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The Development of
Islamic Civilization to the
Eighteenth Century
The religion of Islam is often viewed solely in terms of its origins in the barren,
sparsely settled Arabian Peninsula. To be sure, it was in the Arabian city of
Mecca that Islam was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the years AD 610
to AD 632. However, during the century following Muhammad’s death, the
Arabs expanded out of the peninsula and conquered a world empire stretching
from Spain to present-day Pakistan. The great capital cities of the first ArabIslamic empires, Damascus and Baghdad, were located not in Arabia but in the
long-settled lands of antiquity. To understand the development of Islam and Islamic civilization, we must recognize that the Middle East region into which
Islam expanded was a rich repository of centuries of accumulated intellectual
exchanges, religious experiences, and administrative practices. Islamic society
built upon these existing foundations and was shaped by them. As Ira Lapidus
has written, “The civilization of Islam, though born in Mecca, also had its
progenitors in Palestine, Babylon, and Persepolis.”1
Ancient Near Eastern civilization began to develop within the city-states
that first appeared in lower Iraq around 3500 BC. These settled communities
developed written alphabets, governing institutions, and elaborate religious rituals. By about 2400 BC, larger political entities began to emerge in the form of
regional empires in which several cities were incorporated into a single state
ruled by a dominant monarch. The growth of ever-larger regional empires
P A R T O N E — The Development of Islamic Civilization
acted as an integrative force by unifying greater numbers of people under common legal systems and exposing them to shared cultural and religious experiences. Over the course of centuries, improvements in agricultural and military
technology, in transportation and communications, and in social and administrative organization enabled empires to dominate increasingly extensive territories. This process reached its first culmination in Egypt’s Nile Valley, where an
advanced civilization took shape under the rule of the pharaohs. The monuments to gods and kings that line the banks of the Nile testify to the shared religious and dynastic traditions of the ancient Egyptians. A similar unifying effect was achieved by the Iranian-based Acheminid Empire (550 BC–331 BC),
which brought all the Middle Eastern lands from Egypt to the Oxus River into
a single imperial framework.
In the wake of the conquests of Alexander the Great in the fourth century
BC, the Middle Eastern lands lying between Iran and the Mediterranean Sea
absorbed yet another layer of tradition as Greek was implanted as the language
of administration and high culture. Alexandria and Antioch developed into
centers of Greek learning, and Greek became the dominant language of discourse among the urban elite from Egypt to Anatolia.
The absorption of new ideas and techniques continued with the Roman
conquest and the consolidation of Rome’s efficient administrative practices in
Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Anatolia during the first century BC. Yet although
the Mediterranean lands of the Middle East were administered as provinces of
the Roman Empire, their high culture remained more Hellenic than Latin.
With the transfer of the imperial Roman capital to Constantinople in AD 330
and the fall of western Rome a century later, the eastern identity of the empire
was solidified. That identity was represented by the Byzantine Empire, which
preserved the administrative practices of Rome within the context of Hellenic
Formative Islam interacted not only with the existing material cultures outlined above but also with established religious beliefs and practices. At the time
of the rise of Islam, local and regional cults, though still in existence, had
largely been subsumed by the official religions of the dominant Byzantine and
Sasanian empires. It was only natural that the formation of empires contributed to religious uniformity. Subject peoples were expected to abandon
their local gods and goddesses and adhere to the officially sanctioned imperial
religion. Thus the process of imperial consolidation led also to religious consolidation and to the emergence of monotheism, the belief in the supremacy of
one god. By the time of the Arab-Islamic conquests, most of the inhabitants of
the Middle East belonged to one of three monotheistic faiths.
Monotheism was first preached by the prophets of ancient Israel and is one
of the most significant and enduring legacies of the Jewish faith. Although the
The Development of Islamic Civilization — P A R T O N E
Jews had been dispersed from Palestine by the Romans in the first and second
centuries AD, Jewish communities continued to flourish in the Middle East on
the eve of the rise of Islam. Other forms of monotheism were also present in
the region. In the seventh century BC, the Iranian prophet Zoroaster preached
a doctrine that upheld the existence of a supreme God pitted in a constant
struggle against the forces of evil. Zoroastrianism was revived by the rulers of
the Iranian-based Sasanian Empire (AD 234–AD 634) and was adopted as the
official religion of their state.
A third monotheistic faith, Christianity, grew rapidly from Roman times onward and was proclaimed the state religion of the Byzantine Empire in the late
fourth century. However, differing interpretations over the nature of Christ created divisions among the adherents of the faith and led to the growth of separate churches, each jealously guarding its version of the truth. At the Council
of Chalcedon in 451, the main body of the church defined Christ as having
two natures, divine and human. But other Christian communities, known as
Monophysites, believed that Christ had only a single nature. The Monophysite
doctrine was institutionalized in the Coptic church of Egypt, which had its
own religious hierarchy and conducted its ritual in the native Egyptian Coptic
language. The Armenian church in Anatolia also held to the Monophysite interpretation, as did certain groups in Syria. At the time of the rise of Islam,
these regional Monophysite churches, with their vernacular liturgies, were
under attack from the Byzantine authorities, who sought to impose the official
Greek Orthodox version of Christianity on all the subjects of the empire.
Islam unified the Greco-Christian territories of Byzantium and the lands of
Iranian-Zoroastrianism into a single religiously based universal empire. The encounter between the new faith of Islam and the established traditions of the
Middle East led to the creation of a new civilization that was profoundly and
unmistakably Islamic yet also bore evidence of the centuries of accumulated
practices that had preceded it.
1. Ira M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies (Cambridge, 1990), p. 3.
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The Rise and Expansion of Islam
On the eve of the rise of Islam, the settled lands of the Middle East were ruled
by two competing imperial states, the Roman-Byzantine Empire in the west
and the Sasanian Empire of Iran in the east. The Byzantine emperors were successors to the Caesars and presided over an imposing edifice of high cultural
and political traditions that blended Greek learning, Roman administration,
and Greek Orthodox Christianity. In the early seventh century, the emperor’s
territorial possessions stretched from the Italian peninsula across southern Europe to the magnificent capital city of Constantinople. The empire’s Middle
Eastern provinces included Egypt, Palestine, and Syria, as well as parts of Iraq
and Anatolia. Supported by a standing professional army, a highly developed
bureaucracy, and the priesthood of the Orthodox church, the rulers of Byzantium appeared to be powerful and secure.
In the late sixth and early seventh centuries, however, Byzantium was weakened by challenges to its military, religious, and administrative authority. Beginning in 540, the imperial rivalry between the Byzantines and Sasanians
broke out into open warfare that continued almost uninterrupted until 629.
Campaign and countercampaign exhausted the military forces of both empires,
depleted their treasuries, and inflicted extensive damage to the lands and cities
lying between the Nile and the Euphrates. To meet the financial demands of
constant warfare, the Byzantine emperors periodically raised taxes, a measure
that alienated their subjects, who had already suffered economic hardships
from the passage of warring armies back and forth across their lands.
