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The New Cambridge History of Islam
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  • Volume 4: Islamic Cultures and Societies to the End of the Eighteenth Century
  • Edited by Robert Irwin, School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London

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    • Volume 4: Islamic Cultures and Societies to the End of the Eighteenth Century
    • Edited by Robert Irwin
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Book description

Robert Irwin's authoritative introduction to the fourth volume of The New Cambridge History of Islam offers a panoramic vision of Islamic culture from its origins to around 1800. The introductory chapter, which highlights key developments and introduces some of Islam's most famous protagonists, paves the way for an extraordinarily varied collection of essays. The themes treated include religion and law, conversion, Islam's relationship with the natural world, governance and politics, caliphs and kings, philosophy, science, medicine, language, art, architecture, literature, music and even cookery. What emerges from this rich collection, written by an international team of experts, is the diversity and dynamism of the societies which created this flourishing civilization. Volume four of The New Cambridge History of Islam serves as a thematic companion to the three preceding, politically oriented volumes, and in coverage extends across the pre-modern Islamic world.

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Page 1 of 2

  • 1 - Islam
    pp 17-59
  • View abstract
    By 1800 Islam had expanded into south-eastern Europe, central, south and South-East Asia, and sub- Saharan Africa. Indeed, Islam formed what many have called the first global civilization. Islam begins with a religious message preached by a man named Muhammad ibn Abd Allah in Mecca, in the western part of the Arabian Peninsula known as the Hijaz, in the early years of the seventh century of the Common Era. Despite its roots in Arabia, classical Islam took shape in a much larger world. In the fourth/tenth century, the Islamic tradition generally could have moved in a very different direction. In the end, however, the Shiite moment passed. The Fatimids were never able to convince many to embrace their cause, not even in Egypt. And by the mid-fifth/eleventh century the Buyids were overwhelmed by a new and militantly Sunni political power. That set the stage for the further development of the Islamic tradition through the medieval and early modern periods.
  • 2 - Sufism
    pp 60-104
  • View abstract
    This chapter discusses Sufism's evolution from a simple world-renouncing piety to the highly sophisticated doctrines and rituals practised primarily, within the institutional framework of the Sufi tariqa. Normative Sufi literature routinely portrays the Prophet and some of his ascetically minded Companions as 'Sufis' avant la letter. The 'proto-Sufis' strove to win God's pleasure through self-imposed deprivations, self-effacing humility, supererogatory prayers, night vigils and meditation on the deeper implications of the Quranic revelation. In the western provinces of the caliphate people find a few ascetics who studied under al-Hasan al-Basri or his disciples, and who taught his ideas to their own students. Equally important for the self-identity of the Baghdad school of Sufism is Bishr ibn al-Harith. Rumi drew heavily on the Sufi tradition systematised by earlier Sufi writers. The chapter examines the rise and subsequent evolution of the major Sufi brotherhoods, and finally considers their respective roles in various geographical areas of the Muslim world over the last seven centuries.
  • 3 - Varieties of Islam
    pp 105-141
  • View abstract
    The origins of Islam's divisions into Sunnism and Shiism may be broadly traced to the crisis of succession to the Prophet Muhammad, who died after a brief illness in 11/632. The Imamiyya now splits into six groups, one of which eventually acquired the designation of the Ithna Ashariyya or Twelvers, recognising a line of twelve imams. Representing the most important Shiite community, the Ismailis have had their own complex history. The Ismailis of southern Iraq became generally known as the Qaramita, after their first local leader. Considering al-Hakim as the last maqam of the Creator, the Druzes await his reappearance together with Hamza, who is considered an imam. The Zaydi branch of Shiism developed out of Zayd ibn Ali's abortive revolt in 122/740. A Shiite community with syncretic doctrines, the Nusayriyya, who were initially also called the Namiriyya, retained the traditions of the early Shiite ghulat. The Kharijites were originally concentrated in Kufa, where they survived until early Abbasid times.
  • 4 - Islamic law: history and transformation
    pp 142-183
  • View abstract
    Throughout the last three or four centuries European modernity has produced legal systems and legal doctrines that are almost exclusively the preserve of the equally modern nation-state. The sources of authority that governed the emerging Islamic law were three, including the Quran, the sunan and considered opinion. The activities of the legal specialists initiated what was to become a fundamental feature of Islamic law: that legal knowledge as an epistemic quality was to be the final arbiter in law making. By the beginning of the third/ninth century the sharia courts and a corpus of positive law had fully developed. Legal theory and the doctrinal legal schools, however, were to emerge much later, reaching their apex in the middle of the fourth/tenth century. The product of juristic activity was the fiqh work that continued to gauge and be gauged by legal practice. By every indication the sharia served Muslim societies well for centuries.
