Studies on the Civilization of Islam

Studies on the Civilization of Islam

by Hamilton Alexander Rosskeen Gibb


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Ranging from studies on Sufism and the Koran to discussion of nineteenth and twentieth-century Arabic literature, these essays on the law and literature of Islamic society illustrate the unique vision of one of the world's great Orientalists.

Originally published in 1982.

The Princeton Legacy Library uses the latest print-on-demand technology to again make available previously out-of-print books from the distinguished backlist of Princeton University Press. These editions preserve the original texts of these important books while presenting them in durable paperback and hardcover editions. The goal of the Princeton Legacy Library is to vastly increase access to the rich scholarly heritage found in the thousands of books published by Princeton University Press since its founding in 1905.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780691614427
Publisher: Princeton University Press
Publication date: 07/14/2014
Series: Princeton Legacy Library , #685
Pages: 384
Product dimensions: 9.20(w) x 6.10(h) x 1.00(d)

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Studies on the Civilization of Islam

By Hamilton A. R. Gibb, Stanford J. Shaw, William R. Polk


Copyright © 1962 Hamilton A. R. Gibb
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-691-05354-7


An Interpretation of Islamic History


Islam is a concept which, phenomenalized in a number of linked but diverse political, social and religious organisms, covers an immense area in space and time. Indifferent regions and epochs it has presented differing features under the impact of and in response to local geographical, social and political forces. Western Islam for example, in northwest Africa and medieval Spain, though it was closely related to the Muslim heartlands in Western Asia and its culture was an offshoot from their culture, yet evolved several distinguishing characteristics, some of which in turn influenced Islam in Western Asia. In other large and self-contained geographical areas, such as the Indian subcontinent and Indonesia, or in the steppe lands extending from southern Russia to the borders of China, parallel factors produced similarly distinguishing forms. Yet each and all of these retain a certain easily recognizable common Islamic stamp. It is impossible within the limits of a single essay to deal with all these diverse regions. The present article is therefore confined to Islam in Western Asia with the double object: (1) of tracing the development of Islamic culture and the gradual evolution which by the end of the fourteenth century had transformed its inner structure, and (2) of examining the processes by which its institutions were molded into a coherent unity and given their specifically Islamic stamp, however widely Islam might spread and however various their external forms. It should thus supply a provisional framework within which (corrected or adjusted where necessary) other studies devoted to particular aspects and relations of Islamic culture may be coordinated.

The rhythms of Islamic history are curiously inverse to those of European history. Both arose from the breakdown of the Mediterranean empire of Rome. While Europe slowly and imperceptibly, and only after several centuries, grew out of the anarchy of the barbarian invasions, Islam suddenly emerged from Arabia and with incredible speed fashioned in less than a century a new imperial structure in Western Asia and the southern and western shores of the Mediterranean. But the contrast goes much deeper. The challenges to the ancient Mediterranean empire and institutions were of two kinds. On the northern borders, the barbarian invaders challenged the Roman political power, but entered into its new cultural system, the Catholic Christian Church, and accepted its basic social and religious institutions, upon which ultimately the new European political structures were erected. On the southern and eastern borders, the challenge was not to Roman political power but to the cultural centralization of the church, and manifested in popular rejection of Catholic orthodoxy in favour of dissident creeds, Donatist, Monophysite and Nestorian. Islam, after establishing a political system which embraced all these areas of dissidence (together with Persia, which had for centuries maintained against Rome a political struggle backed by a religious rival creed), was confronted with the task of bringing them into a common cultural and religious system, based upon its own universalist concept. To achieve this, it had to counteract and, as far as possible, extinguish the influence of the earlier universalist concept (Christianity) in Western Asia and the southern half of the Mediterranean, to destroy Zoroastrianism and the other dualist religions of Persia and Mesopotamia, and oppose a barrier to the extension of Buddhism in Central Asia.