Religious divisions created additional tensions between the Byzantine state
and its subjects. Once the Byzantine Empire adopted Greek Orthodox Christianity as the state religion in the late fourth century, the emperors and the
P A R T O N E — The Development of Islamic Civilization
church attempted to enforce popular acceptance of this officially approved version of the faith. But peoples within the empire continued to adhere to other
forms of Christianity, and to Judaism, and to use their own vernacular languages for scripture and ritual. Unwilling to tolerate these challenges to official
orthodoxy, the state branded them as heretical and undertook to suppress
them. The persecution of Jews and of Christians outside the Greek Orthodox
community caused great disaffection within the empire and explains in part
why many Byzantine subjects welcomed the arrival of the more religiously tolerant Muslim rulers.
The Sasanian Empire of Iran, with its capital at Ctesiphon on the Tigris River,
contested Byzantium for control of the territories between Iraq and Egypt. Heir
to the 1,200-year-old Acheminid tradition of universal Iranian empire, the Sasanian state was based on the principle of absolute monarchy. The emperor was the
king of kings (shahanshah), a distant and all-powerful ruler living in palatial
splendor and surrounded by elaborate ceremonial trappings. Over the centuries,
Iranian bureaucratic practices had become refined, and the Sasanian Empire was
administered by a large and experienced scribal class. Like their Byzantine counterparts, the Sasanian emperors had at their disposal an effective standing professional army, which was noted for its heavily armed and armored cavalry.
Yet the Sasanian Empire’s apparent strength was, like Byzantium’s, diluted
by popular discontent, much of which stemmed from religious diversity. By the
late sixth century, the official Sasanian state religion of Zoroastrianism had become more significant as a ceremonial faith for the ruling elite than as the religion of the population at large. In the western portion of the empire in particular, people were more attracted to various strains of Christianity and Judaism
than to the religion of the imperial court. In the absence of a unifying religious
affiliation with their ruler, many subjects of the Sasanian Empire lacked feelings of loyalty toward the state.
Although the Byzantine and Sasanian empires were in a period of transition
when Islam first extended into them, it is important to recognize their impact
on the development of Islamic governing practices and religious doctrine. Formative Islam would be influenced by the Greek legacy of Byzantium, by the
bureaucratic tradition of Iran, and by the concepts of emperor that had developed in the courts of Constantinople and Ctesiphon. Islam must be understood as a product of the societies into which it spread as well as of the society
in which it originated.
With the exception of Yemen in the south and a few scattered oasis settlements
elsewhere, the Arabian Peninsula is a vast desert. It is the home of the Arabs, an
The Rise and Expansion of Islam — C H A P T E R 1
ancient Semitic people whose origins cannot be traced with certainty. In contrast
to the rigorously administered domains of the Byzantine and Sasanian empires,
the Arabian Peninsula of the early seventh century lacked any central organizing
authority. It had no state structure, no common legal system, no administrative
center. Tribes were the largest units of social and political organization to which
an individual’s loyalties were given. Each tribe was an entity unto itself bound by
ties of kinship based on a belief in common descent from a founding ancestor.
The majority of Arabia’s inhabitants were pastoral nomads engaged in raising
camels, sheep, or goats. The scarcity of pasturelands in the harsh environment of
Arabia required constant movement from one grazing ground to another. Competition for the scarce resources of the land created rivalries among the tribes, and
warfare became ingrained as a way of life. All males were expected to be warriors,
and accounts of the exploits of the most daring among them became enshrined
in tribal culture. The widespread experience of the Arabs in warfare was to be a
significant factor in the early expansion of Islam.
Notwithstanding the divisions inherent in the tribal structure of pre-Islamic
Arabia, forces of cultural unity were present. The Bedouin ethos of bravery and
honor was celebrated in a special style of Arabic poetry known as a qasidah.
The existence of this poetry, which was recited at market fairs and tribal gatherings, has convinced historians that the Arabs of the seventh century possessed
a common poetic language that could be understood in different regions of the
peninsula. This was of the utmost significance for the spread of Islam because
it meant that the Prophet Muhammad’s religious message could be communicated to Arabic speakers across a broad expanse of territory.
Isolated though it was, the Arabian Peninsula was not completely cut off
from the forces that shaped Middle Eastern civilization. On the eve of the rise
of Islam, two Arab tribal confederations guarded the northern Arabian frontiers as client states of Byzantium and the Sasanians, respectively. Both of these
Arab confederations were Christian, providing evidence of the spread of the
concept of monotheism among the Arabs before the time of Muhammad.
At the southwestern tip of Arabia, Yemen was another source for the entry
of external influences into the peninsula. Unlike the rest of Arabia, Yemen was
a fertile and well-watered region able to support a settled agricultural society.
By the fourth and fifth centuries AD, several Arab communities in southern
Arabia had adopted Christianity, and the ruler of Yemen’s last pre-Islamic dynasty converted to Judaism. Yet despite the fermentation of religious doctrines
in the settled regions of northern and southern Arabia, most of the tribes of the
interior continued to practice various forms of animism, worshipping local
idols or deities.
During the two centuries before Islam, Arabia acquired increasing importance as a commercial transit route between the Middle Eastern empires and
P A R T O N E — The Development of Islamic Civilization
Yemen. The wars between Byzantium and the Sasanians disrupted the east-west
overland routes and gave rise to a brisk north-south caravan trade through the
Hijaz, Arabia’s coastal plain adjacent to the Red Sea. The main Arabian beneficiary of this commercial network was the city of Mecca, which developed into
the most important commercial center of the peninsula. By the early seventh
century, Meccan merchants had accumulated sufficient capital to organize their
own caravans and to provide payments to an extensive network of tribes in exchange for pledges to allow the caravans to pass in peace.
In addition to its role as a commercial center,
Mecca was a religious site of
major significance. The city’s shrine, the Ka ba, became the center of an animistic cult that attracted worshipers
throughout western Arabia. By the time of
Muhammad’s birth, the Ka ba had become the site of an annual pilgrimage
during which warfare was suspended, and Mecca’s sanctuary became a kind of
neutral ground where tribal disputes could be resolved. The city derived considerable income from its religious role, and its leading families recognized the
importance of the sanctuary as a source of wealth and influence.
The leading clans of Mecca were all members of the Quraysh tribe that settled the city, established its religious role, and dominated its political and commercial life. Although formal municipal organizations did not exist, the affairs
of the city were loosely regulated by a council of prominent Quraysh merchants. Historians have suggested that Mecca was in a state of transition between the vanishing tribal ways and a nascent urbanism spawned by merchant
capitalism. The customary tribal values were being displaced, but no fully developed set of communal values suitable for an urban setting had yet emerged.
Muhammad ibn Abdullah, the future Prophet of Islam, was born in Mecca
around 570. His early life gave little indication of the compelling prophet and
skillful statesman he would later become. He was born into the clan of
Hashim, a subtribe of the Quraysh. Orphaned at the age of two, Muhammad
was raised and sheltered by his uncle, Abu Talib. As a young man, he engaged
in the caravan trade and may have journeyed to Damascus. His financial position was secured when, in his early twenties, he married a wealthy widow,
Khadijah. Khadijah holds an honored place in the history of Islam; she was the
first convert to the new faith after Muhammad himself, and she supported him
during the difficult early years of his prophethood when he was scorned by
most of Mecca’s population.
Although Muhammad was widely respected as a decent and trustworthy individual, he lived an otherwise ordinary life as merchant, husband, and father
to the four daughters born to Khadijah. But as Muhammad neared his fortieth
The Rise and Expansion of Islam — C H A P T E R 1
year, his behavior gradually began to change. He often left Mecca, sometimes
for days at a time, to meditate in solitude in the mountains outside the city.
