1. Sources

Let us first address the view held by many who today are crusading against the use of old sources…, i.e Western historians of the 19th and early 20th centuries, and even earlier, arguing that the more modern sources be given the priority in the study of history. There are even some who claim that only the latest secondary sources ought to be used, i.e those dated after the year 2000. Those who make these claims are of course to be ranked as ignorant individuals, who know nothing of history, and the subject we are looking at here will show it. You do not use sources for the study of history because they are very recent. This is imbecilic. You use sources for historical knowledge because they are first and foremost the best, i.e the most informative, the most trustworthy, least contradictory, and honest. You also use sources that are the nearest to the event or are simultaneous with the event you describe. Any secondary source relating events decades or even centuries later is never as good as the witnesses to the events themselves. Anyone who claims that any historian of the crusades today is better than Ibn al Qalanisi, Ibn al Athir, Albert of Aix, or William of Tyre does not know his or her subject. Anyone who thinks they can describe colonial wars in North Africa better than the French officers who were themselves involved in them is equally an ignorant. And the same can be said about any event or subject in history.

In regard to the subject here, no modern historian can describe or explain to us Muslim society better than its contemporaries such al Ibn Jubayr, al Dimashki, or al Muqaddasi, who is amply dealt with here, as an instance.

Now, in regard to secondary sources, if anyone claims that the more recent the source the better the historical writing, or even more accurate, again this person is making a ridiculous claim. You don’t use a secondary source because it is the most recent, you use good historians, full stop. It is a challenge upon anyone to show a very recent book on the crusades better than Cox’s 19th century’s work, or Mackay also belonging to the 19th century, or the best compilation ever on the subject: Recueil des Historiens des Croisades, also dated from the 19th century.[5] The same in regard to most, if not all subjects. Should anyone claim that there is a better work than Crawfurd’s on the Malay archipelago,[6] or any author today (Leslie excepted,[7]) specializing on China, who can produce something as good as Bretschneider, De Thiersan’s or Drake, again this person is talking nonsense.[8] One goes through today’s work on the latest subject, for instance, and one comes across historical errors of a horrendous nature. The same applies to every other subject, this author being struck by today’s dealing with subjects such as modern Turkish history, the histories of piracy, the slave trade, colonisation, and other subjects on Islam. The errors, the contradictions, the omissions of important and crucial episodes of history are simply beyond the acceptable.

Of course, the object here is not to dwell on these shortcomings. What matters to us is to state the following:

Just as it is impossible today to reproduce the works of a Sarton, a Wiedeman, or a Haskins in the field of history of science, it is impossible in relation to our subject (in this essay), and as we will see, to find works that equal those by Lestrange, Von Kremer, or Muir.[9] Of course, these orientalists, just as most of their colleagues, had little empathy for Islam. Muir, in particular, strongly claims the superiority of his faith, Christianity, over Islam. One will disagree with him on this, but what matters is the historian’s competence, honesty, and the meticulousness of the work, especially in addressing issues very few other scholars have had the competence to address. Western scholars’ or others’ views of Islam and Muslims are their own prerogatives, which they are free to uphold just as anyone is free to uphold any view or opinion they like. After all many early haters of Islam, including Khalid ibn al Walid, ‘Amr ibn al ‘As, and Omar ibn al Khatab, became subsequently some of its greatest servants. Also, whilst we are on this issue, what is more troubling are not the able scholars who bear little empathy for Islam, but those who bear excessive empathy for one section of Muslims (the Arabs/Sunni/Shia/Berber/Kurds… against the other side(s). It is the promotion of sectarianism which has throughout history undone the Muslim world, and it is only the scholars/journalists/elites who preach for one group in particular who are to be the most feared and the least trusted.

