Short History of the Middle East, from the Rise of Islam to Modern times

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Instead — known now as "Muslims", or "those who submit to God" — they had succeeded in winning for themselves a vast agglomeration of territories: an authentically global empire. Ibn Hisham, looking back at the age which had first seen the Arabs grow conscious of themselves as a chosen people, and surrounded as he was by the ruins of superceded civilisations, certainly had no lack of pages to fill.

A Short History of Islamism

What was it that had brought the Arabs as conquerors to cities such as Herakleopolis, and far beyond? The ambition of Ibn Hisham was to provide an answer. The story he told was that of an Arab who had lived almost two centuries previously, and been chosen by God as the seal of His prophets: Muhammad. Although Ibn Hisham was himself certainly drawing on earlier material, his is the oldest biography to have survived, in the form we have it, into the present day.

Ancient Syria

The details it provided would become fundamental to the way that Muslims have interpreted their faith ever since. That Muhammad had received a series of divine revelations; that he had grown up in the depths of Arabia, in a pagan metropolis, Mecca; that he had fled it for another city, Yathrib, where he had established the primal Muslim state; that this flight, or hijra , had transformed the entire order of time, and come to provide Muslims with their Year One: all this was enshrined to momentous effect by Ibn Hisham.

The contrast between Islam and the age that had preceded it was rendered in his biography as clear as that between midday and the dead of night. The white radiance of Muhammad's revelations, blazing first across Arabia and then to the limits of the world, had served to bring all humanity into a new age of light. The effect of this belief was to prove incalculable.

How the Islamic State Rose, Fell and Could Rise Again in the Maghreb

To this day, even among non-Muslims, it continues to inform the way in which the history of the Middle East is interpreted and understood. Whether in books, museums or universities, the ancient world is imagined to have ended with the coming of Muhammad. Yet even on the presumption that what Islam teaches is correct, and that the revelations of Muhammad did indeed descend from heaven, it is still pushing things to imagine that the theatre of its conquests was suddenly conjured, over the span of a single generation, into a set from The Arabian Nights.

That the Arab conquests were part of a much vaster and more protracted drama, the decline and fall of the Roman empire, has been too readily forgotten. Place these conquests in their proper context and a different narrative emerges. Heeding the lesson taught by Gibbon back in the 18th century, that the barbarian invasions of Europe and the victories of the Saracens were different aspects of the same phenomenon, serves to open up vistas of drama unhinted at by the traditional Muslim narratives. The landscape through which the Magaritai rode was certainly not unique to Egypt.

In the west too, there were provinces that had witnessed the retreat and collapse of a superpower, the depredations of foreign invaders, and the desperate struggle of locals to fashion a new security for themselves. Only in the past few decades has this perspective been restored to its proper place in the academic spotlight.

It was the last half-century in which that could be said. First published in , it portrayed a galactic imperium on the verge of collapse, and the attempt by an enlightened band of scientists to insure that eventual renaissance would follow its fall. The influence of the novel, and its two sequels, has been huge, and can be seen in every subsequent sci-fi epic that portrays sprawling empires set among the stars — from Star Wars to Battlestar Galactica.

Unlike most of his epigoni, however, Asimov drew direct sustenance from his historical model. The parabola of Asimov's narrative closely follows that of Gibbon. Plenipotentiaries visit imperial outposts for the last time; interstellar equivalents of Frankish or Ostrogothic kingdoms sprout on the edge of the Milky Way; the empire, just as its Roman precursor had done under Justinian, attempts a comeback. Most intriguingly of all, in the second novel of the series, we are introduced to an enigmatic character named the Mule, who emerges seemingly from nowhere to transform the patterns of thought of billions, and conquer much of the galaxy.

Parallels with the tales told of Muhammad are self-evident in a second great epic of interstellar empire, Frank Herbert's Dune. A prophet arises from the depths of a desert world to humiliate an empire and launch a holy war — a jihad. Herbert's hero, Paul Atreides, is a man whose sense of supernatural mission is shadowed by self-doubt. Without ever quite intending it, he founds a new religion, and launches a wave of conquest that ends up convulsing the galaxy.

In the end, we know, there will be "only legend, and nothing to stop the jihad".

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There is an irony in this, an echo not only of the spectacular growth of the historical caliphate, but of how the traditions told about Muhammad evolved as well. Ibn Hisham's biography may have been the first to survive — but it was not the last. As the years went by, and ever more lives of the Prophet came to be written, so the details grew ever more miraculous.

Fresh evidence — wholly unsuspected by Muhammad's earliest biographers — would see him revered as a man able to foretell the future, to receive messages from camels, and to pick up a soldier's eyeball, reinsert it, and make it work better than before. The result was yet one more miracle: the further in time from the Prophet a biographer, the more extensive his biography was likely to be.

Herbert's novel counterpoints snatches of unreliable biography — in which Paul has become "Muad'Dib", the legendary "Dune Messiah" — with the main body of the narrative, which reveals a more secular truth. Such, of course, is the prerogative of fiction. Nevertheless, it does suggest, for the historian, an unsettling question: to what extent might the traditions told by Muslims about their prophet contradict the actual reality of the historical Muhammad? Nor is it only western scholars who are prone to asking this — so too, for instance, are Salafists, keen as they are to strip away the accretions of centuries, and reveal to the faithful the full unspotted purity of the primal Muslim state.

But what if, after all the cladding has been torn down, there is nothing much left, beyond the odd receipt for sheep? That Muhammad existed is evident from the scattered testimony of Christian near-contemporaries, and that the Magaritai themselves believed a new order of time to have been ushered in is clear from their mention of a "Year 22".

