Karsh — Islamic Imperialism: A History

Karsh, Efraim, Islamic Imperialism: A History, Yale Univ. Press, 2006, 276 pp.

[cross-posted on Albion’s Seedlings]

In the course of the last five years, two explanations for 9/11 have taken pride of place. The first, notably championed by Bernard Lewis, cites the ongoing humiliation of the Muslim world since the decline and fall of the Ottoman Empire. The second, more broadly reflected in a kind of Occidentalism, claims a justifiable rebellion against the interference in Muslim affairs by European powers over the last two hundred years … if not back to the Crusades.

In Islamic Imperialism, Efraim Karsh steps away from the idea of an external force creating tension or dismay in the Arab or Muslim world, and looks at the internal dynamics of Islamic society from its earliest days. Who were Muslims actually fighting over the last 1300 years? Who were their allies? Which Muslims did the fighting? How keen were they to convert their conquered territories? What was their rationale for battle at the time? And how have the rationales changed over time, and been recast retrospectively?

Answering these questions debunks much of the victimology of the 20th century, let alone the poisonous fantasies cultivated, and lovingly nurtured, in the Muslim world in the last fifty years. Karsh places his emphasis on the Middle East, and the Arab world, with next to no discussion of Islam east of the Persian world. From the standpoint of a general history, that’s unfortunate, but from the perspective of studying Islamic political aspirations, the focus gives necessary traction. The first half of the book deals with pre-20th century history. The latter half covers the past century.

In taking this new orientation, Karsh has created a fascinating pocket history demonstrating that the Arab, and subsequently, the larger Muslim world has always operated largely with imperial goals. It has mostly fought within itself, very often with infidel allies, sponsors and money. It has cloaked its rhetoric in religious terms when trying to justify dynastic or ethnic aggrandizement. History, viewed with this new perspective, gives far more credit to the individual and family rulers over the past centuries in the Islamic world … their personal abilities, rational decision-making, and their capacity to adapt their public claims to the military, economic, and demographic realities faced in creating their empires.

This imperial appetite is reflected in the earliest traditions of Islam, during the time of Muhammad, as nomadic tribes sought out booty from a dwindling number of non-believers on the Arabian peninsula, and carries through the centuries … essentially unbroken … to the present time. The proclaimed community of Muslim faith is, time after time, sacrificed for imperial and expansionary appetites of the moment. Whether it was the Ottoman Empire using the British Empire to prop up its Egyptian and Black Sea dominions, the Sunni Abbasids cutting a deal with the Byzantines to help control both Shiite Fatimids and the Roman Catholics in the Middle East, Albanian rulers of Egypt trying to take over the Levant, or the Americans and French feeding weaponry to the Iraqis during their war with Iran in the 1980s … it’s a tale all cut from the same enduring cloth. Imperial appetites, fueled by ambitious leaders, create drama, leaving various other players to desperately seek out a status quo ante.

And what a cavalcade of empires and aspirations appear in this book: Umayyad, Abbasid, Fatimid, Seljuk, Mameluk, Ottoman, Idrisid, Nasserite, Iranian, Byzantine, Sasanid, Mongol, British, Russian, French, and Frank. Far from a “clash of civilizations” … Karsh documents a series of competing empires at different phases of their development, interacting with different elements of the Muslim world and often forming allegiances with distant enemies to overcome local competitors. Muslim rulers in the Middle East, for example, were calling on Spanish kings for assistance, even as the same Spaniards were industriously purging the country of earlier Umayyad conquerors.

In Karsh’s presentation, Muslims come across as far more effective at great power politics, and far more riven by internal jealousies, than the canned iterations of the 20th century meant to stir them to existential wrath. Muslims were neither victims nor martyrs through the centuries when viewed from the perspective of their imperial activities. And the mistakes they made, which sometimes relegated them to marginal roles on the regional scale, were as much, or more, of their own doing than of some external political or religious force.