  • 5 - Conversion and the ahl al-dhimma
    pp 184-208
  • View abstract
    Between 632 and about 1500 the great majority of the people between the Atlantic and India, and many beyond, converted to Islam. The texts differ slightly, to take account of the varying backgrounds of the converts and the different faiths and beliefs that they are required explicitly to renounce as they become Muslims. In Africa Berbers brought Islam across the Sahara, and it was carried southwards from one group to another by traders. Islam seems to have reached different parts of South-East Asia between the end of the seventh/thirteenth and the eleventh/seventeenth centuries. Turks and Mongols, who invaded the Iranian region and came close to taking over the whole of the Islamic world, converted to Islam in Central Asia. Reality again, however, in the form of the vast size of the Hindu subject population, pointed the way to a solution, and Hindus were recognised as ahl al-dhimma from an early date.
  • 6 - Muslim societies and the natural world
    pp 209-222
  • View abstract
    This chapter shows that the pastoral order deals with the Muslim community prior to 183/800, when it was still primarily Arab in ethnicity. Through scholars the desert setting and the pastoral way of life abstractly evoked in the Quran gained precision and vivid expression in the most widely memorised and deeply honoured odes. The chapter also covers the Middle East, North Africa and Spain during the Abbasid caliphate down to 596/1200, is entitled 'The Hellenistic inheritance'. From the fifth/eleventh through the eighth/fourteenth centuries major portions of the Hellenistic legacy passed to Christian Europe via translations from Arabic into Latin. In many areas Sufism, a form of organised mysticism, proved an important factor in shaping the outlook of the new Muslim communities than formal Islamic learning. While there is certainly a Quranic view of the natural world that affects all Muslim societies to some degree, there has not been a general Islamic view since the end of the second Islamic century.
  • 7 - Legitimacy and political organisation: caliphs, kings and regimes
    pp 223-273
  • View abstract
    Oldest historical document, the so-called 'Constitution of Medina', did provide a basis for the organisation of authority in the nascent Islamic polity. The imported Persian literature on statecraft was easily absorbed into the public law of the caliphate and Muslim monarchies, and shaped the medieval Muslim conception of government. The privileged status of the Arab Muslims made the Umayyad polity very much an Arab empire. The differentiation and mutual articulation of the caliphate and the sultanate became clearer in the second half of the sixth/twelfth century. The central paradox of Islamic royalism is that, in order to protect and promote Islam, the kings of Islam have to commit what is forbidden by the sacred law. Thus, in contrast to the theory of Islamic monarchy under the 'king of Islam', Ibn Taymiyya's juristic theory subordinated monarchy to the shari order. The Ottomans combined the Persianate and Turco-Mongolian traditions of kingship with the law.
  • 8 - The city and the nomad
    pp 274-289
  • View abstract
    The built environment of the Islamic city appears to have certain definable characteristics. The Islamic city, in short, holds an immense attraction for historians of Islamic culture, primarily because it appears to present a particularly and distinctively Islamic contribution to civilization. Cities also expanded because they became the centres of expanding industries. The new Muslim government shaped the distribution of cities in many ways. The model of Baghdad had a lasting influence on the formation of new capitals in the Muslim world. The nomads who supported the Almoravids and the village dwellers who sustained the Almohads both used and created cities to exercise their power. True nomads have traditionally lived in three major geographical areas: the deserts of Arabia and Syria, the steppes of Central Asia and the Sahara desert in Africa. The impact of the nomads has been enormous, sometimes destructive, sometimes leading to the formation of major states and empires.
  • 9 - Rural life and economy until 1800
    pp 290-305
  • View abstract
    The lives of sedentary people in the Islamic countryside unfolded in a multifaceted context. Natural, technological, economic, political, cultural and religious factors all bore on rural life, and were in turn affected by it. The physical environment of the early Islamic world, though extremely varied, allowed agriculture in very limited areas. Rural people in the Islamic world had crucial relations with two non-agricultural elements of society: city-dwellers and nomadic pastoralists. Trade saw the cities exporting some industrial goods to the countryside, most notably textiles and tools, while the agricultural surplus of crops and animals was, in large measure, sold to the cities. The subsequent history of the rural economy in the Islamic world is the tale of periods of recovery, and even advance, followed by further decay, in which regional variation became more evident. Thus, in the early modern period, as the world economy tightened, agriculturists in many parts of the Islamic world had a foretaste of new vulnerabilities.
