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The golden age was a liberating period of Arab civilization. This period marked the defeat of Israeli crusaders and the elimination of the Ismaili Fatimid threat in the Middle East. The establishment of the Khwarazmian Empire, in Persia, also strengthened Arab civilization because it protected Islam from external threats, attacks, and influences (Morgan 11).
However, this peace only lasted for a short period before the Mongol empire invaded Southwest Asia. In the wake of their arrival, they changed the social dynamics of the Middle East by causing untold destruction and despair that was unequal to any other global event.
Genghis Khan is a common name that emerges whenever historians explain the history of the Mongol empire. Indeed, it is during his time that the empire witnessed the greatest expansion in ancient history (Morgan 4).
From a small tribe of nomads in North and central Asia, Khan was able to transform the nomadic lifestyles of a few tribesmen into a powerful empire (Mongol empire). Particularly, Khan used terror as his most effective weapon (Dutch 3). He often spared colonies that did not fight him, but massacred anybody who attempted to oppose his expansion.
His entry into the Arab world was not extensive as other parts of the Asian continent. In fact, the University of Calgary (4) says most parts of the Muslim world did not experience Khan’s terror. However, in 1255, this short-lived peace with Khan ended.
This paper explores the destruction of Arab civilization and Islam under the Mongol empire. In detail, this paper shows that under the leadership of Khan’s brother, Hulagu Khan, the Mongol empire destroyed Arab civilization through the destruction of Islamic infrastructure. Its main targets were Persia, Egypt, Syria, and modern-day Iraq.
This paper also shows that much of the Muslim world did not have the capability of resisting Mongol aggression and therefore fell into Mongol rule quickly.
This changed the dynamics of the Islamic faith, as the Mongol empire destroyed educational facilities, mosques, libraries, and other structures that supported the faith. Comprehensively, this paper highlights the “near death” of Islam and Arab civilization under Mongol rule.
Destruction of Islamic Infrastructure
Historical excerpts say Hulagu Khan had a very deep resentment for Islam and its antecedents (Morgan 111). The University of Calgary (4) says this hatred came from some of his close confidants (with predominantly Christian and Buddhist influences) who influenced the formulation of Mongol policies. Through Khan’s loyal lieutenants, he did not spare any kind of Islamic support structure.
For example, when they conquered Baghdad, a strong army of over 150,000 soldiers destroyed Mosques, Islamic libraries, and religious sites (Morgan 10). Sequentially, this section of the paper explores these different forms of destruction.
Destruction of Educational Institutions
Before the Mongol empire set foot in the Middle East, Islam thrived because of the vibrancy of its educational institutions (Madrasa) which taught Islamic doctrines to new generations. However, when the Mongols came, they destroyed these institutions and burned down any educational material that existed in them.
For example, Baghdad was an important cultural and spiritual center where Muslims from around the world gathered and lived. The city had more than 30 universities, which taught Islamic doctrines to the greater Arab population (University of Calgary 14).
Among these universities was Mustansiriya College, which was a prominent Islamic Centre for excellence (University of Calgary 15). From the destruction of such educational institutions, historians estimate that a lot of Islamic knowledge was lost through this invasion.
The Mongols destroyed the libraries, burned books, and killed Islamic scholars and educators. Through this act, they aimed to curtail the growth of Islamic doctrines, which Muslim scholars safeguarded in their educational institutions. Morgan says,
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“On their way, they destroyed the Assassin’s (Hashishin) sanctuary at Alamut and sacked its library where the Assassins had collected techniques of murder and terror, thus making it impossible for future generations to gain any in-depth knowledge of the Islamic doctrine and nefarious activities of the religion” (27).
Dutch (13) says the extent of the destruction was very extensive, such that Baghdad’s rivers choked with ink from the destroyed libraries. This level of destruction had a huge toll on Islamic educational infrastructure through the loss of Islamic knowledge/doctrines.
