I’ve got a draft on the Abbasid dynastic takeover of the Muslim Empire, but I’m waiting to receive in the mail a book that I read back in 2008, because I remember it had some interesting details. So meanwhile, just a meditation on what we have so far. It’s 750 AD, and Islam is a military occupier from Spain to Pakistan. The boundaries of this 8th century Muslim Empire is what defines the modern term “Middle East.” We include Morocco as “Middle East” although geographically it’s as far west as Britain, because the term really isn’t about anything “middle” or “east,” it’s a workaround for “historical Islam.” Modern ME culture is the sociological result of many centuries of the Muslim social structure first being established, then becoming normal, then adapting further.
In 750, there are four social classes. At the top, forever and always at the top, are Muslim natives of the Arabian peninsula. Blood relationship to Mohammed is considered in some ways more important than personal holiness, or perhaps as a second track to holiness. Arabian peninsula society has always been very much about clan ties, so this mindset is made into international law. Taxes from non-Arabs automatically goes to Arabs, at least in this first century. Arabs can get away with nearly anything.
The next social class is the non-Arab Muslims, chiefly Persians at this time. They are treated as second-class citizens, passed over for plum jobs and not given the same subsidies that Arabs get. Since the Persian Empire was an independent and proud country since the time of Cyrus and Darius, they are discontented. Their civilization is much more refined than the desert nomad’s. Persians have been the astronomers, mathematicians and philosophers for a long time; you may recall from the Christian stories that “wise men of the East” saw the natal star and came to seek “the King of the Jews” in Jerusalem.
Non-Arab non-Muslims are the lowest free social class. They bear the burden of pacifying the quarrelsome Arabs by being so visibly low that even a poor Arab can feel superior. This is open and deliberate strategy. From this lowest free class, many slide into slavery, which is not racial. Slavery in the ancient world is caused by failure in commerce and war; it’s the lot of losers. It’s the fourth, lowest class. There is no sentiment that human have inalienable natural rights; that philosophy will grow out of the post-medieval world about 900 years later.
Arab nomads were among the most primitive people of the region, lagging far behind the farming cultures of Egypt, Iraq and Syria. They are still hunter-gatherers; they don’t think ahead about the future in the ways that farm cultures do. Nomadic cultures such as the Plains Indians and the Mongols, have always tended to use force to get whatever they couldn’t make for themselves or get easily by trade. People who accept use of force easily tend to be proud and easily offended. They think of themselves as impoverished but morally superior. They see the adaptations of farm culture as the ways of losers, and they are proven right every time they descend on a farm community to pillage and slaughter. (I’m generalizing here among Sioux, Mongol, Tartar, and Arab cultures.)
When these people are suddenly elevated to the top, socially, they become even more arrogant. While some individuals may dislike seeing so many people living in debased conditions, the average person takes it as normal and fitting. Everyone, including the debased classes, assumes it’s normal. They adapt psychologically by assuming that it’s appropriate, too. Non-Arab non-Muslims want to live this way. It’s how they are. They are craven and dirty. They don’t wash. Their children are brats. They have low morals. They’re trailer trash.
People who converted to Islam in order to get out of the low class wanted to get in on the perks, so they were not reformers. They became arrogant themselves. Essentially, the social system bred a strong sense of entitlement because that’s what it was about: entitlement. A lot of the problems we see in the modern cultures can be traced back to this foundation. You get what you want by demanding it, by rioting in the street, not by quietly working at it yourself over many generations.
Work is for other people, especially dirty work. Local government is always basically about garbage collection (and fixing roads). Anyone who’s pretty sure that they’re entitled to never pick up a piece of litter with their own hands is also quite likely to delegate the actual work of hiring garbage collectors, while retaining the title. So there were generations on generations of people raised to think they were above dirty work but that some lower class was always there to do it.
And what’s really super intolerable is if your garbage-collecting class finds a way to get honored. Let’s say they are given some scruffy, malaria-ridden land and they turn it into a world-class nation. It’s simply intolerable and if you were part of this culture, you wouldn’t even have the words to explain why it’s intolerable. It’s because every action and thought of your culture is based on the idea that humans are not equal, and that your class is entitled by birth. You don’t have to explain why it’s not fair for Jews to get some of your land and get ahead. You don’t have to prove that they got ahead unfairly, probably by some kind of theft. It’s self-evident.
The system that the Umayyads set up kept them on the throne for a century but did far-reaching damage to their own people and set the conditions for riots, graft and injustice for a long time to come.