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Christian-Muslim Relations 1050-1200

Christian-Muslim Relations: A Bibliographical History (1050-1200)

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 Christian Muslim Relations 1050 1200
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Alex Mallett, David Thomas
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Introduction – CHRISTIAN-MUSLIM RELATIONS 1050-1200

The articles collected in these two volumes, CMR 2  and CMR 3, deal with Christian-Muslim relations during the period 900-1200. By the beginning of this period, the Abbasid caliphate was firmly ensconced as the major power of a large region stretching from the Hindu Kush to the Atlantic. Within the caliphate lived large communities of Christians and significant (though smaller) communities of Jews and Zoroastrians.

By 900, the status of dhimmī attributed to these minor-ity communities was well established in law and custom, as we have seen in volume 1. A multitude of Christian churches flourished under the rule of the caliphs: East Syrians (or Nestorians), Melkites, Copts, Armenians, West Syrians (or Jacobites), Mozarab Catholics, to name just a few.

In the capital itself, the Nestorians enjoyed a privileged position. Many of their lay members still had official positions in the admin-istration. Under the Caliph al-Muqtadir, the Nestorian patriarch was even appointed as the sole representative of all Christian communities in Baghdad (at the cost of the Melkites and the West Syrians.).1

It is of course impossible to generalize about the fates of dhimmī communities across this huge territory over the course of three cen-turies. Answers to the most fundamental questions remain tentative. When, for example, do Muslims become a numerical majority in these societies? No hard demographic evidence exists to tell us when Mus-lims passed from being a minority to a majority, but educated guesses are around 825 for Iran, 900 for Egypt, Syria, and Iraq, the mid-10th century for Iberia.2

Thus while for most of the period covered in CMR 1, Christians remained a numerical majority in Muslim-ruled societies, by the period covered in this volume they were becoming a minority – although they remained a quite significant one in most areas.

Effective control over this enormous territory had always been uneven, to say the least. At its edges, what could be hoped for at best was theoretical recognition of caliphal authority. Yet even this was, in the period that concerns us, rapidly to come to an end. In 909, the Ismāʿīlī Shīʿī leader Abū Muḥammad ʿAbdallāh (ʿUbayd Allāh) al-Mahdī bi-llāh took the title of Caliph, establishing the Fatimid caliphate in Ifrīqiya (roughly what is now Tunisia).

The Fatimids conquered Egypt in 969 and named their new capital ‘the Victori-ous’ (al-Qāhira, Cairo); the Fatimids were a major power in the Mid-dle East for the next two centuries. The Fatimids took advantage of Egypt’s position at the crossroads of international commercial routes that linked it with the Mediterranean and with the Red Sea and Indian Ocean. Egyptian merchants, both Muslim and dhimmī, prospered, as is clearly seen, for example, in the thousands of letters, contracts and other commercial documents contained in the Cairo Genizah.3

Two Christian churches existed in Egypt, each with its own patri-arch, its own liturgy and its own hierarchy: the miaphysite Cop-tic Church and the diaphysite Melkite Church. Christians, Jews and Sunnī Muslims faced persecution under the reign of the Caliph al-Ḥākim (996-1021), who ordered the destruction of many syna-gogues and churches (including the Holy Sepulcher in Jerusalem in 1009). Yet this was exceptional: on the whole Jewish and Christian communities flourished in Fatimid Egypt.

Their merchants in general paid the same import duties as Muslim merchants; they were simply required to carry an attestation that they had paid the annual jizya. This is not to deny the burden that the jizya and other taxes and fines sometimes represented to the dhimmī communities.

The preserved biographies of the Coptic Orthodox patriarchs during the period treated in this volume, for example, give much space to the financial challenges that these patriarchs faced, and periodic increases in the jizya could serve as a spur to conversion. And the situation of dhimmīs became more precarious in the chaotic final decades of Fatimid rule. When Ṣalāḥ al-Dīn (Saladin) abolished the Fatimid caliphate in 1171, he tried to impose a higher tax rate on non-Muslim merchants, but was soon convinced not to do so.4

Spain (and at times parts of the Maghreb) had been controlled, since the mid-8th century, by the descendants of the former Umayyad caliphs. In 929, the Cordoban emir, ʿAbd al-Raḥmān III, took the title of Caliph: the Umayyad caliphate dominated the Iberian Penin-sula and was the principal maritime power in the western Mediter-ranean until the early 11th century, when it imploded in succession struggles and gave way to a series of petty emirates (known to his-torians as ‘taifa kingdoms’). While the life of Christian communities is less well-documented than for earlier or later periods, large Chris-tian communities continued to exist in many of the taifas.

