was the same ferment in Irak, in Mesopotamia, and in Egypt. Each town elected a Caliph whom it dismissed the following day in order to nominate another. Islam was in a fair way to sink in anarchy when Hussein came upon the scene, the general of the army that had been operating in the Hedjaz. He arrived with a candidate, Merwan, son of Hakem, and a cousin of Maowiah.
A sort of diet was convoked at Djabia to examine the claims of this applicant, and consumed forty days in its deliberations. There was some fear of the friend of Hussein: “If Merwan gets the Caliphate,” they said, “we shall be his slaves; he has ten sons, ten brothers, ten nephews." But Hussein had powerful arguments at his disposal, he had the army; his choice had perforce to be accepted; nevertheless the Syrians, anxious for their interests, demanded guarantees; and the Caliph had to pledge himself solemnly to govern only in accordance with the counsels of those who had nominated him, and in addition, to designate as his successor the young Khalid who was meanwhile to receive the governorship of Emesa (Horns).
By Hussein's advice, Merwan used force, pacifying Syria and Mesopotamia and then Egypt by fire and sword. He was about to deal with Arabia when death carried him off (684).
His son, Abd-el-Malik, ignoring the promises made to Khalid, the son of Yezid, had himself proclaimed Caliph (685). There ensued renewed movements of revolt; Mecca and Medina rose, then Irak, determined to recover her independence — Irak seething with every form of heresy and schism. In one district Islam would take on the color of Mazdeism, in another that of Christianity; here Mazdeism would ally itself with Christianity; elsewhere, the three religions would blend together; Irak was thus a perfect Babel of beliefs and dogmas; fanatics ready for martyrdom rubbed shoulders with agnostics; austere believers lived side by side with agreeable Epicureans. Burning conflicts naturally arose, leading to a state of anarchy that exhausted the country.
Abd-el-Malik re-established order by energetic measures. In 690 he had succeeded in imposing his rule upon the Eastern provinces of the Empire.
There remained the Hedjaz, in a chronic state of revolt against Damascus. This time it was Mecca that, under the lead of Abd’Allah, son of Zobelr, was directing the movement. Abd-el-Malik sent a certain Hadjadj, formerly a schoolmaster, who had become chief of the army, through favor, against Mecca. Hadjadj laid siege to the sacred city, an act of sacrilege in the eyes of the believers, but of indifference to him. Abd'Allah held out for eight months; then became discouraged and talked of surrender.
His mother, a wild Bedouin, dissuaded him from this course in words of Roman pride:
" Mother," said he, "my friends are forsaking me, and my enemies are again offering me very acceptable conditions. What do you advise me to do? "
" To die," she replied.
" But I am afraid that if I fall into the hands of the Syrians, they will avenge themselves upon my body."
" And what does that matter to you? Does the slaughtered sheep suffer, then, if she is skinned?"
These rough words brought a blush of shame to Abd’Allah's cheek; he hastened to assure his mother that he shared her sentiments, and that he had only meant to prove her. Shortly afterwards, he came again into her presence, armed from head to foot, to bid her a last farewell. As she pressed him to her heart her hand felt a coat of mail.
" When one has decided to die, one has no need of this," said she.
"I only put on this armor to give you some hope," said he, somewhat disconcerted.
“ I have bid adieu to hope; take this off!”
He obeyed her, and having prayed awhile in the Kaaba, this hero without heroism threw himself on to the foe and met an honorable death. His head was sent to Damascus, and his body nailed to a gibbet upside down.
Damascus remained the capital of the Empire, while Mecca and Medina had to resign themselves to being no more than religious centers.
