Islamic Imperialism: A History

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2007 Trade paperback Updated ed. New. No dust jacket as issued. Trade paperback (US). Glued binding. 284 p. Contains: Illustrations. Audience: General/trade.

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Rejecting the conventional Western interpretation of Middle Eastern history as an offshoot of global power politics, Karsh contends that the region's experience is the culmination of long existing indigenous trends, passions and patterns of behavior, and that, foremost among these, is Islam's millenarian imperial tradition. The author explores the history of Islamic imperialism and the persistence of the Ottoman imperialist dream that outlasted World War I to haunt Islamic and Middle Eastern politics to the present day. In Islamic Imperialsm, Karsh poses a fundamental challenge to the way we understand the history of the Middle East and the role of Islam in that region.
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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
Karsh (Mediterranean studies, King's Coll., London) summarizes the history of the Islamic world as the rise and occasional setbacks of an empire whose center has shifted over time. In this different approach, he sees Islam's continuity in its ideal of a nonnational community of shared faith. Recent terrorism, he says, comprises attacks on the West's challenging power, not a reaction to specific U.S. policies. Worthy of attention by general and advanced readers. Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Daniel Pipes

"In Islamic Imperialism Efraim Karsh argues for the existence of an Islamic imperial drive and traces it from Muhammad's time to current Islamist aggressions. One can hardly imagine a thesis with larger implications for prosecuting the war on terror."—Daniel Pipes
Canada National Post - Robert Fulford

“Only a shrewd and talented revisionist, a professor with curiosity and nerve, could take on the clichés of Middle East scholarship and insist that they be reconsidered. That describes Efraim Karsh, a much-published and much-admired professor at the University of London. His new book, Islamic Imperialism deserves serious consideration by anyone who cares about this debate. He challenges not only our favourite ideas about the Middle East but even our notions of imperialism. . . . Karsh’s view of rising Islamic imperialism chills the blood. Multiculturalism looks different through the lens of his scholarship, and so does the future for global politics.”—Robert Fulford, Canada National Post
Jerusalem Post - Ralph Amelan

"Karsh's lively, clearly written and well-researched account should have an appeal beyond an academic audience. The crisp manner with which he disposes of accepted wisdom will delight the reader. And in laying to rest the victim theory, he restores a measure of dignity to the Middle East."—Ralph Amelan, Jerusalem Post
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780300122633
  • Publisher: Yale University Press
  • Publication date: 5/16/2007
  • Pages: 304
  • Product dimensions: 5.00 (w) x 7.70 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Efraim Karsh is professor and head of the Mediterranean Studies Programme, King’s College, University of London.
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Copyright © 2007 Efraim Karsh
All right reserved.

ISBN: 978-0-300-12263-3

Chapter One

The Warrior Prophet

According to Muslim tradition, it all began one night during the latter part of Ramadan, the ninth month of the lunar year, around the year 610 C.E. Muhammad ibn Abdallah, a forty-year-old merchant from the town of Mecca in the Hijaz, the northwestern part of the Arabian Peninsula, was sleeping soundly in a cave on nearby Mount Hira, where he used to spend several nights at a time in prayer and meditation, when he was suddenly awoken by a heavenly voice telling him that he was the Messenger of God. Muhammad was terrified. "I was standing, but I fell on my knees and crawled away, my shoulders trembling," he was reported to have recalled. "I went in to [my wife] Khadija and said, 'Cover me! Cover me!' until the terror had left me. He then came to me and said, 'O Muhammad, you are the Messenger of God.'"

Unable to rationalize the ordeal he had just experienced, Muhammad concluded that he was possessed with an evil spirit and was thinking of committing suicide, when the mysterious figure reappeared. Presenting himself as the angel Gabriel, he told Muhammad again that he was the Messenger of God and ordered him to recite. "What shall I recite?" askedMuhammad. The angel did not reply. Instead he caught the terrified Meccan in a vice-like embrace until Muhammad heard God's words squeezed out of his mouth: "Recite: in the Name of thy Lord who created, created Man of a blood-clot. Recite: And thy Lord is the Most Generous who taught by the Pen, taught Man that he knew not." Thus came the first in a long string of revelations, which would eventually be grouped into chapters (or suras) of the holy book that would come to be known as the Qur'an: "The Recitation."

The traumatized Muhammad returned to his wife and told her what had transpired. "I never hated anything more than idols and soothsayers," he said, "and I am afraid that I am becoming a soothsayer myself." Khadija was duly impressed. A strong-willed woman of independent financial means, she had exerted a profound influence on Muhammad, her third husband, fifteen years her junior. Once told of Muhammad's extraordinary ordeal, she quickly expressed her belief in the revelation's authenticity and took him to see a monotheistic cousin of hers who was well versed in the Jewish and Christian Holy Scriptures. "He asked me, and I told him what had happened," Muhammad recalled. "He said, 'This is the Namus which was sent down to Moses, son of Imran. I wish I were young now. I wish I could be alive when your people drive you out!' I said: 'Will they drive me out?' He said, 'Yes. No man has ever brought something akin to what you have brought without arousing antagonism.'"

