Origins of islam

Islam is very much in the news. It is easy to appreciate why - islam is one of the most important and certainly the most controversial religion in the world today. Besides providing millions with solace and a sense of community, there is definite political side to islam. The corrupt and bloated royal house of Saud legitimise their rule through islam. Louis Farrakhan and the Nation of Islam have given a new lease of life to anti-semitism. The Islamic Republic of Iran is a blood-drenched theocracy. And till their fall the Taliban imposed upon Afghanistan a counterrevolutionary regime of unparalleled reaction in the name of the compassionate and merciful Allah. Then there is islamic terrorism. September 11 2001 and the twin towers secured for George Bush a moral majority and excused the US invasion of Afghanistan and, if he gets his way, Gulf War II; bin Laden urges new attacks and talks of "converging interests" between muslims and socialists "in the battle against the crusaders"; a beleaguered Tony Blair has desperately tried to link Iraq with al-Qa'eda; Abu Hamza - the turbulent cleric - is expelled from his Finsbury Park mosque amid a government-stoked ricin panic; Islamic Jihad and Hamas suicide bombers wreak havoc in Tel Aviv and Jerusalem. And in the midst of all that there is the defender of faiths, HRH prince Charles and his multiculturalist plea for people to "tolerate" British-Asian muslims, etc. This short article has nothing much to say that is directly contemporary. It is unashamedly historical. However, the intention is to call into question some widely held notions about islam. Certainly the aim is to undermine the 'clash of civilisations' thesis, by which islam is painted as inherently backward and violent. By equal measure I want to show that the origins and fundamental texts of islam are not divine, but are thoroughly human and can only be properly explained in historical and materialist terms. City and sand Compared to both judaism and christianity, the origins of islam are well documented, definite and uncontroversial. We know almost as much about the adult Muhammad and the rise of islam as we do of the life of the 16th century christian reformers, Martin Luther and John Knox. Islam sprung forth in the full light of history - almost ready-made - in 7th century Arabia. Social consciousness is determined by social circumstances. And as a body of thought islam was undoubtedly the product of the far-reaching socio-economic changes that were occurring in and around the city of Mecca in what is now Saudi Arabia. The orientalists' romantic notion that islam originated from amongst Bedouin nomads in the parched, scorching deserts of the Nafud and in the shadows of their tents is a complete fallacy. Islam is indelibly marked by the city and what Marxists call the sphere of circulation. "Despite the extent and numerical importance of the nomads it was the settled elements and more especially those living and working on the trans-Arabian trade routes who really shaped the history of Arabia," says Bernard Lewis in his classic study (B Lewis The Arabs in history Oxford 1993, p29). Regionally Mecca was a relatively important urban centre. Unlike ancient Rome, however, this city - located at a safe remove from the Red Sea coast - was not primarily a unit of consumption based on extra-economic surplus extraction (tribute). Nor was Mecca primarily a unit of production, as is typically the case with the big towns and cities of modern-day capitalist society. Mecca functioned as a hub of long-distance caravan and, to a lesser extent, marine trade. The city served as one of many intermediary staging posts that related the separate worlds of Mesopotamia, the Indus valley, Ganges-Brahmaputra India, Java and China and those of Ethiopia, Palestine, Yemen, Egypt and Greek and Latin Europe. The rich, highly productive and sophisticated - often riverine - civilisations in the east existed as separate zones, each possessing unique natural, agricultural or manufactured products, including luxuries. No law of value equalised necessary labour or moulded them into a single metabolism. Consequently well situated peoples such as the Arabs could constitute themselves intermediaries - import-export merchants and money lenders - and from that chance position accumulate fabulous fortunes. Their land was barren and unproductive, the Arabs possessed no sought-after skills in manufacture or the arts, but by dint of geography - which put them on one of the motorways of the ancient world - they could enrich themselves beyond their wildest dreams. The principal - or socially determining - occupation of the elite amongst these people therefore consisted not of state administration or overseeing production, but buying cheap and selling dear. Perfumes, gums, silks, spices and porcelain could be acquired from within China for a song. Aristocratic Europeans, on the other hand, were prepared to pay for them through the nose. Subjective value - different ways of appreciating the properties of a particular product - allowed surplus to be siphoned off from one society and into another. Risks associated with financing such long-distance trade were high. So too were the rewards. Between source and final sale prior to consumption successive mark-ups could be up to 2,000% - what is now a humble staple, the nutmeg, being a star example. The standing of the Arabian towns and the nomadic Bedouin tribes in the hinterland was always precarious and closely related