Some scholars have conjectured that Muhammad was reflecting on what he
saw as the problems that afflicted Meccan society and was seeking ways to resolve them. It was during one of his solitary vigils on Mount Hira that
Muhammad was summoned to his prophetic mission, an event known in Islam
as the Night of Power. The summons came as a command from God, transmitted through the angel Gabriel, for Muhammad to recite to his fellow Meccans the divine messages that he had been chosen to receive. The Night of
Power marked the beginning of a movement that would transform Arab life
and lead to the emergence of a universal monotheistic religion.
For the remaining twenty-two years of his life, Muhammad continued to receive revelations, which his companions recorded, memorized, and later collected into a single book, the Quran (Recitation), which constitutes the core of
the Islamic faith. The Quran is a sacred work in both form and content. Not
only does it contain God’s commands, it also represents the direct word of
God; its language is therefore divine and unchangeable. Throughout the centuries since the Night of Power, non-Muslims, especially the Christian and Jewish monotheists for whom Islam represented the most direct challenge, have
found it difficult to accept the idea that the Quran contains God’s words, not
Muhammad’s. The point here is not to debate the contesting claims to religious
truth but to insist on the depth of Muhammad’s experience and the utterly
convincing language in which that experience was conveyed. The verses of the
Quran, especially those from the Meccan period, reveal an individual possessed
of a compelling sense of urgency and inspired by a commitment that transcended his previous existence and pushed him into the role for which he believed he had been chosen—as the Prophet of God.
Muhammad’s prophethood can be divided into two phases, the period at
Mecca (610–622) and the years in Medina (622–632). The difference in the
Prophet’s circumstances during these two periods of his life is reflected in the
style and content of the revelations. The Quran was revealed in a series of chapters (suras) and is organized according to the length of the chapters, with the
longest first and the shortest at the end. The shorter chapters are from the Meccan years, when Muhammad concentrated on establishing the theological
foundations of the faith. The central element of the Meccan period was an uncompromising monotheism. As an early Meccan revelation insisted,
Say: He is God, One, God, the Everlasting Refuge,
who has not begotten, and has not been begotten,
and equal to Him is not anyone.
(Sura 112)1
P A R T O N E — The Development of Islamic Civilization
The Arabic word for one supreme God, Allah, refers to the monotheistic
deities of Judaism and Christianity as well as Islam. It is thus incorrect to employ the term Allah in an exclusively Islamic context. The term translates as
God, and that is how it should be employed and understood.
What did the omnipotent deity of the Quran want from his human creations? In the Meccan revelations, he demanded that they practice prescribed
patterns of worship and behavior. They were to submit to his will and show
their gratitude toward him as the provider of the bounties of the earth. Islam
means submission, and the followers of the faith, Muslims, are those who have
submitted to the will of God. In addition to matters of ritual, God set forth
commandments on how human beings should relate to one another in their
daily social intercourse. He warned the people of Mecca to pay more attention
to the less fortunate in society and to moderate their search for wealth. The following bluntly critical passage demonstrates God’s displeasure at practices in
the Mecca of Muhammad’s day:
No indeed; but you honour not the orphan,
and you urge not the feeding of the needy,
and you devour the inheritance greedily,
and you love wealth with an ardent love.
(Sura 89)
The Quran chastised those who were uncharitable and warned those who felt
that their wealth had made them immune from punishment that God would be
the final judge of their afterlife. The concept of the Day of Judgment was a central element of the faith. The revelations warned the people of Mecca that their
deeds, their attitudes, and even their innermost thoughts would be assessed by
the Almighty on Judgment Day. The theology of the Quran was thus basic and
straightforward. Humans were instructed to obey the revealed will of an omnipotent God of judgment: Those who accepted him and followed all of his
commands would be rewarded with paradise; those who rejected God and deviated from his commands would be condemned to the fires of Gehenna.
Muhammad’s preaching attracted few converts and aroused considerable opposition during the Meccan period of his mission. After all, he posed a challenge to the social, economic, and religious structure of the city. Not only did
he criticize the attitudes of the wealthy Quraysh merchants, he also condemned
the religious practices that made Mecca a prosperous pilgrimage center. As the
years passed and the Meccan opposition turned from scorn to threats of physical harm, Muhammad and his followers began to search for a more hospitable
location. When an invitation came to them to settle in the city of Yathrib (later
Medina), Muhammad accepted it.
The Rise and Expansion of Islam — C H A P T E R 1
Located some 200 miles (322 km) north of Mecca, Medina was a fertile oasis
city suffering from the ravages of an extended blood feud among its several
tribes. Muhammad was invited as a mediator and was promised by Medinan
representatives that any Muslims who accompanied him would receive protection. In 622 the small community of Muslims gradually migrated from Mecca
to Medina. The event, known as the hijrah (emigration), marks a turning point
in the development of Islam: 622 is the first year of the Muslim calendar.
During his ten years in Medina, Muhammad’s status rose dramatically.
From a scorned prophet with few followers, he became the head of a small state
and the dominant figure throughout Arabia. This transformation was achieved
through a combination of warfare, negotiation, and preaching, the success of
which seemed to confirm Muhammad’s right not only to prophethood but to
political leadership as well. Muhammad consolidated his authority in Medina
by convincing influential personalities in the city to embrace Islam and accept
his leadership. Once he established his power base, he was able to take measures
against the groups that continued to deny his prophetic and political authority.
Among the latter were several Jewish tribes whose members would not accept
the legitimacy of Muhammad’s claim as the Prophet. Muhammad eventually
expelled them from Medina and ordered their property confiscated and distributed among the Muslim emigrants.
Even as he was consolidating his position in Medina, Muhammad made
plans to bring Mecca into the expanding Islamic community. His strategy was
to disrupt the caravan trade on which Mecca’s prosperity depended. Within a
year of his arrival in Medina, he ordered the first of what would become an ongoing series of raids on Meccan caravans. The initial raid occurred during one
of the sacred pilgrimage months, when, according to established custom, hostilities were to be suspended. This was disturbing to the many Muslims of
Medina who continued to respect existing traditions. However, a divine revelation sanctified warfare against unbelievers and designated all Muslims who engaged in spreading Islam through force of arms as deserving of special merit.
In retaliation for Muhammad’s attacks on their caravans, the Meccans
launched several campaigns against the Muslims in Medina, but each time, the
outnumbered Muslim forces managed to hold their own and even to gain limited victories. Muhammad emerged during these encounters as an innovative
military tactician, and his success in thwarting the Meccans enhanced his prestige among the neighboring tribes. Many swore their allegiance to him not because they fully understood or accepted the religious message of Islam but because association with Muhammad’s endeavor appeared to guarantee victory,
and with victory came the spoils of war. The increasing size of the Prophet’s
forces and his effective alliances with the tribes enabled him to stifle the trade
of Mecca to the point where the city’s prosperity was seriously threatened. In
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630 Muhammad led a force of 10,000 men to the outskirts of Mecca; demonstrating his qualities as a statesman, he promised the inhabitants that their lives
would be spared and their property would remain secure if they surrendered
the city and accepted Islam. The Quraysh leadership agreed to the terms, and
the Prophet made a victorious entry into the city from which he had fled just
eight years
˛ earlier. According to accounts of the occasion, Muhammad went to
the Ka ba and had the idols destroyed, proclaiming the˛ shrine sacred to God.
