The followers of Islam created the first global civilization.
Islam eventually spread from its point of origin in Arabia to
Europe, Asia, and Africa. The great Islamic empire provided
commercial and cultural links to all of the civilized centers
of the Eastern Hemisphere. Despite the appearance of
religious homogeneity, political rivalries, ethnic
differences, and sectarian rifts divided the Islamic world.
Political rivalries often led to technological and
administrative advances that strengthened the Islamic world
as a whole.
- Desert and Town: The Arabian World and the Birth of Islam
Islam appeared first on the Arabian peninsula, an area
occupied by pastoral nomads and on the periphery of the
civilized zones. Much of the peninsula is desert, which
supported both goat and camel nomadism among peoples called
bedouin. Sedentary agricultural communities were limited to
the far south of the peninsula, and trading towns developed
along the coasts. The tribal culture of the bedouin provided
a critical backdrop for the emergence of Islam.
- Clan Identity, Clan Rivalries and the Cycle of
The basic social unit of the bedouin was the kin-related
clan. Although clans were also linked together into tribes,
tribal units seldom met together. Clan councils determined
the distribution and use of water resources, critical to
nomadic life. Family leaders, or shaykhs, dominated clan
councils. Such men were distinguished from other clan
members by wealth in animals, wives, and retainers.
Households of free warriors and slaves made up the rest of
the clan membership. Clashes between clans over water
rights, animals, or even perceived slights to clan members'
honor often led to violence. Inter-clan disputes initiated
feuds in which honor could only be maintained by exacting
revenge from the clan's enemies. Constant feuding weakened
bedouin society and made it difficult to put together large,
- Towns and Long-Distance Trade
Some cities existed along the western coast of the Arabian
peninsula, where they served as entrepots for
transcontinental trade between Europe and Asia. Mecca,
founded by the Umayyad clan of the Quraysh tribe, was the
most important of these Arabian cities. The city was also
regarded as a religious center and housed the Ka'ba, a shrine
venerated by many bedouin. Because of the Ka'ba, Mecca
decreed a cessation of all tribal feuds during portions of
the year. The truce encouraged many bedouin groups to come
to Mecca and trade. The town of Yathrib or Medina lay north
of Mecca. Periodic disputes among the two bedouin and three
Jewish tribes that dominated the city stunted Medina's
- Marriage and Family in Pre-Islamic Arabia
Women in bedouin society may have had higher status than
those of neighboring civilizations. Women made significant
economic contributions to clan life, and inheritance in some
tribes was matrilineal. Multiple marriages were permitted to
both men and women. Arabian women were not secluded. Their
advice was sought in clan councils, and they were often
authors of bedouin poetry. Because women could not serve as
warriors, they were not the equal of men. Treatment and
status were not guaranteed to women, and customs varied from
one tribe to another. In the urban environment of Mecca and
other coastal cities, Arabic women appear to have enjoyed
less status than among the bedouin.
- Poets and Neglected Gods
Arab material culture was less highly developed than that of
neighboring civilizations. The most creative activity of
bedouin society was poetry. Bedouin religion featured a
blend of animism and polytheism. Spirits and gods tended to
be associated with the night and were often located in sacred
caves, springs, and groves of trees. Allah was but one of
the bedouin deities. Clan custom had more of an impact on
ethical standards and morality than did religion.
- The Life of Muhammad and the Genesis of Islam
By the sixth century C.E., both the Byzantine and Sassanian
empires were attempting to extend their political influence
into the world of the Arabian bedouin. Monotheism, in the
guise of Judaism and Christianity, began to influence the
culture of Arabia. The prophet Muhammad responded to the
increased emphasis on a single, all-powerful god. Born into
a clan of the ruling Quraysh, Muhammad was raised by leading
members of his father's clan. He received an early education
as a merchant and during caravan journeys was exposed to both
Christianity and Judaism.