Hadjadj then pacified Irak, Khorassan, and Seijestan. Abd-el-Malik was able to taste in peace the joys of supreme power. Carrying on the tradition of his predecessors, he adopted the pomp and luxury of the Byzantine emperors. His court followed suit. In contact with skeptics the faith became blunted; the Koran was still regarded as the sole code, but the observance of its commandments was neglected. The Caliphs set the example of lax observance; Yezid drank wine, in spite of the express prohibition of the Prophet; Abd-el-Malik struck coins bearing his own image girt with a sword. These tendencies, exaggerated by the flattery of courtiers, were followed by the greater number; a too rigid piety came to be looked down upon. In contact with so many diverse nations — Greeks, Syrians, Persians, Egyptians, and Berbers, Islam lost its primitive purity; its principles deteriorated. Sects who borrowed their ideas from the doctrines of philosophers and from foreign religions, sprang up on all sides, interpreting the Muslim dogmas in a hundred different ways. The result was a prodigious mixture of beliefs and superstitions which engrafted themselves upon Islam and modified its original inspiration. This influence of foreign nations upon the Arabs is of considerable importance, and will be studied in greater detail in the further course of this essay.
Before his death, Abd-el-Malik, knowing all he owed to Hadjadj, recommended him to his son Valid: "My son," said he, "always have the most profound respect for Hadjadj; it is to him that thou owest thy throne; he is thy sword; he is thy right arm, and thou hast more need of him than he hath need of thee."
Walid, raised to the Caliphate without opposition, took in hand the pacification of Africa. The Berbers, in accordance with their fickle character, had not been long in rising against the Arabs; taking everything into account, they preferred the Greeks. And so, profiting by the difficulties in which the Caliphs found themselves involved through interior divisions, they joined forces with their former masters in opposition to the Muslims.
One of Walid's generals, Hassan, then invaded Byzacena (Tunisia), penetrated as far as Kairouan, founded by Okba, but which had been retaken by the Berbers in alliance with the Greeks; he then attacked Carthage, which he took by assault and destroyed, after having put it to the sack. But his task was not yet ended; he had still to subdue the Berbers of the interior. The latter, habitually disunited, were, for a wonder, now united at the call of a woman of great prestige: Kahina. Endowed with superhuman energy, skilful to profit by the most trivial events to draw from them ingenious deductions, brave almost to foolhardiness, she exercised a powerful ascendancy over the tribes who rose at her appeal. Circumstances were favourable to her; after the sack of Carthage, Hassan's troops, loaded with a fabulous booty, were not at all anxious to risk fresh adventures; they wished for time to enjoy what they had won, and their general had to take them back to Egypt to let them get rid of their wealth.
The Berbers, emboldened by this hasty retreat, plundered the country. Hassan then returned to Africa determined to make an end of Kahina. But she, cleverly avoiding a set battle, sought to tire out the enemy by rear-guard skirmishes, and to starve him by making a desert of the country round him. " The Arabs," she said, "want to take towns, gold and silver; while we only want to keep our fields for cultivation and pasture. I think, therefore, there is only one plan to follow: that is to waste the country in order to discourage them."
By her orders, plantations of trees, the remains of the Roman orchards, were destroyed, houses burned, springs either poisoned or stopped, so that the land from Tripoli to Tangier which used to form one immense garden with villages scattered here and there, was turned into a wilderness.
But the Berbers were incapable of any sustained action patiently pursued in common; they were divided by rivalries and Kahina was betrayed and killed.
Walid made an independent province of the Maghreb which was soon populated by Muslims who had emigrated from Arabia as a consequence of religious quarrels. Arabs and Berbers finally amalgamated, their mutual resemblance in manners and feelings leveled the barriers which neither the Romans, the Vandals, nor the Greeks had been able to pass, and the Berbers became the firmest supporters of the Muslim cause.
When the war was carried into Spain, some of them, however, refused to associate with the Arab population, and their descendants, under the name of Kabyles, are now living in the mountains of Algeria, preserving their national character and their hatred of the foreigner.
Moussa ben Noceir, who had been appointed governor of the Maghreb, and whose people he knew from having lived amongst them, succeeded by his able policy in winning the confidence of the Berbers. Taking advantage of their rivalries and differences, he made use of certain sections of them to assist him in subduing the others. He enlisted the better elements in his own troops, thus adding to their power and number. Having at his command considerable forces, he wished to employ them in further conquests. Spain tempted him. He had been led to interest himself in it during the course of the struggles he had had to maintain against the Visigoths near Ceuta. These people had been established in the Iberian peninsula since the fifth century, and also occupied certain points in Maghreb-el-Aksa.
