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Religion Library: Sunni Islam

Exploration and Conquest

Written by: Nancy Khalek

Beginning as early as the 9th century, Turks had joined the Islamic world, first as slaves and soldiers. The Abbasid Caliph Mu'tasim (833-842) had a Turkish guard. Turkish officers often rose to high rank, even ruling over regions as princes. As the Abbasid Empire disintegrated politically, Turkish tribes streamed into Islamic territory. In western Asia in the second half of the 11th century, the Seljuk Turks constituted a third major constituency to the Islamic World.

A wave of Mongol invasions intruded into the Muslim world in the 13th century, under the famous leader Genghis Khan. This dealt a violent blow to the waning Abbasid caliphate. By the fourth decade of that century, major cities fell to the Mongols, including Baghdad, which was sacked in 1258. Al-Mutasim was to be the final in the long line of Abbasid Caliphs. Syria was next, and Damascus and Aleppo, major centers of administration, fell in 1260. In Egypt, where the Ayyubid dynasty had recently held power, a class of slave soldiers known as the Mamluks was increasing in power as well. At the Battle of Ayn Jalut in 1260, the Mamluks defeated the Mongols, a victory which was succeeded by another victory for the Mamluks on behalf of Syria. The Ottoman Empire, the last bastion of the Caliphate, declined in the Early Modern period, and collapsed in the 20th century.

Ottoman Empire in 1683Osman I, a Turk, initiated a new regime that would result in the last Sunni caliphate, that of the Ottoman Empire, which endured through the early modern and modern era and then collapsed at the end of World War I.  The institution of the caliphate was eventually abolished by Mustafa Kemal Ataturk, who established the secular Turkish Republic in 1923.

Departure of Mehmed VI, last Sultan of the Ottoman Empire,1922Other regions that were part of the Islamic world, especially in South Asia, never instituted caliphates. Especially after the mid-13th century, devolution into a vast and fragmented commonwealth, as opposed to a highly centralized Empire, meant that local governing bodies had power over particular regions. In many ways, the position of the caliph became one that was largely symbolic, one that signified where loyalties could lie, if not where actual power or the authority to govern truly resided.

Islam had been in Africa almost from its inception. In the 7th century, when Muhammad and the earliest Muslims faced persecution in their hometown of Mecca, Muhammad had sent an expedition in search of safe haven in Ethiopia. Existing communities adapted to a diverse array of Islamic practices, including Sufism. In the Early Modern and Modern periods, trade in West Africa empowered the Muslim population.  Today, Islam is practiced mainly in North and Northeast Africa, and in the Sahel.

Study Questions:
     1.    Why is the Umayyad period the “unofficial” beginning of Sunni Islam?           
     2.    How has the institution of the caliphate divided Islam? When did it begin and when was it abolished?
     3.    Why did many Southeast Asian countries choose not to participate in the caliphate?


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