Muhammad married Khadijah, the widow of a wealthy merchant,
and continued to trade both in Mecca and on the caravan
routes outside of Arabia. He became increasingly concerned
with tribal feuding and economic inequities among clan
groups. Despite earning great wealth as a merchant, Muhammad
began to devote himself to meditation. In 610, he began to
receive the revelations that were later collected as the
- Persecution, Flight and Victory
Muhammad's first converts were drawn from his own household
and close clan relatives. As the number of converts grew,
the new religion began to threaten the traditional deities
associated with the Ka'ba and the authority of the rulers of
the Umayyads. To escape plots to murder him, Muhammad fled
in 622 with his closest followers to Medina, where the
prophet was invited to arbitrate clan disputes. Muhammad was
soon able to win new converts from among the bedouin clans of
Medina. Still threatened by Muhammad's success in Medina,
the Quraysh of Mecca initiated a series of attacks on the
neighboring city. The victories of Muhammad's forces over
the Quraysh led to a truce in 628, which included a provision
allowing the prophet and his followers to visit the Ka'ba.
Muhammad's victorious return to Mecca in 629 demonstrated
both the prophet's success in converting bedouin tribesmen
and the power of his one God, Allah. Most of the citizens of
Mecca soon joined the new religion.
- Arabs and Islam
Islam offered a means by which Arabs could be united in a
single movement that transcended clan and class divisions.
The new religion was fiercely monotheistic. It offered Arabs
a religion that was distinctly their own, free of the
influences of outside civilizations. The umma the undivided
community of believers made political unity possible,
provided a single source of authority, and directed the
military culture of the bedouin outward against unbelievers.
Islam also helped to close the rift between the wealthy and
poor Arabic clans. The well-to-do were enjoined to take
responsibility for the weak and the poor. The zakat a tax to
support the poor was a responsibility of the faithful.
Islamic law, drawn from the Quran and the life of the
prophet, regulated all aspects of Islamic society.
- Universal Elements in Islam
The beliefs and practices of Islam gave it strong appeal to
cultures outside of Arabia. Muhammad's acceptance of other
religious revelations helped to spread Islamic beliefs among
both Christian and Judaic Semitic peoples. The five pillars
of Islam provided a foundation for religious unity. All
Muslims were required to confess their belief in Allah and
Muhammad as his Prophet, to pray facing Mecca five times a
day, to fast during the holy month of Ramadan, to pay a tithe
to be used as charity for the poor, and to make a pilgrimage
to Mecca to worship Allah at the Ka'ba. All Muslims,
regardless of their nationality or ethnic origins, shared the
- The Arab Empire of the Umayyads
Although some bedouin tribes renounced their allegiance to
Islam following Muhammad's death in 632, the Prophet's
followers were able to conduct military campaigns restoring
the unity of the Islamic community. Once the rebellious
tribesmen were brought back into the umma, Muslim armies
began to launch attacks on neighboring civilizations outside
of Arabia. Within a short period of time, Arab armies
captured Mesopotamia, northern Africa, and Persia. A new
dynasty, the Umayyads, ruled this Arabic empire.
- Consolidation and Division in the Islamic Community
Muhammad died in 632 without designating a successor as
leader of the umma. After consultation among the clans, one
of Muhammad's first converts, Abu Bakr, was selected to lead
the Islamic community as caliph. Abu Bakr's control over the
umma was weak. He had no income, and his command over the
Muslim armies was limited. Despite the fundamental weakness
of the caliphate, Abu Bakr's armies defeated other bedouin
clans and forced most of the tribes to return to the umma.
With the completion of the Ridda Wars and unification of
Arabia, the Muslim armies began to raid the borders of Persia
and Byzantium. When initial forays demonstrated the frailty
of the older empires, the way was prepared for conquest.
