Post-classical history


‘Abbasids: The dynasty of Sunni caliphs reigning at the time of the Crusades. The ‘Abbasids deposed and took power from the previous reigning dynasty, the Umayyads, in 750. Soon after they established their capital at Baghdad, from which they reigned until the Mongol conquest of 1258 (with the exception of a portion of the ninth century, when they made Samarra their capital). Baybars re-established the caliphate in Cairo in 1261, from which they reigned until the Ottoman conquest of the Mamluk state in 1516–17.

Allah: The Arabic word for God, meaning the god worshipped by followers of all the major monotheistic faiths.

Al-Andalus: The Arabic term used to refer to the Iberian Peninsula and the Muslim states therein. The modern Spanish word ‘Andalucia’ derives from this.

Assassins: See Nizaris.

Atabeg: Turkish: ‘father-lord’. Atabegs were military regents, ruling on the behalf of a (usually underage) Seljuk prince. They were normally originally mamluks. Needless to say, in a significant number of cases atabegs usurped power from their charges.

Awlad al-Nas: Arabic: ‘the sons of the people’. The term used to refer to the descendants of mamluks in the Mamluk Sultanate. Although they might be wealthy and privileged, they were usually limited in how far they could ascend the military–political hierarchy.

Ayyubids: Term used to refer to the family of Ayyub ibn Shadhi (d. 1173), the father of Saladin (r. 1169–93). After Saladin’s death, other Ayyubids took over his territories, ruling them until the mid-thirteenth century.

Bahn (Turkish) Mamluk Sultanate: The first period of mamluk rule in Egypt and Syria (1250–1382), named after the Bahriyya and characterized by the fact that most of the sultans were Kipchak Turks.

Bahriyya: An important mamluk regiment. The Bahriyya was created by the Ayyubid sultan al-Salih Ayyub (r. 1240–9). The name derives from the fact that their original barracks was on Rawda island on the River (Arabic: bahr) Nile.

Bilad al-Sham: Arabic: ‘the country of Syria’. The term used in the Arabic sources to refer to, approximately, modern Syria, Lebanon, Jordan, Israel, the Palestinian autonomous areas and the edge of south-eastern Turkey. Sometimes the region is simply referred to as al-Sham.

Burji (Circassian) Mamluk Sultanate: The second period of mamluk rule in Egypt and Syria (1382–1517), during which most of the sultans were Circassians.

Burjiyya: Another important mamluk regiment. The creation of the Burjiyya is usually ascribed to the Mamluk sultan Qalawun (r. 1279–90). Their name derives from the fact that they were originally quartered in a tower (Arabic: burj) of the Citadel in Cairo.

Buyids: Also known as the Buwayhids. Members of the Persian Shi’ite Buyid dynasty took control of Baghdad and the ‘Abbasid caliphs in 945. Rather than ending the Sunni ‘Abbasid line of caliphs, they had themselves appointed as their ‘deputies’, wielding effective power but maintaining the caliphs as figureheads. Buyid rule in Baghdad was continuous until 1055, when they were displaced by the Seljuks.

Caliph: Anglicization of the Arabic term khalifa. After the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632 his followers elected a new leader for their community. The title given to this leader was khalifa (deputy, successor), a term that indicated leadership without suggesting that he was another prophet. The subsequent early caliphs were chosen by (approximate) consensus, but the caliph Mu’awiya ibn Abi Sufyan (r. 661–80) established a dynastic succession (the Umayyad caliphate), and the dynastic principle continued to be followed by other families who claimed the caliphate.

Dar al-‘Adl: Arabic: ‘the house of justice’. A building where the ruler or his deputy would appear regularly to hear and address the grievances of his subjects. Probably the best known example is that of Nur al-Din (r. 1146–74) established in Damascus after his takeover of the city in 1154.

Dar al-‘Ahd: See Dar al-Sulh.

Dar al-Harb: Arabic: ‘the abode of war’. In Islamic law, dar al-harb is non-Muslim territory, against the inhabitants of which Muslims were expected to fight.

Dar al-islam: Arabic: ‘the abode of Islam’. Territory where Islam is the dominant religion, and in particular the religion of the rulers.

Dar al-Sulh: Arabic: ‘the abode of peace’. Also known as dar al-‘ahd (the abode of the treaty), dar al-sulh is non-Muslim territory, the inhabitants of which are allowed to retain their autonomy, provided that they pay tribute and recognize Muslim authority.