The whole of medieval Islamic history is dominated by the effort on the part of the Sunni or "orthodox" religious institution, first, to maintain its universalism against internal and external challenges, and second to realize the widest possible measure of religious, social and cultural unity throughout the Islamic world. The second of these objects was not achieved until the political unity of Islam had been disrupted, partially recreated, and disrupted again; but in the effort to achieve it a vast area of interaction was created between peoples of diverse stocks and traditions, and in this process — almost, indeed, as a by-product of it — the medieval Islamic culture was brought into existence.


The social teaching of Muhammad was basically a reaffirmation of the ethical ideas common to the monotheistic religions: the brotherhood of all members of the new Islamic community, their equality in intrinsic personal worth in spite of differences of temporal status, function and wealth, and all the mutual relationships and duties following from these principles, deepened by being stated in terms of inward loyalty and outward obligation to the one God. Furthermore (and this was to prove of fundamental importance for the future development of Islamic culture), it included certain social and ethical obligations — but not the full freedom of brotherhood — towards members of other religious communities, provided that these accepted the political control of the Islamic community.

As in all religious movements, the concrete social results of this teaching were determined by its impact on the actual historical environment. In Muhammad's own lifetime, it was received at three different levels. The first was at the level of total conversion, producing religious personalities, whose activities and decisions were motivated by a complete inward acceptance of its spirit and principles. This group, the nucleus of the future religious institution, was in the nature of the case relatively small to begin with but steadily increased with the expansion of the community. The second was that of formal adhesion, of willing acceptance of the outward prescriptions and duties, without assimilation of their spirit, but because of the advantages to be gained by incorporation in the new community. Its leading representatives were the later Meccan adherents, to whose mercantile temper the external demands of Islam were eminently suited, requiring only the dedication to religious duties of a proportion of time and wealth, and leaving the rest free for personal activities and interest. A further commendation of Islam in Meccan eyes was the firm control which it established. over the Bedouins, whose acceptance was on the third level, that of enforced adherence maintained by threat (and after Muhammad's death by the application) of military sanctions.

Since, however, inescapable economic forces made any permanent stabilization of inner-Arabian conditions virtually impossible, the mere suppression of Bedouin opposition — with the implication that the forces of Islam would be used up in an interminable and sterile struggle with the tribesmen — was an inadequate solution for the problem set by them. It was necessary to find the terms on which the tribesmen as a whole could be swung, if not up to the first level of assimilation, at least on to the level of identifying Islam with their own interests. Hence the trial expeditions deliberately organized by Abu Bakr after Muhammad's death, when groups of tribesmen were despatched under Meccan commanders towards the frontiers of Syria. The first successes led to a coordinated and organized military campaign which quickly achieved the conquest of the whole country; and the comparative lack of success of the simultaneous campaigns in Iraq under tribal leadership reconciled the tribesmen to a similarly organized campaign under Meccan leadership against the Persian empire, with equally decisive results. The policy of Abu Bakr and his successor Omar thus not only achieved their first purpose, of bringing the tribesmen to an enthusiastic acceptance of Islam as the palladium of victory and to unite their forces under commanders appointed by the caliph, but also a second and not less important result, that the conquests were made with the minimum of disturbance to the economy of the conquered countries and were followed by the rapid establishment of organized central control.

Nevertheless, the material interests of the two main parties to the victory, the tribesmen and the Meccans, were still in opposition to one another. The natural instinct of the tribesmen was to appropriate the conquered lands for their pastures, while the Meccans wished to exploit their resources for their own commercial profit. Although the structure of an agricultural economy was unfamiliar to the Arab leaders, they quickly understood its significance as a source of revenue. If it was not to be exposed to injury, the obvious solution was to leave its administration in the hands of the former officials who were familiar with it. While the tribesmen were still engaged in the campaigns and still amenable to the moral authority and control of the caliphate, they were persuaded to relinquish their claims to the occupation of lands, and to receive in compensation a fixed share of the revenues in monetary stipends and produce. This also enabled the central government to keep the tribesmen concentrated in garrison settlements, instead of spreading in nomadic fashion over the country, and by this means to maintain more effective supervision and control over them.