- Motives for Arab Conquests
Arab unity made it possible for the Muslims to challenge the
neighboring empires. Early Islamic caliphs saw conquest as a
useful means of deflecting martial energies outward from
Arabia. Muslim warriors viewed campaigns as a means of
taking booty. All of these were powerful motives for Islamic
expansion, but the opportunity to win new converts to Islam
was not. The economic incentives for conquest were powerful,
and the promise of booty was threatened by the specter of
increases in the numbers of the faithful who could share the
- Weaknesses of the Adversary Empires
Both the Sasanian Empire of Persia and the Byzantine Empire
were vulnerable to attack, but the Persian empire was the
weaker of the two. A powerful landed aristocracy controlled
the Sasanian emperors and oppressed the peasantry. The
imperial religion, Zoroastrianism, failed to generate popular
enthusiasm, and the government ruthlessly suppressed more
popular religions. When the Arab attack occurred, the
Sassanian Empire made only a token resistance. By 651, the
last of the Persian emperors had been assassinated. Portions
of the Byzantine Empire notably Syria, Palestine, and Egypt
fell rapidly to the Muslim armies. These regions had a
Christian tradition that differed from the orthodoxy enforced
When it appeared likely that the Islamic invaders might be
more tolerant than the Byzantine government, the Christian
populations of Egypt, Palestine, and Syria welcomed the
Muslims. Loss of the southern provinces by 640 weakened the
Byzantines, and they were equally unprepared for the
challenge to their control of the Mediterranean. The Arabs'
ability to achieve naval supremacy in the eastern
Mediterranean sealed their victories in the former Byzantine
provinces and northern Africa. Byzantine emperors were able
to prevent the final collapse of their empire in the seventh
century, but the Byzantine Empire survived only in Asia Minor
and the Balkans
- The Problem of Succession and the Sunni-Shi'i Split
The successful conquests temporarily masked over continuing
tribal divisions within early Islam. In 656, tribal and clan
disagreements of leadership and shares in the spoils of
conquest spilled over into violence. Uthman, the third
caliph and a member of the Umayyad clan of Mecca, was
assassinated by disgruntled soldiers seeking a greater share
of the booty. Supporters of Ali, a member of the Prophet's
family, proclaimed him caliph. The Umayyads refused to
recognize his election. Conflict between the supporters of
Ali and the Umayyads led to the battle of Siffin in 657.
Rather than press his attack, Ali accepted a plea for
mediation of the dispute. Ali's most fervent supporters then
deserted his cause and split the forces opposing the
In 660 the Umayyad leader Mu'awiya was proclaimed caliph.
His claim proved successful, when Ali was assassinated in
661. Ali's son, Hasan, renounced his claims to the
caliphate. The Umayyad succession did not heal deep
divisions among the Muslims. Supporters of Ali called Shi'as
continued to regard the Umayyads as usurpers. Ali's second
son Husayn attempted to restore the Shi'ite claim to the
caliphate, but the Umayyads killed his small party at Karbala
in 680. Other Shi'ite claimants continued to mount a
resistance to the Umayyad caliphate.
- The Umayyad Imperium
With the settlement of internal divisions, Islamic expansion
was renewed in the middle of the seventh century. Arab
armies crossed northern Africa to the straits of Gibraltar.
In Asia, the Muslims penetrated to northern India. Muslim
ships patrolled most of the Mediterranean. In size and
extent, the Umayyad empire exceeded that of the Romans.
Although Mecca remained the religious center of Islam, the
political capital of the Umayyads was located in Damascus.
Unlike the earlier caliphate, the Umayyad rulers constructed
a bureaucracy to manage their far-flung empire. The Umayyad
state was run by and for the benefit of Arab Muslims.
Muslims comprised the bureaucracy and the army. In order to
sustain Arabs outside of Arabia and to keep them separate
from the indigenous populations, the Muslim armies were
housed in garrison cities.
- Converts and "People of the Book"
Despite attempts to keep garrisons apart from indigenous
populations, cultural interaction and intermarriage did
occur. In addition, large numbers of people voluntarily
converted to Islam. Non-Arabs who converted the mawali
continued to pay the tax required of nonbelievers and were
excluded from government and the military. The greatest
number of people within the Umayyad Empire were dhimmi a
term initially applied to Christians and Jews who, like the
Muslims, considered the Bible a sacred text. The term was
later extended to Hindus, Buddhists, and Zoroastrians.
Dhimmi peoples were tolerated so long as they paid the tax of
nonbelievers. They were permitted to keep land and legal
systems without interference from their Muslim overlords.
- Family and Gender Roles in the Umayyad Age
As the Islamic empire grew, the status of women changed. In
the first generations after Muhammad, Islamic women
strengthened their positions within their households and
avoided seclusion and extreme patriarchy typical of other
Middle Eastern civilizations. Islam declared the spiritual
equality of men and women before Allah, and women
participated in the early wars of expansion. The women of
Muhammad's family were role models for Islamic women in
general. Women of the early Islamic umma entered many
occupations, including commerce and law.