to the shifting balances of contemporary big power politics. Arabia formed an indirect and hazardous transit route between the Mediterranean world and the south and east. The Egyptians, Assyrians, Persians, Greeks and Romans had each at their zenith sought to extend their imperial hegemony into the Arabian peninsula. A mercantile city like Petra in what is now Jordan was a prized jewel by any standard. The untameable Bedouin tribes were a constant nuisance and had to be subdued. Buffer states were erected to cage them in. In 24BC the Romans even tried to conquer the Yemen and thus capture the southern trade route to India. The expedition ended in ignominious failure. Inevitably great empires passed from expansion into decline. As they did, rivals saw their opportunity. One encroached upon another. That entailed severe disruption of established trade routes and the necessity of finding alternatives - alternatives that in the first instance skirted round enemy territory. Hence in the periphery big-power politics could produce wild swings of fortune. In 348AD one such major swing occurred. The Roman and Persian empires concluded a peace after a whole extended period of wars, which first erupted in the 3rd century. During the long peace that lasted until 502, regional and international trade returned to the direct routes - through Egypt and the Red Sea, through the Euphrates Valley and the Persian Gulf. Western Arabia found itself bypassed. It was no longer needed. Trade crashed. Towns, cities and petty kingdoms withered or simply ceased to exist. The famed irrigation system around Ma'rib in the far south was abandoned. Prosperity only returned to Arabia in the 6th century. Byzantium and Persia had fought each other to the point of mutual exhaustion. The bureaucratic tributary state and standing army tended on each side towards the all-consuming. Trade routes via the Persian Gulf and the Red Sea could no longer be policed. Piracy flourished. As a consequence Yemen found itself cut off and in crisis. Suddenly Mecca and what later became known as Medina (Yathrib) were geographically well placed. Along with an explosion of trade and an influx of wealth came profound social change. Tribal society in decay By custom all males in the Bedouin tribes of Arabia were equal. Individuals possessed that status through their blood line. Elements of primitive communism survived amongst them. There was no private ownership of land or water. Even flocks were sometimes held collectively by the tribe. Chiefs were elected by the tribal elders, usually from amongst the leading sheikhly family known as the ahl al-bayt. Chiefs were rarely more than first amongst equals. They exercised authority, not coercive power, over the tribe and were advised by the council of elders, the majlis. Within the tribe, life was regulated by custom - the sumna or practice of the ancestors. Vendettas between tribes were commonplace. The religious beliefs and practices of the nomadic Bedouin are somewhat vague, but bear a similarity to what we can glean about the ancient Hebrews. The uncontrollable forces of nature dominated people's lives and had to be assuaged. Ancestors were elevated into minor gods with this in view. They would, if treated properly and with due respect, intervene in the spirit world on behalf of the living. However, the numerous divinities of the Bedouins possessed no clear outlines which distinguished them one from the other. Unlike in Egypt and Greece the graphic and plastic arts were not developed enough to permit gods having individualised or idealised forms. Nevertheless a pantheon is thought to have existed, the highest gods being Manat, Uzza, Allat and, above them all, Allah. The only definite distinction between these gods was locality. Particularly evocative places - groves of trees, high mountains, springs - were held in veneration: they possessed qualities that were said to make them the sanctuary of a god. The most important gods for the Bedouin were specifically tribal though. Each tribe equipped itself with its own unique god. Unusual or oddly shaped stones were particularly useful here and functioned as fetishes or idols. These objects had a distinct advantage for nomads - they could be easily transported. Their god was carried about with them in a sacred red tent. The Hebrews famously had their tribal fetish housed in a box - the ark of the covenant. These fetish objects bring rain, fertility and good luck in war. Fetish and tribe formed a unit. Once members of the tribe settled, the fetish would be placed in the sheikhly house which would thereby gain some religious prestige. Inevitably a tension existed between the nouveaux riches urban dwellers in 6th century Mecca and the nomads of Arabia. Those who inhabited and roamed the vast desert wastes thought it their natural born right to ambush caravans or impose upon them so-called 'brotherhood' taxes. At the same time the ability of the town to reach out to far off places resulted from the complex interrelationships that joined the city and desert as a single circulatory system (in classical Greece the city dominated, but rested upon the near countryside; under feudalism in western Europe the countryside dominated, but relied upon the towns for manufactured goods and markets; likewise the city in Arabia dominated, but needed the desert - in this case for transport). Water and pasture, vital for the nomad's herds of sheep and goats, are as easily exhausted as they are few and far between. The Bedouin