Mecca would remain a pilgrimage center, and the Ka ba would become the
focal point of the new faith.
In the years between the hijrah and the surrender of Mecca, Muhammad’s
leadership role became more complex. Medina developed into a small city-state
with a treasury, a military, and an ever-increasing number of converts. The content of the Quran reflected the changing circumstances by offering instructions
on how the expanded functions of the state were to be organized and how
human beings should conduct their relations with one another. In these commandments, the all-embracing nature of Islam was established. For example,
contracting a debt agreement as the Quran required—in writing before a witness—was a religious duty, and failure to follow the prescription was a sin. In
this way, the details of marriage, inheritance, divorce, diet, and economic practice were made part of the religious experience of Muslims. Muhammad created a community (ummah) in which the laws of human behavior in daily life
were prescribed by God.
It would be an exaggeration to call Arabia a cohesive, unified state after the
surrender of Mecca. Nevertheless, the transformation created by the Prophet
had been substantial. He had implanted the core concept of a community of
believers united in their recognition of a single Supreme Deity and in their acceptance of that deity’s authority in their daily lives; he had conveyed notions
of social morality that forbade alcohol and the blood feud and that recognized
the legal status of women and demanded protection for the less fortunate in society. Muhammad combined in his person the roles of prophet, state builder,
and social reformer. Today there is much emphasis on the martial elements of
Islam, but to comprehend fully Muhammad’s mission, we need to consider the
importance of Quranic passages like this one:
Be kind to parents, and the near kinsman,
and to orphans, and to the needy,
and to the neighbour who is of kin,
and to the neighbour who is a stranger,
and to the companion at your side,
and to the traveller.
(Sura 4)
The Rise and Expansion of Islam — C H A P T E R 1
When Muhammad died in 632, it would not have contradicted historical
patterns if Arabia had rejected the Prophet’s summons and taken up the old
ways again. Instead, Muslim factions in Mecca and Medina resolved to continue the development of the new religious community and competed with
one another to assert their control over it. Because Muhammad had no sons
and because the Quran contained no clear instructions on how a successor
should be chosen, the question of the leadership of the community was open
to different interpretations. The early converts to Islam who had suffered
with Muhammad in Mecca and participated in the hijrah to Medina preempted all other claimants by naming one of their own, Abu Bakr, as the new
head of the community. The other factions accepted Abu Bakr’s leadership,
but the dispute over the first succession sowed seeds of conflict that have affected Islam throughout its history.
Abu Bakr (632–634) was simply called the successor—khalif—anglicized as
caliph. Eventually the term caliph came to designate the religious and political
leader of the Islamic community, and the office became known as the caliphate.
Abu Bakr and his three successors, Umar (634–644), Uthman (644–656), and
Ali (656–661), are known in Islamic history as the Rashidun (rightly guided)
caliphs in recognition of their personal closeness to the Prophet and their presumed adherence to Quranic regulations. Although two of them were assassinated and their reigns were filled with political and social turmoil, Muslims of
later and even more troubled times looked back with nostalgia on the era when
the four companions of the Prophet launched the movement that thrust the
Arabs out of the peninsula and into world history.
The second caliph, Umar, recognized the need to direct the raiding instincts
of the tribes away from intercommunal conflict and authorized attacks against
the southern flanks of Byzantium and Sasanian Iran. Thus began the epoch of
the Arab conquests and the building of an Islamic empire.
The speed and extent of the Arab conquests were remarkable. In 637 the
Arab forces defeated the imperial Sasanian army at the battle of Qadisiyya, an
encounter that was quickly followed by the capture of Ctesiphon and the beginning of the difficult Arab campaign across the Iranian plateau toward the
Indian subcontinent. Success against Byzantium was equally swift. The Arabs
captured Damascus in 635, and in 641 they occupied parts of the rich agricultural province of Egypt. By 670 the western campaign against Byzantine
and Berber resistance had reached present-day Tunisia, and in 680 the daring
Arab commander Uqba ibn Nafi led a small force from Tunisia through Algeria and Morocco to the Atlantic Ocean. The westward expansion of the Arabs
culminated in the conquest of Spain in the first half of the eighth century.
P A R T O N E — The Development of Islamic Civilization
Within 100 years of the Prophet’s death, Arab forces had reached the Indian
subcontinent in the east, and in the west they had occupied Spain and crossed
the Pyrenees into France before they were finally halted by the forces of
Charles Martel at the battle of Poitiers in 732. In this first wave of conquests,
the Sasanian Empire was completely destroyed and its territory absorbed
within an Arab-Muslim administration. Byzantium, although it suffered the
loss of its core Middle Eastern and North African provinces, retained control
of Anatolia and the Balkans and presented a formidable barrier to Muslim expansion until it was overcome by the Ottomans in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
Even more stunning than the speed and extent of the conquests was their
durability: With the exception of Spain, which retained an Arab-Islamic presence until the fifteenth century, the areas occupied during the first century of
expansion have remained Islamic, if not Arabic, to the present day. In North
Africa, as in Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean—the heartlands of Hellenism and early Christianity—and in the long-settled region of Iraq, the Arabic language and the Islamic faith became dominant. Persian language and culture eventually reasserted themselves in Iran, but they were expressed in an
Islamic idiom.
The conquests would not have been so swift or so durable without the existence of a combination of social, economic, and religious factors that facilitated the local population’s acceptance of the new Arab rulers. First, as we have
discussed earlier, monotheistic religions were widely practiced among the peoples in the conquered territories, and the Islamic assertion of monotheism
placed it within the existing religious traditions. Second, Islam manifested
considerable tolerance toward non-Muslims. The Quran commanded Muslims to protect “people of the Book”—that is, Jews and Christians who possessed a revealed scripture. In practice, this toleration was extended to the
Zoroastrians of Iran and the Hindus of the Indian subcontinent. Forced conversions played only a small part in the Arab conquests, and for at least two
centuries the majority of the inhabitants of the Islamic empire were nonMuslims. They were known as dhimmis, a term meaning followers of the religions tolerated by law. Dhimmis were allowed the freedom to practice their
religion and to manage their internal affairs through their own religious officials. However, dhimmis were not regarded as the equals of Muslims and were
required to pay a special poll tax (jizyah); they were prohibited from serving in
the military and from wearing certain colors, and their residences and places
of worship could not be as large as those of Muslims. Although these and
other restrictions constituted a form of discrimination, they represented an
unusually tolerant attitude for the era and stood in marked contrast to the
practices of the Byzantine Empire.
The Rise and Expansion of Islam — C H A P T E R 1
The taxes imposed by the Arab-Islamic state were less burdensome than
those levied by the Byzantine and Sasanian empires. Moreover, the Arab rulers
tended to leave existing administrative practices undisturbed and did not interfere with local customs. Although some of the conquered peoples adopted
Islam, the Arabs did not encourage conversions during the first century of their
rule. This was partly because the jizyah constituted an important source of state
revenue and partly because the Arabs, at this early stage in the development of
Islam, regarded it as an exclusively Arab religion.
