What Transformed Cultural Islam into Militaristic Islam?

  Author: Mark Miceli-Farrugia
  Dated: 2016-05-10
  Uploaded: 2019-08-26

What Transformed Cultural Islam into Militaristic Islam?

Reading Reflection

Although we had no readings specifically related to the chosen title, the transformation between Cultural Islam and Militaristic Islam was discussed animatedly in class. I was granted the opportunity of exploring this subject further. Historical references are essentially based on Ernle Bradford’s ‘The Mediterranean – Portrait of a Sea’ (1971).


It is significant that the cultured, unifying and tolerant Islam adopted by the Arab peoples in the 7th Century AD was transformed into a militaristic, divisive and intolerant Islam led by the Turkish Ottomans three centuries later. What had changed? Religious interpretation? Politico-economic circumstances? The different nature of the two peoples? Can we learn anything from this experience?

It was probably a combination of all three.

The Significance of Islam

Mohammed’s new faith ‘Islam’ (submission to God) founded the first Islamic state in 622 AD, declaring war on the pagans. Yet the new faith, combined elements of Judaism and Christianity, including the transmutation of prior pagan beliefs. It was, nonetheless, a religion for warriors. The Koran instructs: “Fight in the way of Allah against those who fight against you.”

For Mohammed, Allah is a pragmatic god of power and obedience, not of love. Mohammed’s Allah may temper his inexorable justice with mercy, but Allah is not ’loving’ in the Christian sense. It is significant that Islam was not conceived to make converts but to unite the Arab-speaking people.

Arab Conquests

The Arabs, although a desert people, had to become sailors in order to realize their economically motivated, imperial ambitions. Learning Greek naval strategy, they challenged the naval supremacy of Byzantium and captured the Mediterranean islands of Cyprus (649), Spain (711-788), the southern coast of Gaul - now France (719-759), Crete (823), Sicily (832-878), Southern Italy (846), and Malta (870).

Arab Tolerance in Occupied Territories

And Muslim Arabs showed a marked degree of tolerance towards the religious practices of both Jews and Christians. More tolerance was shown by Muslims to members of other faiths – ‘probably more than was later shown by Christians to Muslims and Jews.’ (E. Bradford 1971) The natives in Arab-occupied Europe were still allowed to speak and write in native or classical languages and no attempt was made to eradicate Christianity.

Dissemination of Arab Culture

Islamic Spain not only tolerated Christianity but actually contributed to Europe’s artistic and cultural heritage. The Muslim conquest helped revitalize the economies of the occupied territories. Arabia disseminated its ‘newly acquired’ navigation-skills (magnetic-compass, sextant, lateen sails), science (maths, medicine, astronomy), crafts (silk-weaving, metal-founding, engraving, pottery-making), and agriculture (irrigation techniques, citrus, and cotton), and trading-skills around the Mediterranean.

Translation of Classical Texts

The Abbasid Caliph Al-Mansur (reigned 754-775) was perhaps the most prolific believer in the beneficial effects of the study of classical philosophy on Islam. Inspired by the 6th century King of Persia, Anushiran the Just, he founded a great library of Classical texts in Baghdad, ordering that translations were made from the Greek, Syriac and Persian books. Two centuries later, Al-Hakam II, Muslim Caliph of Cordoba (reigned 961-976) collected books from all over the Arab world, had these translated into Latin. So great was the task, he employed scholars of all faiths from around Europe – Muslims, Christians, and Jews. The translated texts would become the intellectual repository for the Enlightenment (circa 1650).

When Muslims recall the years of the Great Caliphate, they are essentially referring to the reigns of Abbasid Caliphs Al-Mansur and Al-Hakam II.

The Ottoman Turks

As the Arab military exploits expanded, they came to increasingly depend on Turkish mercenaries. These Ottomans descended from a non-Muslim race of barbaric, nomadic horsemen in the Turkestan steppes.

Unlike the Arabs or Persians, these Ottomans did not possess a high culture; they had a vast capacity for warfare and soon overran the whole of Asia Minor, including Anatolia – today’s Turkey. They so terrorized European powers that they nearly united them.

The Ottomans defeated and captured the Byzantine Emperor Diogenes at Manzikert in 1071. The Ottomans proceeded to conquer Syria and the Christian pilgrim city of Jerusalem in 1076.

The Difference between the Arab Empire and that of the Ottoman Turks

While the Arabs had learnt much from Persian culture - adding their own scientific contributions, the Ottomans remained nomads at heart, absorbing what they could but contributing relatively little to either philosophy or the sciences.

They were, nonetheless, remarkably disciplined warriors who, due to their nomadic legacy, had very tenuous European roots. Like the Arabs before them, they fast exchanged their horses for ships. The Ottoman Sultans were prompted to do this initially to protect their possessions from pirates who filled the vacuum left by the disintegrating Byzantine fleet. Later, however, they used their fleet to serve their own imperial ends in the name of Islam.

Naval Ambitions

It is no surprise that Sultan Suleiman I (reigned 1520-1566) turned to one of the most feared of Barbary pirates, the infamous Turkish-born Kheir-ed-Din (Protector of the Muslim Faith), also known as Barbarossa (Red Beard). Barbarossa would effectively help the sultan reconstruct the dockyards of Constantinople and improve the overall administration of the Ottoman navy.

Suleiman, was known to his subjects as “the Just”. Seen in awe by Europeans as “the Magnificent”, Suleiman helped the Ottomans attain the peak of their power, ruling over at least 25 million people, by adding to their dominions Belgrade (1521), Rhodes (1522), Algiers (1529), Baghdad (1534), Budapest (1541) and Aden (1548). While an ascendant Charles V of Spain claimed to be fighting the Ottomans in the name of Christendom, Suleiman proselytised throughout his empire on Islam’s behalf.

It is significant that, in all the major accounts about Suleiman the Magnificent’s achievements, more praise is showered on his achievements as “the Lawgiver” and imperial administrator than for his Holy Deeds.

The Ottoman Empire is often referred to as ‘the last Caliphate’. Modern Turks unabashedly remind us that the Turkish national state was established in 1923 to break the political grip of six hundred years of backward ‘Ottoman Islamic’ rule.

Contrasting Policies

In the final analysis, the difference between Arab Islam and Ottoman Islam is explained by the Arab Abbasids’ determined intellectual pursuits. The Arabs were cultured, unifying, and tolerant. The Abbasids’ concerns were both spiritual – Islam inspired by philosophy and science – as well as temporal – conquest and wealth. The spiritual concern inspired their tolerance and accommodative colonialism. On the other hand, the Ottomans’ were militaristic, divisive, and intolerant. Their focus was imperial warmongering with blatantly exploitative ambitions. This obliged their Christian adversaries – namely Charles V – to wage war on them brutally, inevitably provoking equally harsh and persecutory responses.

Reading Reflections

When ISIS harps back to ‘the years of the Great Caliphate’, its leaders are actually evoking the enlightened years of Abbasid Caliphs Al-Mansur and Al-Hakam II. ISIS’ intolerance and brutality, however, are more symptomatic of the disastrous, languishing years of Ottoman rule!  These contrasts need to be highlighted more effectively!


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