tribes had to constantly track forth from one oasis to another simply to survive. Hence in marginal lifestyle they closely resembled the ancient Hebrew tribes described in the Old Testament. That did not stop the patriarch Abram being rich - not only in cattle and sheep, but "gold and silver" too (Genesis 8, 2). Nomadic existence invariably goes hand in hand with both commerce and robbery - supplementary professions greatly facilitated for the Bedouins by the domestication of the Arabian, one-humped camel some four and a half thousand years ago. With these awesome beasts they could traverse huge distances with a minimum of water and food and by the standards of the day at speed. Ideal for the movement of luxury goods as well as raiding. Bedouin chiefs - sheikhs - who had grown wealthy from trade, extortion and war sought out a sedentary existence in towns and the material and intellectual benefits that brought them and their offspring. Not that they sever their links with those in the desert. From the safety and comfort of airy and sumptuous townhouses tribal chiefs continue to preside over their kinsmen. However, this Bedouin tribal chief no longer lives through raiding, but through trade. Moreover, where the former relies on traditional bonds of mutual obligation within the tribe, the latter is seen as the result of individual effort and enterprise. Business thereby usurps tribal solidarity. In parallel, well-to-do urban merchants seek links with the desert. They purchase huge camel herds which still enjoy access to collective water and pasture. Long-distance caravans could consist of up to 35,000 camels. These herds are tended by Bedouin nomads - many of whom have sunk deep into debt with the merchants. Having no other regular source of gaining a livelihood, they are reduced to a humiliating state of bondage. By the 7th century we therefore find customary tribal relations in an advanced stage of decay. Class relations begin to emerge. These relations were, it should be emphasised, those of a mercantile, not a capitalist, society. Marx's well known self-expanding formula for capital - M-C-M' - applies to merchant enterprises, but cannot be generalised throughout society. Labour itself only appears as a commodity sporadically and marginally. There is no overarching labour market. Most inhabitants maintain a traditional nomadic existence as herders. Surplus is derived externally through transfer, not internally through exploitation. Merchant ideology Long-distance mercantile trade involves more than an urban existence and business. Nature and exclusive tribal gods assume less and less relevance. Eventually they become redundant or are subsumed. Survival no longer depends on winter rains and tribal bonds, but on money-making. Yet in the minds of the merchants the unpredictability associated with the long-distance caravan trade - cheating by suppliers, robbery en route, saturation of markets - appears just as uncontrollable as did the forces of nature. These social forces dominate their lives and must be explained, no matter how fantastically. Tribal society is reproduced in the city and is at the same time negated. Each tribe initially had its majlis and its own fetish stone within the confines of the city. Quickly, however, the tribal chiefs metamorphose. They transform themselves into a republic of rich merchants for whom business comes first, tribe second. That finds religious expression through collecting the fetish stones together and housing them in a common shrine. At some point in time the many stones in Mecca were replaced by a single - black - stone. The cube-shaped building called the Ka'ba was the symbol of unity in Mecca, where a single council, known as the mala', also replaced the old tribal majlis. Merchants by definition have little or no concern for manufacturing or agricultural techniques. Whereas the artisan and the farmer constantly strive to deepen their specific knowledge of immediate raw materials - be they iron, clay, wood, grain, animals or the soil itself - the merchant has but one business, and that is business. Commodities are judged not by any intrinsic qualities, or use-value, but solely by their ability to generate more money (capital). In fact the usefulness of commodities is reduced to their money, or exchange, value. Such an abstraction and all that it entails socially has a profound impact on the merchant's thought world. There are definite limits placed upon the life expectations of the artisan and farmer - they rely on their own ability to labour. And there are only 24 hours in the day. In contrast the only limit that exists on merchant wealth is the ability to lay out money. Borrowing money from others in order to buy on an extended scale is a gamble, but promises massive returns. On an intellectual level the resulting necessity of calculating from the biggest figures to the tiniest fractions generates mathematics (the more trade develops, alongside the credit system, and the more the gap separating buying and selling grows in time and space, the more complex must calculations be - hence the invention of double-entry bookkeeping, percentages, the zero, etc). On a personal level, danger is ever present. The merchant hovers between the extremes of wealth and ruination. Avarice and fear engender a brutal cynicism towards lenders and buyers, sellers and competitors. Artisans and farmers are tied to a specific place - workshop or land. Merchants as a class cannot content themselves with parochial concerns. They must venture far and wide, and that brings them into contact with more advanced peoples and their ideas. The merchant will therefore tend to cease being purely national (tribal) and instead acquire the universalistic outlook of a cosmopolitan. 