Chapter 7 Abbasid Decline and the Spread of Islamic Civilization to South and Southeast Asia


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Abbasid Decline and the Spread of Islamic Civilization to South and Southeast Asia

Chapter Outline Summary

I. The Islamic Heartlands in the Middle and Late Abbasid Eras

Abbasid Empire weakened, 9th–13th centuries

Peasant revolts

Al-Mahdi (775-785)

Shi-a unreconciled

Succession not secure

Imperial Extravagance and Succession Disputes

Harun al-Rashid

Son of al-Mahdi

The Thousand and One Nights


Persian advisors

Death followed by civil war


A. Imperial Breakdown and Agrarian Disorder

Civil unrest

Caliphs build lavishly

Tax burden increased

Agriculture suffered

B. The Declining Position of Women in the Family and Society

Seclusion, veil


C. Nomadic Incursions and the Eclipse of Caliphal Power

Former provinces threatened Abbasids

Buyids, Persia

Took Baghdad, 945


Seljuk Turks

1055, defeated Buyids


Shi’a purged

Defeated Byzantines, Egypt

D. The Impact of the Christian Crusades

1096, Western European Christian knights

Small kingdoms established

Saladin retakes lands

Last in 1291

II. An Age of Learning and Artistic Refinements

Urban growth

Merchants thrive

A. The Full Flowering of Persian Literature

Persian the court language

Administration, literature

Arabic in religion, law, sciences




Epic poem


Omar Kayyan


B. Achievements in the Sciences


built on Greek work





specific weights



courses of study

C. Religious Trends and the New Push for Expansion





against outside influence

Greek philosophy rejected

Qur’an sufficient


synthesis of Greek, Qur’anic ideas

opposed by orthodoxy

D. New Waves of Nomadic Invasions and the End of the Caliphate


Chinggis Khan


1258, Baghdad fell

last Abbasid killed

III. The Coming of Islam to South Asia

By 1200, Muslims rule much of north, central

Conflict between two different systems

Hindu religion v. Muslim monotheism

Muslim egalitarianism v. Indian caste system

A. Political Divisions and the First Muslim Invasions

First Muslims as traders, 8th century

attacks led to invasion

Muhammad ibn Qasim

Umayyad general

took Sind, Indus valleys

Indians treated as dhimmi

Indian Influences on Islamic Civilization

Science, math, medicine, music, astronomy

India influenced Arab

B. From Booty to Empire: The Second Wave of Muslim Invasions

10th century, Turkish dynasty established in Afghanistan

Mahmud of Ghazni

began invasion of India

Muhammad of Ghur


state in Indus valley

thence to Bengal

his lieutenant, Qutb-ud-Din Aibak

formed state at Delhi

Delhi sultanate ruled for 300 years

C. Patterns of Conversion

Converts especially among Buddhists, lower castes, untouchables

also conversion to escape taxes

Muslims fled Mongols, 13th, 14th centuries

D. Patterns of Accommodation

High-caste Hindus remained apart

Muslims also often failed to integrate

E. Islamic Challenge and Hindu Revival


devotional cults

emotional approach

caste distinctions dissolved

Shiva, Vishnu, Kali especially

Mira Bai, Kabir,

songs in regional languages

F. Stand-off: The Muslim Presence in India at the End of the Sultanate Period

Brahmins v. ulama

separate communities

IV. The Spread of Islam to Southeast Asia


A. Trading Contacts and Conversion

Trading leads to peaceful conversion

Sufis important

started with Sumatran ports


thence to Malaya, Sumatra, Demak (Java)

Coastal cities especially receptive

Buddhist elites, but population converts to Islam

B. Sufi Mystics and the Nature of Southeast Asian Islam

Chapter Summary

Dhows and Islam. The dhows that sailed the Red Sea and Persian Gulf were key to the spread of Islam in the millennium following the death of Muhammad. These sailing vessels, with one or two masts and wooden hulls, were simple in design. Their lateen sails allowed them to sail against the wind, although seasonal changes in wind direction were used most often. They carried not only merchandise, but also Muslim holy men. This additional freight goes a long way to explaining the spread of Islam as far as the Philippines. The expansion of Islam and the growth of Muslim empires were affected in two ways. While Islam was spread through Sufis, via sea routes or land caravans into Asia and the Sahara, the empires grew through conquest. The former resulted in a broader impact, including changes in language, technology, law, and art. The role of the dhows was finally curtailed in the 15th century, with the advent of expansionist Christian states.