It was not long before the consciousness of the loss of their independence, combined with the unnatural conditions of life in the garrison cities, generated an increasingly violent feeling of resentment amongst the tribesmen, exacerbated by the Meccan exploitation of "their" conquests. The Meccan merchants had not been slow to seize the dazzling prospects opened up by the commerce of Iraq, Syria and Egypt. They were already active in supplying the needs of the new garrison settlements for consumption goods, in forming partnerships with local producers and merchants, and especially in the huge operations of exchange and banking required in the distribution of stipends and transfer to Medina of the fifth of all revenues, and were forming vast commercial establishments manned by slaves and clients. In Medina also, after the first satisfaction with the great increase in wealth and prosperity, there was growing resentment at the rapid affirmation of Meccan political control under the third caliph, Othman, and the economic exploitation of the empire.

Open discontent was first expressed by several religious personalities, whose conscience was shocked by the worldliness and grasping materialism displayed in the name of Islam. But these only provided a rallying-cry and a cloak for the material grievances of the tribesmen and Medinians, who swung into line behind them. The assassination of Othman by the tribesmen provoked a civil war, in which the religious party at first joined the tribesmen of Iraq, in whom they saw the supporters of the cause of unity on Islamic religious and ethical terms. Opposed to them stood the Meccan governor of Syria, Muawiya, supported by his tribesmen, more disciplined and sedentarized, and less exposed to exploitation than those of Iraq. It soon became clear to the religious leaders that the tribal interpretation of Islam carried with it a threat to the whole principle of religious authority and to the system of mutual rights and obligations upon which rested the unity and stability of the community. The conflict turned out to be one, not between the religious basis and the secular basis of unity, but between unity on modified Meccan terms which at least respected the religious foundations of the community, and the disruptive forces of tribalism. When the issue was underlined by the emergence in Iraq of the violently sectarian and anti-Meccan group called the Kharijites (Khawarij) the choice could not long remain in doubt, and the religious party gradually drifted to the side of Muawiya.


The establishment of the Umayyad Caliphate of Damascus (661) was thus the outcome of a coalition or compromise between those who represented the Islamic ideal of a religious community, united by common allegiance to the heritage of the Prophet, and the Meccan secular interpretation of unity, against the threat of anarchy implicit in tribalism. But this was only a modus vivendi reinstating a central authority over the loosely bound provinces of the Arab empire. Three major questions remained to be solved; the relations of the government with the tribes, its relations with the religious party, and the relations between Arabs and non-Arabs in the conquered lands.

In their relations with the tribes, the Umayyad Caliphs at first returned to the old Meccan policy of conciliation by coordinating the interest of the tribesmen with their own, combined with a renewal of the Medinian policy of wars of expansion and distribution of booty. The survival of irreconciliable Kharijite and anti-Umayyad tribal opposition in Iraq stood in the way of their success from the first, and the rapid development of tribal factions forced on them a complete change of policy. The administration was increasingly centralized, and its control tightened over the inner provinces (Iraq, Syria and Egypt); tribal risings were repressed and Syrian garrisons established to maintain order in Iraq and Persia; most important of all, the tribesmen of Iraq were gradually demilitarized, and were beginning to be absorbed into the new mixed urban societies which were developing in the former garrison cities.