Destruction of Agricultural Infrastructure
Most of the destruction of agricultural infrastructure occurred in Baghdad. Indeed, agricultural investments that spanned thousands of years established functional canal networks that supported agriculture in the large semi-arid city. Few historians dispute the fact that this development marked the helm of the golden age (Morgan 21).
Baghdad’s success in the agricultural front was only a highlight of the city’s stature as an intellectual, cultural, and economic Islamic capital. Certainly, scholars, scientists, Muslim philosophers, and experts were attracted to the Arabian capital, as the center of Islamic dominance.
It was therefore unsurprising when the Baghdad invasion marked the decline of Arab civilization and the golden age because in the wake of the destruction, many Islamic successes in science and philosophy ended.
The destruction of agricultural technology, which Arabs had built for hundreds of years, also affected the Islamic population, in terms of human population sustainability. This type of destruction was a tactical strategy by the Mongol empire to starve Arab cities by denying them food supply.
For example, military personnel cut canal pipes that supplied water to the agricultural fields of Mesopotamia (the infrastructure had taken thousands of years to build) (Morgan 26). They destroyed this infrastructure with no intention of repairing it. Therefore, most of the canal pipes contained poisoned water, which people could not sustain the Muslim population in Baghdad.
Some survivors therefore had to flee the city because it lacked its agricultural lifeline. In fact, the University of Calgary (11) says the destruction of agricultural technology/infrastructure was so severe that the people could not easily restore it (its restoration only happened in the 20th century). The University of Calgary (11) further says the agricultural infrastructure in Iraq was very different from how we know present-day Iraq.
The destruction of agricultural fields and technology is significant in understanding the decline of Arab civilization in the wake of the Mongol invasions because agriculture supported Arab civilization for more than 5,000 years (Morgan 30). To explain this view, Dutch says,
“The Mongol invasions and their subsequent rule in the lands, east of the Euphrates, left a legacy of shattered cities, population decline, and overturned technology that undercut the basis for prosperity and success that had sustained the Middle East for many years” (112).
The Mongols had a very casual attitude towards agriculture because they were mainly nomadic people. They therefore felt no remorse for destroying Arab agricultural fields, which had taken a lot of time and investments to establish.
Their primary concern was the defeat of their enemies. In fact, the empire wanted the fields to remain unused to ensure the surviving population did not regroup. The extent of this devastation does not match with any other type of devastation in ancient or present-day history (Morgan 26).
Comprehensively, the destruction of agricultural fields created a sense of hopelessness among the population. In fact, most of the surviving population had to look towards the Far East for support. They were at the mercy of the Mongols. Furthermore, with a population decline of up to 90%, understandably, Islam was on its “deathbed.”
Previous conquests in other parts of the Middle East, and the successful assimilation of natives into Buddhism, left only some parts of the Middle East holding on to Islam.
Particularly, North Africa was the last frontier of the Arab world, which openly practiced Islam. Observers say if the Mongol empire invaded Egypt, it would have easily conquered Islam (Dutch 31).However, this did not happen, after Egyptian Mamluks successfully resisted Mongol invasion.
This event had a significant impact on the world’s history because historians project that if the Mongol empire successfully invaded Egypt, and gained access to a greater part of North Africa, it would have been difficult for European colonizers to defeat them in the scramble for Africa (Dutch 32). The destruction of Damascus and Baghdad was therefore the last frontier for Mongol invasion.
Most Islamic regimes had undertaken previous conquests in Europe and other parts of Asia. They accumulated a lot of wealth, which they used to finance their empires. When the Mongol empire invaded the Middle East, most existing Arab empires had accumulated a lot of wealth and invested the same in science and technology.
The Mongol empire looted most of this wealth and repatriated the same to their colonies. For example, the empire ransacked the palaces and took all the gold and other forms of material wealth from their rulers. This act left their enemies weak (Dutch 31).
A significant success of the Mongol empire, in destabilizing the Muslim faith, was to instill suspicion and fear among the Muslim people. Morgan (44) particularly pays a close attention to the Baghdad invasion and says the invasion dented a serious psychological blow to the surviving inhabitants of Baghdad.
