Middle East

Lessons from Islamic History for Policymakers


When policymakers delve into the issues facing the Islamic world, in searching for a solution they would do well by examining the history of the religion. Islam has faced numerous trials and tribulations over the last 1,500 years and many of the same issues facing the umma (Muslim community) today have been repeated in centuries past. In Destiny Disrupted: A History of the World Through Islamic Eyes, Tamim Ansary examines the history of Islam and in the course of his work, introduces several parables policymakers would do well to remember.

Image courtesy of Said Tahsine, © 1954

The first anecdote comes from the 9th century after the Prophet Muhammad and the first four caliphs died, the Umayyad dynasty passed, and a powerful but corrupt dynasty—known as the Abbasids—came into power. Some of the more pious Muslims were concerned the umma were turning away from the example of the prophet. Under the rule of the Abbasids, a school of philosophy known as the Mu’tazilites, rose to prominence and declared that the Quran was created and therefore open to interpretation and revision. Inspired by the scientific strides being made in the Muslim world, they argued that truth could be determined by reason independent of revelation. A jurist named Ibn Hanbal strongly objected: He argued that only the Quran and hadiths could be trusted, not innovation. After publically debating the Mu’tazilites and being imprisoned, Hanbal witnessed his ideas gradually gain the upper hand in traditional thought.

Today the teachings of Hanbal are canonized in the Hanbali legal school, favored throughout the Islamic world by religious conservatives. Wahabism and Salafism, the fundamentalist movements followed by Saudi Arabia and the Taliban, spawned from the Hanbali school. In addition to the importance of the groundwork he laid for future jihadi movements, Hanbal’s story illustrates how the debate between reason and faith is ancient in Islamic history. That debate was reborn with the introduction of modernity to the Islamic World during Western colonialism. Today, religious conservatives—such as the Salafi clerics in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan—debate more moderate voices which argue that logic and revelation are both integral to Islam.

The second narrative comes from the 14th century when the heart of the Islamic world was under siege from Mongol hordes. Baghdad, Damascus, and Herat were sacked in a campaign still referred to as the “Mongol Holocaust.” With this backdrop, a student of Hanbal, Ibn Taymiyah—whose family had fled the Mongols in Syria—issued a damning fatwa that still resonates today. To Taymiyah, the Mongols, although Muslim, were heretics and therefore worthy of death. Not only was waging jihad against heretics, apostates, non-Muslims, Shia, and innovators permissible, it was obligatory for all Muslims.

In modern times, the teachings of Taymiyah have been used by extremists to justify waging campaigns of terror against those they disagree with. Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant (ISIL) both utilize Taymiyah’s 700 year-old fatwa to justify suicide attacks against Shia, Christians, and the West. More than simply understanding Taymiyah through a legalistic perspective, policymakers should pay attention to the environment that shaped Taymiyah’s worldview and view him as a case study on the psychological aspects of radicalization. Forced to flee his home at a young age and surrounded by war and destruction, Taymiyah developed an extremist outlook. After invading and occupying Afghanistan and Iraq, and waging a “global war” using special forces and drone strikes, it seems fair to say that the United States is no closer to “defeating” terrorism than it was 15 years ago. Before initiating any further military actions, U.S. policymakers should think deeply about whether the environment they have created in the Middle East is diminishing or fertilizing radicalization.

The last historical example also comes from the 14th century during the Crusades and Mongol invasion. A cult of radical Shia, dedicated to the leveling of the wealthy with the poor, utilized a revolutionary but familiar technique to achieve their goals. Labeled “the Assassins,” they sent their operatives to publically murder high profile targets. Using knives, the Fedayeen, or “sacrificers,” went on suicide missions killing clerics, royal officials, and even two caliphs. They murdered in the presence of audiences, often during Friday prayers, instilling fear of death in the general population.

While there are many differences between the Assassins and modern groups like ISIL, the similarities between the two groups tactics are striking and demonstrate that the political power of terrorism has been known for centuries and is not, in fact, a modern phenomenon. The question then becomes, if the Assassins are the medieval version of al-Qaeda or ISIL, can any lessons be derived about how they operated and how they were combated?

Only two leaders were ever able to implement strategies that successfully stymied the Assassins wave of terror. The first was Salah al-Din ibn Ayub, or “Saladin,” to this day considered in the Middle East to be the perfect image of Islamic chivalry. Having united the Muslim Levant against the Crusaders, and shown to be compassionate to both friends and enemies, Saladin made himself a target of the Assassins. Twice they failed in attempts to assassinate him and although they were able to convince him to give up his siege of their home base, the Assassins failure to kill him added to his image of invincibility. While the Assassins are relegated to the footnotes of history, Saladin elicits deafening applause in the Middle East centuries after his death.

The second man to ever successfully take on the Assassins did it in contrasting style to Saladin. Hulagu Khan, grandson of Genghis Khan, was leader of the Mongol hordes sweeping the Islamic world. When two martyrs attempted to kill him, he marched his army to their compound, killed everyone inside, razed the castle, and burned their records. He then went on to lay siege to Baghdad and kill all 200,000 inhabitants. Today few remember the crimes of the Assassins, but Muslim historians continually depict the Mongols as the epitome of evil. Interestingly, during the Iraq war Osama bin Laden (as well as mainstream Muslim commentators) used this depiction to compare President Bush and American soldiers with the Mongol hordes.

By studying Islamic history, it becomes apparent to policymakers that the problems facing the region today are not necessarily new. The tension between faith and reason, between believers and non-believers, and the scourge of terrorism and counterterrorism efforts have been around for a millennia. As the United States moves forward, it can choose to learn from history or repeat it. It can bolster voices of moderation and stabilize the environment to stem radicalization, or it can embark on an attempt to hammer terrorists to death, ignoring the prospects of collateral damage and destruction. The later path may in the end succeed, but it will cede the moral ground and portray the United States in a negative light in the history books.

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