'Merchant' and 'foreigner' are interchangeable terms. The Arab merchant travels through and lives in many distant lands along the trade routes. By the same measure wealthy transit points such as Mecca see an inward migration of foreign merchants and labourers, who not only trade with, or work for, the natives, but settle amongst them. The population of Mecca was in consequence varied and mixed. The elite, ruling, class of aristocratic merchants who controlled the long-distance caravan trade were known as 'quraysh of the inside'. Below them in power and status were the 'quraysh of the outside', who consisted of smaller traders and included recent incomers. The Mecca proletariat was a combination of Bedouins and foreigners. In the hinterland were the 'Arabs of quraysh', the dependent Bedouin tribes. Elsewhere in the Arabian peninsula foreign colonies - including both jewish and christian - were established which were connected with the long-distance caravan trade. Medina being the foremost example. Arabia lay on the periphery of the civilised world and certainly rated as an extremely backward region. Yet, because of advanced neighbours and long-distance mercantile trade, elements within Arabia swiftly take on features and adopt attributes that are amongst the most sophisticated on offer. There is, so to speak, no need to reinvent the wheel. Put another way, Arabia provides a splendid example of uneven but combined development. In the border lands Arabs were recruited and trained as fearsome mercenary soldiers by Byzantium and Persia. Modern forms of warfare were thereby acquired. Writing reached Arabia from abroad too. Purely oral means of communication could not fulfil the ever expanding requirements of running an international business. Certainly once the idea of writing had been encountered it was readily copied in its highest - ie, most expressive - form by the merchant class. Religious notions of monotheism also find an eager response, especially in cities like Mecca, where traditional bonds and tribal gods have lost their purchase. It was into these challenging social and intellectual conditions that Mohammed was born and grew to maturity. Social position of islam Not much is known about the ancestors of Muhammad or his early life. Most of what is claimed turns out under scholarly examination to owe more to myth-making than hard fact. He seems to have been born in Mecca between the years 570 and 580. Though an orphan and a member of a declining tribe, the Banu Hashim, one of the 'quraysh of the outside', he married wealth in the form of Khadija, the widow of a rich merchant, who was somewhat older than himself. This is echoed in the Koran: "Did he not find thee an orphan, and shelter thee? Did he not find thee erring, and guide thee? Did he not find thee needy and suffice [enrich - JC] thee?" (93: 6-8). Perhaps Muhammad took up trade. Perhaps not. There is no evidence that he did, even of a literary nature. Either way, he obviously had some acquaintance with jewish and christian scriptures. The similarities between the Koran and the Old and New Testaments are obvious. Nevertheless the Koran is no carbon copy. It is an independent work, inspired in all probability by an indirect knowledge of jewish and christian myths. There would appear to have been a school of thought in Mecca which rejected the old paganism but could accept neither the jewish nor christian doctrines. Conceivably Muhammad emerged from this milieu. Muslims themselves admit that there were many 'false prophets' in Arabia at the time. Muhammad - obviously a man of great charisma - purportedly began preaching at the age of 40. He denounced all local gods and idols. There is only one god, Allah, and he is the creator of everything. Just as the jews made their main tribal god, Jehovah, a universal god, so did Muhammad. And just as Jehovah had a special connection with the jews, Allah had a special connection with the Arabs. His shrine was the Ka'ba in Mecca. So, while some elements of Arab tradition were discarded, others were retained. The black stone housed in the Ka'ba - in all likelihood a meteorite - continued to be regarded with veneration and Muhammad decreed that every muslim had to make a pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in their life. Pilgrimage was the source of considerable additional income for the city well before his time. Muhammad modified other Arab traditions too and elevated them from the tribal to the universal. Feuding and vendetta were outlawed amongst believers. One muslim had to lend aid to another. No muslim could make a separate pace with unbelievers. Where before there had been alliances of tribes, there was now to be a sense of community based on religion. Blood is replaced by confessional faith. In the same manner the mutual aid of the tribes and the obligatory generosity expected towards those in need was transferred to the religious community itself. From a very early stage Muhammad's muslim party began to build political structures and social services which could substitute for those of the decaying tribes. Muhammad's first followers came from a similar class background to himself. They were the younger sons and cousins of rich merchants who lacked social influence and