Chapter Summary. By the mid-9th century, the Abbasids were losing control over their vast Muslim empire. Despite the political decline, Islamic civilization reached new cultural heights, and Islam expanded widely in the Afro-Asian world through conquest and peaceful conversion. The extensive Islamic world stimulated the exchange of ideas and commodities among its peoples and neighbors.

The Islamic Heartlands in the Middle and Late Abbasid Eras. The Abbasid Empire disintegrated between the 9th and 13th centuries. Peasant revolts and slavery increased, and the position of women eroded. Signs of decline were present during the reign of Caliph al-Mahdi (775–785). He failed to reconcile moderate Shia to Abbasid rule. Moreover, Al-Mahdi abandoned the frugal ways of his predecessor and surrounded his court with luxury. He failed to establish a succession system resolving disputes among his many sons, leaving a lasting problem for future rulers.

Imperial Extravagance and Succession Disputes. One son, Harun al-Rashid, became one of the most famous Abbasid caliphs. The luxury and intrigues of his court were immortalized in The Thousand and One Nights. The young ruler became dependent on Persian advisors, a trend followed during later reigns as rulers became pawns in factional court struggles. Al-Rashids death led to the first of many civil wars over the succession. The sons of the winner, al-Mamun, built personal retainer armies, some including Turkic-speaking nomads, to safeguard their futures. The armies became power centers, removing and selecting caliphs; their uncontrolled excesses developed into a general focus for societal unrest.

Imperial Breakdown and Agrarian Disorder. The continual civil violence drained the imperial treasury and alienated subjects. Caliphs increased the strain by constructing costly new imperial centers. Imposing tax burdens, often collected by oppressive tax farmers, were forced upon peasants. Agricultural villages were abandoned and irrigation works fell into disrepair. Bandits and vagabonds were everywhere; they participated in peasant rebellions often instigated by dissident religious groups.

The Declining Position of Women in the Family and Society. The freedom and influence possessed during the 1st centuries of Islam severely declined. Male-dominated Abbasid society imagined that women possessed incurable lust, and therefore needed to be segregated. The harem and the veil symbolized subjugation to males. The seclusion of elite women, wives and concubines, continued, and the practice of veiling spread to all. Abbasid wealth generated large demand for concubines and male slaves. Most came from non-Muslim neighboring lands. Poor women remained economically active, but the rich were kept at home. They married at puberty and spent their lives in domestic management and childbearing. At higher political levels, women intrigued to advance their sons’ careers.

Nomadic Incursions and the Eclipse of Caliphal Power. By the mid-10th century, breakaway former provinces began to challenge Abbasid rule. The Buyids of Persia captured Baghdad in 945. The caliphs henceforth became powerless puppets controlled by sultans, the actual rulers. The Seljuk Turks defeated the Buyids in 1055 and ruled the remnants of the Abbasid Empire for two centuries. The Seljuks were staunch Sunnis who purged the Shia. For a time, Seljuk military power restored the diminished caliphate. Egyptians and Byzantines were defeated, the latter success opening Anatolia, the nucleus of the later Ottoman Empire, to settlement by Turkic nomads.

The Impact of the Christian Crusades. West European Christian knights in 1096 invaded Muslim territory to capture the biblical Holy Land. They established small, rival kingdoms that were not a threat to the more powerful surrounding Muslim leaders. Most were recaptured near the close of the 12th century by Muslims reunited under Saladin. The last fell in 1291. The Crusades had an important impact upon the Christian world through intensifying the existing European borrowing from the more sophisticated technology, architecture, medicine, mathematics, science, and general culture of Muslim civilization. Europeans recovered much Greek learning lost after the fall of Rome. Italian merchants remained in Islamic centers after the crusader defeat and were far more important carriers of Islamic advanced knowledge than the Christian warriors. Muslim peoples were less interested in aspects of European civilization.