Religious factors entered into this process of centralization on both sides, partly in opposition, but partly also favoring the growth of an organized central authority. Their awareness of the secular tendencies in the Umayyad house, together with the influence of their religious idealism, inclined the religious leaders in a general way against the Umayyad regime, but their difficulty was to find an alternative that would not disrupt the community. The excesses of the Kharijites and of the activist Shiites discredited them with all but a minority, and an anti-caliphate set up during a second civil war (684-691) proved incapable of maintaining order. At the same time, the Umayyad Caliphate itself was moving towards the universalist Islamic view, as the religious and ethical principles of Islam percolated in the course of the century more deeply into Arab society and affected its outlook and principles of conduct. The outcome of this symbiosis was the emergence of a semi-official interpretation of Islam, supported by a considerable body of religious opinion, and it is noteworthy that the first condemnations for heresy took place under the later Umayyad Caliphs.

By the end of the first century, however, non-Arabs were beginning to enter the ranks of religious teachers in growing numbers. These naturally accepted Islam in its most universalist interpretation, without any qualifying admixture of Arab ideas; as they were emotionally opposed to the Umayyads because of the grievances and social inferiority of the non-Arabs, they rejected the conformist attitude of the Umayyad supporters, as well as the other Arab sectarian interpretations, and remained on the whole on the neutral ground of doctrinal rigorism.

The most difficult problem for the Umayyads was to integrate the social structure of the Arab state as organized after the conquests with the agricultural economy of the conquered provinces, and to do so in a manner consistent with the ethical principles of Islam. What gave the problem a peculiar intensity was the movement of conversion to Islam among both landowners and cultivators, who continued nevertheless to suffer from their former social and economic disabilities. It was eventually solved towards the end of the Umayyad period (but only after bitter struggles) by assimilating new Arab landowners to non-Arab landowners, and by exempting converted cultivators from the poll tax payable by all non-Muslim subjects. Both measures led towards an assimilation of Arabs and Muslim non-Arabs, and at the same time towards uniformity of administrative practice in the Arab empire; but they came too late to check the accumulated sense of grievance against Umayyad rule, which in the eyes of the developing "religious institution" stood for the political domination and social privilege of the Arabs. Both the activist and neutralist religious oppositions joined with a revolt of the Yemen faction of tribesmen to bring down the Umayyad Caliphate (750); and thus, after having (in alliance with the Umayyads) dissociated the religious polity of Islam from the extreme sectarian and fanatical interpretations of the Kharijites and the ultra-Shiites, now also publicly dissociated it from the concept of Arab predominance.


The new Abbasid line of caliphs, although themselves, as relatives of the Prophet, also of Meccan Arab origin, clearly recognized the importance which the religious leaders had assumed in the framework of the empire, and made it one of the cornerstones of their policy to associate them with the new regime. The evolution which had begun under the Umayyads towards centralized monarchical institutions and the merging of the hitherto privileged Arabs into the general Muslim population would have continued in any case, but it was accelerated and given a more definite direction by the fact that the dynasty was brought to power and maintained in it by an alliance of the Arab colonists and Islamized Persian aristocracy of Khurasan. The increasing employment of non-Arabs in the administration favored the revival of the old Sasanian court ceremonial and administrative traditions, while the constitution of a Khurasanian standing army freed the monarchy from the pressures of the Arab tribal structure. The Arab landowners were integrated in the Persian feudal system, and the expansion of industry, commerce, and material and intellectual culture in Iraq and Persia brought Arabs and non-Arabs together in social, economic and intellectual activities.


Excerpted from Studies on the Civilization of Islam by Hamilton A. R. Gibb, Stanford J. Shaw, William R. Polk. Copyright © 1962 Hamilton A. R. Gibb. Excerpted by permission of PRINCETON UNIVERSITY PRESS.
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Table of Contents

  • FrontMatter, pg. i
  • Editors' Note, pg. v
  • Abbreviations Used In Footnotes And Bibliographies, pg. viii
  • Preface, pg. ix
  • Contents, pg. xiii
  • Part One. Medieval Islamic History, pg. 1
  • Part Two. Islamic Institutions, Philosophy And Religion, pg. 139
  • Part Three. Contemporary Intellectual Currents, pg. 243
  • Bibliography, pg. 345
  • Index, pg. 358

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