those from the quraysh of the outside - middle class merchants who were struggling to retain an independent existence. The Koran reflects their world outlook. It is studded with commercial expressions and concepts. Relations between people and god are of a strictly commercial nature. "Allah is the ideal merchant," comments Maxime Rodinson, the French Jewish scholar (quoted in PN Siegel The meek and the militant London 1986, p172). In contrast to the rich merchants Allah is honest and never cheats. Life is a balance sheet of profit and loss. Good deeds bring credits. Evil can be forgiven, but is always accounted for. The unbeliever is a bankrupt and will be condemned to hell on the day of final reckoning. The believer receives their reward in heaven. Heaven is depicted as a lofty oasis with cool pavilions, refreshing springs, exotic fruit and orchards of shady trees. In this heaven the blessed will enjoy the sexual favours of beautiful, gazelle-eyed virgins "untouched before them by any man or jinn" (spirits - JC; 55: 57). Hell - Gehenna or the blaze - is given an equally Arabian treatment. The damned are cast into an endless desert. They quench their thirst only by drinking "boiling water and pus". The Koran threatens the rich with such a hell. Not because they are rich, but due to their greed. They do not urge the "feeding of the needy". They devour the inheritance of women, children and the week. All that is exalted by them is earthly wealth: as a punishment they must pass through the gates of Gehenna "to dwell therein forever" (40:76-77). In effect Muhammad's infant party represented the urban middle classes against the Meccan oligarchy. The proletariat and Bedouins were to be allies in this sacred cause. Soon Muhammad's party was subject not only to ideological counterattack - they endanger the status of Mecca's sanctuary; their leader is a low class upstart - but persecution. The extent of this persecution may be exaggerated in later accounts, but it proved sufficient to persuade a group of his converts to leave for Ethiopia. As to Muhammad himself, failure to make rapid progress against the 'party of hypocrites' in Mecca caused him to look elsewhere. He accepted an invitation from Medina to transfer his party of muslims to that city. Not being a centre of pilgrimage, Medina had no vested interest in the old religion and appears to have wanted an authoritative figure to serve them as a mediator. The Meccan oligarchy raised no objection and allowed Muhammad to leave in peace and at his own pace. He did so in 622. Here starts the islamic era. The oasis of Medina was inhabited by many Jews - both Arab converts and those whose ancestors might have conceivably originated in Palestine. There were three Jewish tribes - the Banu Qurayza, the Banu Nadir and the Banu Qaynuqa: by tradition the first two engaged in agriculture, while the latter were smiths and armourers. Two Arab tribes, the Aws and the Khazraj, settled in the town after them - first as clients, then as the dominant element. By inviting in Muhammad, the ansar, the helpers, unleashed a social revolution, first in one city, then across the whole of Arabia. There were winners and losers. In Medina Muhammad faced some stiff initial opposition. That included the Jewish tribes. Muhammad had presumably hoped to win support from amongst them. His new religion had at that time more than a jewish tinge to it. In order to attract them muslims were ordered to fast for Yom Kippur and pray in the direction of Jerusalem. The Jews remained unconvinced. However, being internally divided, they were unable to overpower Muhammad and his party. Muhammad steadily increased his political power in Medina. He went from being in effect its chief magistrate, whose main task was mediation, to its theocratic ruler. Muhammad decreed that "the children of Israel" and their religious practices would be tolerated. However, the believers were organised into a wider community, the umma. The umma had simultaneously a religious and a political significance. It was a community of believers and a super-tribe. Membership of the religiously defined super-tribe carried definite rights and obligations. This proved attractive to both the middle class merchants and the urban poor. Within the umma the authority of Muhammad ruled supreme. Secure in their Medina base, Muhammad and his followers turned to raiding the Meccan caravan routes. This had a dual purpose. Firstly, it helped to weaken Mecca and bring forward the day of its conversion. Secondly, the raids enriched the umma in Medina. The raid of March 624 by 300 muslims under the direct leadership of Muhammad is celebrated in the Koran. Success in the so-called battle of Badr - "god surely helped you" - emboldened Muhammad (3: 119). Internally he turned against the jews and christians in Medina. They were now accused of falsifying their scriptures so as to conceal his prophetic mission. Externally he ensured that there would be continuing warfare by adopting Mecca as the holy muslim city. His followers were told to stop praying in the direction of Jerusalem. Now they had to turn towards Mecca. Because he had a universalistic ideology, through which he could successfully unite the middle class merchants and lower class Arabs of all tribes, Muhammad's prestige and following grew in leaps and bounds. That was translated into increased military effectiveness. In January 630 the chance murder of a muslim by a Meccan furnished the excuse needed for the final assault on