Certainly, the Mongol invasion instilled suspicion and fear among surviving Islamic people who looked inward and became afraid to support any type of religious conflict. Consequently, they became suspicious that they would be caught practicing Islam and instead adopted a very conservative lifestyle (a sharp contrast from the vibrant Islamic lifestyle that preceded the Mongolian invasion in Baghdad).
Morgan (44) says, before the invasion, there was an intellectual flowering of Islam in the greater region of Baghdad, but the invasion stifled this freedom.
In fact, Dutch (15) says after the Mongols destroyed the mosques, they replaced them with Buddhist temples and instilled fear on people who were willing to continue practicing Islam. The Mongols also took the surviving women and children to their camps, where they assimilated them into the Mongol lifestyle.
Since the Mongolian invasion was merciless on anybody (rulers) who opposed their invasion, their incursion led to the deaths of thousands of people. Previous cities that were flowing with economic and social brilliance collapsed under the absence of people who would support the activities of the city.
Baghdad, for example, suffered a huge reduction in its population as thousands of people either fled or died in the invasion. This depopulation means that a huge following of Muslim faithful died in the invasion, thereby leaving the once strong group of religious followers fragile, weak, and traumatized. To paint an accurate picture of the level of destruction that hit Baghdad, Morgan says,
“They swept through the city like hungry falcons attacking a flight of doves, or like raging wolves attacking sheep, with loose reins and shameless faces, murdering and spreading terror.
Beds and cushions made of gold and encrusted with jewels cut to pieces with knives and torn to shreds. Those hiding behind the veils of the great Harem were dragged through the streets and alleys, each of them becoming a plaything, as the population died at the hands of the invaders” (19).
The level of destruction in Baghdad was therefore extensive and it led to a serious decline of human population that would have otherwise continued Islamic traditions.
The decline of agricultural productivity further complicated the existence of the small populations that survived after the invasion. Historical excerpts say the invasion forced the surviving Arab population to farm for subsistence living (University of Calgary 11). Some researchers say the extent of devastation could not allow the surviving population to farm for their existence.
This situation led to a near 90% decline in population numbers. Census numbers produced in one Iraqi province, Diyala, show that the province, which supported about 900,000 people at the height of Arab civilization, only supported about 60,000 people after the invasion (University of Calgary 11).
The population failed to grow even after the invasion because a census conducted by the Ottoman Empire showed that there were only 600,000 people living in what is known today as modern Syria and Palestine, several years after the invasion (initially, these two countries supported a population of about 4,000,000 Arabs at the height of Arab civilization) (Morgan 28).
The Mongol invasion of the Arab world was perhaps the greatest threat to Arab civilization. After invading most parts of North, central, and West Asia, the Mongol empire was very close to “destroying” Islam. As explained through different sections of this paper, the empire mainly did so by destroying the Islamic infrastructure that supported the religion.
Baghdad was the worst hit target, possibly because it was the center of Islamic culture and spirituality. The destruction of educational facilities, palaces, mosques, and libraries showed the extent that the Mongol empire was willing to go to destroy Arab civilization and Islam.
However, this paper draws attention to the human massacre that characterized the invasion as the greatest threat to the existence of Islam and Arab civilization. By killing many Islamic faithful and reducing the population of city inhabitants by close to 90%, it is accurate to say the Mongol empire was close to “wiping out” the entire Muslim population.
An extension of the same massacre to North Africa would have severed Arab civilization and ended Islam. Understandably, such levels of human devastation left a strong psychological scar to the surviving Muslim population who were afraid to practice Islam.
Although, ironically, the Mongol empire later assimilated to Islam, the vibrancy of Islam, as we know it today, barely underscores the near collapse of the faith at the height of Mongol supremacy.
Dutch, Steven. The Mongols, Wisconsin, WS: University of Wisconsin, 1998. Print.
Morgan, David. The Mongols, Oxford, UK: Blackwell Publishing, 2007. Print.
University of Calgary 2013, History of Jihad against the Mongols (1050-1258). Web.