The authors on whom focus is applied in this heading, Lestrange, Muir and Von Kremer (via Khuda Bukhsh’s translation), provide us with some of the best information on early Muslim society, which is the result of years, possibly decades of research and sifting through original and contemporary material, besides their own, and others’ meticulous work or editing, translating, organizing, and compiling. Let’s look at aspects of Muslim society (urbanization, financial and administrative organization, the legal system, the welfare state, commerce and trade, and taxation) through the works of these authors, and hence validate the argument made above on how it is necessary to rely on older sources when they are of fine quality. Here, one also accepts that there are errors in some of the old material in regard to names, dates, and some facts, which more recent historians have corrected. But these are normal, and do hardly cause any harm to the value of the old material, and all historians make errors that are (one hopes) corrected by others.

In respect to the urban system and its growth, from the time of the Early Caliphate, we note how straight after the Islamic advance in the 630s, during the Caliphate of Omar, there appeared garrison towns, some newly built (Basra and Kufa), whilst others were more established: Damascus, Hims, Tiberias, and Lydda in Syria. In Egypt, the conqueror of the country, ‘Amr ibn ‘As, established a permanent camp at old Babylon, the so-called Roman fortification opposite to Memphis, where possibly, even at the time of the Romans, a strong garrison was stationed.[10] Out of this camp, later on, grew up a town which bore the name of Fustat and which remained, until the foundation of Cairo in the 10th century, the capital of the whole country. After the foundation of Cairo, Fustat continued its existence under the name of old Cairo; but it was gradually annexed to the new Cairo by unbroken and continuous settlement.[11] Next to Fustat, Alexandria was the most important gathering place for the troops in Egypt. As the greatest sea-town, it was constantly exposed to the attacks of the Byzantine navy. It was precisely for that reason that it was strongly garrisoned. ‘Amr posted there one quarter of his army, but he changed the personnel every six months; with half he guarded the sea-coast, while the remaining quarter he kept with himself at Fustat.[12]

At this point, we go back to our main argument on the uniqueness of the early sources, here referring to the late 19th century scholar, Lestrange. It is primarily to Lestrange that we owe the best compilation of descriptions by contemporaries of the towns, cities and regions of medieval Islam as they as they saw them and described them. Medieval Palestine and Syria are nowhere better described than in Lestrange’s work devoted to them.[13] Let’s offer some extracts on the town of Acre. Writing in 985, Al-Muqaddasi says:

Akka is a fortified city on the sea. The mosque here is very large. In its court is a clump of olive-trees, the oil from which suffices for the lamps of the mosque, and yet besides. This city had remained unfortified until the time when Ibn Tulun (9th century ruler of Egypt) visited it, coming from Tyre, where he had seen the fortifications and the walls which are there carried round so as to protect the harbour.[14]

Yakut al Hamawi’s description, early in the 13th century, of the method of building with stone-pillars used, as ‘through-bonds,’ is one much used in later centuries by the masons and craftsmen of the Crusaders. The remains of the double mole forming the inner harbour at Acre may still be seen, though centuries later these are almost entirely under water.[15]

Another, and earlier, account of Acre is by the Persian Nâsir Khusraw, who visited the town in 1047:

The Friday Mosque at Acre is in the centre of the town, and rises taller than all the other edifices. All its columns are of marble. The court of the Mosque is partly paved with stone, and the other part is sown with green herbs, for they say it was here that Adam-peace be upon him-first practised husbandry…. The city’s walls are extremely strong; to the west and south lies the sea.

On the southern side is what is called the Minâ (or port). Now, most of the towns upon this coast have a Minâ, which is a place constructed for the harbouring of ships. It resembles, so to speak, a stable, the back of which is towards the town, with the side-walls stretching out into the sea. Seaward, for a space, there is no wall, but only chains, stretching from one wall’s end to the other. When they wish to let a ship come into the Minâ, they slack the chains until they have sunk beneath the surface of the water sufficient to let the ship pass over them (into the harbour); then they tighten up the chain again so as to prevent any strange vessel coming in to make an attempt against the ships.”[16]

