Compare and contrast two aspects of three empires within the sphere of Islam regarding their cultural and artistic positionings and attitude toward non-Muslim communities by focusing on:
- their orientation, and influencers in style from places outside of their borders
- compare and contrast political positioning on non-Muslim communities with imperial sites’ accessibility for ordinary people among these three polities
Muslim-majority and Muslim-ruled societies underwent massive transformations during the medieval period. They went from being united under centralized, Arab-dominated caliphates like the Umayyads and Abbasids to being ruled by smaller, decentralized regional powers. Many of these regional powers were non-Arab or and had different religious traditions. As a result, Muslim societies featured very different kinds of social organization.
Within each society, complex social relations governed the lives of residents. People’s lives were defined by their religion, ethnicity, social class, gender, and legal status. Because so many factors were involved, it’s difficult to generalize about life in the Muslim world during this time. To better understand it, it’s helpful to explore the different social institutions and hierarchies that determined people’s experiences.
Religious identity was an important aspect of life. Non-Muslims and Muslims following different traditions had different experiences, and there is a lot of scholarly debate about whether non-Muslims were persecuted or treated comparatively well in Muslim societies. There is no simple answer; the treatment of non-Muslims varied considerably depending on the context.
Generally, non-Muslims were able to practice their religions and exerted some degree of autonomy in governing their own internal affairs and commercial activity. As a protected class, called dhimmi, they were accorded these freedoms provided they paid a special tax called a jizya and accepted Muslim rule.
Non-Muslims did not always enjoy the same legal and social privileges as Muslims, though. Sometimes they had restrictions on their dress, public religious display, professions, and places of worship. They also paid higher taxes and tariffs. Additionally, non-Muslim men could not marry Muslim women. However, these restrictions were enforced inconsistently. Harassment and exploitation of non-Muslims was often heightened during times of political and economic turmoil.
Still, Christians and Jews were often integrated into societies and played roles in administrative, cultural, and scientific institutions. Over time, non-Muslims developed relationships with the caliphate. They were able to negotiate favorable policies which ensured that they had freedom over their religious practice. This relationship also facilitated the construction and repair of churches and monasteries.
Islam began in the Arabian peninsula, and the first Islamic empires and had a distinctly Arab character. The Umayyad Caliphate in particular gave preference to Arabs and used Arabic as its administrative language. Non-Arab Muslims, called mawali, Arabic for clients, were accorded lower status and paid higher taxes, though they often played important clerical roles. This created a lot of resentment against the Umayyads among the caliphate’s non-Arab subjects.
Ultimately, non-Arab Muslims, namely Persians, were incorporated into the Abbasid state, where they exerted considerable cultural influence. The Arab dominance of the Rashidun and Umayyad courts waned in the Abbasid Caliphate, and as Abbasid power declined, Persian, Turkic, and Berber powers rose in its place.