An unexpected occurrence caused him to hasten the execution of his project. Count Julian, the Governor of Ceuta, desirous of avenging an insult, offered him his assistance and advice. Moussa took him at his word, and sent twelve thousand men over into Spain, the greater part of them Berber volunteers attracted by the lust of plunder and led by one of their own chiefs, Tarik.
There happened here again what had formerly happened in the provinces subject to the Persian and Byzantine Governments: the native population, discontented with their lot, received the Muslims as liberators. Spain, wasted by a succession of improvident governments, was then in a state of open anarchy.
The evil dated from far back, from the time of the later Caesars.The people were divided into five classes: the rich, the favourites of fortune, great landed
proprietors, living in idleness on the labours of metayers [share-croppers], and slaves.
The plebeians of the towns, a riotous mob, formidable on account of their numbers, and trading upon the fear they inspired, lived, without working, on the free rations of the government and the charity of the rich.
The curiales, small proprietors living in the towns, were charged with the administration of municipal affairs. These functions had been entrusted to well-to-do people because in case of necessity they made up out of their own purses the deficits due to the insolvency of the taxpayers — by no means an enviable post, involving heavy obligations. The curiales were not even able to escape by tendering their resignations or by selling their property, because the office was in its nature hereditary and because they were not allowed to dispose of their property without the authorization of the Emperor, the owner of the soil. Sometimes these unfortunate men, weary of an intolerable existence, abandoned everything and ran away; but they were reinstated in their curia by force, so that the curial dignity, formerly considered as a privilege, amounted to a disgrace and a punishment.
The rural population comprised colonists and slaves; the colonists occupying an intermediate position between the free proprietor and the slave. He was, in fact, a sort of metayer [share-cropper], handing over to the owner of the land a settled proportion of the harvest; he could contract a marriage and could hold land, but he could not alienate his property without the consent of his overlord.
He paid a personal tax to the State, which had become very heavy in consequence of the ever-increasing demands of the Emperors and the parasitism of the urban population. Colonists were liable, like slaves, to corporal punishment and were forbidden to change their rank. They were slaves not of a master but of the soil, and were attached to the fields they cultivated by an indissoluble hereditary bond, the proprietor not being able to sell his fields without the colonists nor of the colonists without the fields (adscripti glebae)
As for the slaves, their position is too well known for it to be necessary to recall it.
Such a polity was necessarily in a state of unstable equilibrium, since the individual, apart from the rich who were in a small minority, had no interest in maintaining the regime. The curiales, the colonists, and the slaves were too wretched not to hope for some improvement in their position from a change of government. The population of the towns, accustomed to a parasitic life, reckoned upon enjoying this privilege under any regime, and the prospect of troubles could only be pleasing to them as favoring plunder. So it happened that when the barbarians wished to penetrate into Spain, they met with no serious opposition."On the approach of the Barbarians who advanced sombre, irresistible, and inevitable, men sought to forget their danger in orgies of feasting and drunkenness, to exalt their brains by the delirium of the debauch.”
“While the enemy was forcing the gates of their town, the rich, drunk and gorged with food, danced and sang, their trembling lips sought to kiss the bare shoulders of beautiful slaves, and the people, to accustom themselves to the sight of blood and to intoxicate themselves with the reek of carnage, applauded the gladiators who cut each others’ throats in the amphitheater." The Vandals, the Visigoths, and the Suevi ravaged the country, aided in their work of destruction by the ruined small proprietors, by the slaves, and by the townspeople. But their yoke was much more grievous to bear than the former authority of Rome. The people, robbed of all they possessed, treated as slaves and subjected to excessive war levies, soon hated the invaders as they had hated the Caesars. Every scourge of the Roman epoch was still in existence: property in the hands of a privileged few, slavery, and general serfdom, by virtue of which the cultivators were assigned to the land. The Christian priests were the only ones who had gained by the change. From having been despised and jeered at by the skeptical Romans, they became the counsellors, the directors of conscience of the Barbarians; but they were not equal to the situation; possibly they were overpowered by numbers; however that may be, instead of moderating the brutal instincts of the mass and of preaching to them the lofty sentiments that had been the glory of the downtrodden Church, they flattered their passions and their vices; instead of condemning slavery, they themselves held slaves. Once risen to power, they had forgotten the teachings of Christ.
