REVIEW: THE MIDDLE EAST IN PRAXIS
The materials offered below are intended to introduce candidates for the PRAXIS
exam in history to some of the basic concepts,
issues and interpretive ideas of Middle Eastern and African history.
This is the Middle East.
To access the PRAXIS review for Africa, click on the link below:
Africa Praxis Review
These materials reflect the views of the author, and not necessarily those of
Kean University, nor of anybody else.
- MIDDLE EAST
The PRAXIS exam for the Middle East is likely to be
easier for you than the Africa exam
- There exists a long tradition of scholarship about the region that has
defined the major periods and themes.
- Many of the places and some of the major contemporary issues of the region
will be known to you already from news reports.
My hunch is, that your test questions will focus primarily upon very recent history.
For that reason, so am I. However, it will be useful to learn a few things about distant times.
The Middle East is the first part of the world outside Africa to be colonized by human beings.
At the moment, two aspects of this episode are attracting attention.
- A theory is currently popular that the first people to leave Africa
migrated eastward from Eritrea and Djibouti across south Arabia and on to
India and Australia, making use of their ever-increasing skills as seafarers.
- In Georgia, in the Caucasus region, archaeologists are beginning to study
very early human arrivals in greater detail than has been hitherto possible.
- ANCIENT HISTORY
- An older school of thought argued that the Eastern Mediterranean region,
and particularly Jericho along the border between modern Jordan and Palestine,
was the home of a NEOLITHIC REVOLUTION, in which people first domesticated
plants and animals, polished their stone tools and invented new tools of wood
and bone, and settled down permanently in villages. We now know that each of
these inventions had already taken place earlier elsewhere, and that they
arrived all at once in Jericho because even at this early date the Middle
Eastern region was a geographical crossroads for ideas, people and goods
between several continents.
- Agriculture made possible huge new populations, particularly in the fertile
valleys of great rivers. In the Middle East, both Egypt, based on the Nile, and
Mesopotamia (modern Iraq), based on the Tigris and Euphrates, became important
centers of ancient state civilization. (For the question of HOW and WHY states
arose, refer back to the Africa unit.) It is not likely that your exam will ask
you much about this period, but you might like to remember the Epic of Gilgamesh,
that recounts the imaginary adventures of a king of Uruk, in Iraq, which did in
fact exist. Uruk, along with Egypt, was also one of the first places to have
Also important is the kingdom of ancient Israel, within which
the Jewish religious and cultural tradition made its transition to the world of
agricultural civilization. Despite many turns of historical fortune, Jewish folk
have always maintained ties of the spirit to Israel, and often too a desire to
return there-a movement called Zionism in our times.
- By about 1000 BCE the kings of the Middle East had begun to expand beyond the
borders of their own ethnic groups to set up large polyethnic empires. For a long
age to come, the history of the region would be dominated by the comings and
goings of empires.
- SOME EMPIRES
- It is always debatable exactly when an early state becomes an empire, and many
of the older Middle eastern kingdoms display this ambiguity.
It is not likely that your test will ask you much about this topic,
but you might want to make a mental note of two things:
- The destruction of the Kingdom of Israel by Assyria, and of Judah by the
- The expansion of Egypt into Crete, western Anatolia and possibly other parts of
the Greek-speaking world. A controversial scholar named Martin Bernal (author of
Black Athena) has used this episode as the basis for an argument that much early
European civilization derived from Egypt.
(Hey-it may not be on the PRAXIS EXAM,
but your STUDENTS are definitely going to ask!)
- An important early empire was Achemenid Iran. The Iranian shahs of this dynasty
perfected many of the institutions that were to become standard operating procedure
for all the emperors to follow. Examples would include their policy of religious
toleration (vital in a realm where each group of subjects had their own beliefs),
military organization, provincial administration, taxation, courier service, and
- Iran fell to the armies of Alexander the Great, who united most of the Middle East
under Greek rule. Alexander’s empire differed from its predecessors in its sympathy for
cities and the merchant way of life. His generals planted new cities wherever they went,
and the age witnessed much more coming and going by merchants and other travelers than
had been previously seen. The Greek language and other aspects of Greek culture (drama,
sports, music, literature, money) took root in these far-flung urban communities and
influenced the surrounding cultures.
