Although there were important contacts between the civilized centers of the classical world, no single civilization had bound together large portions of the ancient world in either the Western or the Eastern Hemisphere.
But in the 7th century A.D., the followers of a new religion, Islam, which literally means "submission, the self-surrender of the believer to the will of the one, true God, Allah," charged out of the Arabian peninsula and began a sequence of conquest and conversion that would forge the first truly global civilization.
Until then Arabia had been a nomadic backwater on the periphery of the civilizations of the eastern Mediterranean.
Within decades, the Muslims (as the followers of the new faith and its prophet, Muhammad, were called) had conquered an empire extending from Spain in the west to central Asia in the east, an empire that combined the classical civilizations of Greece, Egypt, and Persia.
In succeeding centuries, Islamic civilization would be spread by merchants, holy men, and warriors across the steppes of Asia (including most of what is today southern Russia) to western China, into the Indian subcontinent and across maritime Southeast Asia, and down the eastern coast of Africa and into the vast savanna zone to the west.
Muslim conquerors would also capture Asia Minor and advance into the European heartland of Islam's great rival, Christendom.
During most of the millennium after the 7th century A.D., this great civilization, which cut a huge swath across the middle of the continents of Africa and Asia, provided key links and channels for exchange among the civilized centers of the classical era in the Eastern Hemisphere.
Muslim merchants, often in cooperation with Jewish, Armenian, Indian, and other regional commercial groups, became key middlemen in the trade between civilizations from the western Mediterranean to the South China Sea.
Muslim traders and conquerors became the prime agents for the transfer of food crops, technology, and ideas among the many centers of civilization in the Eastern Hemisphere.
Muslim scholars studied, preserved, and improved on the learning of the ancient civilizations of the Old World, including most critically those of Greece, Persia, and Egypt.
For several centuries, Muslim works in philosophy, literature, mathematics, and the sciences elevated Arabic (the language of the Quran, the holy book containing God's revelations to Muhammad)
to the status of the international language of the educated and informed.
Thus, building on the achievements of earlier civilizations, Muslim peoples forged a splendid new civilization that excelled in most areas of human endeavor, from poetry and architecture to the sciences and urban development.
Islam not only joined existing centers of civilization, it provided the foundations on which a truly global civilization would eventually be built.
Although unified by a common allegiance to the religious rituals and teachings proclaimed by Muhammad and to some extent by the Arabic language, the Islamic world was divided by political rivalries, vast cultural and linguistic diversity, and religious sectarianism.
The agrarian cores of earlier civilizations provided the base of support for Muslim empires and kingdoms that fought to expand their territorial control at each other's expense and warred for the right to claim that their rulers were the true leaders of the Islamic world.
It was unrealistic to expect that such a large area as that encompassed by Islamic civilization could be united under a single ruler, particularly given the primitive state of sea and overland communications.
In any case, from the 7th to the 14th centuries, political rivalries prompted technological and organizational innovations that strengthened the Islamic world as a whole.
Diversity and the continuing influx of new ideas, objects, and peoples from areas newly brought into the Islamic fold enriched Muslim civilization and enhanced its accomplishments in the arts, invention, and the sciences.
Only with the rise of Europe, beginning in the 14th century, from a besieged and peripheral outlier on the western fringes of the Islamic empires to a mighty aggressor on a global scale, did the divisions within the Islamic world begin to undermine seriously the continued strength and prosperity of Muslim civilization.
By playing rival Islamic rulers and sects against each other, the emerging Christian powers could further their designs for territorial expansion.
In the 15th and 16th centuries, Muslim divisions and rivalries allowed the Europeans to gain footholds, however precarious, in Africa and the East Indies.
We trace the emergence of the Muslim religion and community of Muhammad's faithful followers in the middle decades of the 7th century A.D.
It then presents the early conquests of the Arabs, united by the new religion, and examines the achievements of early Islamic civilization.
The lecture concludes with an account of a major shift in leadership that occurred within the Islamic community in the mid-8th century and the early history of the Abbasid Empire, which was a product of that shift.
These lectures note the reasons for Islamic expansion and the ways in which that expansion made it the first truly global civilization.
Desert And Town: The Arabian World And The Birth Of Islam
The Arabian peninsula was a very unlikely birthplace for the first global
civilization. Much of the area is covered by some of the most inhospitable desert regions in the world. An early traveler wrote of the region:
All about us is an iron wilderness; a bare and black shining beach of heated volcanic stones . . . a vast bed and banks of rusty and basaltic bluish rocks . . . stubborn as heavy matter, as iron and sounding like bell metal; lying out eternally under the sand-driving desert wind. . . .
In the scrub zones on the edges of the empty quarters, or uninhabitable desert zones, a wide variety of bedouin, or nomadic cultures, had developed over the centuries on the basis of camel and goat herding.
In the oases that dotted the dry landscape, towns and agriculture flourished on a limited scale.
Only in the far south, on the Yemen and Hadramaut coasts, had extensive sedentary agriculture, sizeable cities, and regional kingdoms developed in ancient times.
Over much of the rest of the peninsula, the camel nomads, organized in tribes and clans, were dominant.
Yet in the rocky regions adjacent to the Red Sea, several trading towns had developed that would play pivotal roles in the emergence of Islam.
Though the urban roots of Islam have often been stressed by writers on Muslim civilization, the bedouin world in which the religion arose shaped the career of its prophet, his teachings, and the spread of the new beliefs in major ways.
In fact, key towns, such as Mecca and Medina, were largely extensions of the tribal culture of the camel nomads.
Their populations were
linked by kinship to bedouin peoples.
Mecca, for example, had been founded by bedouins and at the time of Muhammad was ruled by former bedouin clans.
