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The historical background

(from David James: Islamic Art - An Introduction, Hamlyn, 1974)


The Umayyad caliphate 661-750

The first four caliphs after the death of Muhammad were chosen from among his immediate followers and are called the Orthodox Caliphs. They controlled the expanding state from its first capital Medina (632-661).

After the assassination of the last Orthodox Caliph, the Prophet's son-in-law Ali, the caliphate passed into the hands of the Umayyads, relatives of Muhammad, and the capital was removed to Damascus. In frank contradiction to the egalitarian principles of Islam, the Umayyads favoured the Arab subjects of the state and this led to their downfall.


The Abbasid caliphate 750-1258

In 750, largely due to Iranian assistance, the Umayyads were overthrown by the descendants of the Prophet's uncle, Abbas. The Abbasid caliphs built a new capital at Baghdad from where, in name at least, they ruled until 1258.

The establishment of the Abbasid caliphate signified the end of political unity. Beginning with Spain which remained in the hands of the Umayyads, the fragmentation of the huge state set in.

The governors of outlying provinces had always enjoyed considerable freedom of action and they now became totally independent, though the spiritual authority of the caliph as Muhammad's successor was usually acknowledged. By 800, Spain (called Al-Andalus) and all North Africa were independent, and in 868 Egypt too was lost when its governor Ibn Tulun established a separate dynasty.


The Samanids 874-999

There was a similar disintegration in Iran and Central Asia. The most important of the early independent states in the east was that of the Samanids of Samarkand and Bukhara (874-999). The Samanids encouraged the revival of the Persian language and literature which had suffered in the short term by the prominence of Arabic. It was a vassal of the Samanids who encouraged Firdausi to begin his epic history of the Iranian nation, the Shah-Nama, in 957.


The Buyids 932-1055

Some local Iranian states became powerful enough to occupy Baghdad and to intimidate the caliph. The Buyids for example, having established themselves in southern Iran, occupied Baghdad in 945 and turned the caliph into a mere puppet. The spiritual-secular unity of Islam had now disappeared at the highest level, for political necessity and ambition demanded that the two be separate, at government level at least. Although the Buyids favoured the Shi'ite cause, they paid lip-service to the caliph and allowed him to remain in office. The Shi'ites were the largest sect of Islam, believing that the caliphate was not an elective office but a hereditary one passed down from Ali, the last Orthodox Caliph, through his descendants.


The Fatimids 909-1171

The Fatimid rulers of Egypt and Syria were Shi'ites who did set up a rival caliphate which lasted until the dynasty was suppressed by Saladin.


The Umayyad caliphate of Cordoba

In reply to the Fatimid threat, the Umayyad ruler of Spain, Abdal-Rahman III (912-961), proclaimed himself caliph in 927 and the Andalusian caliphate flourished until abolished in 1031. Thus for most of the 10th century there were three caliphs, one in Baghdad, another in Cairo, and a third in Cordoba.


The Seljuks and Ayyubids

In the 11th and 12th centuries orthodoxy reasserted itself. The Seljuk Turks, a Central Asian people who established themselves in Iran (the Great Seljuks 1037-1157) and Anatolia (the Seljuks of Rum 1077-1300), destroyed the Buyids and occupied Baghdad in 1055, taking the Abbasid caliph under their 'protection'. Saladin put an end to the Fatimid caliphate, at the same time founding a dynasty, the Ayyubids, which controlled Egypt and Syria until the middle of the 13th century.


The invasion of the Mongols

At the beginning of the 13th century the eastern part of the Islamic empire experienced the terrifying holocaust of the Mongol invasion, which turned northern and eastern Iran into a desert and, in 1258, extinguished the Abbasid caliphate when the city of Baghdad was sacked and the last caliph put to death.


Iran: the Ilkhanids 1256-1349

After the Mongol invasion the eastern part of the Islamic empire split up into several distinct areas. Iran continued to be ruled by a Mongol regime, the Ilkhanids, until 1349 when the country was divided up among a number of prominent chiefs and local governors. In 1384-1393 Iran was once again subject to an invasion from Central Asia, this time by a Turkic people under Timur (Tamerlane), whose descendants controlled Iran for more than a hundred years.