An Age of Learning and Artistic Refinements. The political and social turmoil of late Abbasid times did not prevent Muslim thinkers and craftsmen, in states from Spain to Persia, from producing one of the great ages of human creativity. Rapid urban growth and its associated prosperity persisted until late in the Abbasid era. Employment opportunities for skilled individuals remained abundant. Merchants amassed large fortunes through supplying urban needs and from long-distance trade to India, southeast Asia, China, north Africa, and Europe. Artists and artisans created mosques, palaces, tapestries, rugs, bronzes, and ceramics.

The Full Flowering of Persian Literature. Persian replaced Arabic as the primary written language of the Abbasid court. Arabic was the language of religion, law, and the natural sciences; Persian became the language of high culture, used for literary expression, administration, and scholarship. The development of a beautiful calligraphy made literature a visual art form. Perhaps the greatest work was Firdawsis epic poem, Shah-Nama, a history of Persia from creation to Islamic conquest. Other writers, such as the great poet Sadi and Omar Khayyam in the Rubaiyat, blended mystical and commonplace themes in their work.

Achievements in the Sciences. Muslim society, for several centuries, surpassed all others in scientific and technological discoveries. In mathematics, thinkers made major corrections in the theories learned from the ancient Greeks. In chemistry, they created the objective experiment. Al-Razi classified all material substances into three categories: animal, vegetable, and mineral. Al-Biruni calculated the exact specific weight of 18 major minerals. Sophisticated, improved, astronomical instruments were used for mapping the heavens. Much of the Muslim achievement had practical application. In medicine, improved hospitals and formal courses of studies accompanied important experimental work. Traders and craftsmen introduced machines and techniques originating in China for papermaking, silk weaving, and ceramic firing. Scholars made some of the worlds best maps.

Religious Trends and the New Push for Expansion. The conflicting social and political trends showed in divergent patterns of religious development. Sufis developed vibrant mysticism, but ulama (religious scholars) became more conservative and suspicious of non-Muslim influences and scientific thought. They were suspicious of Greek rationalism and insisted that the Quran was the all-embracing source of knowledge. The great theologian al-Ghazali struggled to fuse Greek and Quranic traditions, but often was opposed by orthodox scholars. The Sufis created the most innovative religious movement. They reacted against the arid teachings of the ulama and sought personal union with Allah through asceticism, meditation, songs, dancing, or drugs. Many Sufis gained reputations as healers and miracle workers; others made the movement a central factor in the continuing expansion of Islam.

New Waves of Nomadic Invasions and the End of the Caliphate. In the early 13th century, central Asian nomadic invaders, the Mongols, threatened Islamic lands. Chinggis Khan destroyed the Turkic-Persian kingdoms east of Baghdad. His grandson, Hulegu, continued the assault. The last Abbasid ruler was killed when Baghdad fell in 1258. The once-great Abbasid capital became an unimportant backwater in the Muslim world.

The Coming of Islam to South Asia. Muslim invasions from the 7th century added to the complexity of Indian civilization; by the 13th century Muslim dynasties ruled much of north and central India. Formerly, previous nomadic invaders had blended over time into Indias sophisticated civilization. Muslims, possessors of an equally sophisticated, but very different culture, were different. The open, tolerant, and inclusive Hindu religion was based in a social system dominated by castes; Islam was doctrinaire, monotheistic, evangelical, and egalitarian. Conflict predominated in the earlier period of contact, but as time passed, although tensions persisted, peaceful commercial and religious exchange occurred in a society where Muslim rulers governed Hindu subjects.

Political Divisions and the First Muslim Invasions. Muslims first came to India during the early 8th century as peaceful traders. Attacks on the merchants caused Umayyad general Muhammad ibn Qasim to conquer and annex Sind and the Indus valley. Many Indians, treated as people of the book, welcomed the new rulers because they offered religious tolerance and lighter taxes. Most indigenous officials retained their positions, while brahman castes were respected. Only a few Arabs resided in cities or garrison towns, and minimal conversion efforts did not change existing religious beliefs.

Indian Influences on Islamic Civilization. Although Islams impact in India was minimal, Islamic civilization was enriched by Indian culture. Indian achievements in science, mathematics, medicine, music, and astronomy passed to the Arabs. Indian numerals were accepted, later to pass to Europe as Arabic numerals. Colonies of Arabs settled among Indians, adopted local customs, and provided staging points for later Islamic expansion to island and mainland southeast India.