Spain under the Visigoths was even more unhappy than under the Romans; so that when the troops of Moussa appeared and the Muslim leaders had announced that all those who submitted would enjoy the same rights as their conquerors and would pay no more than the minimum taxes prescribed by the Koran, the populace received them with joy. Roderic, the king of the Visigoths, deserted by his best auxiliaries, was defeated and slain in the first encounter near Xeres [Jerez] (711). It needed only this to bring the worm-eaten Empire down in ruins. The malcontents and the oppressed made the invaders’ task an easy one.
The serfs remained neutral from fear of saving their masters; the Jews rose and placed themselves at the disposal of the Muslims. By 718 the entire peninsula had been brought into subjection.
In Spain there was a repetition of what had taken place in Syria. The people having been under Latin influence for several centuries had attained a high degree of civilization and were possessed of an intellectual culture incomparably superior to that of the Arabs. The misgovernment of the later Caesars, the exactions and brutality of the Visigoths had paralysed its economic activity and created a state of lawlessness little favourable to the arts and sciences; but they had natural aptitudes and a stock of acquired knowledge that enabled them under a more liberal rule rapidly to recover their former prosperity.
The rule of the conquering Arab was of this character: the taxes he imposed were insignificant in comparison with those of the preceding governments. The land, taken out of the hands of the rich class who held immense estates, badly cultivated by metayers and by slaves discontented with their lot, was equitably divided among the inhabitants of the country. It was worked with zeal by its new possessors and yielded abundant crops. Commerce, freed from the fetters which had impeded it and relieved of the heavy taxes that had borne it down, developed to considerable proportions.
The slaves, being allowed by the Koran to redeem themselves by the payment of a reasonable indemnity, set to work with a will. The result was a state of general well-being that caused the Muslim rule to be accepted with favour at first.
The Arabs, incapable of administering the country themselves, passed on this duty to the Spaniards. As in Syria, they adopted the manners and customs of a conquered people more civilized than themselves, and allowed themselves to become softened by the luxury and refinement of Latin decadence. It was once more possible to cultivate literature, the arts and sciences; a new fire of civilization was kindled, or rather relighted, for it was the flame of Greco-Latin genius that sprang up from the ashes under which the barbarism of the Visigoths had buried it. The government was Arab and Muslim, but the community, saturated with Latin and Christian ideas, reacted upon the conqueror and effected a change in his mentality. He in no way contributed to this renaissance, being quite devoid of intellectual culture; he merely noted it, without power to direct or influence it. As for Islam, it did not concern itself with individuals.
Moussa cared little about religion, and his auxiliaries, Berbers for the most part, cared even less. Being besides very little versed in the dogmas and principles of the doctrine in the name of which they had conquered Spain, they left the inhabitants to accommodate themselves to the commandments of the Sacred Book in their own way. The result was a singular mixture of Christian and Muslim ideas.
This laxity exasperated the pious believers from Medina who formed part of the conquering army, and was duly reported to the Caliph. Moussa and Tarik, accused of ungodliness, were recalled to Syria. The former was disgraced, then exiled to Mecca, where he ended his days in misery; the latter was detained in Asia, where he was provided with a command.
Under the Caliphate of Walid, the Muslim Empire was greatly extended; to the conquest of Spain must be added that of Tartary and part of India; so that Islam now reigned from Spain to the Himalayas. His successors added little in the way of conquests. His brother Soliman died prematurely after a reign of two years (715-717).
Omar, a cousin of the preceding, a vassal of the Alids, drew upon himself the hatred of the Ommeyads and was poisoned (717-720). He was succeeded by Yezid II, brother of Soliman. It was during this Caliphate that the Muslims attempted the conquest of Gaul. Here for the first time Islam experienced a check, of which it will not be difficult to point out the causes.