The question of the succession to the caliphate had been largely ignored in the
rush of the early conquests. But when the caliph Uthman was murdered by
mutinous Arab tribesmen in 656, the succession issue reemerged. It was resolved only after a civil war that left an enduring schism within the Islamic
ummah. Ali was chosen to succeed the murdered Uthman. Next to the Prophet
himself, Ali is the most revered of the founders of Islam: He was the Prophet’s
cousin, the husband of the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, and one of the most
dedicated of the early converts to Islam. Indeed, in some quarters of the
ummah, the belief existed that Muhammad had intended for Ali to be his immediate successor. By the time he was finally selected as caliph, Ali represented
a broad coalition of interests calling for greater equality among all Muslims,
both Arab and non-Arab, and for the restoration of the leadership of the community to the˛ house of Muhammad. But Ali’s right to the caliphate was contested by Mu awiyah, the powerful governor of Muslim Syria.
The forces of the two claimants to the leadership met at the battle of Siffin in
657.˛ The results of the encounter were inconclusive, leaving both Ali and
Mu awiyah in the same positions they had held before the fighting began. In the
aftermath of the battle,
a substantial portion of Ali’s forces withdrew their sup˛
port, allowing Mu awiyah to expand his power in Syria and Egypt and preventing Ali from establishing his uncontested right to the caliphate. Though Ali set
up a capital in Kufa, one of the Arab garrison cities in lower Iraq, his position
continued to deteriorate, and he was murdered in 661. Ali’s caliphate was short
and divisive but far from inconsequential. It came to represent the validity of the
legitimist position of authority within the Islamic ummah and, as we will see in
later chapters, stood as an enduring symbol of the desire of a substantial minority of Muslims to embrace a communal leader directly descended from the family of the Prophet. Indeed, attachment to the memory of Ali and his family and
the tragedy associated with them was infused with such great passion and vitality that it gave rise to a permanent schism within the Islamic community.
P A R T O N E — The Development of Islamic Civilization
Ali’s passing marked the end of the first phase in the development of the Islamic community and
˛ the beginning of a new period of imperial expansion and
consolidation. Mu awiyah was recognized as caliph throughout the empire and
became the founder of the Umayyad dynasty (661–750). He was a pragmatic
ruler whose principal concerns were continued expansion of Islam, management of the state’s resources, and consolidation of his dynasty. During his
caliphate, the political center of the empire was transferred from Mecca, the
small caravan city of its origins,
to the ancient city of Damascus, with all its
Byzantine associations. Mu awiyah adopted certain Byzantine administrative
practices and employed former Byzantine officials and craftsmen, initiating the
transformation of the Arab empire into a Byzantine successor state and surrounding the caliphate with the trappings of monarchy.
˛ the conquests continued to bring material wealth to Damascus
under Mu awiyah’s successors, the Umayyad Empire was troubled by internal
dissension. Part of the dissent was caused by the policy of Arab exclusivism
adopted by the Umayyad ruling elite. They continued to equate Islam with
Arab descent and to administer the empire’s fiscal and social affairs in such a
way as to favor the Arabs and to discriminate against the growing number of
non-Arab converts to Islam. The discontent culminated in a revolution that
overthrew the Umayyad house in 750 and brought to power a new dynasty,
that of the Abbasids.
The office of the caliphate remained with the Abbasids from 750 to 1258.
Under the Abbasids, the heroic age of the conquests gave way to the development of administrative institutions, commercial enterprises, and a legal system.
The bureaucrat, the urban merchant, and the learned judge replaced the Arab
warrior as the favored element in society. The consolidation of the conquests in
the geographical center of a centuries-old admixture of cultural and religious
traditions resulted in a complex interaction between the existing cultures and
religions of the Middle East and the dynamic infusion of energy from Arabia.
The new and vibrant Islamic civilization that arose found its first, but by no
means its last, expression in the period of the high caliphate (750–945) of the
Abbasid Empire.
The first 150 years of the Abbasid Empire, represented by ˛such caliphs as alMansur (754–775), Harun al-Rashid (786–809), and al-Ma mun (813–833),
were a period of relative political stability, immense economic prosperity, and
increasing universalism within the central Islamic domains. These conditions,
in turn, created the possibilities for the flowering of a rich and diverse civilization. The Abbasids abandoned the Arab exclusiveness that had generated so
The Rise and Expansion of Islam — C H A P T E R 1
much discontent under the Umayyads. In its place, they adopted a universalist
policy accepting the equality of all Muslims, regardless of their ethnic origins.
This attitude, coupled with the revitalization of urban life and the expansion of
commercial activity, led to a growing cosmopolitanism within the empire as
converts from among the conquered peoples participated fully in the economic
and political life of the state.
The universalism of the Abbasids was symbolized by yet another transfer of
the imperial capital, this time from the predominantly Arab city of Damascus
eastward to a newly created city, Baghdad, which the caliph al-Mansur established on the west bank of the Tigris. The change of location brought the Islamic political center into more direct contact with Iranian imperial traditions, with their emphasis on royal absolutism and bureaucratic specialization,
and added yet another layer of influences to the Arab and Byzantine experiences of the Islamic state. Abbasid administration was modeled on Sasanian
government and employed large numbers of converted Iranians in its increasingly elaborate bureaucratic structure. Sasanian practices also had an impact
on the office of the caliphate. During the era of the Rashidun, the caliphs
functioned as first among equals and lived modestly on the model established
by Muhammad. This emphasis on simplicity changed under the later
Umayyads, who distanced themselves from the population, took pleasure
from the riches that flowed into the treasury at Damascus, and became less
consultative and more authoritarian. The Abbasid rulers, with their more direct exposure to the Iranian idea of an absolute king of kings, carried the evolution of the caliphate to absolutist monarchy further than any of their predecessors. The Abbasid caliphs lived in luxurious palaces, isolated from all but
their most trusted inner circle of courtiers and advisers. They came to identify
themselves not simply as successors to the Prophet but as “shadows of God on
earth,” and they exercised vast powers over their subjects. Thus the Abbasid
solution to the problem of political authority was to centralize it and to place
it in the hands of an absolute monarch who exercised the powers of both secular king and spiritual head of the Islamic ummah. For nearly two centuries
following the revolution of 750, this Abbasid formula worked reasonably well
and brought to the empire unprecedented prosperity, dazzling intellectual
achievement, and general political stability based on the widespread acceptance of the benefits of caliphal absolutism.
But no monarch could maintain absolute control of an empire that stretched
from Morocco to India. In the late eighth century, North Africa slipped away
from Baghdad’s authority and became a region of autonomous Islamic states.
During the ninth century, independent and often short-lived dynasties rose and
fell in various parts of Iran. Yet despite the emergence of new centers of power,
the Abbasid caliphs remained the dominant rulers of the Middle East until the
P A R T O N E — The Development of Islamic Civilization
tenth century, and the imperial court at Baghdad set a style of royal behavior
that was imitated in provincial capitals and breakaway dynasties throughout the
vast territories in which Islam had become established.
