The land of Iraq is home to some of the most ancient and precious civilizations in history. In the Mesopotamian valley that encompasses the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, Babylonia, the world’s first empire was born. Writing was first developed along the banks of the rivers with tablets made of clay. Advanced government bureaucracies were first implemented here. It is truly one of the cradles of human civilization.
And when Islam was revealed in the deserts of Arabia south of Mesopotamia, the people of Iraq were some of the first to accept Islam outside of the Arabian Peninsula during the caliphate of Abu Bakr. As Islamic history went on, Iraq became one of the centers of the Muslim world, with Baghdad being established in the 8th century as the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate. Politics, culture, science, and religion all flourished here in early Islamic history. After the Mongol invasion, however, Iraq’s importance declined, it eventually became a part of the Ottoman Empire from the early 1500s until the end of the empire in the First World War. After the war, it was organized into a British-controlled mandate, which sought to create an independent nation-state in this ancient land.
Which brings us to the question: what is Iraq? The British assumed they’d find a homogeneous people in this land that would easily coalesce into one united nation, but the reality has been much more complicated. When the British drew Iraq’s borders, the people within those false borders were of different ethnic groups, religious beliefs, and languages, yet they were all expected to adopt a new identity – Iraqi – and function as a modern nationalistic European nation. This article will address the origins of these problems of identity in 20th century Iraq.
From the very earliest days of Islam, the issue of education has been at the forefront at the minds of the Muslims. The very first word of the Quran that was revealed to Prophet Muhammad ﷺ was, in fact, “Read”. Prophet Muhammad ﷺ once stated that “Seeking knowledge is mandatory for all Muslims.” With such a direct command to go out and seek knowledge, Muslims have placed huge emphasis on the educational system in order to fulfill this obligation placed on them by the Prophet ﷺ.
Throughout Islamic history, education was a point of pride and a field Muslims have always excelled in. Muslims built great libraries and learning centers in places such as Baghdad, Cordoba, and Cairo. They established the first primary schools for children and universities for continuing education. They advanced sciences by incredible leaps and bounds through such institutions, leading up to today’s modern world.
Much like previous Muslim Empires, the Ottomans showed great toleration and acceptance of non-Muslim communities in their empire. This is based on existing Muslim laws regarding the status of non-Muslims. They are protected, given religious freedoms, and free from persecution according to the Shariah. One of the first precedents of this was the Treaty of Umar ibn al-Khattab, in which he guaranteed the Christians of Jerusalem total religious freedom and safety.
Islamic history is filled with genius architects. Some of the greatest monuments on earth are the product of Muslims who wanted to build beautiful structures that would show the greatness of Islam throughout time. The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem, the Taj Mahal in Agra, India, the Alhambra in Granada, Spain, and the Blue Mosque in Istanbul, Turkey are all examples of this cherished and beautiful architectural tradition.
Arguably the greatest and most influential architect of all time, however, was the Ottoman architectural master, Mimar Sinan, who lived from 1489 to 1588. He lived during the zenith of the Ottoman Empire, during the reigns of sultans Selim I, Suleyman, Selim II, and Murad III. During this time, the iconic skyline of Istanbul was changed forever, with the beautiful additions of great sultans via Mimar Sinan.
Mimar was the son of a Greek or Armenian convert to Islam, Abd al-Mannan. He joined the elite corps of the Ottoman army, the Janissaries as a young man, like his father did before him. In the Janissaries, Sinan showed early talent as an engineer. He rose up through the ranks, becoming an officer in the army who participated in numerous military campaigns under sultans Selim and Suleyman. As the Ottoman armies marched to new extents in Europe, Africa, and Persia, Sinan went with them, organizing engineering corps for the military, as well as building mosques and other civil buildings in newly Ottoman cities. In 1538, his talents could no longer be ignored and he was given a position as the head architect of the sultan’s government in Istanbul.
Sinan certainly had a lot of practice in designing buildings. As he began his career, he built smaller mosques across the empire. He built the Khusruwiyah Mosque in Aleppo, Syria in 1547, which remains today as a landmark in that city. He also renovated the mosque of Imam Abu Hanifa in Baghdad, and the mosque of Jalal al-Din al-Rumi in Konya. These projects all gave Sinan a good background in architecture and engineering, and they also provided him with the skills he would need once he started building larger monuments to the glory of Islam.The timeless gem of Istanbul’s architecture has always been the Hagia Sophia. It was built as a Christian church in 537 by the Byzantines and was converted to a mosque to serve the new Muslim population after Mehmed II’s conquest of the city in 1453. Since then, Ottoman architects had used the Hagia Sophia’s giant dome as a template for how to design Muslim mosques. Ottoman mosques were thus based on a premise of having one giant central dome over the main prayer hall that was held up by numerous semi-domes on its sides. This greatly increasing the mosque’s size and capacity. Despite the numerous attempts through the decades to top the Hagia Sophia in size and beauty, no architect was able to accomplish such a feat. Mimar Sinan made it his goal to build a monument to Islam that was more magnificent than the epic Hagia Sophia.
The 40th president of the United States, Ronald Reagan famously stated in a piece in the New York Times in 1993,
“May I offer you the advice of the 14th century Arab historian Ibn Khaldun, who said: “At the beginning of the empire, the tax rates were low and the revenues were high. At the end of the empire, the tax rates were high and the revenues were low.”