But do we see in the mirror held up by Ibn Hisham, and the biographers who followed him, an authentic reflection of Muhammad's life — or something distorted out of recognition by a combination of awe and the passage of time? There may be a lack of early Muslim sources for Muhammad's life, but in other regions of the former Roman empire there are even more haunting silences.

The deepest of all, perhaps, is the one that settled over the one-time province of Britannia. Around AD, at the same time as Ibn Hisham was drawing up a list of nine engagements in which Muhammad was said personally to have fought, a monk in the far distant wilds of Wales was compiling a very similar record of victories, 12 in total, all of them attributable to a single leader, and cast by their historian as indubitable proof of the blessings of God.

The name of the monk was Nennius; and the name of his hero — who was supposed to have lived long before — was Arthur. The British warlord, like the Arab prophet, was destined to have an enduring afterlife. The same centuries which would see Muslim historians fashion ever more detailed and loving histories of Muhammad and his companions would also witness, far beyond the frontiers of the caliphate, the gradual transformation of the mysterious Arthur and his henchmen into the model of a Christian court.

The battles listed by Nennius would come largely to be forgotten: in their place, haunting the imaginings of all Christendom, would be the conviction that there had once existed a realm where the strong had protected the weak, where the bravest warriors had been the purest in heart, and where a sense of Christian fellowship had bound everyone to the upholding of a common order. The ideal was to prove a precious one — so much so that to this day, there remains a mystique attached to the name of Camelot. Nor was the world of Arthur the only dimension of magic and mystery to have emerged out of the shattered landscape of the one-time Roman empire.

The English, the invaders against whom Arthur was supposed to have fought, told their own extraordinary tales. Gawping at the crumbling masonry of Roman towns, they saw in it "the work of giants". These stories, in turn, were only a part of the great swirl of epic, Gothic and Frankish and Norse, which preserved in their verses the memory of terrible battles, and mighty kings, and the rise and fall of empires: trace-elements of the death-agony of Roman greatness. Most of these poems, though, like the kingdoms that were so often their themes, no longer exist.

Islam: History, Beliefs, And Modern Significance -

They are fragments, or mere rumours of fragments. The wonder-haunted fantasies of post-Roman Europe have themselves become spectres and phantasms. The Islamic religion spread quickly throughout the region, and its different factions rose to power. Damascus eventually became the capital of the Islamic world, but was replaced by Baghdad in Iraq around A. This change led to economic decline in Syria, and for the next several centuries, the region became unstable and was ruled by various groups. In , the Ottoman Empire conquered Syria and remained in power until British and Arab troops captured Damascus and Aleppo in , and the French took control of modern-day Syria and Lebanon in These arrangements put an end to roughly years of Ottoman rule in the region.

The French reign led to uprisings and revolts among the people in Syria. In , France and Syria negotiated a treaty of independence, which allowed Syria to remain independent but gave France military and economic power.

Syria joined with Egypt and became the United Arab Republic in , but the union split a few short years later in The s brought more military coups, revolts and riots. In , the Arab Socialist Baath Party, which was active throughout the Middle East since the late s, seized power of Syria in a coup known as the Baath Revolution.

Conflict over this coveted area continued for years and is still ongoing. He remained in power as president for 30 years, until his death in Hafez al-Assad was part of the Islam Alawite, which is a minority Shiite sect. During his presidency, Hafez was credited with strengthening the Syrian military with the help of the Soviets.

go to link Syria and Egypt went to war with Israel in Shortly after this conflict, Syria also got involved in the civil war in Lebanon, where it has maintained a military presence ever since. In , the Muslim Brotherhood organized a rebellion against the Assad regime in the city of Hama, and Assad responded by arresting, torturing and executing political rebels.

Estimates vary, but many experts believe the retaliation took the lives of about 20, civilians. The same year, Israel invaded Lebanon and attacked the Syrian army stationed there.

But by , Israel and Lebanon announced that the hostility between the two countries was over. Toward the end of his life, Hafez attempted to make more peaceful relations with Israel and Iraq.

  • How the Islamic State Rose, Fell and Could Rise Again in the Maghreb | Crisis Group.
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After Bashar took power, the constitution was amended to reduce the minimum age of the president from 40 to At the start of his presidency, Bashar al-Assad released political prisoners, and Syrians were hopeful that their new leader would grant more freedoms and impose less oppression than his father. The Syrian government was also accused of being involved in the assassination of Rafic Hariri, the Lebanese prime minister, in After a few years of what seemed like potential diplomacy between Assad and other nations, the United States renewed sanctions against Syria in , saying that the regime supported terrorist groups.

Many human rights groups reported that Assad regularly tortured, imprisoned and killed political adversaries throughout his presidency. In March of , a group of teens and children were arrested and tortured for writing anti-government graffiti that was thought to be inspired by the Arab Spring rebellion.

Peaceful protests broke out in Syria after the graffiti incident and became widespread. Assad and the Syrian government responded by arresting and killing hundreds of protestors and their family members. These events combined with other circumstances, including a lagging economy, a severe drought, a lack of general freedoms and a tense religious atmosphere, led to civilian resistance and, ultimately, an uprising.

But by , Syria was engulfed in a full-blown civil war. Estimates vary, but according to the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights, at least , people have been killed since the start of the war or are missing. Hundreds of people were killed outside of Damascus in during a chemical weapons attack.

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The United States said the assault was carried out by the Syrian government, but the regime blamed rebel forces. What started as a war between the Assad government and Syrian rebels became more complicated as the battle progressed. Since that time, U.