In the historically short span of time from the Prophet Muhammad’s death in
632 to the transfer of the imperial capital from Damascus to Baghdad in the
750s, the Islamic ummah had expanded from its Arab origins to embrace a universal world empire. The epoch of the Arab conquests constitutes a decisive period in world history, one that transformed a nomadic desert population organized along tribal lines into the ruling elite of an imperial structure
concentrated in the heartlands of classical antiquity. Arabic replaced Greek,
Persian, Aramaic, and other established literary traditions as the language of administration and high culture; Islam replaced, though it did not eliminate, Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and paganism as the dominant religion in
the Middle East. This process of replacement raises important questions. In its
interaction with the existing literary, religious, and administrative traditions of
Byzantium and Iran, how could the Islam of the revelations, the Islam of the
Prophet’s caravan city of Mecca, survive as a guide to administrative, economic,
and social practices? How could the peoples living within the territories of the
extensive Arab conquests, with their long-established traditions, be organized
to obey the commands on proper human behavior that God revealed to a Meccan merchant in seventh-century Arabia? In developing answers to these questions, or simply in developing certain patterns of living and worship, Muslims
affirmed their belief in the validity of Muhammad’s mission by creating a civilization centered on the revelations contained in the Quran.
1. A. J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted (New York, 1955). All subsequent Quranic quotations
are from this translation.
The Development of Islamic
Civilization to the Fifteenth Century
Islamic history is sometimes treated as the rise and decline of the Abbasid Empire. In this version of the Islamic past, the chronological signposts are presented in the following manner: During the years from 750 to 945, an absolutist empire centered in Baghdad experienced a period of economic growth,
cultural richness, and political stability that made it the dominant world power
of the era. In 945 an Iranian military dynasty, the Buyids, took over temporal
power in Baghdad, reducing the caliph to a figurehead and ensuring that the
Iranian ruler exercised decisionmaking authority in the Abbasid Empire. According to this interpretation, the weaknesses that beset the Abbasids in the late
tenth century caused Islam to enter into a long period of political and cultural
decline that was intensified by the empire’s destruction in 1258 and continued
until the consolidation of the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries.
Although the dates in the above account are correct, this interpretation, with
its exclusive focus on the Abbasid Empire and its linking of the decline of that
empire with the decline of Islam, is misleading. Even when the Abbasids were
at the peak of their power, other Islamic dynasties and cultures were being
formed. Their achievements were as important for the development of universal Islam as were those of the Abbasids. In an attempt to conceptualize the
stages of Islamic history, Marilyn Waldman has suggested that rather than
viewing the Abbasid Empire as the core around which a series of lesser Islamic
P A R T O N E — The Development of Islamic Civilization
states revolved, we should instead think in terms of a group of regional Islamic
empires, each of which developed a particular synthesis of local and Islamic
practices.1 Waldman’s perspective enables us to see that at the same time that
Baghdad flourished, so, too, did distinctive and wealthy royal courts in Delhi,
Ghazna, Cairo, Córdoba, and other regions. There was no single Islamic polity
or culture that was tied to the fate of the Abbasids in Baghdad. The regional
empires (or regional dynasties, as some prefer to call them) expanded and enriched Islamic traditions in areas that lay outside the Abbasid domains. Thus,
although the fall of the Abbasid Empire in 1258 resulted in considerable political fragmentation, it did not lead to a “dark age” of Islamic culture, nor did it
create a political vacuum in the central Islamic lands.
This is not to deny the important role played by Baghdad and other leading
cities of the Abbasid Empire in nurturing and disseminating Islamic legal, intellectual, political, and religious traditions. However, ideas that originated in
Baghdad were often received and applied somewhat differently in the provincial capitals or in the cities of the other regional empires. Scholars who emphasize the significance of regional Islamic empires seek to demonstrate the existence of Islamic pluralism across time and space. Islamic societies were dynamic
and diverse, not static and monolithic; they included areas as different as India
and Syria, Egypt and Spain. It should again be stressed that the fate of the Abbasid Empire itself was not fully reflective of the fate of Islam in the period
from roughly AD 1000 to 1500. This is not to suggest that the late and postAbbasid eras were without political turmoil or economic problems but, rather,
that the durability of Islam as the first truly global civilization demonstrates the
existence of a constant process of renewal from one Islamic region to another.
Because Islam was universal, a period of stagnation in one segment of the
ummah might be reversed by an infusion of intellectual, economic, or military
energy from another. Thus, a constant process of renewal and preservation was
taking place in various quarters of the Islamic world. There is no question that
the destruction of the Abbasid Empire and the death of the last caliph were significant historical events, but we should not conclude that they marked the decline of Islamic civilization. The Abbasid successor states and the Islamic regional empires preserved and enriched Islamic cultural and religious traditions
in the centuries after the sack of Baghdad.
The advent of the Abbasid Empire ushered in an era of economic prosperity
that led to a revival of urban life and the expansion of trade and industry not
only within the Abbasid domains but throughout the world of Islam. Baghdad,
nourished by the produce of the carefully controlled irrigation systems of the
Islamic Civilization to the Fifteenth Century — C H A P T E R 2
lower Tigris-Euphrates, grew into a huge cosmopolitan city with a population
that may have reached 1 million inhabitants in the ninth century. Referred to
by contemporaries as the navel of the universe, the Abbasid capital was the hub
of a vast trading network that linked it to China, India, Africa, and the entire
Mediterranean region (see Map 2.1). In bringing these diverse regions into sustained commercial contact with one another, Islamic merchants created an international market in which the products of India and Southeast Asia were exchanged for the goods of Spain and the Mediterranean lands. Cities became
centers of production and consumption, and urban life flourished in bustling
ports like Fustat, Almería in Spain, and Basra, the home of Sindbad the Sailor
in the tales of the 1,001 Nights. The long-distance caravan trade revived existing inland cities such as Damascus and Aleppo and generated tremendous population and commercial growth in Marv, Samarkand, and Bukhara, the eastern
cities that acted as way stations along the Silk Route to China. Merchants exploited the commercial opportunities of the expanding international marketplace to acquire huge fortunes. Their wealth gave them status and enabled
them to play a prominent role in shaping the contours of Islamic society as it
emerged during this period.
Increased agricultural production fostered the rise of large urban centers and
contributed to the extraordinary prosperity that characterized the Islamic empires of the eighth through twelfth centuries. The growth in agriculture was
made possible by the transfer of crops from India to the Middle East and the
Mediterranean basin, a process that created the most significant agricultural
revolution in world history between the adoption of sedentary agriculture and
the European discovery of the Americas. Following the Arab conquest of Sind
(Pakistan) in the early eighth century, crops from the subtropical climate of
India were transported to the Fertile Crescent, Egypt, Africa, and Islamic
Spain. In all of these regions, the newly introduced crops became such staples
that we tend to think of them as having been part of the cultivated landscape
since classical antiquity. But such food crops as rice, sugarcane, lemons, limes,
bananas, date palms, spinach, and eggplant as well as the industrial crop cotton
were all brought by the Arabs from India to Iraq and then disseminated across
North Africa to Spain and other parts of Europe.
Through their conquests and settlement of diverse climatic regions and the
establishment of trading networks connecting those regions, the Arabs, a people whose immediate pre-Islamic existence was not primarily associated with
sedentary agriculture, acted as the catalysts for an agricultural revolution that
had an impact on the clothes people wore, the foods they consumed, and the
ways in which the majority of them organized their working lives.
The wealth generated from the produce of the land and the profits of commerce enabled Abbasid high society to enjoy a refined style of living
MAP 2.1
The lands of Islam at the beginning of the ninth century
Islamic Civilization to the Fifteenth Century — C H A P T E R 2
surrounded by luxuries of regional and distant origin. The royal family established a pattern of patronage that benefited artisans, physicians, and writers, especially Arabic poets. This pattern was imitated by rich merchants and highranking functionaries in both Baghdad and the provincial capitals. It
contributed to the widespread florescence of a rich literary and scientific culture and imprinted on a certain segment of Islamic society the notion that to
be great and powerful involved more than having an army; it also meant having a court of poets, scholars, and physicians. In the centuries to come, local
rulers would nurture literature and learning even as they sought political separation from the Abbasid caliph, showing that their aspirations for power were
firmly grounded in the high Islamic cultural tradition.