And, no, I did not personally know Ibn Khaldun, although we may have had some friends in common!”1
Although one may agree or disagree with the conservative economic policies of Ronald Reagan, there is no denying the genius of the man he is quoting – Ibn Khaldun. He was centuries ahead of his time. His monumental work, the Muqaddimah, published in 1377, is hard to categorize. All at once it is a resource on history, Islam, science, sociology, economics, politics, warfare, and philosophy. One article on the entire book would be a disservice to Ibn Khaldun and the great amount of knowledge he left for subsequent generations. Instead, this article will focus only on some of his economic ideas, which centuries later form some of the basic ideas we use in government taxation today.
The Great Mosque of Cordoba was originally built in the 750s by the first Umayyad emir of al-Andalus, Abd al-Rahman I. It was enlarged as time went on to serve the growing Muslim community of Spain. In 1236, Christian Castile conquered Cordoba and converted the mosque into a cathedral. It has been used as a cathedral since, but its history as a Muslim place of worship remains evident.
When Muslims conquered Jerusalem in 637, religious rights and freedoms were preserved for the city’s non-Muslim residents.
Jerusalem is a city holy to the three largest monotheistic faiths – Islam, Judaism, and Christianity. Because of its history that spans thousands of years, it goes by many names: Jerusalem, al-Quds, Yerushaláyim, Aelia, and more, all reflecting its diverse heritage. It is a city that numerous Muslim prophets called home, from Sulayman and Dawood to Isa (Jesus), may Allah be pleased with them.
During the Prophet Muhammad ﷺ’s life, he made a miraculous journey in one night from Makkah to Jerusalem and then from Jerusalem to Heaven – the Isra’ and Mi’raj. During his life, however, Jerusalem never came under Muslim political control. That would change during the caliphate of Umar ibn al-Khattab, the second caliph of Islam.
During Muhammad ﷺ’s life, the Byzantine Empire made clear its desire to eliminate the new Muslim religion growing on its southern borders. The Expedition of Tabuk thus commenced in October 630, with Muhammad ﷺ leading an army of 30,000 people to the border with the Byzantine Empire. While no Byzantine army met the Muslims for a battle, the expedition marked the beginning of the Muslim-Byzantine Wars that would continue for decades.
During the rule of the caliph Abu Bakr from 632 to 634, no major offensives were taken into Byzantine land. It was during the caliphate of Umar ibn al-Khattab, that Muslims would begin to seriously expand northwards into the Byzantine realm. He sent some of the ablest Muslim generals, including Khalid ibn al-Walid and Amr ibn al-’As to fight the Byzantines. The decisive Battle of Yarmuk in 636 was a huge blow to Byzantine power in the region, leading to the fall of numerous cities throughout Syria such as Damascus.
In many cases, Muslim armies were welcomed by the local population – both Jews and Christians. The majority of the Christians of the region were Monophysites, who had a more monotheistic view of God that was similar to what the new Muslims were preaching. They welcomed Muslim rule over the area instead of the Byzantines, with whom they had many theological differences.
Capture of Jerusalem
By 637, Muslim armies began to appear in the vicinity of Jerusalem. In charge of Jerusalem was Patriarch Sophronius, a representative of the Byzantine government, as well as a leader in the Christian Church. Although numerous Muslim armies under the command of Khalid ibn al-Walid and Amr ibn al-’As began to surround the city, Sophronius refused to surrender the city unless Umar came to accept the surrender himself.
Having heard of such a condition, Umar ibn al-Khattab left Madinah, travelling alone with one donkey and one servant. When he arrived in Jerusalem, he was greeted by Sophronius, who undoubtedly must have been amazed that the caliph of the Muslims, one of the most powerful people in the world at that point, was dressed in no more than simple robes and was indistinguishable from his servant.
Umar was given a tour of the city, including the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. When the time for prayer came, Sophronius invited Umar to pray inside the Church, but Umar refused. He insisted that if he prayed there, later Muslims would use it as an excuse to convert it into a mosque – thereby depriving Christendom of one of its holiest sites. Instead, Umar prayed outside the Church, where a mosque (called Masjid Umar – the Mosque of Umar) was later built.
The Treaty of Umar
As they did with all other cities they conquered, the Muslims had to write up a treaty detailing the rights and privileges regarding the conquered people and the Muslims in Jerusalem. This treaty was signed by Umar and Patriarch Sophronius, along with some of the generals of the Muslim armies. The text of the treaty read:
No war has had as big an impact on the modern Middle East as the First World War, which lasted from 1914-1918. The war signaled the end of the Ottoman Empire, a major world power since the fifteenth century, and the final victory of Western European imperialism. In the aftermath of the war, almost the entire Muslim world was occupied by foreign forces, something that had never happened before, not during the Crusades, the Mongol invasion, or the Spanish Reconquista. One of the most important (and most debated) aspects of WWI was the revolt of the Arabs against the Ottoman Empire. Was this revolt a manifestation of overwhelming Arab resistance to the Turkish Ottoman Empire, or just a small band of warriors who did not represent Arab sentiment at large?