One can only read the chapter on Iran, for instance (which attempted to play “jam in the sandwich” between 19th century Russian and British diplomats) with a sense of exasperation. By trying to artificially engage and then leverage Great Game competition to extort money, the local rulers eventually became so compromised that the two huge empires simply partitioned the country between them. The Russians and British apparently had no initial interest in the country. Time and again, Muslim rulers extended themselves into European controversies to their own detriment. The tale of Ottoman and 20th century Hashemite empire-building has a multitude of examples where the Europeans were used to great advantage by one Muslim faction or another.

I was two-thirds of the way through this book, and rather disoriented, before realizing where the faintly unsettling reading experience was coming from. Islamic Imperialism relates the historical facts with equanimity and an even tone. This is history as we are more used to reading it for European periods … a story of ambitious generals and kings, squabbling with their neighbours, cutting deals with dubious allies, and leveraging whatever bit of geography and economic resource they could muster. Such ambitions often met temporary success and then fall by the wayside to dissolute descendants, new usurpers, and burgeoning competitors. Above all, the lack of sanctimony and po-mo rhetoric in Karsh’s history provides a much clearer historical insight into what actually happened, and why.

For Karsh, a key distinction between Christian and Muslim worlds is as follows:

The Christian faith won over an existing empire in an extremely slow and painful process and its unversalism was originally conceived in purely spiritual terms that made a clear distinction between God and Caesar. By the time it was embraced by the Byzantine emperors as a tool for buttressing their imperial claims, three centuries after its foundation, Christianity had in place a countervailing ecclesiastical institution with an abiding authority over the wills and actions of all believers. The birth of Islam, by contrast, was inextricably linked with the creation of a world empire and its universalism was inherently imperialist. It did not distinguish between temporal and religious powers, which were combined in the person of Muhammad, who derived his authority directly from Allah and acted at one and the same time as head of the state and head of the church. This allowed the prophet to cloak his political ambitions with a religious aura and to channel Islam’s energies into “its instrument of aggressive expansion, there [being] no internal organism of equal force to counterbalance it.” p.5

Western Christianity had an intrinsic “out” when it began to separate its religious and political authorities … a process largely complete by the 17th century. Islam has struggled with that process throughout the 20th century, and the upheavals in our own time are very much a reflection of the models of behaviour established in the earliest days of the religion. As for the Crusades and the 20th century evolution of pan-Arabism, Karsh notes the strategic use of infidels by Muslim aspirants to further their personal and family appetites during these periods. Two brief quotes illustrate Karsh’s longer, careful, and measured discussions:

Had Saladin been truly alarmed by infidel presence in the midst of the House of Islam he would have supported Nur al-Din’s operations in Transjordan, an important stepping stone for an assault on the Latin Kingdom. He could also have established an anti-crusading alliance with the Zangid princes and other warlords after Nur al-Din’s death. That he instead chose to unify the region under his exclusive control, putting his family in the driver’s seat and disparaging other Muslim contenders as enemies of Islam, indicated the supremacy of his imperial ambitions over his religious piety: nearly a decade before his death on March 4, 1193, and a few years before the capture of Jerusalem, he took the trouble to ensure the survival of his nascent empire by publicizing his last will and testament, which partitioned his territories among his three young sons. p.80

…[F]or all its stated universalism, pan-Arabism has effectively been a euphemism for the imperialist ambitions of successive Arab dynasties and rulers, with its precepts often phrased and rephrased in accordance with self-serving goals. As the British official reported after his January 1918 meetings with Hussein: “It is obvious that the King regards Arab Unity as synonymous with his own Kingship.” p.142

Looking Forward

Islamic Imperialism offers a great, compact resource for debunking various myths of Arab and Muslim history. While specialist scholars will likely find something to lambast on every page (and the biographical data on bin Laden and Khomeini, for example, struck me as implausibly benign), the general reader will find the book as digestible an introductory Islamic history as one could want. It would be suitable for high school or college use, being very smoothly written, and certainly warrants being on the shelf of anyone regularly discussing Islamic history in blogs or conversations.

