Franks, Mongols and Turks

Multicultural Diversity in Early Islam

Humans throughout history have banded together in groups, from families and tribes to races and nations. Ever since these groups began to form, they have been affecting each other and impacting each other’s cultures and ways of living. During the Middle Ages, this kind of cross-cultural impact was happening all across Europe, Asia and Northern Africa. As the different political and military powers gained supremacy, kingdoms expanded, empires collapsed, and whole new nations were formed. Waves of Asian tribes flowed across Asia and into Europe, the Byzantine Empire flourished, then finally fell, and the Frankish people of Western Europe set up their own kingdoms. In the midst of all of this were the Muslims, who were, perhaps, the group most often impacted by outside influences. The original Arab Muslims might have begun as the power within the community of Islam, but by the end of the Middle Ages, barely 700 years after the Prophet’s death, several other groups had invaded, been conquered by, or simply included into the sphere of Islamic influence. All of these groups had effects on the Muslims, including how they governed, their literature and art, and their economy.

The Turkish tribes from Asia had an enormous impact on Muslim society when they invaded. Many of them converted to Sunni Islam and lived among the Islamic people. When Tughril Beg and Chagri Beg united the Seljuk Turks, they conquered the weakened Ghaznavids, then the Sassanids and the Buyids, essentially reuniting the old Abbasid Empire. Later they pushed into Asia Minor and Armenia and eventually they were in control of the majority of the Islamic world east of the Mediterranean. Rather than set up a Turk as Caliph – and cause riots and rebellions among the Muslims - the Seljuks set up the Caliphate with a purely religious leader and Tughril Beg became the first Sultan. This was the first time since Abu Bakr became the first Caliph that their political leader was not also their spiritual leader and this division of power did much to change the political structure of Islamic society. The sultan and his advisors saw to the everyday military, economic and political concerns of the empire, while the caliph saw to the spiritual well being of the Muslims.

The sultans promoted Sunni Islam and drove most of the Shi’ites into hiding. Hassan Sabbah, one of the most infamous Shi’ite leaders, set up his order of Assassins during the Turkish reign. His terrorist style attacks on political leaders terrified many powerful people in the Islamic community. Even after his death, Hassan Sabbah’s Assassins continued their mission to promote ismailism and undermine Turkish authority. The Turks may have brought trouble for the shi’ites, but the majority of Muslims under their rule seemed to be content. Literature and science were promoted. The sultan sponsored artists and philosophers to add culture to the court. One of the most famous works of literature of all time, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, was written during the reign of the Turks. Under the Turkish Sultans, Islam was spread into India and the Turks even took Asia Minor from the Byzantines. The rich area of Asia Minor had been in Christian control since Roman times, and this move by the Turks is what sparked the Holy Crusades.

Muslims referred to all western Europeans as Franks, including the Iberians, Visigoths, the Germanic peoples and the Frankish peoples. There were really two eras when the Franks had great impacts on the Muslim world. During the expansion across Africa, the Muslims also invaded the Iberian Peninsula and held the majority of it for 700 years. This set them up for trade with the rest of Western Europe and it also gave them almost complete control over sea trade from the Atlantic into the Mediterranean. Also, many of the natives in the Iberian Peninsula converted to Islam as the Muslim influence spread. The Muslims also attempted to expand into Frankish territory over the Pyrenees, but were pushed back into the Iberian Peninsula by Charles Martel. During the 700 years of Islamic rule in Spain, the Muslims, Christians and Jews that were all a part of the Iberian culture created some of the most beautiful artwork in the form of paintings,