Did Muslim Rulers play a part in the decline of Muslim Civilisation?

Muslims stand responsible for their own decadence. After the early conquests, Islamic rule became very corrupt, and this considerably weakened the caliphate. Islam produced great leaders but also some weak ones, which combined over time to contribute to the slow decay of Muslim power. Al-Hakem I, who ruled Spain between 796 and 822, highlights this point.

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Summarised extracts from a full article:
The Question is...? Myths and Fallacies Surrounding the Decline of Muslim Civilisation by Salah Zaimeche

Muslims stand responsible for their own decadence. After the early conquests, Islamic rule became very corrupt, and this considerably weakened the caliphate in facing the invasions described in the full article. It is beyond the remit of this study to identify and analyse all cases of corruption of power within the Islamic world. Notwithstanding, it was overall quite evident. Thus, in Muslim Spain, in the words of Scott:

`The character of the Mussulmans of Spain was defiled by all the vices which follow in the train of prodigal luxury and boundless wealth. Among these drunkenness was one of the most common. Personnages of the highest rank were not ashamed to appear in public while intoxicated National degeneracy early indicated the approaching and inevitable dissolution of the empire. . The posterity of the conquerors, who in three years had marched from Gibraltar to the centre of France, became in the course of a few generations cowardly, effeminate, corrupt [1]

And what was true of Spain also applied in the Abbasid court; the Caliph, whose duty was to defend the city against the Mongols, died instead in a sack trampled by horses; a true symbol of the lack of resoluteness and decadence of the Caliphate. In face of such degeneracy, only the opportune intervention of the Berber Almoravids and Almohads had kept Spain in Muslim hands for another two centuries, while the Turkish-Kurdish and Arab armies led by the Seljuks, Zangi and Salah Eddin, checked collapse in the East for about two more centuries.

Islam produced great leaders (Baybars, Mohammed II, Bayazid, Al-Mansur, Yussef Ibn Taschfin, Nur Eddin Zangi, etc..) but also produced some weak ones, which combined over time to contribute to the slow decay of Muslim power. One can cite the Nasrid ruler of Granada Abu Abdullah (Boabdil as the Christians scholars called him) 1482-92, who sold the Muslim emirate of Grenada for gold, and who fought his father Mulay Hasan and his uncle, al-Zeghal, who were at the time fighting the Spaniards. One can cite the Reyes of the Taifas, who fought each other in alliance with Christian forces against other Muslim rulers in Spain; one can name the successors of Salah Eddin El Ayyubi who also too often fought in alliance with the Crusaders against the Mamluks and Turks. The focus here, though, is on the life and rule of one Muslim ruler, Al-Hakem I, who ruled Spain between 796 and 822, to highlight the point.

Before al-Hakem I had become Emir in 796, his father Hisham (ruled 788-796), who had defended Spain successfully against the Franks and northern Christian attacks, assembled the Great Council of the realm to swear fealty to his son, al-Hakem I, who was to succeed him. When the ceremony concluded, he addressed the young prince with the following words:

`Dispense justice without distinction to the poor and to the rich, be kind and gentle to those dependent upon thee, for all are alike the creatures of God. Entrust the keeping of thee cities and provinces to loyal and experienced chieftains; chastise without pity ministers who oppress thy subjects; govern thy soldiers with moderation and firmness; remember that arms are given them to defend, not to devastate, their country; and be careful always that they are regularly paid, and that they may ever rely upon thy promises. Strive to make thyself beloved by the people, for in their affection is the security of the state, in their fear its danger, in their hatred its certain ruin. Protect those who cultivate the fields and furnish the bread that sustains us; do not permit their harvests to be injured, or their forests to be destroyed. Act in all respects so that thy subjects may bless thee and live in happiness under thy protection, and thus, and in no other way, will thou obtain the renown of the most glorious prince.'[2]

Al-Hakem I did just the opposite which only goes to serve as an illustration of how the best can be very often followed by the worst of one's own blood.

