Mahmud of Ghazni – The First Sultan

Sultan Mahmud Ghaznawi

Mahmud of Ghazni was born in 971 AD and became the greatest ruler of the Ghaznavid Empire which stretched from Western Iran to Northern India. Coming to power in 998 AD, he went on to be the first ever ‘Sultan’, a title he assumed in order to assert his political authority. At the same time he observed the spiritual authority of the Abbasid Caliph in Baghdad, at a time when the Caliph’s authority was significantly less important than before; but Mahmud didn’t necessarily  do this out of the goodness of his heart – gaining the religious legitimacy of the Caliphate strengthened his call for a Jihad against the Hindu kingdoms of the Indian Subcontinent.

Mahmud Ghanznawi Robe from Caliph
Mahmud putting on a robe sent by the Abbasid Caliph

The booty and riches taken from a total of 17 expeditions to the Subcontinent allowed him to establish Ghazni as an imperial city which could attract scholars such as Ferdowsi and al-Biruni. The latter actually accompanied Mahmud on one of his expeditions to India and was able gain a lot of knowledge in a range of subjects that the Indians had excelled in (e.g. Astronomy and Mathematics), ultimately compiling his knowledge in an encyclopedia of sorts on India. 

Mahmud’s invasions of India played a decisive role in expanding Islam in to the Indian Subcontinent (the earlier Umayyads had only conquered up to Sindh). He has since been heavily criticised for his religious policies, especially amongst Indian Hindus. But despite his yearly raids on Hindu kingdoms and stripping the Temples of their materials, Mahmud was much more of a pragmatist than he is often given credit for. His army included Hindus who were allowed to observe their own religion. He didn’t even bother imposing the Jizya tax on his non-Muslim subjects. I mean he even had a male lover! Today he is considered a national hero in Afghanistan, where his capital Ghazni is situated.

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Mahmud’s Tomb in Ghazni, Afghanistan

 

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Koutoubia Mosque

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View from the gardens

Built during the second half of the 12th century by the Almohads, a Moroccan-based Berber Muslim empire (1121-1269). When the Almohads took over Marrakesh in 1147, they destroyed many monuments credited to the Almoravids (their predecessors who they considered heretics). One of the causalities was a previously-built mosque that was taken down and replaced with the Koutoubia Mosque. Subsequently, the Mosque metamorphosized into its present form throughout the second half of the 12th century, with the vital works being carried out during the reign of Almohad Caliph Yaqub al-Mansur (1184-99).

Koutoubia Minaret
The Koutoubia Minaret

Its name, ‘Koutoubia’, is derived from the Arabic word ‘Koutoubiyyin’ or ‘bookseller’ as there were many booksellers plying their trade in a nearby souk (market). The mosque has beautiful, verdant gardens surrounding it and has a distinct minaret which merges Berber, Arab and Andalusian architecture to create a dazzling monument. Built with sandstone, the minaret stands at 70 meters and overlooks the Jema el-Fna, the centre of the old city in Marrakesh.

The Almohads would go on to build other momentous building throughout Morocco and Spain that would share similarities with each other; the Koutoubia’s counterparts can be seen in the form of the La Giralda in Seville and the Hassan Tower in Rabat. (see below).

 

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Herat – Renaissance City

Herat

A key centre for regional powers, Herat’s history stretches back to the Achaemenids circa 500 BC. Since then it has enjoyed the full ups-and-downs of the region’s history. Alexander the Great built a city on its site in 330 BC; the Herat Citadel still stands today and is a testament to his legacy in this city. Herat continued to prosper after the burgeoning Rashidun Arabs wrested it away from the Sassanian Persians in 652 AD. In subsequent centuries it became known as the “Pearl of Khorasan” and  benefited largely from its location on the Silk Road, serving as a linking point in the trade routes between India, the Middle East and China.

The Mongols devastated it in the 13th century before more devastation was brought down by the Turco-Mongolian conqueror Timur who destroyed it in the 1380s, even constructing a skull pyramid after putting its inhabitants to the sword. Timur’s successors, on the other hand, turned Herat into one of the finest cities in the Islamic world during the 15th century. The city served as the capital of Timur’s son Shah Rukh, who made it one of the principle centers of the Timurid Renaissance, a period characterised by increased intellectual and artistic activity. In this period, Herat was home to poets like Jami and painters like Behzad.

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Herat Friday Mosque

The city eventually fell into the hands of the Safavid Persians who used it’s governorship as a training role for the eventual Shah during the 16th century. At the beginning of the 18th century, the nascent Afghans claimed it and ever since then, it has been one of the major cities of Afghanistan. Today Herat is recovering after decades of conflict but the splendour of its Timurid heydays are long-gone. The city has fallen prey to wars and natural disasters. A notable victim of this is the Mousallah Complex, which included a madrasa and a mosque that were initiated at the behest of Goharshad Begum (Shah Rukh’s wife) – it was mostly destroyed in 1885 by the British so the Russians would not be able to use it in case of an invasion (this is now known as the Panjdeh Incident).

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Siege of Vienna

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The Siege of Vienna in 1683 was arguably one of the most important events in Islamic history because of the potential stakes and the aftermath of the result. The Habsburg-Ottoman rivalry had already lasted for almost two centuries leading up to 1683. This rivalry was marked by long periods of coexistence (brought about by treaties) with violent outbursts of conflict. At the expiry of one such treaty, those in charge in Constantinople decided to pursue aggression towards their long-standing rivals. There are differences as to what the motivations behind this Ottoman aggression were; some historians claiming the Sultan only ordered the capturing of border fortresses in Upper Hungary; whilst others argue the decision to besiege Vienna was taken by the Sultan’s chief Vizier, Kara Mustafa, an ambitious man belonging to the Koprulu family who had monopolised the position of Viziership for half a century. Expansionism served a key aim for Kara Mustafa – to play a distracting role to the internal issues faced by the Ottomans, notably the increasingly damaging role played by the Janissaries.

The Ottoman army, along with the help of its Calvinist Hungarian allies, besieged Vienna with a force of around 150,000 soldiers. The Hapsburg Emperor, Leopold I, was immediately forced to flee the city. By the beginning of September the Ottoman miners  had dug underground tunnels to Vienna’s inner walls and actually made significant headway; at the same time, the siege had dragged on for six weeks and living conditions had taken its toll on the city.

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In the backdrop of such dire straits for Vienna, Jan Sobieski showed up at the head of the Holy League army (which had been brought together by Pope Innocent XI). Roughly 70,000 Holy League troops descended upon the Ottoman forces on September 12. The ensuing battle would last for 15 hours and resulted in the decisive defeat of the Ottomans. Apparently, it took the Holy League a week to collect all the booty left behind by the Ottomans.

The fact that the Ottomans targeted the capital of it’s rival, not once but twice (a disastrous attempt had previously been made by Suleiman the Magnificent in 1529), whilst the Hapsburgs couldn’t dream of conquering Constantinople, shows how unequal the rivalry was. But that changed after 1683. When the Holy League forces, led by Jan Sobieski defeated the Ottoman forces just outside of Vienna and lifted the siege, the Ottoman Empire began a stubborn decline which saw their power erode whilst their European adversaries gained strength. In fact this battle is often seen as the turning point in the rivalry between Christian Europe and the Islamic world. Beyond 1683, Muslim states launched no direct assaults on Europe; from that point on, Europe was in the ascendance.

If you’re interested in military history, check out this video we did on Saladin’s victory at the Battle of Hattin in 1187!