The Timurids and Turkomans 1378-1502

The Timurids were perhaps the greatest patrons of Persian culture, and during their rule the arts, particularly painting, reached one of its highpoints of development. It was a classic case of the victors conquered by the civilisation of the subject people.

The Timurid domains in the west of Iran were slowly eroded by the Aq-Quyunlu, or White Sheep Turkomans, Turkish-speaking nomads from the area around Lake Van. After some thirty years of sole authority in western and central Iran, the Turkomans were defeated by the Safavids.


The Safavids 1501-1736

The Safavids were a native Iranian Shi'ite dynasty which by 1502 controlled all of Iran from east to west. They were among the most successful rulers of Iran and under them the country enjoyed more than two centuries of uninterrupted prosperity. The greatest period of Safavid rule was the reign of Shah Abbas (1587- 1629), when Iran recaptured a brilliance unknown since Antiquity.


Turkey: the Ottomans 1299-1922

Implacable enemies of the Safavids were the Ottoman Turks, leaders of orthodox Islam. The Ottomans were one of the many Turkoman tribes which superseded the Seljuks of Anatolia but became strong enough to extend their power over the whole of Asia Minor and to destroy the remains of the Byzantine Empire, capturing Constantinople in 1453.

In the 16th century the Ottomans initiated a new period of conquest similar, in the vast area of territory captured, to that of the first century of the Islamic era, although not accompanied by the massive conversions of the early period. In 1529 Sultan Sulayman the Magnificent besieged Vienna, and in 1540 an Ottoman fleet attacked Gibraltar. The Ottoman armies were equally active within the Islamic world; they defeated the Shah of Iran at the Battle of Chaldiran in 1514, and three years later occupied the Mamluke sultanate of Egypt and Syria.


Egypt and Syria: the Mamlukes 1252-1517

The Mamlukes had controlled Egypt and Syria since the middle of the 13th century. They were originally Turkish and Circassian slaves who served in the Ayyubid army, but who seized power for themselves. The greatest achievements of the Mamlukes were the final extinction of the Crusader states in 1291, and the stemming of the Mongol advance at the Battle of Ayn Jalut in Palestine in 1260. The Mamlukes owed allegiance to the Abbasid caliph, and after the sack of Baghdad in 1258 set up a relative of the last caliph in Cairo. His descendants continued in office until 1517 when the reigning caliph was taken to Constantinople by the Ottomans, where the sultan assumed the title.


Islamic Spain 1031-1492

After the abolition of the Umayyad caliphate of Al-Andalus in 1031, Muslim Spain fragmented into many little kingdoms and statelets. As such they were easy prey for the Christian states in the north of the peninsula, and undoubtedly had it not been for the invasion of Spain by two warlike Berber dynasties, the Almoravides in 1090 and the Almohades in 1145, the re- conquest would have been completed in the llth century. After the decline of the Almohades a number of petty states sprang up, but the only important one was that of the Nasrids of Granada (1232-1492), which survived until the conquest of Granada by Ferdinand and Isabella in 1492.



The conquest of north-west India was achieved not by the early Muslim armies but by the Ghaznavids, a Turkish dynasty which had established itself in Afghanistan after being governors of the Samanids. The Ghaznavids (962-1186) were succeeded by the Ghorids (1148-1215), who, having conquered northern India to the mouth of the Ganges, appointed a Turkish slave, Qutb al-Din Aybak, to act as viceroy at Delhi. Qutb al-Din founded a dynasty, the first Muslim dynasty to reign exclusively in India, which governed Delhi for eighty years. These rulers are known as the Slave Kings (1206-1287). The Delhi sultanate continued in Turkish hands under the Khaljids (1290- 1320) and the Tughlakids (1320-1412), until the invasion of Timur in 1399. The sultanate was then controlled by the Sayyids (1414-1443) and the Lodis (1451-1519), though these were only two of many Muslim states in northern India.

In 1526 Babur, a descendant of Timur, arrived in India claiming the country as his right. He established the Mughal Empire, although initially this was short-lived, as his son Humayun was forced to flee India to seek refuge at the Safavid court at Tabriz (1540-1555). However he was able return and the task of consolidating the Empire fell to his son Akbar (1556-1605), perhaps the greatest monarch of the 16th century