Unless one’s blessed with a photography memory, this is also a book worth visiting repeatedly as a corrective for the ahistorical propaganda which currently passes for the daily news. Setting itself outside the two aforementioned schools of foreign policy (1. “we’re ashamed, therefore we need to kill you” and 2. “you did it to us, therefore we need to kill you”), Islamic Imperialism offers a fresh perspective and in many ways a more humane perspective on the history of the region. Muslims are not portrayed as rabid fanatics, but as ambitious people deploying whatever material and ideological resources they need to fulfill their ambitions. That their religion is entirely harmonious with an imperial model has been both a blessing and a curse for aspiring Muslim leaders. The 21st century may well be the story of reconciling Islam to a wealthy and non-Muslim world. One which has no appetite for submission.

I come away from this book with a deeper appreciation for the larger historical patterns in which Islam operates, and for the historical details of the past 13 centuries. If we take Karsh’s hypothesis seriously, what are the implications of an Islamic world driven more by its imperial appetites than by its desire for religious unity? Here are some personal conclusions.

1. Firstly, infidels are a resource that will continually be exploited to overcome Muslim competitors. The shifting alliances, allegiances, and subsidization of Egypt, Jordan, Iraq, Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Indonesia by non-Muslims have very, very long historical antecedents. They’re not a bug, they’re a feature. Just as the Byzantines, Franks, and Europeans were used repeatedly to further internecine Muslim imperial ambitions in the past, so they will be in the future. Interaction between these two worlds is entirely part of Muslim history. It remains for Machiavellian non-Muslims to spot specific imperial appetites in the Muslim world. The world can then engage (with the usual blend of inducements and threats) all the other Muslims who fear such appetites. Iran is merely the latest case in point. There will be others.

2. Muslim dreams of the “middle” are dying. Israel and America have effectively halted the post-WW2 aspirations of Nasser, Qaddafi, Assad, and Hussein for regional prominence. And almost every Muslim nation is riven by ethnic and denominational strife. That only leaves universal and local dreams alive. The latest visions of the Muslim world have taken on the older universalism of the original Muslim imperial aspiration while family, clan, and tribe continue to be the effective political unit … as Iraq demonstrates on a daily basis. “The world” is now, apparently, just barely enough to satisfy some broad Muslim millenial visions. And as the Muslim nation-states stagger along in marginal productivity, the modern universal “empire” which is the deepest affront and obstacle to Muslim dreams is America. Until Islam gives up its universal/imperial dream, or creates effective nation-states in the post-Ottoman era, America (and the industrialized/globalized world) will remain a constant challenge to a central element of the faith. For Karsh, the enmity with America comes primarily from its competing and obstructive imperial reach. And it’s hard to imagine Americans walking away from the universal elements of their commercial and ideological creeds any time soon.

3. Think empire then, not religion. Past the rhetoric, the Karsh model of Islamic history suggests that self-and group aggrandizement is behind all the public grievances and aggressive posturing. Place sufficient military, economic, and demographic constraints on any given Muslim imperial expression, and it will accommodate. While the worry about domestic terrorism and ongoing instability of the Middle East grabs the headlines, in the longer term, it is the systematic breaking of regional empires (and whatever universal iterations may appear) which might give Islam the political leeway to set aside its grander appetites and build stable, prosperous nation-states.

In the absence of an effective way to ensure development of a “civic middle” in the Islamic world, the only solution (to paraphrase VS Naipaul) will be the “green card.”

Karsh gives us a new and useful tool for looking at our challenges. One which fits nicely with the longer timeframes which appeal to historians and economists. Islamic Imperialism is definitely worth reading.

Table of Contents

Introduction 1
1. The Warrior Prophet 9
2. The Rise and Fall of Islam’s First Empire 21
3. The Best of Times, The Worst of Times 40
4. The House of Islam and the House of War 62
5. The Last Great Islamic Empire 84
6. The Price of Empire 104
7. Mishandling the Great Game 114
8. The Rise of the Arab Imperial Dream 127
9. An Arab Caesar 144
10. A Reckoning of Sorts 165
11. The Tail that Wags the Dog 186
12. Renewing the Quest for Allah’s Empire 207
13. Bin Laden’s Holy War 220

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