Emboldened by these prophetic words, yet reluctant to risk a premature public backlash, Muhammad went on to receive additional revelations but kept them secret from his townsmen for three full years. The first converts to the new faith were his most intimate circle: his wife Khadija, his freedman and adopted son Zaid ibn Haritha, his ten-year-old cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib, and his close friend Abu Bakr, later to become his direct successor. Ordered by Allah to make the nascent religion public, Muhammad then quickly acquired a local following, mainly from the town's marginal elements but also from a number of leading families and clans.

The Meccans initially viewed Muhammad's burst of prophetic energy with bemused indifference. As pagans worshiping a variety of gods, they were not averse to people choosing religions as they saw fit. As members of a merchant community, with trade relations with Syria, Egypt, and Yemen, they had been well aware of the existence of the monotheistic faiths. Nor was there anything special in Muhammad's claim to divine guidance: the peninsula was rife with poets and ecstatic soothsayers claiming divine inspiration for their preaching. It was only after he launched a frontal assault on their most cherished beliefs and values, deriding their gods, emphasizing the perdition of their ancestors who had died in disbelief, and demanding an unequivocal profession of belief in Allah and total submission (the meaning of "Islam" in Arabic) to His will, that Muhammad incurred the intense enmity of the city's leadership. Even then, however, the authorities seem to have been motivated as much by practical considerations as by religious outrage. Not only was the deity known as Allah, "the god," already being widely worshiped in southern Syria and northern Arabia, but by the time of Muhammad's early activity it had become primus inter pares in the Meccan pantheon of gods. Allah's elevation to a position of exclusivity was certainly a revolutionary move, yet it might not have been wholly traumatic for the Meccans. He already had attributes not shared by any other gods and was perceived, owing to Jewish and Christian influences, in more abstract terms, being the only god that was not represented by an idol. At the same time, certain aspects of Muhammad's preaching, especially his emphasis on the equality of all believers, challenged long-standing social and genealogical structures of Mecca's tribal society. Besides, Arabian tradition tended to equate leadership with superior wisdom and judgment. Acceptance of Muhammad's claim to religious authority, let alone endorsement of his incipient faith, would have amounted to acknowledgment of his political leadership, something that Mecca's elite was loath to do.

For a while Muhammad managed to hold his ground, largely due to the protection of his influential uncle Abu Talib. Though an unreconstructed pagan, Abu Talib had raised the young Muhammad following the early death of his parents and rallied his clan, the Banu Hashem, or Hashemites as they are commonly known, behind his protégé. Yet with Abu Talib's death in 619, the headship of the Hashemite clan passed to his brother, Abu Lahab, whose enmity to Muhammad was so virulent as to buy him a special Qur'anic sura (No. 111), detailing the torment he and his wife would endure in hell. Having initially promised to protect Muhammad, Abu Lahab quickly reneged on his word on the pretext that the Prophet had besmirched his own pagan grandfather by alleging him to be in hell. In these circumstances, Muhammad concluded that his position in Mecca had become untenable and that he had better look for an alternative venue from which to spread his divine message.

As early as 615 Muhammad sent a group of his followers to Ethiopia to escape persecution and to explore the possibility of cooperation with its Christian king. But Ethiopia was too remote and isolated to serve as a permanent base of operations, so Muhammad began to look closer to home. After a humiliating rebuff by the notables of Taif, a hilly town some sixty miles southeast of Mecca, and a string of abortive overtures to neighboring Bedouin tribes, Muhammad eventually reached an agreement with a group of Muslim converts from the town of Yathrib, some 275 miles north of Mecca, whereby they gave him their oath of allegiance and undertook to fight with him against his enemies.

A well-watered desert oasis on the merchant route to Syria, Yathrib had originally been settled by Jewish refugees fleeing Roman persecution and their local Arab proselytes. They were organized in three tribes-Nadir, Quraiza, and Qainuqa-and their thriving farming and commercial enterprises attracted a substantial number of pagan Arabs to the site, notably the Aws and Khazraj tribes, who dominated the Jews yet remained torn by internal strife. The invitation to come to Yathrib as a peacemaker, made by representatives of the feuding tribes, thus provided Muhammad with a golden opportunity for spiritual and political pre-eminence, which he did not fail to seize. In the early summer of 622 about seventy of his followers quietly left Mecca in small groups for Yathrib. A few months later, on September 24,Muhammad himself arrived in the town, accompanied by his close associate Abu Bakr.