Apart from the immigration and deportation suffered by some Christians, most significant for the Christian communities living under Muslim rule in al-Andalus was their deep degree of Arabicization in the urban con-text, whereas in the rural environment they spoke Romance. The role played by the Eastern Christians who immigrated to al-Andalus was significant for the Christian communities from both the ideological and the textual viewpoints, as is evident from the settlements of Byz-antine monks in the Ebro valley, and from Palestinian monks who arrived in al-Andalus in the 9th century, as well as from the Peninsu-lar Christians who travelled in eastern lands or those who eventually settled there, among whom there were probably some Nestorians.5

Meanwhile, the Eastern Roman (or Byzantine) Empire in the 10th century embarked on a military expansion both in the north-west (against the Bulgars) and in the east against Arabs. Nicephorus Phocas captured Crete in 961 and conquered much of Syria and Mesopotamia between 964 and 969; his successor John I Tzimisces (969-76) pursued these conquests.

In general, the Muslims in the conquered territory were reduced to slavery and sold throughout the empire, while Christians (both miaphysite Syrian Christians and Greek Orthodox) were settled in the conquered areas. Thus few free Muslims lived in Byzantine territory: most were slaves, captives, or temporary visitors (merchants or diplomats).

Abbasid suzerainty was thus threatened from three directions: by heirs to the Umayyads in Andalus, by Shīʿī Fatimids in Egypt, and by a renascent Byzantine military power. Yet the expansion of Byzan-tines and Fatimids, in the late 10th and 11th centuries, was confronted by another emerging power: the Seljuk Turks. The conversion of large numbers of Turks and their integration into the Iranian-Arab heart-lands of the Muslim world had begun in the 9th century.

 The Seljuks in the 11th century established a political empire that at its height stretched from the high plateaus of Afghanistan to the Aegean shores of Anatolia. The Sunnī Seljuks, who recognized the spiritual authority of the Abbasid caliph in Baghdad, were frequently in conflict with the Fatimids, notably in Syria/Palestine, and with the Byzantines in Syria, Mesopotamia and Anatolia. In 1071, Seljuk Sultan Alp Arslan deliv-ered a heavy blow to the Byzantines at the battle of Manzikert, where he defeated and captured Emperor Romanus Diogenes.

Alp Arslan’s successor, Malik Shāh (1072-92), ruled an empire stretching from the Aegean to what is now Afghanistan; the Seljuks took much of Syria and Palestine from the Fatimids. Yet after Malik Shāh’s death in 1092, several of his atabegs asserted their power locally and fought with each other. 

The Seljuk presence in eastern Anatolia affected of course the life of the local Eastern and Oriental Christians. Echoes of this can be found in the Chronicles of the West-Syrian Patriarch Michael the Syr-ian (d. 1195), who tells about the destruction of churches and the loss of church property due to ‘Turkish’ attacks, but is also proud of his personal contacts with the Sultan Qilij Arslan II.6

In 1098-99, another player erupted onto the stage of eastern Medi-terranean political and military affairs: the Ifranj, as the Arab authors called them, the ‘Franks’, i.e. the European troops of the First Crusade. Launched by Pope Urban II at the Council of Clermont in 1095, the crusade mobilized thousands of Europeans who converged on Con-stantinople by land and sea between November 1096 and April 1097, then marched across Anatolia, fighting the Rum Seljuks, and besieged Antioch, which they captured in June 1098. The following year they marched to Jerusalem, which they took on 15 July 1099, massacring many of the inhabitants. The crusaders established a series of polities in Jerusalem, Antioch, Edessa, and Tripoli. In these territories, the new European Christian princes ruled over a mix of Muslim, Jewish, Eastern Christian and Latin Christian subjects.

The late 11th and 12th centuries also witnessed Christian European conquest of Muslim territories in Sicily, Spain and (for a fleeting few decades) North Africa. Sicily had by the year 1000 split into a series of rival emirates. The Normans of southern Italy intervened in Sicil-ian politics first, in 1060, as allies of various emirs in their struggles against their neighbors, but eventually asserting their suzerainty over the entire island; their conquest culminated in the capture of Palermo in 1091.

The Norman counts (and subsequently kings) of Sicily ruled over a mixed population of Muslims, Greek Christians, Jews and Latin Christians (including immigrants from the Italian mainland over the course of the 12th century). Andalusian traveler Ibn Jubayr, who spent four months on the island in 1185, paints a complex picture of Christian-Muslim interactions: he praises King William II’s attitude of respect for his Muslim subjects and deference to Muslim scholars and advisors.