The safety of the trade routes on which the towns depended for their livelihood was in the hands of nomadic tribes who lived along the vulnerable caravan routes to the north and south.
In addition, the town dwellers' social organization, which focused on clan and family, as well as their culture, including language and religion, were much like those of the nomads.
Clan Identity, Clan Rivalries, And The Cycle Of Vengeance
The harsh desert and scrub environment of Arabia gave rise to forms of social organization and a life-style that were similar to those of other nomadic peoples.
Bedouin herders lived in kin-related clan groups that dwelt in highly mobile tent encampments.
Clans were in turn clustered in larger tribal groupings, but these were rarely, if ever, congregated together and then only in times of war or severe crisis.
The struggle for subsistence in the unforgiving Arabian environment resulted in a strong dependence on and loyalty to one's family and clan.
Survival literally depended on cooperation with and support from kin. To be cut off from them or expelled from the clan encampment was in most cases fatal.
The use of watering places and grazing lands, which were essential to maintaining the herds on which bedouin life depended, was regulated by clan councils.
But there could be wide disparities of wealth and status within clan groups and between clans of the same tribe.
Though normally elected by councils of elder advisors, the shaykhs, or leaders of the tribes and clans, were almost always men with large herds, several wives, many children, and numerous retainers.
The shaykhs' dictates were enforced by bands of free warriors, whose families made up a majority of a given clan group.
Beneath the warriors were slave families, often the remnants of rival clans defeated and decimated by war, who served the shaykhs or the clan as a whole.
Clan cohesion and loyalty was reinforced by fierce interclan rivalries and strugglea to control vital pasturelands and watering places.
If the warriors from one clan found those from another clan drawing water from one of their wells, they were likely to kill them.
Wars very often broke out as a result of one clan encroaching on the pasture areas of another clan.
In a culture where one's honor depended on respect for one's clan, the flimsiest of pretexts could lead to interclan violence.
For instance, an insult to a warrior in a market town, the theft of a prize stallion, or one clan's drubbing in a horse race by another clan could end in pitched battles between clan groups.
All the males of a given clan joined in these melees, which were normally won by the side that could field several champions who were famed for their strength and skill with spears or bows and arrows.
These battles were fought according to a code of chivalry that was quite common in early cultures.
Though battles were usually small in terms of the numbers involved, they were hard fought and often bloody affairs.
Almost invariably the battles either initiated or perpetuated clan feuds, which could continue for hundreds of years. The deaths of the warriors of one clan required that revenge be taken on the clan that had killed them. Their deaths led in turn to reprisals.
Though one function of this pattern of reprisals was to maintain a rough balance between clan and tribal groups, it could get out of hand and lead to the virtual annihilation of one of the parties to the conflict.
In addition, this constant infighting drained resources and energies that might have been put to constructive ends.
It also weakened the bedouins' vis-a-vis neighboring peoples and empires and allowed them to be manipulated and set against each other.
Dates And Long-Distance Trade
Though bedouin herders occupied most of the habitable portions of Arabia, agriculturists and town dwellers carved out small enclaves in the western and southern parts of the peninsula in the classical era.
Foreign invasions and the inroads of bedouin peoples had all but destroyed these civilizations centuries before the birth of Muhammad.
But a number of cities had developed
farther north as entrepots in the transcontinental trading system that stretched from the Mediterranean to Southeast Asia.
The most important of these cities was Mecca, which was located in the mountainous region along the Red Sea on the western coast of Arabia.
The town had been founded by the Umayyad clan of the Quraysh bedouin tribe, and members of the clan dominated its politics and commercial economy.
The wealth and status of both Mecca and its merchant elite were also enhanced by the fact that the city was the site of the Ka'ba, one of the most revered religious shrines in pre-Islamic Arabia.
The shrine not only attracted pilgrims and customers for Mecca's bazaars, but at certain times of the year it was the focus of an obligatory truce in the interclan feuds.
Freed from fears of assault by rival groups, traders and bedouin herdsmen flocked to the town to trade, exchange gossip, and partake in the delights (however limited in such a provincial environment) of city life.
[See Shrine Imam Reza: The courtyard of the shrine Imam Reza.]
Northeast of Mecca was a second town, Yathrib or Medina, which - like most of the other towns in the peninsula - was established in an oasis.
Wells and springs made sedentary agriculture possible.
In addition to wheat and other staples, Medina's inhabitants grew date palms, whose fruit and seeds (which were fed to camels) they traded to the bedouins.
Medina was also engaged, though on a much smaller scale than Mecca, in the long-distance caravan trade that passed through Arabia.
In contrast to Umayyad-dominated Mecca, control in Medina was contested by two bedouin and three Jewish clans.
Their quarrels left the city a poor second to Mecca as a center of trade, and these divisions proved critical to the very survival of the prophet Muhammad and the Islamic faith.
Marriage And Family In Pre-Islamic Arabia
Though the evidence is thin, there are a number of indications that women in pre-Islamic Arabian bedouin culture enjoyed greater freedom and higher status than those who lived in neighboring civilized centers, such as the Byzantine and Sasanian empires that then dominated the Middle East.
Women played key economic roles in clan life, from milking camels and weaving cloth to raising children.
Because male members of the clan were often on the move, many tribes traced descent through the mother rather than the father.
In some tribes, both males and females were allowed multiple marriage partners, and the male was required to pay a bride-price, rather than the father of the female paying a dowry, in order to seal a marriage contract.
In contrast to women (especially elite women) in neighboring Syria and Persia, women in pre-Islamic Arabia were not secluded and went about without veils.
