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Iraq History

 The Arab conquest and the coming of Islam

Various invaders conquered the land after Nebuchadnezzar's death, including Cyrus the Great in 539BC and Alexander the Great in 331BC, who died there in 323 BC, Babylon declined after

the founding of Seleucia, the New Greek capital. In the second century BC, it became part of the Persian Empire, remaining thus until the 7th century AD, when Arab Muslims captured it.

Islamic forays into Iraq began during the reign of Abu Bakr (632-634), the first caliph and the father-in-law of Prophet Mohammad. In 634AD, an army of 18,000 Arab Muslims, under the leadership of Khalid ibn al Walied (aptly nicknamed "The Sword of Islam"), reached the perimeter of the Euphrates delta. Although the occupying Persian force was vastly superior in techniques and numbers, its soldiers were exhausted from their unremitting campaigns against the Byzantines. The Sassanid troops fought ineffectually, lacking sufficient reinforcement to do more.

The first battle of the Muslims campaign became known as Dhat Al-Salasil (the battle of the Chains) because Persian soldiers were reputedly chained together so that they could not flee. Khalid offered the inhabitants of Iraq an ultimatum: "Accept the faith and you are safe; otherwise pay tribute. If you refuse to do either, you have only yourself to blame. A people is already upon you, loving death as you love life". Most of the Iraqi tribes were Christian at the time of the Islamic conquest. They decided to pay the "jizya", the tax required of non-Muslims living in Muslim-ruled areas, and not further disturbed. The Persian rallied briefly under their hero, Rustum, and attacked the Muslims at Al-Hirah, west of the Euphrates. There, the Muslims soundly defeated them.

The next year, in 635AD, the Muslims defeated the Persians at the Battle of Buwayb. Finally, in May 636AD at Al-Qadisiyah, a village south of Baghdad on the Euphrates, Rustum was killed. The Persians, who outnumbered the Muslims six to one, were decisively beaten.

From Al Qadisiyah the Muslims pushed on to the Sassanid capital at Ctesiphon (Madain). Because the Muslim warriors were fighting a Jihad (Jihad fi Sabeel lillah), they were regulated by religious law that strictly prohibited rape and the killing of women, children, religious leaders, or anyone who had not actually engaged in warfare. Further, the Muslim warriors had come to conquer and settle a land under Islamic law. It was not in their economic interest to destroy or pillage unnecessarily and indiscriminately.

The second caliph Omar Ben Al-Khattab (634-644 AD) ordered the founding of two garrisoned cities to protect the newly conquered territory: Kufah, named as the capital of Iraq, and later the capital of Imam Ali, and the founding of Basrah, which was also to be a port. The Muslims continued the Sassanid office of the divan (Arabic form diwan). Essentially an institution to control income and expenditure through record keeping and the centralization of administration, the divan would be used henceforth throughout the lands of the Islamic conquest.

Arabic replaced Persian as the official language and it slowly filtered into common language usage. Iraqis intermarried with Arabs and converted to Islam.

 Empires - The Abbasid Caliphate

In 750AD, Abo al Abbas was established in Baghdad as the first caliph of the Abbasid dynasty. The Abbacies, whose line was called "the blessed dynasty" by it supporters, presented themselves to the people as divine-right rulers who would initiate a new era of justice and prosperity. Their political policies were, however, remarkably similar to those of the Umayyads. And in 762AD, the capital city of Baghdad was founded.

In the eighth century, the Abbasid caliphate established its capital at Baghdad, which became an important commercial, cultural, and a famous center of learning in the Middle Ages, and was regarded in the tenth century, the intellectual center of the world. As capital of the caliphate, Baghdad was also to become the cultural capital of the Islamic world.

Baghdad became a center of power in the world, where Arab and Persian cultures mingled to produce a blaze of philosophical, scientific, and literary glory. This era is remembered throughout the Arab world, and by the Iraqis in particular, as the pinnacle of the Islamic past.

It was the second Abbasid caliph, Abu Jafar Al-Mansur (754-75 AD), who was known to be an excellent orator, knowledgeable in language and an excellent administrator, who decided to build a new capital, surrounded by round walls, near the site of the Sassanid village of Baghdad.

Within fifty years the population outgrew the city walls as people thronged to the capital to become part of the Abbacies' enormous bureaucracy or to engage in trade. Baghdad became a vast emporium of trade linking Asia and the Mediterranean. By the reign of Mansur's grandson, Harun ar Rashid (786-806 AD), Baghdad was second in size only to Constantinople.

