How Did the Islamic Empire Impact the Areas it Ruled?
After the formation of Islam, it took 3-4 centuries to work out the structures of the religion. One of the first things that happened was the creation of Islamic law. The empire was based on the religion and surrounding cultures. As the empire expanded, lands were divided into different political entities. The Sunnis and the Shiites began to form; they originally branched off over conflicting opinions on who Muhammad’s true successor was. The trading system caused the Islamic Empire to become very wealthy. Nomadic tribes from the steppes invaded the Islamic areas between 1,000 and 1,450, but eventually settled down and converted to Islam. One of these groups, The Seljuk Turks, controlled the trade routes among Asia, Africa, and Europe.
The story of the Islamic Empire begins in the Arabian Peninsula with the foundation of the Islamic faith. Islam was founded by Muhammad, a descendant of the tribe of Quraish and the family of Hashem, part of a long line of princes who guarded the Kaaba of Mecca. Arabia in the 7th century had a sizable polytheistic community, particularly in Muhammad’s birthplace of Mecca. After a successful career as a merchant, Muhammad claimed at the age of 40 that he was visited by the angel Gabriel who shared with him revelations from God. He began to share these visions with his community in 613, three years after his first vision. But his initial attempt to preach what became Islam to the people of Mecca was met with stiff resistance. Muhammad was eventually forced to flee the city in 622. He found refuge in Medina, where he was able to amass a large following who eventually returned with him to Mecca and took over the city. After only three years back in Mecca where he continued to enthusiastically preach, Muhammad died in 632. By the time of Muhammad’s death, almost the entire Arabian Peninsula had converted to Islam.
It’s after the death of Muhammad where the beginnings of the Empire are truly found, however. Debate raged on as to who should be Muhammad’s legitimate successor – Ali, the husband of the prophet’s daughter Fatima, had a strong claim to the role of caliph, which is the name for the political and religious ruler of Muslim lands. Ali, however, declined to press his claim. So, the authority of the burgeoning Islamic caliphate went to Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law, close friend, and one of the first converts to Islam. Officially, Abu Bakr became the first caliph of what became known as the Rashidun Caliphate. After Abu Bakr’s death in 634, control of the caliphate went to Umar. He was assassinated ten years later, and Uthman, who had served as Muhammad’s secretary, took over. After Uthman was murdered in 656 by rebels, Ali was elected caliph. Ali’s reign marked the first period of civil bloodshed within the Islamic Empire, as he had to lead an army of more than 20,000 soldiers to defeat multiple rebel leaders. Likewise, Ali’s reign marked a distinct break in religious cohesion as well. For those Muslims who believed that Ali should have been named caliph directly after the death of Muhammad, the first three caliphs didn’t count. Those who believed Ali was the first rightful caliph became what are known today as the Shia, and those who followed Abu Bakr are now known as the Sunni.
The religious and civil wars brought on by Ali’s reign were not just happening on the home front. In the year after Muhammad’s death, the newly created caliphate had launched a simultaneous offensive into Persia and Syria, with Syria falling to Muslim rule by 639 and Persia falling by 651. The invasion of Egypt began in 639 and was complete by 641. But as the empire grew, it also became difficult to control. A major threat to Ali’s rule in Syria became apparent, where its governor Muawiyah had declared himself caliph with the backing of his family, known as the Umayyads. Over the course of dozens of battles between the two sides, both Ali and Muawiyah had significant losses in troops. An uneasy truce was formed, which angered some in Mecca. Three such bothered individuals resolved independently from each other to assassinate Ali, Muawiyah, and Muawiyah’s friend Amr ibn al-As, then ruling as viceroy in Egypt. When they struck in 661, Amr was spared due to a case of mistaken identity, Muawiyah was severely wounded in Damascus, but Ali did not have the same luck as the others and was successfully killed. After escaping assassination, Muawiyah continued to reign as the first caliph of the Umayyad Caliphate until 680. Importantly, under the Umayyads, the caliphate became hereditary rather than elective.
More conquests were on the horizon for the expanding Islamic Empire as the 8th century began. The Byzantines in North Africa, faced with the threat of paying steep monetary tribute to the Umayyads if they were conquered, attempted to extort as much in taxes as they could from the local populations. Unfortunately, this only made those populations more amenable to possible Muslim rule, and the Umayyads eventually conquered the region by 709 under the leadership of Muawiyah.