Mecca. Following his victory increasing numbers of distant Arabic tribes recognised the hegemony of Medina and Muhammad's mission as the last and greatest prophet of god. After Muhammad According to the traditional accounts Muhammad died on June 8 638 after a short illness. The subsequent Arab takeovers of Syria, Palestine, Egypt and Iraq owed less to the muslim religion and more to the extreme weakness of the Byzantine empire on the one hand and the Persian empire on the other. There was no grand plan. The first military expeditions took the form of raids and turned into wars of expansion once commanders discovered the vulnerability of both Byzantium and Persia. Given the usurious levels of taxation imposed upon them by the Byzantine state, the christian populations of Egypt and Syria actually welcomed the muslim invaders. Border tribes played a vanguard role and turned to the muslim leaders in Medina only after meeting particularly powerful Byzantine or Persian armies. So religion provided a certain solidarity and coherence, but was by no means the driving force. That force was booty. The Arab tribes had long had the custom of absorbing client peoples. That proved to be the case with the conquests of Egypt, Syria, Iraq, etc. These people became Arabs and muslims. In turn these newcomers to the community provided the recruits for new armies of conquest. Syrians and Egyptians drove into north Africa. The Berbers took Spain and Sicily. The Persians invaded north India. Thus islam expanded in wider and wider concentric circles. Here is the source of the commonly held misconception that islam is a religion that is theologically committed to forceful conversion and conquest by the sword. But in their expansion the Arab muslims were merely following in the footsteps of the Egyptians, Babylonians, Assyrians, Medes, Macedonians and Romans before them. As to forcible conversion, the fact of the matter is that some christian populations did not convert despite the material incentive muslims enjoyed of living virtually tax-free. That is why Iraq, Syria, Egypt and Palestine have to this day sizeable christian minorities. Islam recognised the right of jews and christians to worship freely and to engage in economic activity. Jews flourished under islam as money lenders and bankers. In return they had to pay a special tax. It was in order to escape this burden that many, the overwhelming majority, saw the light and adopted the one true faith. With the murder of Ali - the son of Mohammed's uncle Abu-Talub - in 661, the hegemony of the middle class Medians was broken. The bourgeois revolution comes to an end and along with it the generous welfare state instituted by Mohammad's immediate successors. The most important social benefit was the diwan, a pay and pension scheme set up for muslim soldiers. After a bitter civil war which pitted muslim against muslim the Meccan oligarchy restored their domination. However, by now they had in their hands not one city but a world empire bigger than that of the Romans' at its zenith. Under these new masters the islamic world reaches heights of civilisation not previously attained. From the Romans and Greeks the Arabs took science and philosophy, from Persia systems of administration and from India medicine and mathematics. Some members of the intellectual elite such as Rhazes, the philosopher and physician, embraced rationalism and even moved in the direction of outright atheism. From the mid-8th century to the mid-11th century the islamic empire functioned as a system of opulent mercantile cities which linked the Indian Ocean to the Mediterranean Sea. Muslim ships plied both the Atlantic Ocean and the China Seas. However, compared to China and India, the riches of the islamic empire were essentially superficial (with the partial exception of Egypt and the Sawad - the most irrigated part of the Mesopotamian alluvial plane). Surplus was not primarily generated internally, but came from the outside - first through war booty and then long-distance trade. Once the monopoly over trade routes was broken, decline was inevitable. The Turkic invasion of Persia and Mesopotamia in the 10th century, the 11th century crusaders and the voyages of European discovery in the 16th century damaged and then totally outflanked the islamic world. The essential decline of the islamic mercantile system was masked by military success and the incorporation of Mongolian and Turkic invaders. However, with the militarisation of society, intellectual and economic life underwent a steady regression. Tribute exacted from the peasants, previously negligible, became crippling. All available surplus was channelled into the absolutist state and its overblown army. Islam suffered accordingly. Toleration could no longer be afforded. Dangerous thoughts were suppressed. Reaction triumphed in every area of life. Innovation and science flickered out of existence. Many of the paid persuaders and propagandists of 19th century western imperialism and their modern-day counterparts insist that islam is naturally intolerant and benighted. Nothing could be further from the truth. As will be readily appreciated from what has been sketched out above, we must separate cause from effect. What flowered in the 9th century was a culture based on a thriving mercantile system. The subsequent decadence of the 12th and 13th centuries cannot be blamed on islam as a religion. Rather its cause is to be found in the structural limits inherent in any mercantile system. Jack Conrad