The World in 1013 AD: China Rising, Militant Islam in Kabul, & Sunni-Shiite Struggles in Mideast

Just for fun: What was our world like a thousand years ago? Of course, technologically very different, but Song China and Muslim Spain had made real advances in science, technology and infrastructure. If CNN had existed then, what major events would they have listed and passed around by carrier pigeon? Some of the themes salient then are still recognizable today.

1. Among the more advanced societies in 1013 was the Umayyad caliphate of Spain, with its capital at al-Zahra near Cordoba. In that year, the renowned physician Abu al-Qasim al-Zahrawi, the father of operative surgery, died near Cordoba in the new artificial city of al-Zahra. His medical textbook, al-Tasrif, was translated into Latin and used for 500 years in Europe. He discusses 200 surgical instruments, some of which he invented. Cordoba at the time had 3000 mosques, 300 public baths, 70 libraries, and a population estimated between 400,000 and a million. It was the largest city in the world and among the more advanced. 1013 however marked the beginning of its decline. A rival Umayyad claimant attacked it in 1010-1013, and his Berber troops looted it and nearby al-Zahra. Many prominent and wealthy citizens had to flee, including some members of the Jewish community.

Great Mosque of Cordoba, photo by Juan Cole, June, 2011

The Umayyads also built a nearby sister city, al-Zahra, in the 900s, which was also a marvel, but in 1013 and again after the Umayyad caliphate ended in 1031 al-Zahra was attacked, looted, and sank beneath the sands, becoming mere legend. Spanish archeologists rediscovered it in 1908 or so and have excavated 10% of it. It is a day trip from Cordoba and has an excellent museum, and is well worth the trip.

Al-Zahra, Photo by Juan Cole, June, 2011

2. The Song period in China was in many ways a harbinger of our own modernity, witnessing significant urbanization and industrialization. Some observers suggest that its capital, later known as Kaifeng, surpassed Cordoba in size in 1013, though that is only true if we take the lower estimates for the latter city’s size at that time. In any case, in 1013, as in 2013, China was poised to become the world’s leading economy.

3. 1013 AD in the Middle East was the apogee of Shiite power. The Ismaili Shiite dynasty, the Fatimids, ruled North Africa, Egypt, and much of the Levant. The Shiites of Lebanon, the Alawites of Syria, the Druze of both countries, and some of the strength of Zaydi Shiite Islam in Yemen today all have their historical origins in part in Fatimid Shiite dominance. The Fatimids belonged to the Ismaili branch of Shiism.

Fatimid Empire

Shiite Muslims believe that after the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632, power should have been put in the hands of the closest thing he had to a living son, his son-in-law and first cousin, Ali b. Abi Talib. After Ali, it should have gone to the descendants of Muhammad through Ali and Fatimah (the Prophet’s daughter). The schism came with the succession to the sixth such successor to the Prophet, or Imam, Imam Ja`far al-Sadiq. The Ismailis follow his eldest son Isamil and his descendants.

In the 800s and 900s, Ismaili proselytizers had success among North African Berber tribes, who formed the backbone of the armies that took Tunisia, Egypt and much of the Middle East. The Fatimids founded Cairo under the astrological sign of Mars, to indicate success in War, in 969. The al-Azhar seminary, which the new Egyptian constitution has just made an arbiter of Islamically-derived laws in Egypt, was founded as an Ismaili university in 970-972. Some scholars have argued that the al-Azhar became influential on the European idea of the university. In 1017, the Fatimids completed the building of the al-Hakim Mosque, which is still a tourist attraction in Cairo. Fatimid-era Shiite movements survived the later revival of Sunnism in the Levant, which is what makes Lebanon and Syria so religiously complex today. But in Egypt and North Africa, the later Sunni revival made these areas religiously monochrome. I argued Tuesday that in contrast to 1013, in 2013 we are seeing a revival of Sunni Muslim religious parties and power.

4. Iran and Iraq were dominated by the Iranian Shiite Buyid dynasty, though most subjects were Sunni Muslims and the Buyids kept the Sunni Abbasid caliph, the sort of pope of the Sunnis, in office even as they deprived him of most temporal power. The Buyids may have originally been Zaydis from Mazandaran in Iran (as are many tribes of northern Yemen today), but they converted to Twelver Shiism over time.