- Umayyad Decline and Fall
By the eighth century, the Umayyad caliphs had retreated into
luxurious palaces and adopted sybaritic lifestyles.
Dissenters, who already opposed the Umayyads on the basis of
the seizure of power after Ali's death, now accused the
caliphs of violating the dictates of the Quran and the
examples set by the Prophet and his family. The rebellion
that toppled the Umayyads began in the frontier garrison town
of Merv. Disgruntled soldiers accepted the claims of the
Abbasid family to be rightful rulers of Islam. By taking
advantage of military discontent and allying with Shi'ite
factions, Abu al-Abbas advanced from Persia toward Damascus.
In 750 the Abbasid army defeated the Umayyad caliph and
captured Syria and the Umayyad capital. Abu al-Abbas
attempted to eliminate all remaining members of the Umayyad
clan, but one leading member of the family escaped to Spain,
where he established a separate government.
- From Arab to Islamic Empire: The Early Abbasid Era
The victory of the Abbasids allowed them to establish a
centralized government, but one which did admit all converts
to Islam into the regime as equal partners in the empire.
Gradually the Abbasids shifted away from their alliance with
Shi'ite groups and began to suppress varieties of Shi'ism as
heresy. The Abbasids built a new capital in Iraq at Baghdad,
where they established an opulent court. The growth of the
bureaucracy was symbolized by the growing authority granted
to the office of wazir, who served as prime minister to the
caliphs. The burgeoning bureaucracy enabled the collection
of vast sums of taxation for the Abbasid coffers. Abbasid
rulers adopted a status that placed them above other
believers, although they did not proclaim their own divinity.
- Islamic Conversion and Mawali Acceptance
Under the Abbasids, mass conversion were encouraged, and new
converts were admitted to full equality within the umma.
Converts were attracted to Islam by the Prophet's revealed
message and by social and economic advantages that accrued to
believers within the empire. The Persians, who converted
readily to Islam, actually came to dominate the Abbasid
- Commercial Boom and Urban Growth
The revival of the Afro-Eurasian trade network during the
Abbasid period restored commercial prosperity and spurred
urban growth. Ideally placed between the other civilized
cores, the Islamic world took advantage of their strategic
location to engage in long-distance trade of luxury goods.
Wealth supported luxurious lifestyles, went to charitable
ventures within the Islamic community, and made possible the
construction of schools, baths, and hospitals.
- Town and Country
As cities grew, handicraft production also expanded. Skilled
artisans formed labor organizations to negotiate wages and
working conditions. Slaves performed most unskilled labor.
Some slaves worked in the caliphal court, where diligence
could result in social advance and eventual freedom. Less
fortunate were slaves bought as agricultural laborers on
rural estates, where conditions were brutal. Many of the
slaves were non-Muslims captured in war or on slaving raids.
From the middle of the ninth century, the most desperate of
the slave groups formed a source of social unrest. In the
countryside, a wealthy elite the ayan dominated the
landscape. Peasants were reduced from landowners to
dependent agricultural laborers.
- The First Flowering of Islamic Learning
Although the Arab bedouin who conquered the neighboring
civilizations were initially illiterate, they rapidly
absorbed the culture of Persia, Rome, Hellenistic Greece, and
Mesopotamia. Under the Abbasids, Islamic scholars and
artists flourished. In particular, Muslim philosophers
preserved the writings of the Greeks and transmitted these
critical concepts through an Islamic filter to the West.
- Conclusion: The Measure of Islamic Achievement
By the ninth century, the power of the Abbasid rulers in
Baghdad had waned. Increasingly the authority of the caliphs
was lost to Turkish military commanders who carved out
independent territories within the empire. Loss of
centralization in the ninth century should not diminish the
scope of the earlier Muslim achievements: the creation of a
global empire, the emergence of one of the universal
religions, the preservation of the cultures of ancient
Hellenistic Greece and Persia, and the construction of a
Eurasian trade system that would survive until the sixteenth