  • 10 - Demography and migration
    pp 306-331
  • View abstract
    A number of suggestions have been made for estimating urban populations for periods from which no direct data are extant, some being more convincing than others. The Islamic conquest led to the immigration into what is today Spain and Portugal of both Berbers from western North Africa and of Arabs who themselves had arrived in the Maghrib only a few generations earlier. Throughout the history of al-Andalus, nomads were never of any significance. Another major consequence of caliphal rule was the entry of Turks into the Middle East, and also into India. Under Ottoman rule Mamluks disappeared from Syria. In the first decades of Mongol domination in Iran the underground water channels were often destroyed. Anatolian and Balkan nomads of the 900s/1500s showed a certain propensity to settle down, or at least this is the impression conveyed by the tahrirs. Some information is available concerning the demographic effects of the plague in Syria and Egypt during the Mamluk period.
  • 11 - The mechanisms of commerce
    pp 332-354
  • View abstract
    This chapter recognizes economic aspects of life in the pre-modern Islamic world. 1974 also saw the publication of the second edition of The legacy of Islam, and this book made a step forward in terms of bringing economic history to a wider audience. The chapter concerns sweeping matters: questions of agricultural and commercial legacy, particularly Europe. At the heart of many commercial transactions is money. Perhaps the most well-known example of a money of account is the dinar jayshi. Systems and units of measurement varied tremendously across time and region, and source material has survived in differing amounts from those periods and places. In Islamic Egypt the terminology of weight units often overlapped with the terminology for coins and units of account, resulting in much confusion. People have multiple-qirat weights which survive from the early Islamic period in Egypt.
  • 12 - Women, gender and sexuality
    pp 355-380
  • View abstract
    The history of women in Islamic societies has made steady progress over the last few decades, following the spectacular growth of the field in other historiographical arenas. Generally speaking, women occupied a gendered sector of the work space, as most of the tasks they performed were centred on the domestic area or answered needs caused by gender segregation. Gender segregation in public spaces hindered the presence of women in the madrasas, the most important institution of high learning in the Muslim world from the fifth/ eleventh century onwards. It has been asserted that religion and religious practices were the privileged field for women's agency. A long-lived Western tradition characterises Islamic societies by an unbridled sensuality and a self-indulgent allowance of fleshly pleasures. There is, however, a difference of approach to sexuality in Christianity and Islam that has influenced Western as well as Muslim interpretations.
  • 13 - Arabic literature
    pp 381-413
  • View abstract
    Arabic poetry as the vehicle of heroic themes, one of its primary roles through all succeeding periods, was the invention of pre-Islamic poets such as Bishr. Abd al-Hamid's aim is cultural reciprocity, for his writings have two sets of recipients: mawla bureaucrats and Arab rulers. The group of the greatest social and literary significance to whom this applies was female; its period of greatest importance was the first two Abbasid centuries. Under the early Abbasids writers seem to have depended on intermittent patronage or on regular employment in government: katibs were often adibs, and so too were the court companions whose job was to help a ruler or grandee relax after the day's business. Al-Hariri's maqamat are closely attuned to contemporary conceptions of adab, of life, and of their interpenetration. From the beginnings of Islamic Arabic literature, poetry and letters had afforded a means of self-betterment; this much did not change over the centuries.
  • 14 - Persian literature
    pp 414-423
  • View abstract
    The surviving translations from Arabic are in prose, the influence of Arabic poetic models on Persian prosody was also clearly extensive. However, alongside Arabic literary production as a significant model, elements derived from pre-Islamic Persian literature are also discernible in New Persian works. The most famous ethical prose work of Persian literature is Sadi's Gulistan, a collection of anecdotes arranged into eight books according to their subject matter. The development of Persian verse has traditionally been divided according to three historically successive styles: the Khurasani; the Iraqi; and the Hindi. The Khurasani style is dominated, in aesthetic achievement as well as in sheer bulk, by a number of narrative mathnawis. The major epic is the Shahnama of Firdawsi, which recounts the pre-Islamic myths and romanticised history of Iran, from the creation of the world until the Arab conquest of the seventh century CE. The most significant romance of the Khurasani style is the Wis wa Ramin by Gurgani.
