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Multicultural Diversity in Early Islam

Humans throughout history have banded together in groups, from families and tribes to races and nations. Ever since these groups began to form, they have been affecting each other and impacting each others cultures and ways of living. During the Middle Ages, this kind of cross-cultural impact was happening all across Europe, Asia and Northern Africa. As the different political and military powers gained supremacy, kingdoms expanded, empires collapsed, and whole new nations were formed.

Waves of Asian tribes flowed across Asia and into Europe, the Byzantine Empire flourished, then finally fell, and the Frankish people of Western Europe set up their own kingdoms. In the midst of all of this were the Muslims, who were, perhaps, the group most often impacted by outside influences. The original Arab Muslims might have begun as the power within the community of Islam, but by the end of the Middle Ages, barely 700 years after the Prophets death, several other groups had invaded, been conquered by, or simply included into the sphere of Islamic influence.

All of these groups had effects on the Muslims, including how they governed, their literature and art, and their economy. The Turkish tribes from Asia had an enormous impact on Muslim society when they invaded. Many of them converted to Sunni Islam and lived among the Islamic people. When Tughril Beg and Chagri Beg united the Seljuk Turks, they conquered the weakened Ghaznavids, then the Sassanids and the Buyids, essentially reuniting the old Abbasid Empire. Later they pushed into Asia Minor and Armenia and eventually they were in control of the majority of the Islamic world east of the Mediterranean.

Rather than set up a Turk as Caliph and cause riots and rebellions among the Muslims – the Seljuks set up the Caliphate with a purely religious leader and Tughril Beg became the first Sultan. This was the first time since Abu Bakr became the first Caliph that their political leader was not also their spiritual leader and this division of power did much to change the political structure of Islamic society. The sultan and his advisors saw to the everyday military, economic and political concerns of the empire, while the caliph saw to the spiritual well being of the Muslims.

The sultans promoted Sunni Islam and drove most of the Shiites into hiding. Hassan Sabbah, one of the most infamous Shiite leaders, set up his order of Assassins during the Turkish reign. His terrorist style attacks on political leaders terrified many powerful people in the Islamic community. Even after his death, Hassan Sabbahs Assassins continued their mission to promote ismailism and undermine Turkish authority. The Turks may have brought trouble for the shiites, but the majority of Muslims under their rule seemed to be content.

Literature and science were promoted. The sultan sponsored artists and philosophers to add culture to the court. One of the most famous works of literature of all time, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, was written during the reign of the Turks. Under the Turkish Sultans, Islam was spread into India and the Turks even took Asia Minor from the Byzantines. The rich area of Asia Minor had been in Christian control since Roman times, and this move by the Turks is what sparked the Holy Crusades.

Muslims referred to all western Europeans as Franks, including the Iberians, Visigoths, the Germanic peoples and the Frankish peoples. There were really two eras when the Franks had great impacts on the Muslim world. During the expansion across Africa, the Muslims also invaded the Iberian Peninsula and held the majority of it for 700 years. This set them up for trade with the rest of Western Europe and it also gave them almost complete control over sea trade from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean. Also, many of the natives in the Iberian Peninsula converted to Islam as the Muslim influence spread.

The Muslims also attempted to expand into Frankish territory over the Pyrenees, but were pushed back into the Iberian Peninsula by Charles Martel. During the 700 years of Islamic rule in Spain, the Muslims, Christians and Jews that were all a part of the Iberian culture created some of the most beautiful artwork in the form of paintings, murals, tapestries and cloth, not to mention the stunning architecture. The Muslims in Spain couldnt help but be influenced and affected by their European neighbors. The court of the Caliph even took on some of the properties of Frankish courts.

There were more nobles and artists invited, and the process of government was much more public and much more secular than it had been. After the Turks took Asia Minor, Pope Urban II called the Christian Europeans to push the Muslims back and take the Holy Lands. The Crusades were the second wave of Frankish involvement in the Muslim world. When the Franks invaded Muslim lands, the Turks unified and brought together an army to push the Christians out. Except for the first Crusade, the whole venture was pretty much a disaster for the Christians.

However, because so many of them ventured into Muslim lands, there was a spark of renewed trade between the two cultures. When the Crusaders brought home the spices and fabrics and other goods, they created a demand for imported silks and spices that boosted the Muslim economy and created a huge surge in trade. The Christians had even managed to cause the collapse of the Byzantine Empire when they fought among themselves, and this only served to strengthen the Muslim empire. As the strength and unity of the Turkish Empire waned, Islam was once again split into several spheres of influence.

This division and the constant fighting between the different regions left the Islamic world vulnerable to invasion. The Mongol took advantage of that vulnerability and in a relatively short time they almost completely crushed the Islamic empire. Their style of warfare cowed the peoples of Asia and allowed them to spread swiftly westward. They were brutal and merciless to any who defied them, but they often let alone people who acquiesced peacefully and allowed them to continue their day-to-day lives.

Originally, Chingiz Khan was going to try to open peaceful trade relations with the Muslims, but the Shah had some of the Mongols put to death for spying and the Khan brought his Mongols into Muslim lands bent on conquest. They took Transoxiana, then moved west through Merv and Nishapur right to the edge of the Caspian Sea. For a few years they stopped with this much, and concentrated most of their energies on Europe, but the shrewd Europeans began converting Mongols to Christianity and luring them into treaties that called for a joint attack on Islam.

Less than seven years after the initial conquests, the Mongols struck again under Hulagu. They took down the Assassins first, then moved to Baghdad, Syria, and towards Egypt. Just as Hulagu was about to invade Egypt, he learned that the Khan had died and he turned his attention to helping his brother, Kublai, become the Khan. The Turks and some of the peoples living in Russia who had converted to Islam were appalled by the brutality of the Mongols in Islamic lands.

They joined together and saved Egypt from the same fate as Nishapur, but they didnt succeed in driving the Mongols from old Muslim territories. The Mongols had basically pushed the balance of power in the Islamic community to Egypt and completely ended the era of Arabic power and the Caliphate. There is no question that nations can impact each other in extreme ways, whether they are peaceful or warlike. The Muslims at the beginning of the second millennium would know this better than any other culture of the time.

They were conquerors and conquered. They experienced a huge explosion in the expansion of their influence on other areas from the world, from the Atlantic Coast of North Africa all the way to Northern India. And they also knew the sometimes terrible influence of merciless conquerors who could sweep in and change their lives in less than a decade. While they often struggled to maintain their unity and their identity as a nation, the Islamic people clung to their faith and survived a multitude of changes brought by outside influences.

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