Twelver Shiites followed the younger son of Imam Ja`far al-Sadiq, Musa al-Kazim, whose shrine is in north Baghdad and lends its name to the neighborhood of Kazimiya. They believe the line ended with the Twelfth Imam. The Twelfth Imam is hidden and will one day reappear, sort of like the return of Christ, as the conquering Mahdi or promised one. Gradually, the Shiite clergy were given some of the prerogatives originally belonging to the Imams, but in 1017 there still wasn’t much in the way of a professional Shiite clergy. The situation in 1013 in Iraq, with a Shiite dynasty ruling, is similar to that in 2013, though of course Iraq is now a republic with a Shiite majority. The discontents of Sunni Iraqis under Shiite rule, however, have some resemblances (and although they are not now ruled by Iran, many assert that they may as well be!). Historian Richard Bulliet has argued that cotton cash-cropping, made possible by the medieval warming period (900-1250) underpinned the economic efflorescence of Iran in that era. Today, Iraq and Iran depend heavily on petroleum exports rather than agricultural goods (cotton instead is a staple of the Egyptian economy today).


Mahmoud of Ghazni, the great Turkic Muslim conqueror from Central Asia, in 1013 took Kabul and Punjab from the Hindushahiya rajas who had formed a coalition to keep him from coming down into India.

This was one episode in a long history of interaction between Central Asian Islam and Hindu South Asia that continues in Indo-Pak relations. But geopolitically, the threat of the tribes beyond the Hindu Kush to the plains of Punjab is still salient in the struggle of urbane Punjabis against frontier Taliban today.

6. Although it probably wasn’t very important then, some things did happen in Europe. King Sweyn 1 of Denmark and his son Canute invaded England and briefly dethroned Ethelred (who thereby got the sobriquet “the Unready.” He fled for a while to Normandy, which was probably unwise. It may have suggested to the Normans that the king of England was weak and ripe for the plucking. In Ireland, in 1013 Mael Morda, King of Leinster, allies with the head of the Dublin Vikings Sigtrygg Silkbeard against Ireland’s High King, Brian mac Cennétig (Kennedy).

Modern parallels? Well, tongue in cheek: Denmark is today light years beyond Britain in green energy, and if the Tories go on wavering on green policy, they will eventually be branded “Unready” by a British public that suffers from climate change. And, well, US politics has a Kennedy on Capitol Hill again, who probably is safe from the Republican silkbeards in 2014.

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22 Responses

  1. There is a great alternate history novel by Kim Stanley Robinson called “The Years of Rice and Salt” where the plague wipes out Europe and mid-east, Asia & other powers come to dominate. Starts around this time.

  2. Fascinating history, but you make a mistake when you venture over to Europe in 1013. Ethelred was not ‘unready’ for invasion, but rather received bad advice about how to defend his country. It’s a pun in Old English. From Wikipedia:

    ” ‘Unready’ is a mistranslation of Old English unræd (meaning bad-counsel) —a twist on his name ‘Æthelred’ (meaning noble-counsel). A better translation would be ‘ill-advised’.”

  3. What are the reasons for the decline of the Muslim world and the rise of Europe? I have heard that climate change in the the Middle East caused drought and a decline in agriculture, while Northern Europe became warmer and more productive.

    • The decline of the Muslim World is primarily due to Al-Ghazali and the Ashar’ites shutting down free inquiry in the 10th and 11th centuries. Prior to the ascendence of the Ashar’ites, Islam was very progressive and encouraged free enquiry in the sciences and philosophy. Al Ghazali’s seminal work, “The Incoherence of the Philosophers,” as well as the Ashar’ite School, completely negated free, rational enquiry, claiming that it was blasphemous, and that all knowledge was contained in the Qur’an. This had the unsurprising effect of cutting the Muslim World off from rational enquiry, while the West began to advance as a result of the pre-Renaissance re-discovery of philosophy and rational enquiry.

      Islam makes no distinction betweeen the sacred and the secular, and there has never been an Islamic equivalent of the 18th century European Enlightenment, separating rational enquiry from faith. That the 10th and 11th century movements, represented by Al Ghazali and the Ashar’ites, replaced rational inquiry with faith and revelation remains an obstacle to modernization in Islamic societies to this day.

      • Free inquiry continued in Central Asia (Merv and Samarkand) for a few more centuries until everything fell apart in various wars. From what I can tell your basic cultural outline is accurate.

      • So maybe these guys (the Ashar’ites, that is) all moved to Texas, where they have settled in comfortably to “fix” the school curriculum, which also apparently is destined — predestined? — to kill the distinction between sacred and secular? I guess we the enlightened Westerners are destined, ah, pre-destined? – to meet our Doppelganagers from the reactionary pit of the Arab/Muslim world somewhere in the middle of another “warming-“induced Noah’s Flood, there being so much that’s blasphemous, per Jerry Falwell and Anal Roberts and Pat Robertson and Tedd “Pataprettyboy’sbottom” Whatsisname, in that, you know, “Science stuff.”