Their advice was highly regarded in clan and tribal councils, and they often authored the poems that were the focus of bedouin cultural life in the pre-Islamic era.
[See Persian Women: Persian women in outdoor dress.]
However, women were not by any means the equals of men. They could not gain glory as warriors, the most prized occupation of the bedouins; and often they were little more than drudge laborers.
Their treatment and status depended on the custom of individual clans and tribes rather than on legal codes, and thus varied widely from one clan or family to the next.
Customary practices regarding property control, inheritance, and divorce heavily favored males.
Though remarkably skilled women, such as Muhammad's first wife Khadija, prospered in the urban environment of trading centers like Mecca, the rise of a mercantile elite and social stratification in these areas appears to have set back the position of women on the whole.
The more stable family life of the towns led to the practice of tracing descent through the male line, and while males continued to practice polygamy, females were expected to be monogamous.
[See Persian Lady]
[See Gabr Woman And Child]
Poets And Neglected Gods
Because of the relative isolation of Arabia in the pre-Islamic age and the harshness and poverty of the natural environment (no one knew of or had any use for the vast reservoirs of oil hidden beneath its sands), Arab material culture was not highly developed.
The main focus of bedouin cultural creativity in the pre-Islamic era was poetry, which was composed and transmitted orally as there was as yet no written language.
Clan and tribal bards narrated poems that told of their kinsmen's heroics in war and the clan's great deeds.
Some poets were said to possess magical powers or to be possessed by demons.
More than any other source, their poems provide a vision of life and society in pre-Islamic Arabia.
They tell of lovers spurned and passion consummated, war and vendettas, loyalty, and generosity.
Bedouin religion was for most clans a blend of animism and polytheism, or the worship of many gods and goddesses.
Some tribes, such as the Quraysh, recognized a supreme God named Allah.
But they seldom prayed or sacrificed to Allah, concentrating instead on less abstract spirits who seemed more relevant to their daily lives.
The Life Of Muhammad And The Genesis Of Islam
By the 6th century A.D., the camel nomads were dominant throughout much
The civilized centers to the south were in ruins, and trading centers, such as Mecca and Medina, depended on alliances with neighboring bedouin tribes to keep the caravan routes open.
The constricted world of clan and kin, nomadic camp, blood feud, and local gods persisted despite the lure of the extensive empires and cosmopolitan urban centers that stretched in a great arc to the north and east of the Arabian peninsula.
But pressures for change were mounting. Both the Byzantine and Sasanian empires struggled to assert greater control over the nomadic tribes of the peninsula, and Arab peoples migrated into Mesopotamia and other areas to the north, where they came increasingly under foreign influences.
From these regions, the influence of monotheistic religions, especially Judaism and Christianity, entered Arabia, and Arab holy men urged the bedouin tribes to renounce idol worship and rely on a single, almighty God.
Equally critical, in trading towns such as Mecca and Medina, the personal bonds and mutual support systems that had made for survival within the clan gradually eroded.
Their weakening gave rise to a sense of unease and disorientation and to growing indignation over glaring disparities in wealth and the neglect of the poor and weak.
The prophet Muhammad and the new religion, which he sought to propagate in the early decades of the 7th century, responded both to the influences flowing into Arabia and to the social dislocations that were disrupting Arab life.
The Making Of A Prophet
The hardships of Muhammad's early life underscore the importance of clan ties in the Arabian world.
He was born around A.D. 570 into a prominent clan of the Quraysh tribe, the Banu Hashim, in a bedouin encampment where he would spend the first six years of his life.
Because his father died before he was born, Muhammad was raised by his father's kinsmen. The loss of his father was compounded by the death of Muhammad's mother shortly after he went to live with her some years later.
The loss of his parents may have instilled in the young boy a desire to be revered and loved by his kinsmen; it certainly left
him with a strong sense of compassion for the orphaned and downtrodden.
Despite these early losses, Muhammad had the good fortune to be born into a respected clan and powerful tribe.
His paternal uncle, Abu Talib, was particularly fond of the boy and served as his protector and supporter through much of his early life.
Muhammad's grandfather, who like other leading members of the clan was engaged in commerce, educated the young man in the ways of the merchant.
With Abu Talib, Muhammad made his first caravan journey to Syria, where on this and later trips he encountered adherents of the Christian and Jewish faiths whose beliefs and practices were to have such a great impact on his own teachings.
In his adolescence, Muhammad took up residence in Mecca and prospered as a trader.
In his early 20s, he went to work for Khadijah, the widow of a wealthy trader, who had successfully expanded her deceased husband's enterprises.
Some years later, Muhammad married Khadijah, thus firmly establishing his place among the merchant elite of the city.
His life as a trader in Mecca and on the caravan routes not only exposed Muhammad to the world beyond Arabia; it made him acutely aware of the clan rivalries that had divided the peoples of the region for millennia.
He was also increasingly concerned about new forces undermining solidarity within the clans.
The growth of the towns and trade had enriched some clan families and left others behind, often in poverty.
It had also introduced a new source of tension between clan and tribal groupings, because some clans, such as the Umayyads, grew rich on the profits from commerce, where others maintained their herding life-style.
As a trader and traveler, Muhammad would have been aware of the new religious currents that were sweeping the region in the early 7th century, particularly the spread of monotheistic ideas and the growing dissatisfaction with the old gods.
In Muhammad's time a number of prophets had arisen proclaiming a new faith for the Arabs.
Some of these prophets would continue to compete with him for adherents after he received the divine revelations that would provide the basis for Islam.
Though socially prominent, economically well-off, and widely admired for his trading skills and trustworthiness, the middle-aged Muhammad grew increasingly distracted and dissatisfied with a life focused on material gain.