In many of the towns (Cefalu, Termini, Alcamo, Tra-pani), Ibn Jubayr met Muslims and describes their communities: their mosques, markets, houses. Traveling between Termini and Palermo he came to Qaṣr Ṣaʿd, built in Muslim times and inhabited by pious Muslim ascetics from throughout the island and beyond. At its sum-mit was ‘one of the finest mosques in the world’.7

Ibn Jubayr spent the night there and delighted in hearing the call to prayer, which he had not heard for many weeks. Yet he also describes the frequent humiliations suffered by Muslims and the pres-sures to convert. Sicily’s Norman kings struck coins bearing text in Greek, Latin and Arabic. Roger II minted gold tarins which bear, on one side, a cross with the Greek legend: IC XC NIKA, ‘Jesus Christ conquers’; the other side has an Arabic inscription bearing the place of mint (Palermo) and the king’s laqab (honorary name): al-Muʿtazz bi-llāh, ‘he who finds his force and his glory in God’.

On the ceiling of his palatine chapel is an image of the king presented as an Arab potentate, sitting cross-legged, cup in hand, flanked by servants who fan him. This same King Roger II had a coronation mantle on which was represented, on each side of a central palm tree, a lion (symbol of royal power) devouring a camel; the Arabic inscription celebrates the martial virtues of the king.8

At the same time as the Normans asserted their domination over Sicily, the Christian kingdoms of northern Spain put increasing pres-sure on the taifas of Andalus. The emirs of the taifas in many cases paid hefty tributes (parias) to keep the peace with their northern neighbors (just as the Christian kings had once made similar pay-ments to the Cordoban caliphs).

Alliances between the many small principalities, it is true, often crossed confessional lines, yet it was the ascendant northern Christians who increasingly had the upper hand, and who expanded their territories by conquering Toledo (Alfonso VI of Castile and León in 1085), Saragossa (Alfonso I of Aragon in 1110) and other territories. The fate of the conquered Muslims in these territories was varied, depending on a variety of circumstances, not least on the stipulations of negotiated surrender treaties.

In 12th-cen-tury Aragon, for example, Muslim residents were expelled from some areas but in others remained to work the lands for their new Christian lords, and continued to enjoy the right not only to practice their reli-gion, but also to participate in the local economy, buying and selling land and its produce.9

This wave of conquest was checked by the rise of a new regional power, the Murābiṭūn (or Almoravids), a Berber dynasty that extended its dominion over much of northwestern Africa in the mid-11th century. At the behest of several taifa emirs, Murabit Emir Yūsuf ibn Tashfīn led his troops into Spain and crushed the forces of Alfonso VI at Zallaqa (or Sagrajas) in 1086, reversing the tide of expansion of Castile-León; the Almoravids annexed Andalus into their growing empire. The new Almoravid elite looked down on the Andalusian Muslims who, during the taifa period, not only had submitted to parias and made alliances with Christian rulers, but at home had fought amongst themselves and promoted dhimmīs to prominent positions in their courts.

Almoravid muftis and faqīhs railed against dissolute Andalusians: 12th-century mufti Ibn ʿAbdūn suggested having boats police the Guadalquivir in Seville to prevent Muslims from sneaking across the river at night to drink wine in the Christian quarter.10

Almoravid rule brought in new restrictive legislation against dhimmīs, some of whom subsequently emigrated to the east or to the Christian kingdoms of the North. In the 12th century, a new Berber dynasty, the Muwaḥḥidūn (or Almohads) arose in the Atlas moun-tains: their leader ʿAbd al-Muʾmin (1130-63) took the title of caliph and conquered large territories including Andalus and northern Africa from Morocco to Libya. The Almohads put increased pressures on dhimmīs, leading to widespread emigration and conversion.

 Hence the political, social and economic situation of religious minorities differed widely over the three centuries covered in this volume, making impossible any facile generalizations about ‘Muslim’ or ‘Christian’ attitudes towards religious minorities or towards rela-tions with members of other religions. Even within a society, be it Almoravid Seville, Fatimid Cairo or Norman Palermo, attitudes var-ied widely and could change radically.

 On the whole, the Muslim legal framework that instituted a protected but inferior status for dhimmī was firmly established by the beginning of our period and continued to be respected in most Muslim-ruled areas. By contrast, at the begin-ning of our period few Muslims lived in Christian-ruled areas. In the late 11th and 12th centuries, the conquests of Latin Christian rulers in Syria/Palestine, Sicily and the Iberian peninsula brought significant Muslim communities under Latin Christian rule.

While treatment of these communities and the legal status accorded to them varied, in many cases they were given the status previously reserved to Jews: as a protected but clearly inferior religious community.11

The writers whose works are discussed in these two volumes had very different points of view, depending on their diverse situations: close collaborators with kings or sultans, members of minority reli-gious communities who often resented their inferior social status, observers who feared conquest by a powerful ‘infidel’ neighbor, etc. Feelings of military, political or social superiority (or inferiority) color many of the texts studied here.

The context in which we need to place the authors and texts dis-cussed in these volumes is of course not simply political and military:…..

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