The same Lestrange offers us the best compilations in respect to the lands of the eastern caliphate, from Baghdad eastwards. The foundation of Basra and Kufa during Omar’s Caliphate was extremely decisive in the subsequent urban history of Islam. Basra’s name is said to mean ‘the Black Pebbles’ was founded in the year 17H (638), and its lands were divided among the Arab tribes who were then in garrison there following the defeat of the Sassanid (Persian) Empire.[17] The city grew quickly to be, with Kufa, one of the new capitals of Middle Iraq. Basra lay about 12 miles in a direct line from the Tigris estuary, being reached by two great canals, which, with the waters of the estuary to the east for the third side, formed the Great Island as it was called.[18] Its houses extending westward in a semi-circle reached the border of the desert. The houses of the town were for the most part of kiln burnt bricks, the walls were surrounded by rich pasture lands, watered by numerous minor canals, and beyond these lay extensive palm-groves.[19]

The city of Kufa was founded at the same time as Basra and was, thus, intended to serve as a permanent camp on the Arab, or desert, side of the Euphrates, and occupied an extensive plain lying above the river bank.[20] Roads radiated from a central point and men were settled in their tribal areas. Omar is said to have specified the widths of the streets: 20 metres for the main roads, with side streets of 10 to 15 metres, whilst alleys were to be 3.5 metres, which was the minimal width allowed.[21] The city’s population increased rapidly, and the 10th century geographer, al-Istakhri described it as the equal in size of Basra, but the former had the better climate, and its buildings were more spacious; also its markets were excellent, though in this point it stood second to Basra.[22]

These two towns, eventually to grow into large cities, would constitute precedents for the foundation of Baghdad, Samarra, Marrakech, al Qayrawan, and other cities, with, of course, some divergences such as in lay out, structures, additions of local features, and the use of local materials.

Another dominant aspect of early Islamic society was the matter of tax and revenue. Here, it is Von Kremer, as admirably conveyed to us by Khuda Bukhsh, who feeds us with knowledge of value found nowhere else.  Initially the state-revenue consisted for the most part of the legal fifth of the war-booty, and the poor-tax (Zakat) payable by better off Muslims, payable primarily for lands or more correctly from the produce of the lands.[23] In greater detail regarding the Zakat, the general rule was that it was payable for arable land, precious metals, and flocks; by ‘flocks’ was meant camels, cattle and sheep.[24]

The level of taxation was, however, reduced according to circumstances. Under Omar, during the times of crises, in order to encourage the import of cereals to Madinah he reduced the tax upon them to half of the tenth (i.e just like the produce needing artificial irrigation).[25] Tax was also levied on moneys received as hire for slaves or rent of houses. Quarries and mines were equally liable to this tax, but with this difference that here it fell due, immediately on the discovery of the mines and quarries, and not after a year, as was the case with the harvested crops.[26]

As early as the time of Prophet Mohammed there was a special state-pasture where herds of camels and cattle and flocks of sheep which came in by way of taxes were kept and looked after.[27] The office of the overseer of the state-pasture (Hima) was indeed, a post of trust and confidence which Omar gave to his freedman. At the time of Omar there was in the state-pasture no less than 400,000 camels and horses. In order to distinguish these from others they were branded with a special mark (Wasm).[28]

A kind of tax was also levied on the mercantile community, but it did not belong to the category of the poor-tax but rather to that of the general state revenue.[29]

As Islam expanded the tax system also expanded. Twofold were the taxes which the subject population of Egypt, Syria, Mesopotamia and Persia had to pay:

(1) The Capitation-Tax (Jizya, tributum capitis).

(2) The Land Tax (Kharaj, tributum soli).

Both these taxes were probably adopted from the Byzantine Empire where they existed under these identical names. Of the Capitation-Tax, we know that it existed even under the Sassanid in the Persian Empire.[30]

In Syria, for each individual community the Capitation tax was fixed at an aggregate amount which continued unaltered, whether the number constituting the community increased or decreased.[31] In Egypt the capitation-tax for every grown-up male, capable of earning a livelihood, was 2 dinars.[32]