He took to spending increasing amounts of time in meditation in the hills and wilderness that surrounded Mecca.
In 610 or earlier, he received the first of many revelations, which his followers believe God transmitted to him through the angel Gabriel.
These revelations were later written in Arabic and collected in the Quran.
The teachings and injunctions of the Quran were to form the basis for the new religion that Muhammad began to preach to his clanspeople and the population of Mecca.
Persecution, Flight, And Victory
At first Muhammad's following was small, consisting mainly of his wife,
several clanspeople, and some servants and slaves.
As his message was clarified with successive revelations, the circle of the faithful grew to the point where he began to be seen by the Umayyad notables who dominated Meccan life as a threat to their own wealth and power.
Above all, the new faith threatened to supplant the gods of the Ka'ba whose shrines had done so much to establish the city as a center of commerce and bedouin interchange.
Though he was protected for a time by his own clan, Muhammad was increasingly threatened by the Umayyads.
A plot was formulated to murder the prophet - a plot that involved participants from several clans and thus, it was hoped, would discourage reprisals on the part of the Banu Hashim.
It was clear that Muhammad must flee Mecca, but where was he to find refuge?
Muhammad's reputation as a skillful and fair negotiator prepared the way for his successful flight from Umayyad persecution.
The quarrels between the clans in the nearby city of Medina had increasingly precipitated violent clashes, and the oasis community was on the verge of civil war.
Leaders of the bedouin clans in Medina sent a delegation to invite Muhammad, who was related to them on his mother's side, to arbitrate their disputes and put an end to the strife that had so long plagued the town.
Clever ruses and the courage of his clansman Ali - who at one point took Muhammad's place and thus risked becoming the target of assassins - secured in 622 the safe passage of Muhammad
and a small band of followers from Mecca to Medina.
In Medina he was given a hero's welcome, which he soon earned by deftly settling the quarrels between the bedouin clans.
His wisdom and skill as a political leader won him new followers, who joined those who had accompanied him from Mecca as the core believers of the new faith.
In the eyes of the Umayyad notables, Muhammad's successes made him a greater threat than ever.
Not only was he preaching a faith that rivaled their own, but his leadership was strengthening Mecca's neighbor and competitor, Medina.
Muslim raids on Meccan caravans provided yet another source of danger.
Determined to put an end to these threats, the Quraysh launched a series of attacks in the mid-620s on Muhammad and his followers in Medina.
These attacks led to several pitched battles, which were fought in the old chivalric style. In these clashes, Muhammad proved an able leader and courageous fighter.
He was also an innovative strategist, who at one point "broke the rules" by having a ditch dug to protect the flanks of his badly outnumbered followers.
The ultimate victory of Muhammad and his followers was signaled by a treaty in 628 that included a provision granting them permission to visit the shrine at Ka'ba in Mecca during the season of truce.
By then Muhammad's successful community had won numerous bedouin allies, and over 10,000 converts accompanied him on his triumphal return to his hometown in 629.
After proving the power of Allah, the single God he proclaimed, by smashing the idols of the shrine, Muhammad converted the Umayyads and most of the other inhabitants of Mecca to the new faith.
Arabs And Islam
Although Islam was soon to become one of the great world religions, the beliefs and practices enjoined by the prophet Muhammad were initially adopted only by the Arab town dwellers and bedouins among whom he had grown up - just as very early Christianity had focused on Jewish converts.
The new religion had much to offer the divided peoples of Arabia.
It gave them a form of pristine monotheism that belonged to no single tribe and transcended clan and class divisions.
It provided a religion that was distinctly Arab in origin and yet the equal of the monotheistic faiths held by the Christians and Jews, who lived near and in the midst of the bedouin tribes.
If anything, the monotheism preached by Muhammad was even more uncompromising than that of the Christians because it allowed for no intermediaries between the individual and God. God was one; there were no saints, and angels were nothing more than messengers; nor were there priests in the Christian or Jewish sense.
Adherence to Islam offered the possibility of an end to the vendettas and feuds that had so long divided the peoples of Arabia and undermined their attempts to throw off the domination of neighboring empires.
The umma, or community of the faithful, transcended old tribal boundaries and made possible a degree of political unity undreamed of before Muhammad's time.
The new religion provided a single and supernaturally sanctioned source of authority and discipline.
With unity, the skills and energies that the bedouins had once channeled toward warring with each other were turned outward in a burst of conquest that is perhaps unmatched in human history in its speed and extent.
From vassals, march warriors, or contemptible "savages" of the desert waste, the Arab bedouins were transformed into the conquerors and rulers of much of the Middle Eastern world.
The new religion also provided an ethical system that did much to heal the deep social rifts within Arabian society that had appeared in the time of the prophet.
Islam stressed the dignity of all believers and their equality in the eyes of Allah.
It promulgated an ethical code that stressed the responsibility of the well-to-do and strong for the poor and weak, the aged and infirm.
Payment of the zakat, a tax for charity, was obligatory in the new faith. In both his revelations and personal behavior, Muhammad enjoined his followers to be kind and generous to their dependents, including slaves.
He forbade the rich to exploit the poor through exorbitant rents or usurious rates of interest charged for loans.
The prophet's teachings and the revelations of the Quran were soon incorporated into an extensive body of law
that regulated all aspects of the lives of the Muslim faithful.
Held accountable before Islamic law on earth, they lived in a manner that would prepare them for the Last Judgement that in Islam, as in Christianity, would determine their fate in eternity.
A stern but compassionate God and a strict but socially minded body of law set impressive standards for the social interaction between adherents of the new faith.