From Booty to Empire: The Second Wave of Muslim Invasions. After the initial Muslim conquests, internal divisions weakened Muslim rule and allowed limited Hindu reconquest. In the 10th century, a Turkish dynasty gained power in Afghanistan. Its third ruler, Mahmud of Ghazni, began two centuries of incursions into northern India. In the 12th century, the Persian Muhammad of Ghur created an extensive state in the Indus valley and north-central India. Later campaigns extended it along the plains of the Ganges to Bengal. A lieutenant to Muhammad, Qutb-ud-Din Aibak, later formed a new state, with its capital at Delhi on the Ganges plain. The succeeding dynasties, the sultans of Delhi, ruled much of north-central India for the next 300 years.

Patterns of Conversion. Although Muslims came as conquerors, early interaction with Indians was dominated by peaceful exchanges. The main carriers of Islam were traders and Sufi mystics, the latter drawing followers because of similarities to Indian holy men. Their mosques and schools became centers of regional political power, providing protection to local populations. Buddhists, low-caste and untouchable Hindus, and animist peoples were the most numerous converts. Muslim raids on Buddhist temples and a spiritual decline that had debased Buddhist practices turned interest to the vigorous new religion of Islam. Others converted to escape taxes or through intermarriage. Muslim migrants fleeing 13th- and 14th-century Mongol incursions also increased the Islamic community.

Patterns of Accommodation. In most regions, Islam initially had little impact on the general Hindu community. High-caste Hindus did not accept the invaders as their equals. Although serving as administrators or soldiers, they remained socially aloof, living in separate quarters and not intermarrying. Hindus thought the Muslims would be absorbed by Hindu society, as had earlier invaders. Muslim communities did adopt many Indian ways; they accepted Hindu social hierarchies, foods, and attitudes toward women.

Islamic Challenge and Hindu Revival. Muslims, despite Indian influences, held to the tenets of Islam. The Hindu response led to an increased emphasis on devotional cults of gods and goddesses (bhakti). The cults, open to men, women, and castes, stressed the importance of strong emotional bonds to the gods. Mira Bai, a low-caste woman, and Kabir, a Muslim weaver, composed songs and poems in regional languages accessible to common people. Reaching a state of ecstatic unity brought removal of all past sins and rendered caste distinctions meaningless. Shiva, Vishnu, and the goddess Kali were the most revered gods. The movement helped to stem conversion to Islam, especially among low-caste groups.

Stand-off: The Muslim Presence in India at the End of the Sultanate Period. Similarities in style and message between Sufis and bhaktic devotees led to attempts to bridge the gaps between Islam and Hinduism. The orthodox of each faith repudiated such thought. Brahmins denounced Muslims as temple destroyers, and worked for reconversion to Hinduism. Muslim ulama stressed the incompatibility of Islams principles with Hindu beliefs. By the close of the sultanate period, there were two distinct religious communities. The great majority of the population remained Hindu. South Asia remained the least converted and integrated of all areas receiving the message of Islam.

The Spread of Islam to Southeast Asia. Southeast Asia had been a middle ground where the Chinese part of the Eurasian trading complex met the Indian Ocean zone. By the 7th and 8th centuries, southeast Asian sailors and ships, especially from Malaya and Sumatra, were active in trade. When Muslims gained control of Indian commerce in the 8th century, Islamic culture reached Southeast Asia. The 13th-century collapse of the trading empire of Shrivijaya, ruled by devout Buddhists, made possible large-scale, peaceful, Muslim entry.

Trading Contacts and Conversion. Peaceful contacts and voluntary conversion were more important to the spread of Islam than conquest and force. Trading contacts prepared the way for conversion, with the process carried forward by Sufis. The first conversions occurred in small northern Sumatran ports. On the mainland, the key to the spread of Islam was the city of Malacca, the smaller successor to Shrivijaya. From Malacca, Islam went to Malaya, Sumatra, and the state of Demak on Javas north coast. Islam spread into Java and moved on to the Celebes and to Mindanao in the Philippines. Coastal cities were the most receptive to Islam. Their conversion linked them to a Muslim system linked to the principal Indian Ocean ports. Buddhist dynasties were present in many regions, but since Buddhist conversions were limited to the elite, the mass of the population was open to the message of Sufis. The island of Bali, where Hinduism had become firmly based, and mainland southeast Asia, where Buddhism had gained popular support, remained impervious to Islam.