- Alexander’s realm fragmented upon his death, and a new empire based at Rome in the
far west took over much of the Middle East. In the fourth century Rome adopted
Christianity as its state religion, establishing the faith as an important part
of Middle Eastern culture.
- In Iran, however, a new Sassanian dynasty restored independence, and the new
Shahs struggled with Rome for control of what is now Syria, Armenia and northern
Iraq. The Shahs made a state religion out of the teachings of a much earlier
prophet named Zardusht; the new faith is often called Zoroastrianism in these
parts, and it has followers in India and elsewhere today. (The famous symphony
conductor Zubin Mehta is probably the best-known Zoroastrian in America.)
- By about 500 the western, Latin-speaking part of the Roman empire had collapsed.
However the eastern, Greek-speaking part of the empire, often called Byzantium, with
its capital at Constantinople, continued to flourish for another half-millennium.
Then a series of misfortunes befell the empire from the eleventh century on, and
the great capital city fell at last, to the Ottoman Turks, in 1453.
- THE ISLAMIC CALIPHATE
It is not likely that your test will ask you to show any competence in the
details of Jewish or Christian or Zoroastrian history and doctrine. However,
I gather that the test-writers are eager for you to know something about Islam.
This is not fair, but it is not particularly difficult.
- Islam from within.
In the beginning, the one and only Deity, named Allah, created the universe and
everything in it.
He created angels from light, jinn from fire, animals from clay, and mankind from
a clot of blood.
He created human beings in the form of different communities or
nations (we might use terms such as “races” or “ethnic groups”).
The world created by Allah is one of moral order and purpose. Submission to this order
(compare, “Get with the program!”) is called ISLAM. A person who does so is a MUSLIM
ISLAM is the natural state of human beings. Every baby is born a Muslim until
someone turns it into something else.
Unfortunately, people have often strayed away from the right path.
Therefore, to each human community, Allah has sent a PROPHET. The Prophet speaks
his own people’s language, and he brings to them the relevant portion of the
WORD OF GOD, sometimes conceived as a great, timeless, heavenly MOTHER OF BOOKS.
The prophets include many of the famous names of the older Jewish and Christian
traditions: Adam, Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Jesus; and there were many others.
Sometimes people killed their prophet and rejected his message: these communities
thus became UNBELIEVERS (in technical jargon) who could be forced to choose between
Islam and death.
Sometimes people accepted their prophet, but then, after his death, distorted his
message in various ways. These communities (including Jews, Christians and
Zoroastrians) became PEOPLE OF THE BOOK, whose lives, property and religious
practices must be protected. However, they must never be allowed to exercise
political authority over Muslims.
The last and greatest of the prophets was MUHAMMAD (PBUH), who lived from about 570 to
8 June 632 in west-central Arabia. After a difficult childhood in Makka, followed by
some worldly success as a businessman, he received the call to a prophetic vocation
From time to time throughout his life, from that point on, the prophet received passages
from the WORD OF GOD, which he and his followers would memorize. These messages were
later written down; collectively they are called the “Recitations” (in English al-Qur’an,
or sometimes Koran), and they are the scripture of Islam.
Some of the people of Makka supported Muhammad, but the community leaders opposed him and
persecuted his followers.
In 622 Muhammad and his followers emigrated north to (modern) Medina. There the worldly
success of the movement began. This “emigration” or hijra also marks the beginning
of the Islamic calendar. By the death of the prophet a decade later, he had succeeded
not only in conquering his birthplace Makka, but had united most of the Arabian peninsula
under Islamic leadership.
- The Early Caliphate
When the prophet died, his followers needed to choose a successor to him--not as a prophet,
but in his worldly capacity as a secular leader. The word “successor” in Arabic is
khalifa, which has been made over into English as “caliph.” The empire
established by the caliphs is therefore often called the caliphate.