Universalistic Elements In Islam
Although almost exclusively a religion of the Arabs in its early years, from the outset Islam contained beliefs and practices that would give it a strong appeal to peoples at virtually all stages of social development and in widely varying cultural settings.
Some of these beliefs - Islam's uncompromising monotheism, highly developed legal codes, egalitarianism, and strong sense of community - were the same as the attributes that had won it support among the peoples of Arabia.
Its potential as a world religion was enhanced by the fact that most of the attributes of Islam were to some degree anticipated by the other Semitic religions with which Muhammad had contact.
Muhammad accepted the validity of earlier divine revelations, which had given rise to the Jewish and Christian faiths.
He taught that the revelations that he had received were a refinement and reformulation of earlier ones, and that they were the last and culminating divine instructions for human behavior and worship.
In addition to beliefs and practices that have given Islam a universal
appeal, its "five pillars," which must be accepted and followed by all believers, provided the basis for an underlying religious unity.
(1) The confession of faith was simple and powerful: "There is no God but God, and Muhammad is his Prophet."
The injunctions (2) to pray, facing the holy city of Mecca, five times a day and
(3) to fast during the month of Ramadan enhanced community solidarity and allowed the faithful to demonstrate their fervor.
(4) The zakat or tithe for charity also strengthened community cohesion and won converts from those seeking an ethical code that stressed social responsibility and the "brotherhood" of all believers.
(5) The hajj, or pilgrimage to the holy city of Mecca, to worship Allah at the Ka'ba (which was converted from an idolaters' shrine into the sacred center of the Islamic world) drew together the faithful from Morocco to China.
No injunction did more to give Islam a truly cosmopolitan and universalistic character.
The Arab Empire Of The Umayyads
Muhammad's victory over the Umayyads, his capture of Mecca, and the resulting allegiance of many of the bedouin tribes of Arabia created a wholly new center of power in the Middle Eastern cradle of civilizations.
A backward, non-agrarian area outside the core zones of Egypt, Mesopotamia, and Persia suddenly emerged as the source of religious and political forces that would eventually affect the history of much of the known world.
But when the prophet Muhammad died quite suddenly in 632, it appeared that his religion might altogether disappear.
Many of the bedouin tribes that had converted to Islam renounced the new faith in the months after Muhammad's death, and his remaining followers quarreled over who should succeed him.
Though these quarrels were never fully resolved, the community managed to find new leaders who directed a series of campaigns to force those who had abandoned Islam to return to the fold.
Having united most of Arabia under the Islamic banner by 633, Muslim military commanders began to mount serious expeditions beyond the peninsula, where only probing attacks had occurred during the lifetime of the prophet and in the period of tribal warfare after his death.
The courage, military prowess, and religious zeal of the warriors of Islam and the weaknesses of the empires that bordered on Arabia resulted in stunning conquests in Mesopotamia, North Africa, and Persia that dominated the next two decades of Islamic history.
The empire built from these conquests was Arab rather than Islamic.
Most of it was ruled by a small Arab-warrior elite, led by the Umayyads and other prominent clans, which had little desire to convert the subject populations, either Arab or otherwise, to the new religion.
Unaccustomed wealth and political power, which was reflected in the
growth of new cities around Arab garrisons and the expansion of older urban centers, were the Arabs' rewards for these startling victories.
The Umayyads, to the dismay of many of the faithful, developed into autocratic rulers who were more concerned with perpetuating their dynastic power than advancing the interests of the Islamic faithful as a whole.
Their growing arrogance and adoption of a life-style stressing luxury and material gain exacerbated divisions within the Islamic community that had begun to emerge soon after Muhammad's death.
Consolidation And Division In The Islamic Community
The leadership crisis brought on by Muhammad's death in 632 was compounded by the fact that he had not appointed a successor or even established a procedure by which a new leader might be chosen.
Opinion within the Muslim community was deeply divided as to who should succeed him.
In addition, many bedouin tribes broke from the Islamic fold after hearing of the prophet's passing.
Several of these tribes produced prophets of their own and some of the larger ones launched attacks on Mecca.
In this moment of extreme danger, there was an urgent need to find a new leader who could rally the faithful and put down the bedouin challenges to the community and the new faith.
On the afternoon Muhammad died, one of the loyal clans called a meeting to select a new leader who would be designated as the caliph, the political and religious successor to Muhammad.
Several choices were possible, and a deadlock between the clans appeared likely - a deadlock that would almost certainly have been fatal to a community threatened by enemies on all sides.
One of the main candidates, Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, was passed over because he was considered too young to assume a position of such great responsibility.
This decision was later to prove a major source of division in the Islamic community.
But in 632, it appeared that a difficult reconciliation had been won by the choice of one of Muhammad's earliest followers and closest friends, Abu Bakr (caliph from 632 to 634).
In addition to his personal courage, warmth, and wisdom, Abu Bakr was well versed in the genealogical histories of the bedouin tribes, which meant that he was well placed to determine which tribes could be turned against each other and which ones could be enticed into alliances. Initially at least, his mandate was very limited.
He received no financial support from the Muslim community.
Thus, he had to continue his previous occupation as a merchant on a part-time basis, and he only loosely controlled the better military commanders of the faithful.
These commanders turned out to be very able indeed. After turning back attacks on Mecca, the Islamic faithful routed one after another of the bedouin tribes.
The defeat of rival prophets and some of the larger clans in what were known as the Ridda Wars soon brought about the return of one tribe after another to the Islamic fold.
Emboldened by the proven skills of his generals and the swelling ranks of the Muslim faithful, Abu Bakr did nothing to stop raids to the north of Arabia into the sedentary zones in present-day Iraq and Syria and eastward into Egypt.