The capitation tax (Jizyah) had rules, though. Since this tax was expressly taken as the price for military protection given by the State, whenever the Caliph felt that he could not protect a region any more, he immediately ordered the return of the whole of jizyah collected from that region. Before the battle of the Yarmuk (636), when the Muslim forces withdrew from Hims, Damascus and other advanced posts, the Caliph ordered the return of the whole of the jizyah amount collected from those cities and the adjoining places.[33] When Cyprus was conquered under ‘Uthman, no capitation tax was levied on the Cypriots as he was not yet certain that he would be able to protect them from foreign attacks.[34]

If any of the dihmmis took part in a campaign, or gave some service to Muslim troops his jizyah for that year was dropped.[35]

The principle underlying the system of land taxation comes clearly to light. It was a thoroughly just principle of assessing the taxes according to the nature of the soil and the mode of its cultivation.[36] In taxing their subjects, the early caliphs were always keen to make sure that their Muslim-or non-Muslim subjects were taxed fairly, and not oppressively as was current in most societies of the time and centuries after, whereby the tax collectors resorted to taking away whatever their powers allowed them to do. Omar specially directed his tax collectors not to oppress people and not to take away the best animal out of their flock.[37]

The first letter that ‘Uthman wrote to the zakat-collectors was:

Allah created on the basis of truth and He accepts nothing but that which is based on truth, so take what is due and give people their dues (rights) on the basis of Allah’s teachings. I urge you to adhere to honesty, pay a great deal of attention to it and do not be the first to neglect honesty. Fulfill covenants, and do not wrong orphans or non-Muslims who have a treaty with the Muslims, for Allah will be the opponent of the one who wrongs them.”[38]

We see from this, Von Kremer remarks, how simple were customs of those times and how little did the government then contemplate fiscal oppression.[39]

Throughout history there always dominated the issue of land (as a source of wealth), and its management by the conquering power (s). Whether the British in Ireland, or in India, or the French in Algeria, or the White settlers in South Africa, the land issue has always been a central element of strife, rebellion, rancor, injustice, and its mismanagement has led to countless tragedies some of them of epic proportions, leading to the starvation of millions.[40]

The Muslim advance, on the other hand, hardly if at all records any such problems. This is one principal reason why the Islamic advance to this day has remained unique. In this respect, the role of Omar was of central importance. It was he who laid down the working principle that Arabs should not acquire landed property in conquered territories.[41] On this particular issue, it is William Muir who offers us an excellent outline on how Muslims dealt with the land issue. He notes, for instance, how when Egypt was conquered, Omar rejected the advice of Zubayr and other Companions to divide the land amongst Muslim warriors and their families.

Leave it,’ said Omar, ‘in the people’s hands to nurse and to fructify.[42]

The rules were clearly established between Muslims and non-Muslims. There were no evictions or spoliations of the non-Muslims’ rights. Therefore, much to the discontent of many Arabs, not only were the confiscated lands held undivided, but, from the border of the Syrian desert to the mountain range of Persia, the sale of any portion of the soil, whether confiscated or not, was absolutely forbidden.[43] Thus there arose a double protection to the native tenants who, under no pretext, could be evicted from their lands. The country also, remaining in the hands of its own cultivators, was nursed, and became a rich and permanent source of revenue.[44]

The same Muir enlightens us on one of the most decisive breakthroughs in human society: the establishment of Bayt al mal (Treasury) and the rise of the Welfare State. To Caliph Omar is popularly ascribed the establishment of the Diwan, and offices of systematic account.[45] There was no institution of Treasury (Bayt al Mal) to speak of during the Caliphate of Abu Bakr. For most of his Caliphate, the Caliph lived at Al Sunh, then, finding it at an inconvenient distance from the Great Mosque, where, as in the time of the Prophet, the affairs relating to the state continued to be transacted, he transferred his residence, and with it the Treasury, thither. The Exchequer of Islam was in those days but a simple small room that needed neither guard nor office of account. After Abu Bakr’s death, Omar had the treasury opened; and they found therein but a solitary golden piece, which had slipped out of the bags.[46]