Fada’il: Arabic: ‘merits’. Texts praising the merits of their subjects. Muslim writers wrote fada’il works on a range of topics, including places (e.g. Damascus, Jerusalem) and activities (e.g. jihad).

Fatimids: Isma’ili Shi’ite dynasty of caliphs. The Fatimids established themselves as rulers in Qayrawan (in modern Tunisia) in 910, with their leader, ‘Abd Allah (or ‘Ubayd Allah), being regarded by his supporters as the rightful imam and caliph (ruling with the title al-Mahdi [r. 910–34]). In 969 they took control of Egypt. They founded Cairo and made it the seat of their caliphate for the next two centuries, at times enjoying significant influence in Arabia, the Holy Land and Syria. However, their power declined in the eleventh century, passing into the hands of their viziers, the last of whom was Saladin, who abolished the caliphate in 1171.

Funduq: The Arabic word for a trade hostelry where merchants could stay and store goods, derived from the Greek pandokheion (inn). Funduq is used in modern times to refer to a hotel.

Hadith: Arabic: ‘report’. Accounts of the sayings and actions of the Prophet Muhammad and his Companions. The hadith are used alongside the Qur’an to assist in understanding the holy book’s teachings. From a very early stage Muslim scholars began collecting and writing commentaries on the hadith, including establishing a number of practices for judging their authenticity.

Hajj: Arabic: ‘greater pilgrimage to Mecca’. A ‘pillar of Islam’; every Muslim is expected to undertake the hajj at least once during their lifetime, if they are able. Taking place on the lst-10th of the Muslim month of Dhu’l-Hijja, it involves a number of ritual practices and ends with the ‘Id al-Adha (feast of sacrifice), a commemoration of Abraham’s near-sacrifice of his son Ishmael that is celebrated across the Muslim world.

Halqa: Arabic: ‘circle’. Term used to refer to (a) a circle of students gathered around a scholar, and (b) a regiment in the armies of the Mamluk Sultanate made up of (mostly) free-born troops of various origins.

Hamas (Harakat al-Muqawama al-hlamiyya [Islamic Resistance Movement]): Created in 1987 by members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the charter of Hamas dedicates the organization to the destruction of Israel. Militant action is combined with the promotion of social welfare and Muslim piety, which has helped to improve the movement’s popularity, and it won Palestinian Authority elections in 2006. The following year, after conflict with militants from the rival Fatah faction of government, Hamas became the ruling power in the Gaza Strip. Currently its membership is split between hard-liners who continue to advocate violence against Israel and moderates who favour negotiation.

Hanafis: Followers of the Sunni legal school named after Abu Hanifa (d. 767). Well-known Hanafis from the crusading period include Sibt ibn al-Jawzi (d. 1257) and the Zangid sultan Nur al-Din (r. 1146–74).

Hanbalis: Followers of the Sunni legal school of Ahmad ibn Hanbal (d. 855). Probably the most famous Hanbali scholar of the crusading period is Ibn Taymiyya (d. 1328).

Ifranj: Arabic: ‘Franks’. The term used by the Muslim sources to refer to the Europeans. The term was originally used by Muslim writers to refer to the inhabitants of the Frankish empire of Charlemagne (r. 768–814), whence its derivation, but with the onset of the Crusades it became a term used for Europeans in general, including both those who came to the Levant and their descendants who were born in the Latin states.

Imam: At the basic level, the Arabic term for a prayer-leader. It is also the term used to refer to the spiritual leader of the Muslim community, especially in Shi‘ite Islam, where the identities and precise attributes of the imams are often defining features of each different strand of Shi‘ism.

Iqta‘: Arabic: ‘assignment’. An iqta‘ was a grant to an emir of the right to collect taxes from a particular area of land, given in return for a promise of military service, in a way similar to a classic European feudal fief. An iqta‘ was usually temporary, which did not encourage the holder to see it as anything other than a source of revenue to be taxed as much as possible before it was re-assigned.

Isma‘ili Shi‘ism: In the wake of the death of the imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq in 765 a split occurred within Shi‘ite Islam, provoked by the fact that the next imam-designate, Ja‘far’s son Isma‘il, had predeceased his father. While the Shi‘ites who would become the Twelvers turned to another son of Ja‘far, others maintained that Isma‘il’s son Muhammad was the rightful imam, even though he also had apparently died before Ja‘far. They maintained that Muhammad had not in fact died, but had instead become hidden and would eventually return as the mahdi. The Isma‘ilis became a hierarchical, secretive movement that nevertheless actively sought to proselytize, attracting many followers.