There is evidence that Muhammad envisioned expansion into these areas, but his death left whatever plans he had unfulfilled.
The unified bedouin forces had originally intended merely to raid for booty and then retreat back into the desert.
But their initial probes revealed the deep-seated rot and vulnerability of the Byzantine and Persian empires, which dominated or ruled directly the territories into which the Muslim warriors rode.
The invaders were also prodded onward by the growing support of the Arab bedouin peoples who had migrated to the Fertile Crescent decades and even centuries earlier.
These peoples had long served as the vassals and frontier guardians of the Byzantine and Persian empires.
Now they joined their Arab brethren in a combined assault on the two empires.
Motives For Conquest
The Arab warriors were driven by a number of forces. The unity the Islamic faith provided gave them a new sense of common cause and strength.
United they could stand up to the non-Arab rulers who had so long played them against each other and despised them as unwashed and backward barbarians from the desert wastelands.
It is also probable that the early leaders of the community saw the wars of conquest as a good way to release the pent-up energies of the martial bedouin tribes they now sought to lead.
Above all, the bedouin warriors were drawn to the campaigns of expansion by the promise of a share in the booty to be won in the rich farmlands raided and the tribute that could be exacted from the towns and cities that came under Arab rule.
As an early Arab writer remarked, the bedouins forsook their life as desert nomads not out of a promise of religious rewards, but due to a "yearning after bread and dates."
The chance to glorify their new religion may have been a motive for the Arab conquests, but they were not driven by a desire to win converts to it.
In fact, other than fellow bedouin tribes of Arab descent, the invaders had good reason to avoid mass conversions.
Not only would Arab warriors have to share the booty of their military expeditions with ever larger numbers if converts were made, but Muslims were exempted from some of the more lucrative taxes levied on Christian and other non-Muslim groups.
Thus, the vision of Islamic jihads, or holy wars, launched to forcibly spread the faith, which has been associated with Islam, distorts the forces behind the early Arab expansion.
Weaknesses Of The Adversary Empires
Of the two great empires that had once contested for dominance in the Fertile Crescent transit zone, the Sasanian Empire of Persia proved the more vulnerable.
Power in the extensive Sasanian domains was formally concentrated in the hands of an autocratic emperor.
By the time of the Arab explosion, the emperor was manipulated by a landed, aristocratic class that harshly exploited the cultivators who made up most of the population of the empire.
Zoroastrianism, the official religion of the emperor, lacked popular roots. By contrast, the religion of a visionary reformer named Mazdak, which had won considerable support among the peasantry, had been brutally suppressed by the Sasanian rulers in the period before the rise of Islam.
At first the Sasanian commanders had little more than contempt for the Arab invaders and set out against them with poorly prepared forces.
By the time the seriousness of the Islamic threat was made all too clear by decisive Arab victories in the Fertile Crescent region and the defection of the Arab tribes on the frontier, Muslim warriors had broken into the Sasanian heartland.
Further Muslim victories brought about the rapid collapse of the vast empire. The Sasanian rulers and their forces retreated eastward in the face of the Muslim advance.
The capital was taken, armies were destroyed, and generals were slain. When, in 651, the last of the Sasanian rulers was assassinated, Muslim victory and the destruction of the empire were ensured.
[See Persian Prisoners]
Despite an equally impressive string of Muslim victories in the provinces of their empire, the Byzantines proved a more resilient adversary.
Their ability to resist the Muslim onslaught, however, was impeded both by the defection of their own frontier Arabs and the support the Muslim invaders received from the Christians of Syria and Egypt.
Members of the Christian sects dominant in these areas, such as the Copts and Nestorians, had long resented the rule of the Orthodox Byzantines, who taxed them heavily and, periodically, openly persecuted them as heretics.
When it became clear that the Muslims would not only tolerate the Christians but tax them less heavily than the Byzantines did, these Christian groups rallied to the Arabs.
Weakened from within and exhausted by the long wars fought with Persia in the decades before the Arab explosion, the Byzantines reeled from the Arab assaults.
Syria, western Iraq, and Palestine were quickly taken by the Arab invaders, and by 640 a series of probes had been made into Egypt, one of the richest provinces of the empire.
In the early 640s, the ancient center of learning and commerce, Alexandria, was taken; most of Egypt was occupied; and Arab armies extended their conquests into Libya to the west.
Perhaps even more
astounding from the point of view of the Byzantines, by the mid-640s the desert bedouins were putting together war fleets that increasingly challenged the long-standing Byzantine mastery of the Mediterranean.
The rise of Muslim naval supremacy in the eastern end of the sea sealed the loss of Byzantium's rich provinces in Syria and Egypt and opened the way to further Muslim conquests in North Africa, the Mediterranean islands, and even southern Italy.
For a time the Byzantines managed to rally their forces and stave off further inroads into their Balkan and Asia Minor heartlands. But the early triumphs of the Arab invaders had greatly reduced the strength and magnificence of the empire.
Though it would survive for centuries, it would henceforth be a kingdom under siege.
The Lingering Problem Of Succession And Sectarian Strife
The stunning successes of Muslim armies and the sudden rise of an Arab empire covered over for a time continuing divisions within the community.
The old division between the tribes of Mecca and Medina was compounded by differences between the tribes of north and south Arabia as well as those who came to identify Syria as their homeland and those who settled in Iraq.
Though these divisions were often generations old and the result of personal animosities, resentments had also begun to build over how the booty from the conquests ought to be divided among the tribal blocks that made up the Islamic community.
In 656, just over two decades after the death of the prophet, the growing tensions broke into open violence.
The spark that began the conflict was the murder of the third caliph, Uthman, by mutinous warriors returning from Egypt. Uthman's death was the signal for the supporters of Ali to proclaim him as caliph.