In Syria, Persia and Egypt, in the Maghreb and in Spain, the invader had been assisted by the hatred of the inhabitants of the country for their foreign rulers, whether Byzantines, Sassanians or Visigoths. The position of Gaul was different; set free from the Roman yoke, then upset by the barbarian invasion of the fifth century, the country had passed through a long period of anarchy; but the instinct of self-preservation and possibly some obscure sentiment of order had induced the various tribes who were jostled together in a prodigious mixture, to form themselves into groups according to their interests and affinities.
At the moment of the Muslim invasion, the country was not under the rule of any foreign power, which would have created malcontents ready for revolt, as was the case in the territories enslaved by Greece and Persia; but, being divided into provinces forming so many small kingdoms, satisfied with their lot, devoted to their customs, and moreover possessing great fighting qualities and that roughness of manners that makes warriors, they were ready to defend their independence.
This was one primary cause of the Arabs' check. Instead of finding a welcoming population hailing them as liberators, they were confronted by men fiercely resolved to defend their liberty to the death.
When they had crossed the Pyrenees and were about to invade the Narbonnaise, they met with a furious resistance from Eudes, Duke of Aquitaine, who was determined to guard his privileges.
If the Muslim invasion had been more rapid, it might have been successful by virtue of surprise; but it was slow. The Narbonnaise was like a shield that warded off the first blows whilst the other provinces, warned of their danger, made preparations for the struggle. It would seem too that the invaders had certain failings: they allowed themselves to be captivated by the charms of the ladies of the South. One of their leaders, Othman, married Eudes’ daughter and revolted against his General, Abd-er-Rahman or Abderame. These weaknesses and this treason retarded the Arab advance.
They crossed the Pyrenees in 719-720; in 724 they were still waging war in the Narbonnaise; in 725 they had pushed forward an outpost into Burgundy, but they had had to withdraw it, and in 780 they were trying to get possession of Avignon and the Tarraconaise; it was only in 782 that, having subdued the southern provinces, they were able to advance towards the North, where they came into collision with the Francs under Charles, son of Pepin d’Heristal.
It had taken them twelve years to come to the battle of Poitiers. This delay was a second cause of their repulse.
It must also be borne in mind that the Arabs and the Berbers found themselves in a country new to them. Gaul was in those days an inhospitable region; centuries of cultivation have since made it more sanitary, and it is difficult at the present day to picture to oneself the country intersected by broad and deep rivers, covered by impenetrable forests and marshes. The soil, sodden with water like a sponge, sank into quagmires where both horse and foot were caught. The cold and damp climate must have tried these men accustomed to the mildness of Oriental skies and to the dryness of Arabia and the Maghreb. Camping out in the mud and the rain, poorly protected by clothing made solely to keep off the heat of the sun, they were attacked by sickness; the pasturage of marshy grass was fatal to their horses, and when, at Poitiers, they had to give battle to the Francs in a decisive action, they were undoubtedly in a condition of inferiority. This was the third cause of their failure.
The Francs, hardy warriors, accustomed to a rough life in an unfriendly climate, in constant conflict with man and with nature, were not effeminate like the Byzantines, the Persians or the Visigoths. Indifferent to wounds or death, they were wild fighters resolved to conquer or to die. When they appeared at Poitiers, clad in mail covered with the skins of wild beasts which gave them a terrific aspect, and uttering savage cries, they terrified the Arabs, and that was the fourth cause of defeat.
There was yet another: The invaders were divided; the old quarrels of Arabia had followed them into Spain; the Muslim army included refugees from Medina, partisans of Ali, creatures of the Ommeyads, besides Berbers and Visigoths, all of them incapable of understanding one another. There were rivalries and even treachery: witness the defection of Othman.
From all these causes, the Muslims were beaten at Poitiers; their discouragement was so great, their stupefaction so profound, that they did not even attempt a counter-attack, but fled by night, leaving their baggage in the hands of the Francs. Western civilization was saved. If Islam had triumphed then, France might have been today at the level of a Turkish province.