The intellectual adventure of high Islamic society was not limited to poetry
and the decorative arts. Ideas, like material goods, were transported back and
forth along the caravan routes and sea-lanes, and noted scholars were recruited
by caliphs and princes alike to adorn their courts. Muslim mathematicians,
working within the Indian and Persian traditions, made lasting contributions
to algebra (from the Arabic word al-jabr) and trigonometry. Muslim astronomers, physicians, and chemists produced works that influenced the development of the natural sciences in European as well as
˛ Muslim intellectual circles. The patronage of the Abbasid caliph al-Ma mun (813–833) helped
launch the movement that recovered the works of the noted Greek philosophers and physicians, among them Aristotle, Plato, and Galen, and translated
them from Greek into Arabic in state-sponsored translation academies. The
presence of the classical Greek tradition in Arabic editions compelled Muslim
scholars to grapple with a human-centered philosophical tradition and produced two of the most noted Aristotelian commentators of the Middle Ages,
Ibn Sina (Avicenna in Latin; 980–1037), a physician employed in a number of
royal courts in eastern Iran, and Ibn Rushd (Averroës in Latin; 1126–1198), a
Muslim jurist from Córdoba. The appearance of Arabic editions of Aristotle in
regions as distant from one another as Spain and eastern Iran is evidence of the
mobility of ideas within the global civilization of Islam.
The diffusion of both secular ideas and Islamic religious doctrine was facilitated by the widespread manufacture and use of paper in the Islamic territories.
Paper manufacturing is generally believed to have originated in China in the
first century BC. It entered the world of Islam following an Arab victory over a
Chinese force east of the Aral Sea in 751. Among the prisoners taken in the
clash were some Chinese papermakers whose skills were transmitted to Muslim
craftsmen. Paper was introduced to Baghdad in the late eighth century and
made its appearance in Spain by 900 at a time when Western societies still depended on papyrus and parchment. Within another century, the manufacture
P A R T O N E — The Development of Islamic Civilization
of paper had spread across the world of Islam, with centers of production located in Samarkand in Central Asia and Valencia in Spain.
From the eighth century onward, Islam became a global civilization in
which knowledge, technology, and artistic tastes were transported back and
forth across a vast domain. Because of the very diversity and extent of the territories in which Islam became a prominent religious force, a variety of regional
practices and interpretations imparted special characteristics to Islamic cultures
in different parts of the world. As noted in the introduction to this chapter, no
single political or cultural unit embraced the totality of Islam. Some scholars
now point to the existence of several Islams coexisting in vibrant diversity yet
united in acceptance of the message of the Quran and the core requirements of
ritual. It is to those that we now turn.
The view, often expressed in the West, that the organization of Islamic social
and political life is based solely on the revelations contained in the Quran is
incorrect and ignores the complex historical evolution of Islam. From the very
first conquests under the Rashidun caliphs and continuing on through the
Abbasids, the emerging class of Islamic scholars made a sustained effort to accommodate the Quranic revelations to the traditions of the long-established
cultures over which the caliphs came to rule. This effort at synthesis led to the
elaboration of theology and to the development of a comprehensive legal system based on the Quran but not restricted to it. At the popular level, the establishment of a universally accepted set of rituals provided Muslims with a
sense of common identity and gave an Islamic dimension to their daily lives.
Yet even as Islamic scholars sought to unify doctrine and ritual, the faith continued to attract a great diversity of peoples who brought to the emerging Islamic tradition a rich variety of cultural backgrounds and religious experiences. This interplay between unity and diversity was a constant feature of
formative Islam; the faith was flexible enough to embrace new practices and
accommodate regional variations but still rigorous enough to preserve its core
The Five Pillars of Faith
Islamic ritual is the institutionalized form through which all believers submit
themselves to God and acknowledge his omnipotence. Although a discussion
of ritual cannot convey to an outsider the true meaning of Islam for a practicing Muslim, it can provide insight into the exacting demands and the communal emphasis of Islamic worship. This worship is based on the five pillars of
Islamic Civilization to the Fifteenth Century — C H A P T E R 2
Proclamation of Faith (Shahadah). With the words “I attest that there is
only one God and Muhammad is his Prophet,” Muslims affirm their faith in
Islam. As noted previously, the basic religious principle of Islam is monotheism. The deity of the Quran is an all-powerful, righteous God of judgment
whose commands are not to be questioned. The second element of the faith is
the acceptance of Muhammad’s role as the final Prophet of God. According to
the Quran, Muhammad was not only the transmitter of the divine message, he
was designated as the Seal of the Prophets, the last in the long line of human
beings who had received and transmitted God’s word. The Quran recognizes
the missions of earlier prophets but contends that the commands they conveyed have been forgotten. Islam was therefore portrayed not as a new religion
but as the revival of the true word of God that had been revealed to Abraham
and to other prophets throughout the course of human history. Over time,
human beings in their weakness either ignored or perverted the revelations of
these prophets. Through Muhammad, the all-merciful God for one last time
revealed his will to his human creations. There would be no future opportunities to receive God’s plan; there would be no prophets after Muhammad. God’s
designation of an Arab prophet and the Arabic language as the vehicles for his
final revelation was of the utmost significance for the Arabs’ sense of themselves
and their role in human history.
Prayer (Salat). Muslims are instructed to perform the ritual prayer five times
daily at intervals from dawn to sunset. This is not a casual communication with
God but a rigorously prescribed set of movements
˛ and recitations during which
believers face in the direction of the holy Ka ba in Mecca and acknowledge
total submission to God by touching their foreheads to the ground. The daily
prayers are most often performed in the workplace or the home. The Muslim
day of communal worship is Friday, and the noon prayer on that day is the moment when the members of the ummah gather in the large congregational
Fasting (Sawm). The Quran commands all adult Muslims whose health permits to abstain from food, drink, and sexual activity from dawn to dusk during
the month of Ramadan, the month in which Muhammad received the first revelations. Fasting is a time of atonement and a reminder, through abstention, of
God’s generosity in providing for his human creations.
The Pilgrimage to Mecca (Hajj). Muhammad incorporated the Ka ba, the
existing shrine of Mecca, into Islam and made it the key sanctuary of the new
faith, associating its origins with the figure of Abraham. According to the
Quran, Muslims should make the pilgrimage to Mecca and its shrine at least
P A R T O N E — The Development of Islamic Civilization
once in their lives, though the duty is most explicitly directed at those who can
afford the journey and whose working lives will not be unduly disrupted by the
lengthy travel time required. As with prayer, the rites of pilgrimage are institutionalized; the ceremony occurs during a certain month and involves specific
obligations. Throughout the centuries, the pilgrimage has served as a reminder
to Muslims the world over of their shared faith. The duty of the caliph, as the
guardian of the holy cities, to keep the pilgrimage route safe has been one of
the most sacred administrative trusts.