Now, how was the welfare state first established? This followed a census of the population. This Census of the Muslim population was apparently done with great care. Every Arab tribe, with its members, was entered on a special list and changes, due either to birth or death, were very scrupulously noted. To carry out this vast project, a Register had to be drawn and kept up of every man, woman, and child, entitled to a stipend from the State — in other words, of the whole Arab race employed in the interests of Islam.[47] This was easy enough for those well known persons, but ‘a herculean task for the tens of thousands of ordinary fighting men and their families who kept streaming forth from the Peninsula; and whose numbers were fast rising.’[48] But the task was simplified by the strictly tribal composition and disposition of the forces. Men of a tribe, or branch of a tribe, fought together; and the several corps and brigades being thus territorially arranged in clans, the Register assumed the same form.[49] Every individual was entered under the stock and tribe and clan whose lineage it claimed.[50] It is reported that on one occasion Caliph Omar went personally over with the register to the Khoza tribe and invited its members to come and individually receive their share from him. Later under Mu’awiya an overseer was appointed who recorded births and deaths.[51]

The Register included the relatives of Prophet Mohammed, those who had served the cause of Islam and the soldiers with their wives and children. The Register itself, as well as the office for its maintenance and for pension account, was called the Diwan or Department of the Exchequer.[52]

The first charge was for the revenue and civil administration; the next for military requirements, which began soon to assume a sustained and permanent form; the surplus remained (as has been now set forth) for pensions and other forms of state distribution of wealth. The whole revenues of Islam were thus expended as soon, almost, as received; and Omar took a special pride in seeing the treasury, in accord with this principle, emptied to the last dirhem.[53]

Here, we return to Von Kremer, who adds further details.  Omar, in assigning annuities, made no distinction between the full-blooded Arab (Sarih), the half -Arab (Halif) and the client (Mawla). He would have all Muslims treated alike without distinction.[54] He instructed his commanders to treat them on precisely the same footing as Muslims of Arab nationality. There was to be no difference between them in point of rights or of duties either. This is the concise order he issued to an Arab governor who, while refusing to the clients, granted annuities to the Arabs:

It is wicked in a man to despise his brother Muslim.”

Even to non-Arab converts did Omar assign annuities: to various Persian landlords in Mesopotamia and to ‘a quondam Christian’ of Hira.[55]

To foreign converts and their clients he even permitted that they should constitute a special tribe of their own governed according to the very same principles which applied to the Arab tribes in matter of annuities. 10 Dinar each he assigned to the wives and children of soldiers who had either fallen in battle or were actually engaged in active service. This measure was confirmed by ‘Uthman and the later Caliphs.[56]

Not even the Muslim slaves did he leave unprovided for. An annuity of 3,000 Dirham each he assigned to the three slaves who had fought at the battle of Badr. Apart from the annuities he appears to have distributed fixed rations every month among the troops and the inhabitants of Madinah: for every man, including his slaves, 2 modd of wheat and two kist of vinegar.[57]

In the management of the ever expanding land of Islam, there took place the appointment of governors. The Prophet had already appointed some governors during his life, and so did Abu Bakr. But it is with the vast expansion under Omar and ‘Uthman that the issue of appointment of governors took a special consideration. Here, both Muir and Von Kremer (the latter still via Khuda Bukhsh translation) give us details, which, again, we can find nowhere else. In the more important governorates, the judicial office was discharged by a functionary who held his commission immediately from the Caliph. The control of all departments remained with the governor, who, in virtue of his supreme office, led the daily prayers in public; and, especially on Fridays, gave a sermon, which had often an important political bearing.[58] Military and fiscal functions, which, like all other powers, were placed in the governor’s hands, came eventually to be discharged by officers specially appointed to the duty. Men of religion were also commissioned by the State. From the extraordinary speed with which cities and provinces were converted, risk of error rose, in respect both of creed and ritual, to the vast multitudes of new believers.[59]