The Hijra, as the migration of Muhammad and his followers from Mecca to Yathrib has come to be known, was a watershed in Islamic history, aptly designated after the Prophet's death as the official starting point of the Muslim era. At one fell swoop Muhammad was transformed from a private preacher into a political and military leader and head of a rapidly expanding community, and Islam from a persecuted cult into a major religious and political force in the Arabian Peninsula. "Hitherto it had been a religion within a state," wrote the historian Philip Hitti, "in Medina ['the city,' as Yathrib came to be called after the Hijra] it passed into something more than a state religion-it became the state. Then and there Islam came to be what the world has ever since recognized it to be-a militant policy."

Muhammad created this inextricable link between religious authority and political power shortly after the Hijra in the form of the "Constitution of Medina," which organized his local followers (Ansar) and those who had migrated with him from Mecca (Muhajirun) into "one community (umma) to the exclusion of all man," designed to act as a unified whole against external enemies and internal dissenters. The document wisely refrained from specifically abolishing existing tribal structures and practices, yet it broke with tradition by substituting religion for blood as the source of social and political organization and by making Allah, through the aegis of His chosen apostle, the supreme and exclusive sovereign: "If any dispute or controversy likely to cause trouble should arise it must be referred to God and to Muhammad, the apostle of God. God accepts what is nearest to piety and goodness in this document."

Having established himself as the absolute religious and political leader of his community of believers, Muhammad spent most of his Medina years fighting external enemies and domestic opponents. During the first eighteen months after the Hijra he carried out seven raids on merchant caravans as they were making their way to Mecca. This was an attempt to build up the wealth and prestige of his followers, who had lost their livelihood as a result of their move to Medina, and to weaken Mecca's economic lifeline. It was also the logical thing to do. The caravans from Syria to Mecca passed between Medina and the Red Sea coast and were militarily unprotected, which made them easy prey for potential raiders who could intercept them at a substantial distance from their base and then disappear before the arrival of a rescue party. Yet as the Muslims lacked military experience, having themselves been merchants rather than fighters in their Meccan years, they normally returned home empty-handed. It was only in January 624 that Muhammad scored his first real success. A small raiding party of eight to ten Muslims, disguised as pilgrims, ambushed a convoy at Nakhla, southeast of Mecca, killed one of its attendants, captured another two (the fourth attendant managed to escape), and led the caravan to Medina. Yet as the raid occurred during the holy month of Rajab, when bloodshed was forbidden according to pagan convention, it was met with a wave of indignation in Medina. The embarrassed Muhammad claimed that his orders had been misunderstood and waited for a while before distributing the booty. Eventually a new Qur'anic revelation appeared to justify the raid, and two months later the incident was all but forgotten as a Muslim contingent headed by Muhammad himself routed a numerically superior Meccan force near the oasis of Badr, southwest of Medina, carrying home substantial booty and a few dozen prisoners.

The battle of Badr boosted Muhammad's position in Medina, which seemed to have been deteriorating during the previous months, and allowed him to move against his local opponents. The first to find themselves in the line of fire were the Jews, who had refused to acknowledge the validity of Muhammad's revelations, and whose affluence made them a natural target for plunder. Using a trivial incident as a pretext, he expelled the weakest of the three tribes, the Qainuqa, from the city and divided their properties among the Muhajirun. (Muhammad had originally meant to kill the Qainuqa men but was dissuaded from doing so by the Khazraj sheikh.) One year later, in March 625, after a Muslim defeat in the battle of Mount Uhud, near Medina, had dented Muhammad's prestige in the eyes of the neighboring Bedouin tribes, it was the turn of the Nadir to pay the price of the Prophet's setback: after a few weeks' siege they were driven from the city and their lands were taken over by the Muslims. The last and most powerful Jewish tribe-the Quraiza-suffered more profusely following the abortive Meccan siege of Medina in the spring of 627. Charged with collaboration with the enemy, the tribe's six to eight hundred men were brought in small groups to trenches dug the previous day, made to sit on the edge, then beheaded one by one and their bodies thrown in. The women and children were sold into slavery and the money they fetched, together with the proceeds from the tribe's possessions, was divided among the Muslims.