In the course of a few years, the Muslims lost all the places they had held in the south of France, and in 789 Charles Martel drove them finally out of the country. During these events, the Caliph Yezid II had died after a reign of four years, and had been replaced by his brother, Hicham (724-748).
Driven out of Gaul, the Muslims of Spain penetrated into Sicily, where local dissensions gave them an easy success. The Muslim Empire had now attained its apogee: embracing Asia and the whole of the Mediterranean basin, it was greater than the empire of Alexander and almost as extensive as the Roman Empire; but, by the very reason of its size, it was fragile, for it ruled over people who were too dissimilar to coalesce in a stable empire, and the rapidity of the conquest had left no time for them to adapt themselves to the Islamic discipline. In addition to all this, the Arab was too uncultivated intellectually to have any influence over people who were his superiors in knowledge and in their traditions; on the contrary, it was he who came under their influence, notably in Syria, in Egypt and in Spain.
To administer this vast empire would have required men of rare energy and superior intelligence; but as we have seen, Syria was fatal to the Caliphs. Walid II (748), the successor to Hicham, was an effeminate of the lowest description. His religious indifference was so great that he did not even go to public prayers — a sacred duty for the Caliph — and openly made fun of the Koran.[3l]
The people of Damascus, although they were by no means austere believers, declined to recognize him, and proclaimed another Ommeyad, Yezid III (748). Valid II was killed in a skirmish.
In the absence of any energetic sovereign capable of imposing his rule, the number of rival claimants increased. A grandson of the celebrated Merwan I, also called Merwan, sought to tempt fortune and marched upon Damascus; he found on his arrival that Yezid III had just died, and he had only to step into his place.
But the grandsons of Abbas who claimed direct descent from the paternal uncle of the Prophet, and who had taken over the claims of the Alids, set on foot an agitation to enable them to seize power. The old struggle was resumed; the governor of Khorassan, Abu-Maslem, raised the people in revolt, and, hoisting the black flag of the Abbassids on his palace at Merou, proclaimed as Caliph first Mohammed, great-grandson of Abbas, then, on his death, his son Ibrahim.
There were thus two Caliphs; Merwan had Ibrahim assassinated, but Abdul-Abbas, Ibrahim's brother, took his place and marched against Merwan.
The battle was going in favour of the Ommeyads, when an unforeseen incident reversed their fortunes. At the moment when the Abbassid army was giving way, Merwan dismounted from his horse to rest himself; his horse, startled, rushed into the melee, and the Ommeyad combatants, thinking that their leader had been killed, took flight. The Abbassids were triumphant; Merwan took refuge in Egypt, where he was killed.
The Abbassids took severe reprisals upon the vanquished. The Prophet's descendants avenged themselves at last upon those whom they had always considered as usurpers; the relations and favorites of the former Caliph were massacred without mercy. A grandson of Hachem had one hand and one foot cut off, and in this mutilated state he was paraded through the towns of Syria mounted upon a donkey and accompanied by a herald who exhibited him as though he were a wild beast, crying: "Behold Aban, son of Maowiah, he whom they called the most accomplished knight of the Ommeyads. " Hicham's daughter, the princess Abda, was stabbed. At Damascus there were numerous executions; in one day alone, ninety Ommeyad leaders were beheaded. These bloodthirsty reprisals won for their author, Abdul-Abbas, the surname of EI Saffah, the bloodthirsty.
In such wise came to its end the dynasty of the Ommeyads. Islam owed them much; it was they who built up its power. Free from fanaticism, they had left some liberty to the vanquished peoples, and thus in Syria, in Egypt and in Spain, they had allowed Greco-Latin civilization to put forth new flowers. The Ommeyads, instructed and polished by the Syrians, were to some extent and possibly unconsciously, the heirs and successors of the Byzantine Emperors. As such, they deserve some recognition. With their successors, the Abbassids, there begins the reaction of narrow fanaticism against liberty of conscience; the reign of blind piety and persecution; it is also the reaction of the Arab spirit, coarse and ignorant, against Greco-Latin culture.
Islam may possibly have gained; civilization has certainly lost.