The midwife of Islam

The seventh-century Muslim warlord Abd al-Malik created the Dome of the Rock and played a crucial role in establishing the faith in the Middle East. So why, asks Tom Holland, has he been neglected by history?

Jerusalem's magnificent Dome of the Rock was deliberately designed to put a Muslim stamp on what had previously been a Christian city. (Getty Images)

The most famous building in Jerusalem, the city claimed today by Israel as her eternal capital, is Muslim. Standing on the mighty rectangular esplanade where the Jewish Temple once rose, its gilded cupola, its marble mosaics and the perfectly proportioned octagon of its walls make for an incomparable beauty. Aesthetics, however, are hardly the limit of its significance. ‘The Dome of the Rock’, as it is known, bears witness to a key moment in the evolution of Islam.

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Adorning the Dome’s walls, fashioned out of cubes of gold, inscriptions proclaim for the first time on any monument the prophethood of Muhammad. Not only that, but much of what is written on it consists of excerpts patched together from the Prophet’s own revelations: the earliest surviving examples anywhere of phrases from the Qur’an.

The Dome of the Rock, centred as it was on the very site of the Jewish Holy of Holies, and built to dimensions that replicated the great Christian shrine of the Holy Sepulchre, where Jesus was supposed to have been buried, delivered an unmistakable message: a whole new religion had arrived in triumph.

Commander of the faithful

An inscription on the outer wall gives us a very precise date for the monument’s construction. “Al-Ma’mun, commander of the faithful, built this dome, may God accept it from him and be pleased by him, in the year 72.” This, by the Christian calendar, dates it to AD 691 or 692. Yet there is a puzzle. Al-Ma’mun lived in Baghdad over a century after the date was inscribed on the Dome of the Rock – and belonged to a dynasty, the Abassids, that had never shown any great interest in Jerusalem.

Back in the 690s, however, the Arab empire had been ruled by a warlord named Abd al-Malik, a man whose power base had lain, not in distant Baghdad, but in Syria and Palestine. Clearly at some point in the reign of Al-Ma’mun, his name had been excised from the Dome of the Rock, and replaced with Al-Ma’mun’s own. The Dome itself still stood resplendent, but the memory of the man responsible for it had been cast into oblivion.

This erasure of Abd al-Malik’s name from his own masterpiece offers an intriguing glimpse into the process by which the entire history of the first Muslim century may well have been rewritten. “Islam,” so it was claimed by the distinguished 19th‑century Arabist Ernest Renan, “was born, not amid the mystery which cradles the origins of other religions, but rather in the full light of history.” Increasingly, however, historians have come to suspect that there is much about the beginnings of Islam lost to perpetual darkness. The fact that it is Abd al-Malik, almost 60 years after the death of Muhammad, who provides the first mention of him in any public inscription hints at a gap in our sources.

It was only a century after the building of the Dome of the Rock that biographies of Muhammad and accounts of what followed his death, written by practising Muslims, came to be preserved by the faithful. The model of Islam’s beginnings articulated by these writings was one so potent that it fast established itself as definitive. Experience of the perfect society, so it was taught, had been granted to one single place, and to one single period of history: Medina, in the lifetime of the Prophet. No wellspring for Islam existed other than Muhammad. All that followed him had been decline and fall.

Compared to this seductive vision of a primal and unspotted Islamic state, the rule of Abd al-Malik and his family, the Umayyads, could hardly help but appear a tyranny. Just as Al-Ma’mun had Abd al-Malik’s name removed from the Dome of the Rock, so did generations of Muslim scholars come to cast the Umayyads as deviants and usurpers, blotting the purity of Muhammad’s legacy.

Yet this presumption – that the law, culture and entire moral universe of Islam might have been brought into existence through the agency of a single prophet – seems closer to a theological fantasy than plausible history. Great civilisations do not emerge fully formed, like Athena from the forehead of Zeus. The Umayyads, far from stunting and retarding Islam, were in truth its midwives: a dynasty as influential as has ever existed. And of them all, it was Abd al-Malik who was the most innovative and brilliant.

The measure of his achievement is not only that he redeemed a tottering empire from implosion, but that he set it on foundations so solid that his very role in constructing them would end up forgotten. Over the course of the previous half century, the Arabs had reaped sensational success, conquering a vast swathe of provinces from the Maghreb to Turkmenistan. By the 680s, though, they were turning on themselves. Rival factions, rival dynasts, rival prophets all fought over the winnings. That it was Abd al-Malik who emerged triumphant from a near decade of civil war owed much to his genius as a general. “The tribesmen saw clearly the error of their ways,” as a court poet put it exultantly, “and he straightened out the smirk upon their faces.”

Military victory alone, however, was not enough. Abd al-Malik’s genius was to recognise that no empire, in an age that took the existence of a single, all-powerful god for granted, could possibly stand solid without the favour of the heavens – and that the basis of that favour had to be made rock solid. Hence the value of the Prophet. Not only had Muhammad claimed to be a medium for divine revelation, but he was also safely dead. Ram home the point that he had authentically been a Messenger of God, and anything that could be attributed to him would have to be accepted by the faithful as a truth descended from heaven.

And ram it home is precisely what Abd al-Malik did. Over the 20-year course of his reign, he stamped the Arab empire in the same way that he stamped Jerusalem: as hallowed by the authority of his new religion. Coins, which for centuries had carried the heads of Christian or Zoroastrian emperors, were replaced in 696 with a radically new design, one that featured no images at all, but only writing – and Arabic writing at that. The language of the Qur’an, henceforward, was to be the language of bureaucracy as well.

Nor were coins the only expression of this new dispensation. So too were passports, and tax returns, and contracts, and laws, and receipts: everything, in short, that made for the running of a global empire. The age of the prophets might have ended – but that did not mean, in the opinion of Abd al-Malik, that God had no further need of a chosen agent on Earth. Deploying his favourite medium of coinage, he made sure to broadcast to the world precisely how he saw his role: as the Khalifat Allah, or ‘Deputy of God’.

Subsequent generations of Muslims would regard this as arrogant pretension. The memory of the Umayyads would end up comprehensively blackened. And yet, without Abd al-Malik, it is most unlikely that Islam as we recognise it today would exist at all.


Abd al-Malik: the man

Abd al-Malik was a dangerous person to cross. Ambition, intelligence and vision were seamlessly fused in him with brutality. He was said to have leashed a rival warlord, led him around like a dog, and then straddled his chest to cut off his head. Even passing insects might be in danger from the Caliph. So bad was his halitosis, we are told, that he could kill flies with a single breath.

Yet there can be no doubting the sincerity of Abd al-Malik’s beliefs. He had a reputation for austere godliness that even his enemies acknowledged. The title of ‘Caliph’ – introduced to the public gaze for the first time by his agents in the imperial mints – implied a dominance over realms that were no less supernatural than earthly. If it was upon the command of Abd al-Malik that roads were built, then it was also through his person that people might ‘pray for rain’.

A ‘beater of skulls’, he was also the ultimate ‘imam of guidance’.

Tom Holland’s latest book, In the Shadow of the Sword: The Battle for Global Empire and the End of the Ancient World (Little, Brown, 2012), narrates the fall of the Roman and Sasanian empires, and the rise of the Caliphate. Tom is co-presenter of BBC Radio 4’s Making History.

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This article was first published in the May 2012 issue of BBC History Magazine