Thinking Historically: Conversion and Accommodation in the Spread of World Religions. Great civilizations and world religions have been closely associated throughout world history. World religions, belief structures that flourish in many differing cultures, have to possess a spiritual core rich enough to appeal to potential converts. They have to possess beliefs that allow adherents to maintain a sense of common identity, but also must be flexible enough to allow retention of important aspects of local culture. The capacity for accommodation allowed Islam, and later Christianity, to spread successfully into many differing communities.

Sufi Mystics and the Nature of Southeast Asian Islam. The mystical quality of Islam in southeast Asia was due to Sufi determination. Sufis often tolerated indigenous peoples animist, Buddhist, and Hindu beliefs. Converts retained pre-Islamic practices, especially for regulating social interaction, while Islamic law ruled legal transactions. Women held a stronger familial and societal position than they had in the Middle East or India. They dominated local markets, while in some regions, matrilineal descent persisted. Many pre-Muslim beliefs were incorporated into Islamic ceremonies.

GLOBAL CONNECTIONS: Islam—A Bridge Between Worlds. Despite the political instability of the Abbasid era, Islams central position in global history was solidified. The expanding Muslim world linked ancient civilizations through conquest and commercial networks. Islam was the civilizer of nomadic peoples in central Asia and northern Africa. Its cultural contributions diffused widely from great cities and universities. There were, however, tendencies that placed Muslims at a disadvantage in relation to rival civilizations, particularly to their European rivals. Political divisions caused exploitable weaknesses in many regions. Most importantly, the increasing intellectual rigidity of the ulama caused Muslims to become less receptive to outside influences at a time when the European world transformed its culture and power.

Al-Mahdi: 3rd Abbasid caliph (775–785); failed to reconcile Shia moderates to his dynasty and to resolve the succession problem.
Harun al-Rashid: most famous of the Abbasid caliphs (786-809); renowned for sumptuous and costly living recounted in The Thousand and One Nights.
Buyids: Persian invaders of the 10th century; captured Baghdad; and as sultans, through Abbasid figureheads.
Seljuk Turks: nomadic invaders from central Asia; staunch Sunnis; ruled from the 11th century in the name of the Abbasids.
Crusades: invasions of western Christians into Muslim lands, especially Palestine; captured Jerusalem and established Christian kingdoms enduring until 1291.
Salah-ud-Din: (1137–1193); Muslim ruler of Egypt and Syria; reconquered most of the crusader kingdoms.
Ibn Khaldun: Great Muslim historian; author of The Muqaddimah; sought to

uncover persisting patterns in Muslim dynastic history.

Rubaiyat: epic of Omar Khayyam; seeks to find meaning in life and a path to union with the divine.
Shah-Nama: epic poem written by Firdawsi in the late 10th and early 11th centuries; recounts the history of Persia to the era of Islamic conquests.
Sadi: a great poet of the Abbasid era.
Al-Razi: classified all matter as animal, vegetable, and mineral.
Al-Biruni: 11th-century scientist; calculated the specific weight of major minerals.

Ulama: Islamic religious scholars; pressed for a more conservative and restrictive theology; opposed to non-Islamic thinking.

Al-Ghazali: brilliant Islamic theologian; attempted to fuse Greek and Quranic traditions.
Sufis: Islamic mystics; spread Islam to many Afro-Asian regions.
Mongols: central Asian nomadic peoples; captured Baghdad in 1258 and killed the last Abbasid caliph.
Chinggis Khan: (1162–1227); Mongol ruler; defeated the Turkish Persian kingdoms.
Hulegu: grandson of Chinggis Khan; continued his work, taking Baghdad in 1258.
Mamluks: Rulers of Egypt, descended from Turkish slaves.
Muhammad ibn Qasim: Arab general who conquered Sind and made it part of the Umayyad Empire.
Arabic numerals: Indian numerical notation brought by the Arabs to the West.
Mahmud of Ghazni: ruler of an Afghan dynasty; invaded northern India during the 11th century.
Muhammad of Ghur: Persian ruler of a small Afghan kingdom; invaded and conquered much of northern India.
Qutb-ud-din Aibak: lieutenant of Muhammad of Ghur; established kingdom in India with the capital at Delhi.
Sati: Hindu ritual for burning widows with their deceased husbands.
Bhaktic cults: Hindu religious groups who stressed the importance of strong emotional bonds between devotees and the gods or goddesses—especially Shiva, Vishnu, and Kali.
Mir Bai: low-caste woman poet and song-writer in bhaktic cults.
Kabir: 15th-century Muslim mystic who played down the differences between Hinduism and Islam.
Shrivijaya: trading empire based on the Malacca straits; its Buddhist government resisted Muslim missionaries; when it fell, southeastern Asia was opened to Islam.

