In 640 an event took place that deeply affected Egypt. The Arab general Amr ibn al-As, a companion of the Prophet Mohamed, died 663, was a leader for an army who came to Egypt through Sinai Peninsula to the Nile Valley, defeating the Byzantines at Heliopolis near what is now Cairo. Within two years the Arabs had triumphed over the Nile Valley, the Delta, and Alexandria, marking the beginning of Islam in Egypt that is lasting until now.
Islam teaches that there is only one God, the Creator and Sustainer of this world and the next, all-knowing and all-powerful, who has made himself known to humanity through scriptures revealed to a succession of prophets, culminating in the revelation of the Quran to Muhammad, who lived in the Hejaz (western Arabia) from 570 to 632. Those who accept Muhammad as the last of the prophets and the Quran as God’s revealed word are Muslims. The word Muslim means “one who makes peace [with God].” The word Arab originally meant a camel-herding nomad living in Arabia, but now is applied to people who speak Arabic as their native language and who embrace what can broadly be called Arab culture. Most Arabs are Muslim, but some are Christian. Nowadays, only a sixth of the world’s Muslims are Arabs.
Successors of the Prophet Mohamed the leaders of the Muslim community were known as caliphs i.e. the person who came after. The first four caliphs are called Rashidun, a term commonly translated as “right-guided.” The third caliph, Othman, was assassinated, and Muhammad’s cousin and son-in-law, Ali, became the fourth caliph. But a dispute arose over the legitimacy of his appointment. Ali did not attempt to prosecute the men who killed the former caliph Othman.
Early Arab Rule (640-868)
Given the lack of pressure by Egypt’s foreign rulers, both Islamization and Arabization occurred only slowly over time. Arabic did not become the official language of Egypt until 706. Between 640 and 868 Egypt was ruled by governors appointed by the caliphs. Egypt’s role as a province in an empire whose primary purpose was seen as supplying the central government with taxes and grain did not change. Egypt’s Muslims, mainly soldiers living in the garrison town of Fustat, that was built by A’mro Bin Al’As, accepted Umayyad rule. Some mawali in Persia objected to Umayyad favoritism toward the Arabs-launching a revolt that brought the Abbasid family to power in 750 and moved Islam’s capital to Baghdad. Egyptian Muslims acquiesced in these changes. Indeed, Egypt’s role in the politics of early Islam was remarkably quiet.
After that, local dynasties took over the control from 868 to 969. Ahmed Bin Tulun who was a Turkish officer ruled Egypt from 868 to 884 and there he built his spacious Mosque in the center of old Cairo near to Saladin Citadel.
Fatimid Rule (969-1171)
In 969 Egypt became a Fatimid province of the Fatimids Empire that stretched Northern-Western countries of Africa, now is Tunisia. The Fatimids adhered to the Ismaili branch of Shiite Islam and claimed to be descended from the Prophet Muhammad’s daughter, Fatima, who was married to Ali. The Fatimids had built up a powerful state in North Africa. They called their leaders caliphs, thus challenging the legitimacy of the Abbasid caliphs of Baghdad. Hoping to reunite the Muslim world under their Ismaili standard, the Fatimids needed to extend their empire into Egypt and Syria. Their propagandists found willing ears among the Muslims of Egypt, distressed by quarreling troops, low Nile floods, and high taxes. Egyptian Muslims tended to be Sunni and might have been expected to support the Abbasid caliphs, but Fatimid propagandists allayed their fears and played on their hopes. In 969 the Fatimid leader Jawhar defeated Kafur’s soldiers and established a new capital, Cairo, which was destined to become the largest city in the Muslim world. The Fatimids also established the mosque-school al-Azhar, originally meant to train new Ismaili propagandists, which survives today as the world’s oldest Islamic university. Fatimid rule in Egypt lasted from 969 to 1171. The area controlled by the Fatimids usually included Libya, Syria, Palestine, and the Hejaz, or western Arabia. The first century of Fatimid rule saw general prosperity. Egypt’s peasants continued to produce a surplus of grain that could be sold throughout the Mediterranean world, as well as fl ax, which supported a thriving linen industry. Egypt was a center of long-distance trade, with thriving ports on the Mediterranean and Red Seas. Most of the Fatimid caliphs adopted a tolerant policy toward Egypt’s Copts, Jews, and Sunni Muslims. One exception was al-Hakim (r. 996- 1021), who placed severe restrictions on Jews, Christians, and Sunni Muslims. Al-Hakim disappeared in 1021; it is believed he was assassinated on his sister’s orders. The Fatimid caliphs gave considerable leeway to merchants to manufacture and sell goods, using the head of the merchant guilds as an agent to maintain order. A series of low Nile floods and factional struggles among the troops caused a crisis in the 1060s. In 1073, to restore order the caliph appointed a chief minister or vizier. From that time on the vizierate was a key administrative post in Egypt.