  • 15 - Turkish literature
    pp 424-433
  • View abstract
    The languages and literatures of Turkic peoples, spread over a large geography on the Silk Route, have been written with a variety of scripts over the centuries. From the seventh/thirteenth century onwards various regional written languages and literatures begin to appear among the Turkic-speaking peoples. This chapter discusses the linguistic variation between Eastern and Western Turkic languages in Central Asia. The Eastern Turkic language developed into a literary language in Turkistan, Khwarazm and the Golden Horde. Ottoman poets and intellectuals took great interest in Chaghatay and Persian literature. During Turkish rule of Egypt and Syria Mamluks played a crucial role in enabling the preservation and dissemination of important works of Turkic literature. For example, two of the oldest and most important works of Islamic Turkish literature, the Kutadgu bilig and the Diwan lughat al-Turk. The printing-press had been introduced into the empire during the reign of Bayazid II by non-Muslim subjects, Christians, and Jews after their expulsion from Spain.
  • 16 - Urdu literature
    pp 434-443
  • View abstract
    Historians of Urdu literature, while crediting Wali with having revolutionised Urdu poetry, have maintained that it became possible only because Wali came to Delhi and learned his literary savoir faire from a Delhi-based master. The Urdu literary environment in Delhi benefited by the presence of Siraj al-Din Ali Khan-i Arzu who was a Persian poet, linguist, critic and lexicographer. Persian may have delayed Urdu's emergence as a literary language in the north. Urdu literature originated in early ninth/fifteenth-century Gujarat and Deccan through the Sufis, who interacted with the people in the local language, variously called Dihlavi, Hindi, Hindvi, Gujri or Dakani. The first known Urdu literary product from the Deccan is a long mathnavi of more than 4,000 lines. The twelfth/sixteenth and thirteenth/seventeenth centuries saw the rise and the apogee of Urdu literature in the Deccan. Muhammad Taqi Mir was perhaps the greatest Urdu poet, and certainly the greatest of the twelfth/eighteenth century.
  • 17 - History writing
    pp 444-457
  • View abstract
    In many ways Islamic history writing began with a 'clean slate'. While pre- Islamic Arabian inscriptions, poetry and the ayyam al-arab folklore reflect a nostalgic curiosity about the past, the rise of Arabic-Islamic historiography stemmed from a more practical and immediate motivation. Al-Tabari's prose is simple and straightforward, with little rhetorical embellishment. The richness, and diversity, of post-classical Muslim historiography is also seen in yet another significant frontier: North Africa and Andalusia. Arab chroniclers' interest in Iran goes back to the beginning of Islamic historiography. Persian Islamic historical writing, however, came much later. The rise of Persian Islamic historical writing coincided with historical developments in the fourth/tenth century, when breakaway dynasties began to carve out territory. The wide horizons were explored under Mongol patronage in what was the golden age of Persian historiography. Medieval Indian history writing effectively began with the Muslims.
  • 18 - Biographical literature
    pp 458-473
  • View abstract
    Much of the so-called biographical literature in classical Arabic, Persian and Turkic has little in common with modern biography. Biography served as a documentary archive and a token of authority rather than a literary genre. Nevertheless, Muslim scholars of the seventh/thirteenth century and afterwards speak of such texts as a source of readerly pleasure. In Arabic, names conventionally take the form 'so and so the son or daughter of so and so': that is, they contain a genealogical component. The biographies of the Prophet Muhammad, for example, begin with genealogies that trace his lineage through the ancient prophets all the way back to Adam. Like all constructed histories, the charter myths of the various tawaif were subject to change over time. The expansion of the charter myth provoked an angry reaction and a new round of biography writing. Two sub-genres of biography appear anomalous, at least from the perspective of the genealogical model, including single-subject biography, and spiritual autobiography.
  • 19 - Muslim accounts of the dār al-ḥarb
    pp 474-494
  • View abstract
    This chapter shows that literature on the dar al-harb, from the third/ ninth century until the thirteenth/nineteenth, was shaped not only by the juridical distinction between the two abodes, but also by a variety of cultural, religious, political, linguistic, geographical-astronomical and historical boundaries. Among the geographical traditions available to the early Muslims, that of the second-century Greek astronomer and geographer Ptolemy was the least concerned with political and cultural boundaries. Bureaucrats in the service of the Abbasid caliphate and its successor states composed comprehensive geographical works. In 309/921 the caliph al-Muqtadir sent an embassy to the Bulghars of the Volga, far to the north. Islamic travellers generally preferred to seek knowledge from established scholars, in their constant movements across the abode of Islam. During the many centuries of conflict between Muslim and non-Muslim states, countless individuals were taken captive. Non-Muslim sources regarding the dar al-harb were mostly avoided or ignored during the classical and postclassical periods.