The expansion of the Islamic Empire during the 7th and 8th centuries
The Islamic Empire reached the very height of territorial power during the Umayyad Caliphate, stretching from modern-day Spain in the west to India in the east, and from Yemen in the south to Chechnya in the north. This vast territorial expansion was not met with universal approval. Especially in Spain, Christian kings attempted to reclaim the territory conquered by the Umayyads in an effort called the Reconquista, or the reconquest. Started in 722, it was a contentious, multi-century affair that placed the Muslim caliphates against the Christian West. While Umayyad-controlled Spain became a contentious battleground between opposing Muslim and Christian forces, it also displayed excellent examples of the empire’s cultural achievements. Spanish, Christian, and Islamic cultures combined in splendid form. The Umayyad capital of Córdoba proved to be an architectural marvel, with hundreds of mosques, schools, baths, and hospitals built during Muslim control.
These vast realms of the Umayyads, filled with splendor and a multitude of contestants for the caliphate, soon entered another civil war. In 750, the Umayyads were overthrown by the Abbasid caliphate, who quickly took over most Umayyad-controlled territories- with the exception of Spain. By the 10th century, the entire Islamic Empire was divided among three groups: the Abbasids, ruling from Baghdad; the Fatimids, ruling from Cairo; and the Umayyads, still ruling from Córdoba. The Abbasids controlled the majority of Islamic territory with a still very sizable empire.
During the Abbasid Caliphate, the capital of the empire was moved to the new city of Baghdad, now located in modern-day Iraq. Through dedicated government sponsorship of academic scholarship, the empire entered into what is known as the Islamic Golden Age. This period of advancements in fields such as math, art, literature, and architecture lasted from the beginning of the Abbasid Caliphate in the 8th century until the mid-13th century. The most well-known Abbasid caliph of this age was Harun al-Rashid, who ruled from 786 to 809, and established the House of Wisdom in Baghdad. At the House of Wisdom, scholarly texts that had been originally written in languages such as Greek, Persian, Indian, Chinese, and Egyptian were collected and translated into Arabic by state-sponsored scholars. Other Muslim rulers mirrored the Abbasid example: the royal library of the Umayyads in Spain reportedly contained 600,000 volumes, and 70 public libraries were opened in Muslim Spain over the course of their rule. The wide usage of paper entered the Muslim dominions from China, while mathematicians discovered new geometric patterns and developed our modern system of Arabic numerals and algebra. Equally important were the advancements made in medicine. Not only were hospitals built widely throughout Spain, but across the entire Muslim world. Advancements were also made in hygienic practices, treatments, disease identification, and many other fields.
Two of the few reliable constants in the world are change and upheaval, and the Abbasid Caliphate was no exception. Their hold on power began to be tested in the 10th century. Turkish mercenaries recruited as royal bodyguards began to usurp royal authority and had the Abbasid caliph Al-Mutawakkil assassinated in 861. Another dangerous threat came from the southeast, where the Qarmatians, a Muslim sect that believed in relaxing some of the obligations of the faith, burst onto the scene and conquered Bahrain after considerable bloodshed in 900. City after city in Arabia fell to the Qarmatians, who enlisted the nomadic, cavalry-based Bedouins to their cause and took Mecca by storm in 930. After eventually executing 30,000 residents, they maintained regional rule throughout much of the 10th century, exacting tribute from the Abbasids in Baghdad.
This example of disciplined cavalry outwitting the Abbasids proved a dangerous one, because the threat which did indeed wipe out Abbasid power – and with it the Islamic Golden Age – came from cavalry hordes on the steppes of Asia far to the east. These were the Mongols, who seized control of northern China in the 13th century and then moved westward, destroying caliphate control in Persia and shortly thereafter laying waste to Iraq and Syria. The Mongols besieged and subsequently sacked Baghdad in 1258, assassinating the last Abbasid Caliph Al-Musta’sim. The Mongol lieutenants in the conquered territories soon became autonomous princes, mixed with the Persians and Arabs, and converted to Islam.
Ok, now that we’ve covered the main people and events of the Islamic Empire, here’s a quick recap.
Islam, originating at the start of the 7th century AD, spread throughout the surrounding areas by way of trade, conquest, and missionaries. Within a few decades, an empire was formed, spanning three continents. As time passed, more and more military conquests allowed the empire and religion to spread rapidly. The Umayyads began developing political structures, and their successors, the Abbasids, sought to shift to a centralized government. The Islamic Golden Age flourished under the Abbasids, coming to an end as the Mongols successfully laid siege to Baghdad in 1258.
I hope this review was helpful! Thanks for watching, and happy studying!