Ithna ‘Ashari Shi‘ism: See Twelver Shi‘ism.

Al-jazira: Arabic: ‘the Peninsula’. The region roughly covering modern southeastern Turkey, north-eastern Syria and north-western Iraq. It is mostly bracketed by the Tigris and Euphrates rivers.

jihad: Arabic: ‘striving’. A struggle undertaken on the behalf of the religion. This can include al-jihad al-akbar (the greater jihad), which involves both an internal struggle against one’s own inner sinfulness and an external struggle in writing or speaking to defend one’s faith; and al-jihad al-asghar (the lesser jihad), military action on behalf of Islam, undertaken within strict regulations including prohibitions on killing non-combatants, destroying property or deliberately killing oneself on the battlefield.

jizya: The poll tax paid by non-Muslims living in Muslim territory, for which they receive rights of protection by their Muslim rulers. Non-Muslims were also expected to abide by certain restrictions, including wearing distinctive dress, not building places of worship or seeking to convert Muslims, and not riding horses or bearing arms. The extent to which these restrictions were actually enforced was highly variable.

Ka‘ba: The shrine of the Black Stone at Mecca. The Ka‘ba is believed to have been built by Abraham and Ishmael, and is the holiest site of Islam.

Khalifa: See Caliph.

Koran: See Qwr’an.

Kuffar: Arabic: ‘blasphemers’ or ‘infidels’. A term applied by the Muslim sources to the Franks, whose claims that Jesus was the son of God were seen by the Muslims as blasphemous. The term is used frequently in the Qwr’an to refer to pagans who refuse to accept the message of Islam, thus enabling Muslim writers to equate the Franks with them.

Madrasa: Madrasas were colleges where various subjects were taught, but especially Islamic religion, theology and law. Under the Seljuks Sunni madrasas proliferated and became the standard institutions where prospective state officials and religious scholars received their education. Madrasas continued to be founded by the Zangids, Ayyubids and Mamluks throughout the crusading period.

Mahdi: In both Sunni and Shi’ite Islam, a messianic figure who will return to restore truth and justice. Belief in the mahdi is particularly prominent in Twelver Shi‘ism, where he is identified as the Twelfth imam Muhammad al-Muntazar, who is regarded as currently being in ‘greater concealment’.

Malikis: Followers of the legal school of Malik ibn Anas (d. 795). While there were a significant number of Maliki scholars in the Levant in the crusading period, the school was much more prominent in Spain and North Africa.

Mamluk: Arabic: ‘owned’. A slave. The term is used in particular for slave-soldiers. Such slaves were normally bought while young on the fringes of the Muslim world, educated in both Islam and the arts of war, and then released upon attaining adulthood. They then formed contingents of troops serving their former masters, and constituted the backbone of the Muslim armies of the crusading period. Most mamluks were Turks or Circassians, but they also included slaves of other ethnicities. When capitalized, the term Mamluk usually refers to the Mamluk Sultanate, the sequence of rulers who controlled Egypt and Syria from 1250 to 1517, who were mostly of mamluk origin.

Mihrab: A prayer niche in a mosque, oriented towards Mecca and hence indicating the direction of prayer.

Minbar: A pulpit in a mosque, from which speeches and prayers are given, including the khutba (sermon) at the Friday noon prayer.

Mirrors for Princes: A genre of Muslim literature that takes the form of books of guidance for rulers on good conduct and wise and just governance.

Mujahid: One who strives in the jihad. The term is used in particular for fighters in the military jihad. A number of rulers included it among their titles as a way of asserting (genuinely or not) their devotion to the jihad against the Franks.

Mushrikun: Arabic: ‘polytheists’. A term used by the Muslim sources of the Franks as a way of denigrating them. The Franks, as Christians, could be accused of being polytheistic in that they could be presented as worshipping three gods (the Holy Trinity), in contrast to the Islamic insistence on God’s oneness. Since the term is also used in the Qur’an of the pagans who opposed the Prophet Muhammad, Muslim writers were thus able to associate the Franks with earlier enemies of Islam.