Saladin and the Ayyubids (1171-1250)
The last great dynasty to rule Egypt during this era of Arab Islamic dominance, the Ayyubids, began with a Fatimid vizier. He may well be the Muslim warrior best known in the West: Salah al-Din, commonly called Saladin (c. 1137-93). Saladin succeeded his uncle, Shirkuh, as vizier. In 1171 he deposed the Fatimid caliph and restored Sunni Islam in Egypt. Although Saladin had to face several attempts to restore Fatimid rule, he won strong popular support in Cairo. He ordered the construction of the citadel that still overlooks the city and also strengthened Egypt’s Mediterranean and Red Sea fleets. Saladin built up a Muslim state that stretched from Tunisia to northern Iraq and from northern Syria to Yemen. In 1187 Saladin’s forces recaptured Jerusalem from the crusaders, European Christians who fought to take the “Holy Land” from Muslim control. Saladin has come down in history as a heroic fighter. Yet despite his efforts to master Fatimid court and bureaucratic procedures, he failed to set up an orderly administration in Egypt.
Saladin’s Ayyubid successors did not surmount these difficulties. Egypt lacked an institutional structure that might have limited factional struggles and made the government more efficient. Yet the country prospered, due largely to its extensive commerce with the Italian city-states and with other Muslim countries. By the time of the Ayyubids most of the Egyptian people spoke Arabic and practiced Islam. The collapse of Ayyubid rule came from within. The Ayyubids had built up a corps of Turkish soldiers recruited from Central Asia and trained as slave-soldiers. Known as Mamluks (mamluk in Arabic means “owned man”), these slaves had saved Egypt from European invaders, specifically the Seventh Crusade. Now they took the country for themselves and opened a new chapter in its history.
MAMLUK AND OTTOMAN RULE (1250-1798)
In 1250 Egypt fell under rule by the Turks. A shared religion, common values, and the same social institutions bound the ruling Turks together with their subjects. Occasionally, though, the people grumbled about rulers who taxed too heavily or failed to defend them from invading nomads, plagues, or a low Nile fl ood. This chapter mentions, for example, a major revolt that broke out in 1523, soon after the Ottomans defeated and replaced the Mamluks.
Mamluk means “owned man.” When the word is capitalized, it denotes a class of former slaves who ruled in Egypt and Syria. The first Mamluks were slave-soldiers who served the Abbasid caliphs. These soldiers were recruited as boys, mostly from non-Muslim families in Central Asia and lands around the Black Sea. Because they came from outside the empire, they had no link to any of the warring factions within the empire. Some were kidnapped by slave traders; others were sold by their impoverished families. These boys were housed in barracks or dormitories with other Mamluks the same age. They were given basic instruction in Islam and Arabic, as well as thorough training as cavalry soldiers. This rigorous education lasted eight to 10 years, during which the youths were kept under the strictest discipline. Because they lived and trained together for so long, each group of soldiers developed a feeling of fraternal loyalty that lasted the rest of their lives. When a Mamluk completed his military training, he received his liberation paper, a horse, and his fighting equipment.
Even though the mamluks were technically no longer slaves after they finished their training, they were still obliged to serve the sultan or amir who trained them. Each group of trainees tended to become a faction within the army. Many mamluks rose to positions of authority within the empire. In 1250 they succeeded in seizing power in Egypt.