Three different ideas arose concerning the successorship.
- Some said the caliph should be a biological descendant of the prophet,
whose surviving male heirs were his grandsons Hasan and Husayn. This faction
was initially known as the “party of `Ali,” because `Ali was the prophet’s
son-in-law and the father of the boys. The Arabic word for political “party”
is shi`a, and in later years people who held this viewpoint were often
known as Shi`ites.
(Today Shi`ites rule Iran, and significant Shi`ite minorities may also be found
in Pakistan, eastern Sa`udi Arabia, Syria, and Lebanon.)
- Other people argued that the Muslims should elect as their caliph the person
who was the best Muslim--“even if he be a one-eyed Abyssinian slave.”
This comment reveals their support for Bilal, an early Muslim of Ethiopian
background who lost an eye for the faith while being tortured by his wicked
Makkan master. These Islamic democrats found it difficult to compromise with
the other elitist factions, and became known as “those who walk out” or
“those who revolt” (Arabic, khawarij).
(Today the Ibadi branch of the khawarij-no longer radical--prevails
in `Oman, and a second significant community may be found in the Algerian
Saharan oases of the Mzab.)
- In real life the successorship passed to members of an elite clique of
Makkans. Those who accepted this verdict of history and embraced the oligarchs
are called Sunni Muslims. Today, Sunnis comprise by far the largest branch
of the Islamic tradition.
The first four successors to Muhammad, whom Sunni Muslims call the orthodox or
“rightly-guided” caliphs, were: Abu Bakr (632-634) `Umar (634-644)
`Uthman (644-656) and `Ali (656-661).
In their time Arab armies conquered Egypt, the “Fertile Crescent”
(modern Israel, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq) and Iran.
- The Umayyads (661-750)
During this century one of `Uthman’s provincial governors set up a dynasty of
caliphs in his own family.
The capital was moved to Damascus.
Conquests expanded the caliphate through North Africa and Spain into
France and Switzerland (in the west) and eastward as far as Kashgar
in modern China (north of the Himalayas) and into northern India
(south of the mountains).
Throughout this vast realm the Arabs comprised the ruling elite, and
their religion was reserved for themselves. Conversion to Islam by
non-Arabs was made difficult, or even forbidden. The religions and
cultures of the subject peoples were left as much as possible just as is.
The Umayyad rulers seem to have been a worldly, cosmopolitan, secular
and fun-loving lot; certainly that is the way they were portrayed by
their more puritanical opponents and successors.
- The `Abbasids (750-1252)
Opponents of the Umayyads, based in the eastern provinces of the caliphate,
seized power in 750 and set up a dynasty that lasted for centuries.
The capital was moved to Baghdad.
The provinces west of Egypt were neglected, and Spain actually seceded
from the caliphate, remaining loyal to the Umayyads.
Conversion to Islam was now encouraged, and individuals from the subject
peoples were free to make a name for themselves in religious,
artistic and intellectual life, and sometimes even in military
affairs and politics.
The early `Abbasid caliphs, particularly Ma’mun, were great patrons of
intellectual life. Ma’mun set up a library rather like the Library of
Congress that attempted to gather all possible knowledge. He sponsored
translators who turned texts from Greek, Aramaic, Coptic, Persian or
Sanskrit into Arabic. Unfortunately later caliphs rejected secular
knowledge and destroyed much of what their predecessors had accomplished.
By about 900 the caliphate began to disintegrate. As the pace of conversion
accelerated and Muslim majorities emerged in many places, communities
demanded and seized political power for themselves. Places such as Morocco,
Tunisia, Egypt, Syria, Iraq, Iran and the Yemen began to build new Islamic
- THE MIDDLE AGES
From about 900 to 1500 the Middle East went through a period of decentralized
politics that somewhat resembles the medieval experience in Europe.
The caliph became a mere figurehead, and eventually simply disappeared. New
authorities were often known by the title SULTAN, a deliberately neutral
title that means roughly “the Powers-That-Be.” There could in theory be
only ONE caliph, but any number of sultans.