Nizaris: The Nizari Isma‘ili Shi‘ites split from the Fatimids in 1094 when the Fatimid vizier al-Afdal Shahanshah (d. 1121) set aside the heir apparent, Nizar (d. 1097), in favour of the latter’s younger brother. Nizar was killed soon after, but some of his supporters maintained that his son had been brought to Alamut in Persia, and the line of imams continued there. The followers of this line, the Nizaris, engaged in a programme of political assassination over the next two centuries before being neutralized and driven underground by the Mongols and Mamluks. It is as a result of this programme that they are also sometimes referred to as the Assassins, and various lurid stories were recorded by the sources about their activities and practices, including tales of them using hashish (from which the word ‘assassin’ ultimately derives) as part of their activities. The Nizaris reappeared in central Persia in the fifteenth century and now form the largest Isma’ili community in the world, acknowledging the leadership of a livingimam, the Aga Khan IV (b. 1936).

Pillars of Islam: Five major ritual practices that characterize the religious observances of a Muslim: (1) shahada (profession of faith); (2) salat (ritual prayer); (3) zakat (almsgiving); (4) sawm (fasting); and (5) hajj (greater pilgrimage). The precise manner in which these are observed varies depending on local customs and the particular form of Islam followed by the Muslim in question.

Qadi: A judge or magistrate, versed in Islamic law. Qadis were primarily expected to apply the existing body of legal rulings to cases that needed to be considered, rather than to develop new rulings through delivering legal opinions. The latter was the function of legal experts known as muftis.

Al-Qa‘ida (al-Qaeda): Arabic: ‘the base’. A multinational terrorist network that conducts operations against targets across the world. Al-Qa‘ida was founded by Usama ibn Ladin (Osama bin Laden, d. 2011) in about 1988 with the purpose of supporting Afghan resistance to the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan. It has since grown to become a worldwide network with various allies and affiliates, that has the primary aim of ridding the Muslim world of western influence and establishing its own vision of a unified Muslim state. However, in recent years it has also become highly decentralized, which prevents it from acting as a unified body and limits its capabilities.

Qur’an (Koran): The Muslim holy book, believed to record the actual words of God revealed to Muhammad starting in 610 and ending shortly before the Prophet’s death in 632. According to Muslim tradition the Prophet was illiterate, so the revelations were preserved by his Companions and then compiled during the following decades. Muslims believe that the Qwr’an clarifies the earlier revelations made to the Jews, Christians and others, correcting their errors and misunderstandings, and it is indeed striking that in many parts it reads like a commentary on the Bible and requires a familiarity with the earlier scripture to understand it.

Ramadan: The ninth month of the Muslim year, and the month during which the revelation of the Qwr’an to Muhammad began. Muslims observe the sawm (fast) during Ramadan in commemoration of this.

Rum: The Arabic word for the Byzantines. The word derives from the Greek Rhomaioi (Romans), the term that the Byzantines, seeing themselves as the inheritors of the Roman Empire, used to refer to themselves. The Arabic word was also used to refer to eastern Christians, especially followers of Greek Orthodox Christianity; and to Asia Minor, where many of the conflicts between the Muslims and the Byzantines took place.

Salat Ritual prayer. A ‘pillar of Islam’. Most Muslims perform the salat five times a day, at dawn, noon, mid-afternoon, dusk and in the evening. Before praying, Muslims conduct ritual ablutions to purify themselves. The prayer consists of changes in bodily posture, from standing, to kneeling, to self-prostration, accompanied by ritual recitations and invocations, including passages from the Qwr’an. Salat should be conducted facing Mecca, if possible.

Saljuqs See Sdjuks.

Sawm: Fasting, especially fasting during Ramadan, which is a ‘pillar of Islam’. Muslims, except for those for whom dispensations are made due to age or illness, fast from dawn until sunset during the Muslim month of Ramadan. This commemorates the first revelation of the Qur’an and ends with the ‘Id al-Fitr (feast of the breaking of the fast).

Seljuks: A clan of Central Asian Turks who entered the Muslim world in the late tenth century as part of the wider immigration of Turks into the region. They converted to Islam and led their forces in a campaign of conquest that included the taking of Baghdad and the installation of one of their number as the caliph’s deputy in 1055; this deputy became known as the sultan (the Great Seljuk sultan) and wielded effective power in the state. Seljuk expansion continued west, and in the wake of the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 a second Seljuk sultanate, the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum, was established in Asia Minor. The Great Seljuk Sultanate fragmented at the end of the eleventh century, and by the time that the crusaders arrived in the Levant many of the rulers there paid only nominal allegiance to the Great Seljuk sultan.

