Caliphate, Featured, Non-Muslims

The early Abbasid Caliphate through the eyes of a non-Muslim

The Battle of Talas took place in 751CE between the Abbasid Caliphate and the Chinese Tang dynasty. In the aftermath of the battle a number of Chinese soldiers were taken as prisoners of war back to Iraq. Among these was one Tu Huan, who remained a prisoner until 762. He narrates a graphic account of life in the Islamic State.

The capital is called Kūfa [Ya-chü-lo]. The Arab king is called mumen [that is, Amīr al-Mu’minīn, Commander of the Faithful]. Both men and women are handsome and tall, their clothing is bright and clean, and their manners are elegant. When a woman goes out in public, she must cover her face irrespective of her lofty or lowly social position. They perform ritual prayers five times a day. They eat meat, fast and regard the butchering of animals as meritorious. They wear silver belts around the waist from which they suspend silver daggers. They prohibit the drinking of wine and forbid music. When people squabble among themselves, they do not come to blows. There is also a ceremonial hall [the mosque] which accommodates tens of thousands of people. Every seven days the king comes out to perform religious services; he mounts a high pulpit and preaches law to the multitudes. He says, ‘Human life is very difficult, the path of righteousness is not easy, and adultery is wrong. To rob or steal, in the slightest way to deceive people with words, to make oneself secure by endangering others, to cheat the poor or oppress the lowly – there is no greater sin than one of these. All who are killed in battle against the enemies of Islam will achieve paradise. Kill the enemies and you will receive happiness beyond measure.’

The entire land has been transformed; the people follow the tenets of Islam like a river its channel, the law is applied only with leniency and the dead are interred only with frugality. Whether inside the walls of a great city or only inside a village gate, the people lack nothing of what the earth produces. Their country is the hub of the universe where myriad goods are abundant and inexpensive, where rich brocades, pearls and money fill the shops while camels, horses, donkeys and mules fill the streets and alleys. They cut sugar cane to build cottages resembling Chinese carriages. Whenever there is a holiday the nobility are presented with more vessels of glass and bowls of brass than can be counted. The white rice and white flour are not different from those of China. Their fruits include the peach and also thousand-year dates. Their rape turnips, as big as a peck, are round and their taste is very delicious, while their other vegetables are like those of other countries. Their grapes are as large as hen’s eggs. The most highly esteemed of their fragrant oils are two, one called jasmine and the other called myrrh. Chinese artisans have made the first looms for weaving silk fabrics and are the first gold and silversmiths and painters.

Source: Robert G. Hoyland, ‘Seeing Islam as others saw it,’ p.246