Prominent invaders also left their mark. From the west came the CRUSADERS,
who carved out several little principalities for a century or so.
From the east came the MONGOLS, who conquered much of the Middle East
but were few in number and were soon absorbed by the culture of their subjects.
Important too was the largely peaceful immigration of Turkish-speaking nomads
from Central Asia. Some Turks had already come to the Middle East in `Abbasid
times as military slaves, and when the caliphate collapsed, it was often a
Turkish general who became the sultan.
In 1071 a Turkish commander based in Iran, backed by numerous nomads, broke
the eastern Byzantine frontier defenses at the battle of Manzikert.
In the centuries to follow, Turkish-speaking folk gradually squeezed
Greek-speaking Byzantines out of what the Romans had called Asia Minor
and modern geographers “Anatolia,” basically, the Asiatic part of the
modern Turkish republic. By the end of the Middle Ages, Turkey had
At the other end of the Islamic world, a medieval Reconquista by
Christian Iberians drove Muslim governments out of what are now Spain
- THE ERA OF THE THREE EMPIRES (c.1400 to WWI)
At the dawn of what Europeans call the Early Modern Period significant
parts of the Middle East were reunited under powerful new governments.
Each of these began to incorporate some modern techniques and practices
that allowed them to survive in a changing age. Sometimes people refer
to these powerful new states as the “gunpowder empires,” though
firearms were probably not the most important aspect of the modernizing
agenda (advanced bureaucracies and systematic written administrative
records counted for more).
- The Mughals
This Turkish-speaking Islamic dynasty united much of the Indian subcontinent during the
1500s, 1600s and 1700s. I do not think that your test will include the Mughal realm,
as it lies outside the geographical zone you have been asked to cover.
- Safavid Iran
In about 1500 Iran was conquered by a Turkish-speaking movement of Islamic
reformers called the Safavids, the creators of modern Iran.
They imposed Shi`ism as the state religion, and soon allowed themselves
to be absorbed by the culture of their Iranian subjects.
They are most famous today as great patrons of art, architecture, and literature.
They could not have left this spectacular mark on world history had they not also
been wise administrators. Shahs such as `Abbas the Great
encouraged manufacturing and trade as well as craftsmanship and art.
- The Ottomans
The largest part of the Middle East was conquered by the Turkish-speaking dynasty
of the Ottomans, who also came to rule much of southern and eastern Europe.
In about 1600, to grant some comparative perspective, the Ottoman sultan ruled
a realm as large, and as populous, and as rich, and as powerful militarily, as
everything in Christian-ruled Europe combined.
The success of the Ottomans also derived from a very new idea they introduced
into their government-meritocracy. Whereas European governments of the day
were run largely by blueblood noblemen who inherited their membership in the
elite, the Ottoman establishment consisted of people educated from an early
age in how to rule, and who competed for promotion and honors. Government by
the intelligent easily outclassed government by the well-born. The catch was,
that only non-Muslim slave boys were eligible to enter government service.
- EUROPEAN IMPERIALISM
During the 1700s Europe began to go through an Industrial Revolution
that gave it much greater economic and military power than it had hitherto enjoyed.
European culture was rewritten to make a virtue out of capitalism and modern business
practices. For example, one could now legitimately charge interest on loans,
for time was worth money. You could gamble against fate and distribute the risk
of doing business through the purchase of insurance.
The Islamic world did not industrialize, and found it very difficult to accept
business practices that seemed to violate sacred law.
But the empires did welcome European traders. In the case of the Ottomans,
they allowed the foreign merchants not only to travel and trade, but to
remain under their own laws and to be judged by their own diplomats, called
consuls. Each consul was allowed to build up a staff of local people who became
statutory foreigners under his jurisdiction and protection.
power began to nibble away at those parts of the Ottoman empire that happened
to interest them. For example, Austria-Hungary handed out certificates
of citizenship to half a million Romanians. Britain made deals with local
leaders around the southern rim of the Arabian peninsula. France made
friends with the Christian Lebanese minority in Syria, and Russia backed
Armenians against the central government.