The physical elimination of the Medina Jews was accompanied by Islam's growing break with its Jewish (and to a lesser extent Christian) origins. Upon moving to the town, Muhammad had sought to woo the local Jewish population by emphasizing the similarity between his incipient religion and Judaism, and by adopting a number of religious Jewish practices and rituals. These included the fast of Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, turning toward Jerusalem in prayer, raising the number of daily prayers from two to three, and accepting a number of dietary restrictions such as eating no pork or blood. These gestures failed to impress the Medina Jews. Rather than endorse Islam or unite with Muhammad against the local idolaters, they became his staunchest critics, highlighting the gaps and inconsistencies in the Qur'an and its misrepresentation of the Old Testament stories. The embittered Muhammad began to cast the Jews in his revelations as a devious and treacherous people, who had persecuted past prophets and falsified the Holy Scriptures. The direction of prayer was changed from Jerusalem to Mecca, Friday was substituted for Sabbath as the holy day of rest, the muezzin and minaret replaced the Jewish trumpets (and Christian bells) as the means of summoning to prayer, and Ramadan was designated as a month of fasting. This disengagement was completed on Muhammad's deathbed in the form of an injunction ordering the expulsion of Jews (and Christians) from the peninsula: "Two faiths will not live together in the land of the Arabs."

The substitution of Mecca for Jerusalem as Islam's holiest site was also a shrewd piece of political expediency that allowed Muhammad to tie his nascent religion to pagan reverence of the city. He further reinforced this link by endorsing the annual pilgrimage to the Kaaba, Mecca's central shrine containing the images of the local gods, and by sanctifying the fetish of kissing the shrine's Black Stone, the source of Mecca's holiness. By way of giving this pragmatic move an ideological grounding, he claimed that the Kaaba had been built by the biblical figure of Abraham, together with his son Ishmael, to whom many Arabians traced their descent. In doing so, Muhammad tapped into prevailing Arabian practices and beliefs by conferring a monotheistic status on ancestral practices. He moreover dissociated Abraham, whom he presented as the first monotheist (or hanif), from Judaism and Christianity, and linked him to Islam and more specifically to himself by creating a direct line of succession in the development of monotheism.


Excerpted from ISLAMIC IMPERIALISM by EFRAIM KARSH Copyright © 2007 by Efraim Karsh. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Table of Contents

1 The warrior prophet 9
2 The rise and fall of Islam's first empire 21
3 The best of times, the worst of times 40
4 The house of Islam and the house of war 62
5 The last great Islamic empire 84
6 The price of empire 104
7 Mishandling the great game 114
8 The rise of the Arab imperial dream 127
9 An Arab Caesar 144
10 A reckoning of sorts 165
11 The tail that wags the dog 186
12 Renewing the quest for Allah's empire 207
13 Bin Laden's holy war 220
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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 7, 2006

    The problem isn't Zionism or Globalism, it's Islamic Imperialism

    If you want to understand the resurrection of the battle between the Islamists and their enemies, i.e. the rest of the world, this book is required reading. It opens the window onto the trajectory on which traditional Islam is and has always been traveling. If you don't know the history, you cannot understand what the current (manifestation of the) battle is about.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 10, 2006

    Exceptional insight. Required reading.

    The Professor and Head of Mediterranean Studies at King's College, University of London has here provided a fascinating insight into what the book illustrates as the deep undercurrents permeating both the prevailing situation in the Middle East and indeed many sections of the International community at this time. While analysing the different mind-sets and conflicting interpretations as to the root cause behind the 9/11 attacks, the book scrutinises the contention that Islam has allegedly nurtured dreams of world conquest since it's outset in the 7th century AD. The eminently readable & well written study, that is replete with references/maps, begins with a quotation from the farewell address of the Prophet Muhammad dated March 632AD - 'I was ordered to fight all men until they say `There is no God but Allah' '. Describing the conquering of foreign lands and the subsequent subjugation of their populations to be 'imperialism', the investigation then proceeds to expound how that this is what the Prophet Muhammad specifically asked of his followers after having fled from his hometown of Mecca in 622AD to Medina, where he is described as then becoming a political and military leader. Through a detailed commentary, the reader is confronted with how Islam then allegedly began to strive towards the creation of what is cited as a new universal order in which the whole of humanity would embrace Islam or live under it's domination. The book elaborating as to how Islam expanded into what is described as a 'universal religion that knew or recognised no territorial or national boundaries'. The vehicle for this growth being the call to 'Jihad', with the reader being shown how the latter became a rallying call for worldwide domination that still consumes Islamic and Middle Eastern politics to this very day. At the closure of this excellent study it is alleged that Osama bin Laden, in what is cited as the historical imagination of many Arabs and Muslims, is nothing short of the new 'incarnation' of Saladin. A statement clarified with the assertion that what is described as the House of Islam's 'war for world mastery' is far from over. I would personally recommend this timely and detailed book to anyone with an interest in the history of Islam, the Middle East and the ongoing situation in the region. It is an excellent addition to anyone's library. Thank you.

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    Posted January 14, 2010

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    Posted May 3, 2011

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    Posted November 26, 2008

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