Al-Hakem I shared many qualities with despots: ineptitude to defend the realm combined with extreme ferocity towards his subjects. He was prone to frequent alcoholic intoxications, a vice which outraged public opinion and provoked the contempt of the conscientious Muslim, made the palace a scene of orgies that were the reproach and the scandal of the capital.[3]He was the first Spanish Muslim monarch to have his throne surrounded with splendour and a personal guard of six thousand men.[4] Al-Hakem had an exaggerated idea of his authority with an implacable spirit matched by a merciless severity in the infliction of punishment for even trifling offences all of which attitudes increased the terror with which he was regarded by noble, peasant, and theologian.[5]He was responsible for the `Day of the Ditch,' when he invited the elite of Toledo for a banquet. The guests went in one after the other thinking they were to celebrate, and were all beheaded. The number of victims of this awful crime is variously stated at from seven hundred to five thousand. As the bodies were decapitated, they were cast into a trench, which had been dug during the construction of the castle. From this fact, the deed which violated the rites of hospitality so sacred in the eye of the Arab, the day became known in the annals of the Peninsula as the `Day of the Ditch.'[6]More rebellions followed these massacres, rebellions themselves followed by further massacres. For his protection Al-Hakem had an army always stationed at the gate of his palace, his Haras all of Christian origin.[7]At some point, following yet another mass uprising, he massacred the population in the thousands. Three hundred of those conspicuous for their rank, or for the part they played, especially the religious figures, were nailed, head downward, to posts on the bank of the river at Cordova. Al-Hakem even had the suburbs where Cordova first originated razed to the ground.[8] The inhabitants were banished within three days, under the penalty of crucifixion.[9]

Cruel, yet very much ineffective al-Hakem was. The loss of Barcelona in 800 during the rule of al-Hakem I by the Muslims was the first great success for the Christians that revived their confidence in that they could defeat the Muslims. Scott notes the surprising indifference or culpable neglect of al-Hakem in allowing the enemies of his faith and his dynasty to wrest from its brave defenders one of the most considerable and prosperous cities in his dominions.[10] Much worse for the Muslims, from Barcelona, the Christians were going to take over the whole of Catalonia, completing this by 811, thorough colonisation under the rule of Charlemagne. This was going to provide the now more confident Christian forces with a stronghold over which they would rebuild, and where they were to regroup to mount decisive counter attacks in the future to wrest Spain from Muslim control.

The last years of Al-Hakem are here told by Scott:

`His closing years were passed in the seclusion of the harem, where, diverted by the companionship of the beauties of his seraglio, amidst the excitements of intemperance and of every species of debauchery, he endeavoured to forget the sinister events of his chequered career and the manifold acts of cruelty which had avenged the crimes and errors of those who were unfortunate enough to incur his resentment. The controlling maxim of his policy had always been that mildness was synonymous with cowardice, and that the sword alone must govern the people. Oppressed with the memory of his crimes, haunted by the groans and imprecations of his expiring victims, he became the prey of frightful hallucinations, the offspring of a disordered brain. In the middle of the night he startled the palace with shriek and anguish. The slightest delay or opposition provoked him into fury. He summoned his drowsy councillors in haste from their beds as if for the discussion of affairs of the greatest moment, and, as soon as they were assembled, dismissed them without ceremony. He reviewed his guards at midnight. The hours of darkness were usually whiled away with the women of the harem.... For four years Al-Hakem continued in this deplorable condition, until relieved by a painful and lingering death.[11]

The facts of history are such. To turn a blind eye to the poor moral conduct among Muslims and in particular Muslim Rulers, would be to ignore one of the greatest underlying reasons for the debacle that took place.

To read about the other reasons thought to be behind the decline of Muslim Civilisation and a discussion of the various theories propounded by western historians, read the full article linked above.


[1] S.P. Scott: History; op cit; Vol II, at pp 648 and 650.

[2] S.P. Scott: History of the Moorish Empire; op cit; Vol 1; p.438.

[3] S.P. Scott: History of the Moorish Empire; op cit; Vol 1; p.454.

[4] A.Thomson and M.A.Rahim: Islam in al-Andalus; Taha Publishers; London; 1996; p. 43.

[5] S.P. Scott: History of the Moorish Empire; op cit; Vol 1; p.454.

[6] S.P. Scott: History of the Moorish Empire; op cit; Vol 1; p.460-1.

[7] A.Thomson and M.A.Rahim: Islam in al-Andalus; op cit; p. 43.

[8] A.Thomson and M.A.Rahim: Islam in al-Andalus; op cit; p. 43.

[9] S.P. Scott: History of the Moorish Empire; op cit; Vol 1; p.466.

[10] S.P. Scott: History of the Moorish Empire; op cit; Vol 1; p.452.

[11] S.P. Scott: History of the Moorish Empire; op cit; Vol 1; p.473-4.

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