        Wonder what we have to look forward to now, hey?

    • Probably another contributing reason to Bill’s excellent summary is the onslaught of the Mongols. The 13th century witnessed particularly a large section of the Muslim world attacked and literally razed to the ground by the Mongols and this also spilled to the intellectual side. The famed library of Baghdad and similar libraries and academic institutions in other cities of the Muslim world were the intellectual casualties from which the Muslims never seemed to recover

  4. The world’s first novel, The Tale of the Gengi, was written in Japan by Lady Murasaki around 1000. The Japanese had earlier learned writing from the Chinese. In 2012, a Chinese man, Mo Yan, won the Nobel in literature. He beat a Japanese author who many had been betting on.

  5. and none – none of them respect or honour women. No chance for the region until that happens, it’s a wasteland of despicable misogyny.

    • In the period Juan is talking about, NOBODY respected women. It was a lot worse than back in ancient Egypt.

      • Nathanael – your assertion about NOBODY respected women than can be challenged – e.g. the wife of Otto I, Adelheid, was made a co-regent and crowned with him in 960’s A.D., so women wielded power and were respected…

        • Just wanted to correct that. In the Fatimid Egypt, women did acquire enough power that they were free to reign either as vice-regent or even freely in some of the vassal state. Actually the name Fatimid, chosen by the dynasty honors Fatima, the daughter of the Prophet Muhammad and wife of the first Shi’ite Imam Ali

        • There were many women rulers in various parts of the world in ancient times, from Egypt to the Queen of Sheba, and another famous queen of Yemen, Arwa, who ruled from 1067 until her death in 1138. And of course Eleanor of Aquitaine, who ruled France and England for quite a long period in the 12th century. However, this does not negate Nigella’s point that most women were lacking the human rights we take as our due today. I would say that’s true no matter what continent they were on.

  6. I love all this ancient history, especially the tantalizing advances of Muslim science which — it seems — died out later, as science rose in Europe.

    Today, as the USA and China and much of the world IGNORE the science of CLIMATE CHANGE, the whole world is showing itself “unready” or “ill-advised” and much of the Republican party in the USA shows itself to be anti-science, as if wishing the USA to die back (as science in Islam did after 1013).

    The history I’d love to read is not the who-won and who-lost, the battles, etc., but the reasons for the advances and retreats toward and away from knowledge, toward and away from freedom (for anybody!), and the like.

    If climate-change is the reason for the advance of Europe and the retreat of Islam (as it was for the retreat of the Central-American Mayans and the North-American Anasazi — then shouldn’t we REALLY be talking about that?

    • Climate change was not the reason for the advance of Europe and the retreat of Islam (see above).

      • Bill,

        Multiple explanations are possible. Bad ideas and bad weather can be a brutal combination, as they found out on the Great Plains circa 1930.

    • If you ask the players on Wall Street and in the “City,” well hey, all that climate change is just another kind of volatility out of which the sharper creatures among us can squeeze some really great profit opportunities. So what’s the worry?

  7. The Arab nation wants Freedom. The “law above all” and a democratic system that go along with there hope of a United Arab Nations.
    What we learn from history is our dreams are indeed possible and done before.
    So let us concentrate our writing on how this can be done… and start now..

  8. I, like Pablemont, am fascinated by ancient history. Pablemont’s note about the decline of Islamic science and the rise of European enlightenment was answered by Bill’s earlier comment about “Al-Ghazali and the Ashar’ites shutting down free inquiry in the 10th and 11th centuries.” I used to debate the reason for the decline of Islamic science with a Tunisian Muslim friend that was educated in the French education system – probably the most erudite person I ever met. But, he couldn’t tell me why Islamic science declined – I had to find that out through reading and research on my own – thus the discovery of “Al-Ghazali.” Islam has never been able to re-establish its former freedom of thought from the Al-Ghazali strictures. In examining the underpinning of the “lesser Jihadism” I address some of these Qur’an strictures in my recently released book. Best wishes to all – and thanks for a great discussion.

    • One of the things religions do is rewrite history to cover their tracks. Christians today can’t explain why much of their dogma doesn’t seem to be in the Bible, because it was concocted for later political reasons. Yet they can’t accept that such manipulation occurs.

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