  • 20 - Education
    pp 495-531
  • View abstract
    The central role of knowledge flows from the importance of making Islamic civilisation's greatest treasures, the Quran and the hadith, live and work in each day, each year and each generation of Muslim life. Throughout the middle period of Islamic history knowledge tended to be divided into two broad fields, including the ulum naqliyya, and ulum aqliyya. The pattern for transmitting knowledge with the emphasis on person to person transmission and the involvement on occasion of madrasas, which had developed in Iran, Iraq and Egypt, spread through the rest of the Muslim world. To begin the process of spiritual education a man, although it could also be a woman, would have to be accepted by a master. Approaches to the early education of children were for the most part driven by the need to save their souls. The school, in fact, was at the apex of a cluster of schools in which slaves were trained.
  • 21 - Philosophy
    pp 532-563
  • View abstract
    From the advent in the Islamic milieu of falsafa as a widely recognised intellectual discipline in the third/ninth century, kalam and falsafa existed as parallel discourses on issues of physics, metaphysics and ethics. The mutakallimun are generally divided into two camps, the Mutazilites and the Asharis, although reasoned theological disputes antedate these groupings. Philosophy in the Islamic milieu followed upon the availability of texts of the Aristotelian and Platonic traditions. Islamic philosophy was appeared in many thinkers such as the widely travelled Andalusian philosopher Ibn Sabin, who reflected this movement with a philosophical approach learned in Aristotelianism and Neoplatonism but constituted as Sufi mystical wisdom. The prolific and influential theologian Fakhr al-Din al-Razi in his early years became well versed in philosophy and read Avicenna broadly. Adud al-Din al-Iji rejects the notion of knowledge by presence and prefers to understand knowledge as a created attribute.
  • 22 - The sciences in Islamic societies (750–1800)
    pp 564-639
  • View abstract
    This chapter discusses the complex relationships between the work of scientists and physicians and the societies that they lived in. The translation movement was primarily caused by forces that opposed the Umayyad dynasty and sought to restore pre-Islamic Iranian rule and splendor. Court patronage was the major element that provided the necessary means to carry out the translations. The chapter places important developments in astronomy within the context of its relationship to astrology and to other applications and areas of religious scholarship. Cartography in Islamic societies shares common ground with geography without being part of it. The relationship between the arts and the sciences in Islamic societies was, however, more complex than these views suggest. Mediterranean pre-Islamic arts and sciences were the sources of inspiration. The permeation of kalam by philosophy led to a stable linkage between miracles, magic, the theory of prophecy and the theory of the rational soul.
  • 23 - Occult sciences and medicine
    pp 640-667
  • View abstract
    Ibn Khaldun's account constitutes two classic discourses on occult sciences in medieval Islam, and his report is, typically, of a very high historical and sociological value. This chapter shows that intricate backdrop provides a context to the occult sciences in Islam: their cultivation; their practice; and their legal and social status. The reality of magic is confirmed and reinforced in the Muslim tradition, particularly in the hadith, with the stories emerging that the Prophet Muhammad himself had fallen victim to magic. Reflecting a Quranic motif, Khaldun discusses magical powers in the context of prophecy. By the end of the Middle Ages Islamic culture had accumulated a fairly large body of magical literature, though much of it consisted of tantalising pseudotracts. Jabir ibn Hayyan and Abu Bakr al-Razi are the greatest names in the history of Arab alchemy, though for very different reasons. Abu Bakr al-Razi is one of the outstanding figures of the history of medicine in Islam.
  • 24 - Literary and oral cultures
    pp 668-681
  • View abstract
    The coexistence of written and spoken forms of the language appears to be as old as Arabic itself, and has led to the emergence and perpetuation of distinct literary and oral cultures. Of the several forms of oral literature thought to have existed in pre-Islamic Arabia, only some poems and stories have survived. The earliest Arabic writings are simple graffiti, funerary inscriptions and the like. The language of the Quran appears to lie somewhere between the standard poetical idiom of pre-Islamic poetry and the spoken dialect of the Hijaz. Memorisation of the Quran also created an environment in which orality and memorisation played a critical role in the creation and transmission of knowledge. The prevalence of writing is yet another remarkable feature of medieval Islamic culture, for words were routinely inscribed on buildings, textiles and objects of daily use. Some medieval Arabic documents even confirm the persistence of orality.

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