In part Uthman's unpopularity among many of the tribes, particularly those from Medina and the prophet's earliest followers, arose from the fact that he was the first caliph to be chosen from Muhammad's early enemies, the Umayyad clan.
Already angered by the murder of their kinsman, the Umayyads rejected Ali's claims and swore revenge when he failed to punish Uthman's assassins. Warfare erupted between the two factions.
Ali was a famed warrior and experienced commander, and his deeply committed supporters soon gained the upper hand.
After his victory at the Battle of the Camel in late 656, most of the Arab garrisons shifted to his side in opposition to the Umayyads, whose supporters were concentrated in the province of Syria and the holy city of Mecca.
Just as Ali was on the verge of routing the Umayyad forces at the battle of Siffin in 657, he was won over by a plea for mediation of the dispute. His decision to accept arbitration was fatal to his cause.
Some of his most fervent adherents repudiated his leadership and had to be violently suppressed.
While representatives of both parties sought unsuccessfully to work out a compromise, the Umayyads regrouped their forces and added Egypt to the provinces backing their claims.
In 660, Mu'awiya, the new leader of the Umayyads, was proclaimed caliph in Jerusalem, thereby directly challenging Ali's position.
A year later, Ali was assassinated, and his son, Hasan, was pressured by the Umayyads into renouncing his claims to the caliphate.
The Sunni-Shi'a Division
In the generation after the prophet's death, the question of succession, which has proved to be a persistent problem in Islamic political systems, generated deep divisions within the Muslim community.
The Sunnis, who backed the Umayyads, and the Shi'as, or dissenters who supported Ali, remain to this day the most fundamental divisions in the Islamic world.
Hostility between these two branches of the Islaeic faithful was further heightened in the years after Ali's death by the continuing struggle between the Umayyads and Ali's second son, Husayn.
After being abandoned by the clans in southern Iraq, who had promised to rise in a revolt supporting his claims against the Umayyads, Husayn and a small party were overwhelmed and killed at Karbala in 680.
From that point the Shi'as mounted determined and sustained resistance to thec Umayyad caliphate.
Over the centuries factional disputes about who had the right to succeed Muhammad, with the Shi'ites recognizing none of the early caliphs except Ali,
have been compounded by differences in belief, ritual, and law that have steadily widened the gap between Sunnis and Shi'as.
These divisions have been further complicated by the formation of splinter sects within the Shi'a community in particular, beginning with those who defected from Ali when he agreed to arbitration of his and the Umayyads' claims.
The Umayyad Imperium
After a pause to settle internal disputes over succession, the remarkable sequence of Arab conquest was renewed in the last half of the 7th century.
Muslim armies broke into central Asia, thus inaugurating a rivalry with Buddhism in the region that continues to the present day.
By the early 8th century, the southern prong of this advance had reached into northwest India.
Far to the west, Arab armies swept across North Africa and crossed the Straits of Gibraltar to conquer Spain and threaten France.
Though the Muslim advance into western Europe was in effect checked by the hard-fought victory of Charles Martel and the Franks at Poitiers in 732, the Arabs did not fully retreat beyond the Pyrenees into Spain until decades later.
Muslim warriors and sailors dominated much of the Mediterranean, a position that would be solidified by the conquest of key islands, such as Crete, Sicily, and Sardinia, in the early decades of the 9th century.
By the early 700s, the Umayyads ruled an empire that extended from Spain in the west to the steppes of central Asia in the east.
Not since the Romans had there been an empire to match it; never had an empire of its size been built so rapidly.
Though Mecca remained the holy city of Islam, under the Umayyads the political center of community shifted to Damascus in Syria, where the Umayyads chose to reside after the murder of Uthman.
From Damascus a succession of Umayyad caliphs strove to build a bureaucracy that would bind together the vast domains they claimed to rule. The empire was very much an Arab conquest state.
Except in the Arabian peninsula and parts of the Fertile Crescent, a small Arab and Muslim aristocracy ruled over peoples who were neither Arab nor Muslim.
Only Muslim Arabs were first-class citizens of this great empire. They made up the core of the army and imperial administration, and only they received a share of the booty derived from the ongoing conquests. They could be taxed only for charity.
The Umayyads sought to keep the Muslim warrior elite concentrated in garrison towns and separated from the local population.
It was hoped that isolation would keep them from assimilating to the subjugated cultures, because intermarriage meant conversion and the loss of taxable subjects.
Converts And "Peoples Of The Book"
Umayyad attempts to block extensive interaction between the Muslim warrior elite and the mass of their non-Muslim subjects had little chance of succeeding.
The citified bedouin tribesmen were soon interacting intensively and intermarrying in considerable numbers with the local populations of the areas conquered.
Equally critical, increasing numbers of these peoples were voluntarily converting to Islam, despite the fact that conversion did little to advance them socially or politically in the Umayyad period. Mawali, or Muslim converts, in this era still had to pay property taxes and in some cases the jizya, or head tax, levied on nonbelievers.
They received no share of the booty and found it difficult, if not impossible, to acquire important positions in the army or bureaucracy.
They were not even considered full members of the umma but were accepted only as clients of the powerful Arab clans.
As a result, the number of conversions in the Umayyad era was low, and mawali were frequently found in the ranks of the dissident sects generated by the struggles over succession.
By far the greater portion of the population of the empire were dhimmis, or people of the book.
As the title suggests, it was originally applied to Christians and Jews who shared the Bible with the Muslims.
As Islamic conquests spread to peoples, such as the Zoroastrians of Persia and the Hindus of India, the designation "dhimmi" was necessarily stretched to accommodate the majority groups within these areas of the empire.