During the Caliphate of Abu Bakr, Syria was divided into four military districts (Damascus, Hims, Urdun, Filistin). In each district the Officer commanding the troops was invested with the powers of a Governor. But, as a whole, Syria stood under the control and supervision of the Commander-in-Chief of the entire army who collected the taxes.[60] In Arabia the Governors had their seats at Makkah, Ta’if (in North Arabia), San’a, Zabid, Janad and Jorash (in South Arabia). Governors resided also in the provinces of Khaulan, Najran and Bahrain. Finally a Governor was appointed at Duma’t-al-Jandal, which lay on the great commercial route to Syria and Iraq and was an important centre of gathering.[61] It is obvious that Abu Bakr very carefully watched the interests of South Arabia. While, in later times, only one governor sufficed for the whole of Yemen, Abu Bakr appointed governors for all the larger towns.[62]

In consequence of the victorious campaigns under Omar, the circle of governorships was enlarged. The conqueror of Egypt, ‘Amr ibn al ‘As, was appointed its governor, but at some point, Omar also appointed a Special Governor for Upper-Egypt. In Damascus Mua’wiya was given that appointment.[63] Omar, however, restricted the powers of the Governor of Damascus; for, while formerly the governor was not merely the Chief Commander of the troops but was also at the head of the government exercising all the religious and judicial functions of the Caliph, such as administration of justice, and leadership at the public prayer, Omar appointed for Damascus and Urdun a special Qadi (Judge) to whom he entrusted the performance of religious functions and leadership of the prayers. Similarly he appointed a Judge for Hims and Kinnisrin.[64] Besides, in Syria, a second governorship was created for Hims. Iraq was divided into two governorships one having its seat in Kufa and the other at Basra. For Mesopotamia, conquered in the last years of his Caliphate, Omar made a special arrangement. He appointed two governors: one in charge of military officers and the subject races and the other in charge of the Arabs.[65] In Arabia, the number of governorships was reduced to five: Makkah, Taif, Janad, San’a, Bahrain.[66]

Under ‘Uthman, the number of governorships increased of necessity as Muslim territory extended more and more. The main province was Syria which Mua’wiya administered.  ‘Uthman wanted to reduce the absolute powers of the Governor of Egypt by withdrawing from his jurisdiction the collection of taxes. He wished to limit his jurisdiction to military affairs and political administration. For the collection of taxes he appointed a special officer.[67]

The governors of the various provinces repaired to Makkah to perform at that season the same religious obligation; and the Caliph used the opportunity for conferring with them, as they returned by way of Madinah, on such provincial business as needed his attention. The occasion, in fact, served the purposes of an annual report delivered orally of local government.[68]

The capacity of the various governors and officials to respond in times of crises was tested in the year 639, whilst ‘Amr ibn al ‘As was still in Palestine. As famine hit Arabia hard, Omar sent letters to the governors abroad, who promptly responded.[69] Mu’awiya, himself, came with four thousand beasts of burden laden with corn from Syria, which he is said to have distributed with his own hand amongst the starving people. ‘Amr dispatched food from Palestine, both by camels and by shipping from the port of Ayla.[70] Supplies came also from Iraq. The beasts of burden were slain by twenties daily, and served, together with their freight, to feed the citizens of Madinah.[71]

Von Kremer, again relying on early sources and his vast erudition informs us that by assigning salaries to officers and appointing judges, Omar laid the structural foundations of administration of justice.[72] The 9th century Muslim historian Al-Baladhuri (d. 892) tells us that he appointed a judge for Damascus and the Jordan, and another for Hims and Qinnasrin, which makes him the first to establish the institution of judgeship.[73] However, neither under ‘Uthman nor under Omar was there any such thing as general appointment of Judges. Judges were appointed only in important towns where a large number of Arab troops were quartered and where gradually a Muslim settlement grew up; namely, in places such as Kufa, Basra, Damascus, Qinnasrin, and in Fustat. It is not improbable that these judges appointed subordinate judges and deputies within their own jurisdiction.[74]

Here, we end this outline on the role of older secondary sources in informing us on the building of early social institutions in the land of Islam. More could be added but enough has been stated to underscore the value of sources, which remain today, in 2017, as excellent sources as they have always been since their inception, and no serious or clever student of Islamic society dares dismiss them.