Shafi‘is: Followers of the legal school of Muhammad ibn Idris al-Shafi‘i (d. 820). The most famous Shafi’i of the crusading period is Saladin (r. 1169–93).

Shahada: Profession of faith. A ‘pillar of Islam’. The two-part declaration of faith, ‘There is no god except God, and Muhammad is the Messenger of God’, is spoken regularly by Muslims as part of their ritual observances.

Al-Sham: See Bilad al-Sham.

Shaykh: A term used to refer to (1) a highly regarded scholar or teacher and (2) the master of a Sufi order.

Shi‘ites: Followers of a variety of forms of Islam who trace their spiritual origins to early Muslims who advocated that a member of the family of the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (r. 656–61) should lead the Muslim community. The term derives from the Arabic shi‘at ‘Ali (the party of ‘Ali). The various strands of Shi’ism have since developed their own distinctive theologies and practices. Shi‘ites constitute about 10–15 per cent of the Muslim population of the world.

Sufi: A Muslim mystic. Sufis seek to gain a direct, higher-state experience of God through a variety of means, including asceticism and group rituals involving prayer, chanting, music or dance. The name derives from the garments of suf (wool) that they traditionally wore. During the crusading period many Sufis, sometimes with the encouragement of rulers, formed tariqas (orders) gathered in convents and at Muslim saints’ tombs.

Sultan: Arabic: ‘power’. Originally used by the Seljuk ‘deputies’ of the ‘Abbasid caliph, the term ‘sultan’ came to be used as an honorific mark of political power by a number of Muslim rulers, with or without caliphal approval.

Sunnis: Followers of the majority form of Islam, currently constituting about 85–90 per cent of the total Muslim population of the world. The name derives from the Sunna, a word used to refer to the sayings and actions of the Prophet and his Companions, which act as a guide to Muslim conduct and are preserved in the hadith.

Turcomans: See Turkmen.

Turkmen: Free nomadic Turks who served in the armies of the Seljuks and later dynasties. They generally travelled with their families and flocks, at least initially, though many then settled in the new lands taken by the Seljuks. They were esteemed for their abilities as highly mobile horse-archers, though they were also often seen as undisciplined.

Twelver Shi‘ism: When the imam Ja‘far al-Sadiq died in 765, the Shi‘ite community faced a crisis, as the next imam-designate, Ja‘far’s son Isma‘il, had died before his father. Many Shi‘ites eventually accepted that the next imam was another son of Ja‘far, Musa al-Kazim (d. 799), while others developed contrasting views that led to the birth of Isma‘ili Shi‘ism. Meanwhile the followers of Musa continued to trace a line of imams through his descendants until the tenth century when, according to their beliefs, the twelfthimam, Muhammad al-Muntazar, went into ‘greater concealment’, from which he will return as the mahdi at the end of time. The Twelvers, as they became known, form the majority of Shi‘ites in the world today.

‘Ulama’ (Ulema): The class of Muslim scholars educated in religion, theology and law. Muslim rulers would often patronize the ‘ulama’ as a means to prove their devotion to Islam.

Umayyads: The first dynasty of caliphs to establish a hereditary succession. The first caliph of the Umayyad dynasty, Mu‘awiya ibn Abi Sufyan (r. 661–80), took control of the Muslim state after fighting a civil war against the caliph ‘Ali ibn Abi Talib (r. 656–61). Later he designated his son Yazid (r. 680–3) to succeed him. Members of the Umayyad family continued to rule, making their capital at Damascus, until 750, when they were ousted by the ‘Abbasids.

Vizier: The deputy of a ruler, and often a powerful figure in the state. The word derives from the Arabic wazir, which is used in the modern day to refer to a government minister.

Zakat: Almsgiving. A ‘pillar of Islam’. Muslims are required to donate a portion of their wealth to suitable charitable causes each year. The money is used, for example, to support the poor and travellers, and to ransom prisoners.

Zangids: The family of ‘Imad al-Din Zangi (r. 1127–46). After Zangi’s death his lands passed to various members of his family, including most prominently his sons Nur al-Din (r. 1146–74) at Aleppo and Sayf al-Din (r. 1146–49) at Mosul. Nur al-Din also secured the handover of Damascus in 1154. While Damascus and Aleppo were lost to Saladin in 1174 and 1183 respectively, Zangi’s descendants continued to rule territories in Iraq and the Jazira until the mid-thirteenth century.

If you find an error or have any questions, please email us at Thank you!