Malacca: flourishing trading city in Malaya; established a trading empire after the fall of Shrivijaya.

Demak: most powerful of the trading states on the north Java coast; converted to Islam and served as a dissemination point to other regions.


Peoples Analysis Abbasid Empire

Conflict Analysis Crusades

Change Analysis Position of women in Abbasid society, India before and after Islamic spread

Societal Comparison Abbasid Empire and nomadic groups

Document Analysis Ibn Khaldun on the Rise and Decline of Empires

Dialectical Journal Islamic culture

Inner/Outer Circle In Depth: Conversion and Accommodation in the Spread of World Religions

1. Compare and contrast the initial spread of Islam throughout the Mediterranean and the Middle East with the Islamic incursions into India and Southeast Asia. Most of the first expansion in the Mediterranean region and the Middle East was by Arabian tribesmen. The government under the Umayyads retained the initial concept of rule by a small Arab elite; full citizenship for mawali was denied. The Abbasids gave full citizenship to non-Arabs. The second stage of Islamic expansion was led by non-Arabs. The presence of Sufi missionaries made for a more peaceful expansion and to less restrictive forms of Islam. Converts, as in the Delhi sultanate, retained many of their previous Hindu beliefs and social systems.

2. Discuss the political, cultural, and economic characteristics of the Abbasid Empire. In political organization, the Abbasids suffered from a loss of central authority and a growth of regional dynasties. There were many revolts by Shia, mercenary armies, and peasants. The dynasty crumbled from the invasions of Buyids, Seljuk Turks, and Mongols. The Abbasid economy depended on agriculture and trade. Agriculture required irrigation, and this failed under the later dynasty. Cities grew and prospered; long-distance trade reached into India and southeast Asia. In culture, the Abbasids were the zenith of Islamic civilization, with advances in science, literature, mathematics, and philosophy.


1. Evaluate the weaknesses of the later Abbasid Empire.

Rebellious governors and new dynasties wanted to challenge the Abbasid rulers. The empire couldn’t be

held together. It was very diverse.
2. Describe the position of women in the Abbasid Empire.

Women were separated from the men. Their social status was declining. They were married at age nine and remained housewives pretty much their whole lives.

3. Describe the economy of the later Abbasid Empire.

The empire was losing land and therefore losing resources and revenues.

4. Trace theological developments within Islam during the Abbasid Empire.

While spreading Islam into Asia, the Sufi mystics and traders commanded elements of animistic, Hindu, and Buddhist rituals into a carination of Islam.

5. Trace the stages of Islamic incursion into India.

An attack by pirates on Arab trade ships led to the first Muslim invasion into India. Mohamed of Ghazni led a series of expeditions in northern India that became campaigns aimed at seizing political control in north India. Over the centuries, sizeable Muslim communities began to develop on the subcontinent.

6. To what extent were Muslims successful in converting Indians to Islam?

The majority of their converts were Buddhist, but they were also successful at converting people from low-caste groups. They used peaceable means of conversion. This was primarily aided by the Muslim trade routes and Muslim ruled areas of India.


Audio Cassettes

The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam (the 4th translation). Caedmon

The Five Pillars of Islam. Films for the Humanities & Sciences, #SQ708

Islamic Science and Technology. Films for the Humanities & Sciences, #SQ712

Christians, Jews, and Moslems in Medieval Spain. Films for the Humanities &

Sciences, #CN-1958

The Story of Islam. Filmic Archives

The Sindbad Voyage. Films for the Humanities & Sciences, #KT42~92

Crusader. Films for the Humanities & Sciences, #SQ4295

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