The Muslim overlords generally displayed tolerance toward the religions of dhimmi peoples.
they had to pay the jizya and both commercial and property taxes, their communities and legal systems were left intact and they were allowed to worship as they pleased.
This approach made it a good deal easier for these peoples to accept Arab rule, particularly since many had been oppressed by their pre-Muslim rulers.
Family And Gender Roles In The Umayyad Age
Broader social changes within the Arab and widening Islamic community were accompanied by significant shifts in the position of women, both within the family and in society at large.
In the first centuries of Arab expansion, the greatly strengthened position of women under Islam prevailed over the seclusion and domination by males that were characteristic features of women's lives through much of the rest of the Middle East.
Muhammad's teachings and the dictates of the Quran stressed the moral and ethical dimensions of marriage.
The kindness and concern the prophet displayed for his own wives and daughters did much to strengthen the bonds between husband and wife and the nuclear family in the Islamic community.
Muhammad encouraged marriage as a replacement for the casual and often commercial sexual liaisons that had been widespread in pre-Islamic Arabia.
He vehemently denounced adultery on the part of both husbands and wives, though the punishment he recommended (100 lashes) was a good deal less draconian than the death by stoning later prescribed by some versions of Islamic law.
He forbadr female infanticide, which had apparently been widely practiced in Arabia in pre-Islamic times.
Though men were allowed to take up to four wives, the Quran forbade multiple marriages if the husband was not able to support more than one wife or treat all of his wives equally.
Women could not take more than one husband, but Muhammad gave his own daughters a say as to whom they might marry and greatly strengthened the legal rights of women regarding inheritance and divorce.
He insisted that the bride-price paid by the husband's family be given to his future wife, rather than to her father as before.
By his own example, Muhammad greatly strengthened the position of women within the family.
Not only were his wives and daughters prominent figures in the early Islamic community, but he treated them with great respect and even on occasion was known to take a hand in the household chores.
The prophet's teachings proclaimed the equality of men and women before God and in Islamic worship. Women, such as Kadijah, the prophet's first wife, were some of Muhammad's earliest and bravest followers.
They accompanied his forces to battle (as did the wives of their adversaries) with the Meccans, and a woman was the first martyr for the new faith.
Many of the traditions of the prophet, which have played such a critical role in Islamic law afd ritual, were recorded by women, and his wives and daughters played an important role in the compilation of the Quran.
Though women were not allowed to be prayer leaders, they played an active role in the politics of the early community.
Muhammad's wife Aisha actively promoted the claims of the Umayyad party against Ali, while Zainab, his daughter by Fatima, went into battle with the ill-fated Husayn.
Through much of the Umayyad period, little is heard of veiled Arab women, and they appear to have pursued a wide range of occupations, including scholarship, law, and commerce.
Perhaps one of Zainab's nieces best epitomizes the independent-mindedness of Muslim women in the early Islamic era.
When chided for going about without a veil, she replied that God in His wisdom had chosen to give her a beautiful face and that she intended to make sure that it was seen in public so that all might appreciate God's grace.
Umayyad Decline And Fall
The ever-increasing size of the royal harem was just one manifestation of the Umayyad caliphs' growing addiction to luxury and soft living.
Their legitimacy had been disputed by various Muslim factions from the outset of their seizure of the caliphate.
But the Umayyads further alienated the Muslim faithful as they became more aloof in the early decades of the 8th century and retreated from the dirty business of war into their pleasure gardens and marble palaces.
Their abandonment of the frugal, simple life-style followed by Muha mad and the earliest caliphs - including Abu Bakr, who made a trip to the
market the day after he was selected to succeed the prophet - enraged the dissenting sects and sparked revolts throughout the empire.
The uprising that would prove fatal to the short-lived dynasty began among the frontier warriors who had fought and settled in distant Iran.
By the middle decades of the 8th century, more than 50,000 warriors had settled near the oasis town of Merv in the eastern Iranian borderlands of the empire.
Many of them had married local women, and over time they had come to identify with the region and to resent the dictates of governors sent from distant Damascus.
The warrior settlers were also angered by the fact that they were rarely given the share of the booty, which was now officially tallied in the account books of the royal treasury, that they had earned by fighting the wars of expansion and defending the frontiers.
They were contemptuous of the Umay-yads and the Damascus elite, whom they viewed as corrupt and decadent.
In the early 740s an attempt by Umayyad palace officials to introduce new troops into the Merv area touched off a revolt that soon spread over much of the eastern po tions of the empire.
Marching under the black banners of the Abbasid party, which traced its descent from Muhammad's uncle, al-Abbas, the frontier warriors were openly challenging Umayyad armies by 747.
Deftly forging alliances with Shi'ite rebels and other dissident groups that challenged the Umayyads throughout the empire, their leader, Abu al-Abbas, the great-great-grandson of the prophet's uncle, led his forces from victory to victory. Persia and then Iraq fell to the rebels.
In 750, they met an army led by the Umayyad caliph himself in a massive battle on the river Zab near the Tigris. The Abbasid victory resulted in the conquest of Syria and the capture of the Umayyad capital.
Desiring to eliminate the Umayyad family altogether to prevent recurring challenges to his rule, Abu al-Abbas invited numerous members ofithe clan to w at was styled as a reconciliation banquet in the same year.
As the Umay-yads were enjoying the feast, guards covered them with carpets and they were slaughtered by Abbas's troops.
An effort was then made to hunt down and kill all the remaining members of the family throughout the empire.
Most were slain, but the grandson of a former caliph fled to distant Spain, where he founded the Caliphate of Cordoba that was to live on for centuries after the rest of the empire had disappeared.