Baghdad was able to feed its enormous population and to export large quantities of grain because the political administration had realized the importance of controlling the flows of the Tigris and the Euphrates rivers. The Abbacies reconstructed the city's canals, dikes, and reservoirs, and drained the swamps around Baghdad, freeing the city of malaria. Harun ar Rashid, the caliph of the Arabian nights, actively supported intellectual pursuits, but the great flowering of Arabic culture that is credited to the Abbacies reached its apogee during the reign of his son, al-Ma`mun (813-833 AD).

By the 9th century, al-Ma`mun was the caliph who was largely responsible for cultural expansion. The caliph al-Ma`mun was responsible for the translation of Greek works into Arabic. He founded in Baghdad "bait al-hikma" the Academy of Wisdom, which took over from the Persian University of Jundaisapur and soon became an active scientific center.

The Academy's large library was enriched by the translations that had been undertaken. Scholars of all races and religions were invited to work there. They were concerned with preserving a universal heritage, which was not specifically Moslem and was Arabic only in language. Its first director Hunayn ibn Ishaq translated the complete medical and philosophical works of Galen, the physics of Aristotle, and the Greek Old Testament, before his death in 873. Hunayn's many students completed the translation of Plato, Hippocrates, Ptolemy, Euclid, and Pythagoras into Arabic, and made great original discoveries in mathematics, particularly in integral calculus and spherical astronomy.

The most notable mathematician of the period, Abu Ja'far Muhammad ibn Musa al-Khawarizmi (680-750 AD), discovered algebraic equations, and some credit him with the invention of zero. Al-Khawarizmi wrote ten math textbooks, which have survived. His "Kitab hisab al'adad al-hindi" was an arithmetic textbook, which introduced Hindu numbers to the Arab world. Now generally known as Arabic numbers.

Mediaeval Christian Europeans were not keen on the Hindu-Arabic numbers and declared them the work of Satan! His major work is entitled "Kitab al-jabr w'al-muqabalah" (restoration and balancing) whose title gives us the word Algebra. Courtesy of an Arabic book collector in Muslim Spain and the adventurer El Cid, the books were translated into Latin, and hit renaissance Italy like tactical nuclear culture shock. They couldn't speak Arabic, of course, so his name came out as "Algorismus". His name (misspelled again!) has gone into mathematics and computerspeak as Algorithm; for a step by step process for performing computations.

The study of medicine also progressed rapidly, and a number of hospitals were soon established in Baghdad, including a teaching hospital. Baghdad had grown to be almost one million people and part of the predominately Muslim Empire of Abu Jafar al-Mansur born 95H (716 AD). His empire stretched from western China to northern Africa. In the 13th century, during the reign of the 37th Abbasid caliph, Mustansir Billah, al-Madrasa al-Mustansiriyah (Mustansiriyah School) was built, this was once a highly esteemed university.

A new Abbasid Palace was also built in the same era and in the same architectural style as the Mustansiriyah School, the palace overlooks the Tigris.

The first truly Arab philosopher, al-Kindi, worked to reconcile the ideas of neo-Platonism with Islamic revelation. He was one of the thinkers called the Mu`tazilites, who sought to employ reason in preference to tradition in interpreting scripture and formulating theology.

Al-Ma`mun favoured this group, removing from office any judge or religious scholar who did not profess the new doctrines. One traditionalist who refused to recant was Ahmed ibn Hanbal, the fourth of the chief Sunni jurists. The polarization which occurred between these two factions was extremely unfortunate for Islam, because both points of view were - and are - necessary for the Muslim community to be whole. The Mu`tazilites ultimately lost the power struggle after the death of al-Ma`mun, and consequently their sympathizers down to the present day have lacked a voice and legitimacy within the Islamic discourse.

The Hanbalites went on to become the ideological forerunners of the present regime of Saudi Arabia. After the reign of al-Ma`mun the Abbasid caliphate was increasingly weakened by internal strife, and eventually fell under the control of the Persians and then the Turks. During the reign of the last independent caliph al-Muqtadir (r. 908-932), a number of very notable men died in Baghdad.

There was the outstanding scientist and physician al-Razi, who compiled a thorough medical encyclopedia from Sanskrit, Greek, and Aramaic sources synthesized with his own clinical insights.

One cannot leave the subject of Baghdad and its learning without speaking of Abu Hamid al-Ghazzali, a professor at the Madrasa al-Nizamiya, Baghdad's first great school of religious law founded in 1067. Al-Ghazzali abandoned his post to become a wandering mystic, then wrote many deeply original religious books synthesizing the mystical and orthodox points of view. Muslims still regard him as their greatest reformer.

The centre of intellectual life was by then shifting from Baghdad to the new city of Cairo (where the Fatimid dynasty had won all of North Africa away from the Abbasids in 969), and to Cordoba and Toledo in Spain, where all of the amazing achievements of Muslim scientists and thinkers would pass into the heritage of Europe.


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