During the 1800s a series of gifted sultans put the Ottoman Empire through
a series of westernizing reforms called the tanzimat; they gave the
empire another century of existence.
Meanwhile the Mughals fell to French and British imperialism, and Iran
entered a political and economic slump under new dynasties of less
During the 1800s a new idea about what society should be began to penetrate
the Middle East from Western Europe.
The new concept was the “nation state.” The basic idea was that every ethnic
community, typically defined by the possession of a language and religion
in common, should have their own independent country. No one should have
to answer politically to a government that was ethnically or religiously
different from oneself. Within the compact and united geographical borders
of each nation, absolutely everybody should look alike, talk alike, pray
alike, eat the same food, wear the same clothes, observe the same holidays,
and share the same political and cultural values.
The problem with the new agenda of nationalism was, that it did not fit the
realities of Middle Eastern life very well. In an empire, the rulers were by
definition different from everybody else-they had no “nation.” Each group
of subjects did not necessarily live in one compact area, but in possibly
numerous enclaves. Sometimes people who spoke one language might follow two
or three different religious traditions-by what criterion should one divide
them into nations? Or perhaps so many subjects spoke one language
(conceivably Arabic or Serbo-Croatian) that they might prefer to create
several new nations, each based on more subtle issues such as people’s
historical experiences and cultural preferences.
Once the game of nation-building began, there arose the question of who
might be excluded or left out: the Turks could have a nation but the
Kurds could not; the Israelis could have a nation but the Palestinians
could not, the Greek Cypriots could have a nation but the Turkish
Cypriots could not, and so forth.
Finally, and most importantly, THE NATIONALIST AGENDA WAS TO BE IMPOSED BY
FORCE. In recent years this has often been called “ethnic cleansing,” but
the phenomenon itself dates back to the nineteenth century. Anyone who
stands in our way must be killed. Any individual within what we regard
as out borders who does not in every way conform to our cultural
definition of ourselves must be killed (if we just drive him away,
he might try to come back). For example, there were once numerous
Greek-speaking Muslims on the island of Crete-and none today. There
were once numerous Slavic-speaking Muslims in the mountains of
southern Bulgaria-and none today. Nationalism turned out to be a
ferociously bloodthirsty business.
- AFTER THE WORLD WARS
At the close of World War I the European victors, Britain, France and
Italy, drew or confirmed the lines that established modern Middle
Eastern nation states.
In most cases this determined who was going to be "in" and who was going to
be "out:" the Turks, the Sa`udis and the Israelis fought against this
imposed arrangement and won their own existence.
Elsewhere the victors set up governments pleasing to themselves, but not
necessarily to the citizens of the new nations. Local sentiments often
expressed themselves through military coups, as officers seized power
and established a series of unlovely dictatorships with varying degrees
World War II brought European armies to the region again, but the major
result of the war was to further weaken the influence of the former
During the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s the Middle East became a zone of Cold
War contention between the Soviet Union and the United States.
The USSR made friends among the dictators, while the USA allied
itself to the upstart regimes in Turkey, Israel and Sa`udi Arabia.
The former colonial powers clung to their surviving clients.
With the decline of the USSR and their unsavory client dictators, and in
reaction to the the appearance of western popular culture in the Middle
East, there arose a new sense of cultural assertiveness in an Islamic
idiom. Wealth derived from oil revenues made possible, for the first
time in history, the actual physical confinement of whole nations of
women in bourgeois domesticity. People who found themselves prosperous
but also excluded from power through their unusual religious definitions
of reality turned to holy terror, which provided, at the minimum, a
possible “suicide solution” to the sufferer’s bruised ego.
Islamic portions of the Middle East are presently debating
the merits or limitations of various modes of religiously-grounded
THIS IS THE POINT WHERE HISTORY ENDS AND CURRENT EVENTS BEGIN.