Alms (Zakat). This duty is part of the concept of charity to the less fortunate
that appears frequently in the revelations. Zakat is an annual wealth tax all
Muslims must pay. Although the Quran does not specify the amount of the
zakat, it developed in practice as 2.5 percent of a person’s accumulated wealth
and assets and was collected by the central treasury.
The obligation of jihad, although not a formal part of ritual, constitutes an integral component of Islamic doctrine. The basic meaning of jihad is striving in
the path of God. This can refer to an individual’s inner struggle against sinful
inclinations or to an exceptional effort for the good of the Islamic community.
Certain modern Muslim writers have thus emphasized the need to internalize
jihad in order to achieve religious reform. Jihad has also been invoked by latetwentieth- and early-twenty-first-century movements as an instrument of political protest. These movements have defined the incumbent regimes, whether in
Egypt or elsewhere, as irreligious and have claimed that it is therefore necessary
to overthrow them by means of a popular jihad. In addition to its spiritual connotations, jihad means armed struggle against non-Muslims for the purpose of
expanding or defending the territory under Muslim rule. Jihad, then, is a nuanced doctrine, and rendering it simply as “holy war” is incorrect and should
be avoided.
The Shari ah: The Integration of Religion and Society
The five pillars constitute the essential framework of Muslim worship. But the
Quranic revelations were intended to direct all the affairs of the ummah, including relations among human beings. As the Islamic state expanded into a
world empire, its leaders encountered new situations and adopted administrative practices not found in the Quran. How was the Quran, revealed in Mecca
and Medina and responsive to the needs of those small Arabian cities, to be employed as the code of conduct for an empire stretching from Spain to Central
Asia? Conversely, if the reason for the existence of the Islamic ummah was to
ensure that human society conducted itself according to the commands of
Islamic Civilization to the Fifteenth Century — C H A P T E R 2
God, how could the community justify the use of practices not found in the
From the eighth through the tenth centuries, much of the intellectual energy of Muslim thinkers was directed toward these issues, with the aim of devising a uniform legal system that would recognize the requirements of imperial administration and the value of local customs while remaining true to the
concept of a community guided ˛by divine revelation. The result of these efforts
was the compilation of˛the shari ah, the all-embracing sacred law of the Islamic
community. The shari ah is not a single code of law; rather, it consists of four
different sources to which legal experts may refer when assessing the propriety
of human actions. The first source is, of course, the Quran. But the Quran,
though it sets forth clear moral guidelines and precise instructions on matters
of marriage, divorce, and inheritance, does not address all of the practical legal
issues that might arise in society. In order to fill in details not directly addressed
in the Quran, Muslim jurists came to a consensus on the permissibility of employing three additional sources of law.
The first and most important of these is the tradition of the Prophet, known
as sunnah. Muslim scholars agreed that since God had chosen Muhammad to
receive the final revelation, he must have possessed exemplary human qualities.
Therefore, the words and actions of Muhammad in his daily life were taken as
divinely approved guides for human conduct. This source of law became codified as scholars sifted through the many stories (hadith) about Muhammad that
were in general circulation. Those accounts that could be verified on the basis
of the reliability of the original eyewitness and of the individuals who transmitted them over the years were accepted as genuine and were used by legal experts in their assessment of proper conduct.
The second additional source of law is analogy (qiyas). When jurists encountered a situation for which there was no direct precedent in the Quran or
hadith literature, they assessed it on the basis of principles previously accepted
for a similar situation. The third supplementary source is the consensus of the
community (ijma). As consensus developed in practice, it referred to decisions
made by the leading scholars and jurists of the community. When they collectively agreed that certain˛practices were forbidden or permitted, their decisions
became part of the shari ah. The exercise of applying informed human reasoning to points not covered in the Quran was known as ijtihad; it represented the
right of learned scholars to interpret the intent of God’s revelations and provided Islamic jurisprudence with an evolutionary capability.
It is important to recognize that the three supplementary sources of law,
even though they involve an element of human reasoning, are
˛ based on the
principles of the Quran and thus on the will of God. The shari ah is divine law
intended to regulate all human activities and to empower Muslim jurists to
P A R T O N E — The Development of Islamic Civilization
assess the legality of the actions of individuals on the basis of their compliance
with God’s commands.
The compilation of the shari ah was accompanied by the parallel elaboration
of a practical system of justice with courts, rules of evidence,˛ and properly
trained officials. The judges (qadis) who presided over the shari ah courts were
by the state, and their application of the sacred law strengthened
shari ah-based norms within society. The office of qadi became so essential a
component of Islamic societies that it virtually defined them as Islamic. Where
there was a qadi, there was the presence of Islamic law.
The Role of the Ulama
It is often asserted that there is no priesthood in Islam. To the extent that there
are no human intermediaries between the individual believer and God, the
statement is correct. However, for a religion to survive and retain its vitality,
there must exist individuals trained in doctrine and prepared to transmit it. In
Islamic society this group is known as the ulama (literally, those who know). Because of the wide scope that Islam plays in the regulation of human affairs, the
ulama perform a variety of functions within Islamic society.
Since the governing
law is God’s law, the scholars who compiled the shari ah, the judges who applied
it in the Islamic courts, and the legal experts who advised the judges were considered part of the ulama establishment; and since the most important form of
knowledge was knowledge of religion, the teachers in the mosque schools and universities, too, were members of the ulama, as were the mosque preachers and the
prayer leaders. This broadly based group of teachers, religious scholars, and legal
functionaries occupied a central position in Islamic society. They were the
guardians of the high
˛ scholarly tradition, the formulators of doctrine, the compilers of the shari ah, and the transmitters of religious knowledge.
In the eleventh century the central government in Baghdad established a
formal system of higher education designed to ensure uniform training for the
ulama. The schools of instruction, called madrasahs, offered standardized training in Arabic, Islamic jurisprudence, Quranic exegesis, and the like. One result
of this educational effort was to mold the ulama into a class committed to a
standard orthodox vision of Islam and to the state that promised to uphold it.
In addition, the spread of the madrasah system from Baghdad to other Islamic
centers served to provide the ulama with a relatively standard form of training
and thus contributed to the maintenance of a certain unity in the Islamic scholarly tradition.
The learned Islamic tradition represented by the ulama, though providing a
measure of uniformity to law and doctrine, did not necessarily fulfill popular
Islamic Civilization to the Fifteenth Century — C H A P T E R 2
religious needs. The Arab conquests brought peoples of such diverse local cultures and religious experiences into the ummah that a mingling of existing
forms of worship with Islamic ritual was to be expected. One of the strengths
of formative Islam was the recognition that different manifestations of popular
piety would have to be tolerated within the ummah. The official ulama establishment at first resisted and then accepted the existence of popular religious
practices. However, the ulama persisted in their attempts to keep such practices
within an Islamic frame of reference.
Sufism, or Islamic mysticism, embodies a rich variety of religious experiences. It began as an ascetic movement among individuals who opposed the
worldliness and materialism of the Umayyad court in Damascus. During the
ninth century Sufism evolved into a devotional movement centered on the love
of God. Sufi worship acquired ecstatic characteristics, and its practices spread
among the population in the central Islamic lands. In place of the formal intellectualism of the ulama, Sufism represented emotional religious experience, an
attempt to attain closer communion with God; in the Islamic context, this
meant to come as close to God as Muhammad had done.
The development of Sufism followed a general pattern: Groups of devotees would gather around a local religious figure whose stature was based on
his or her ability to attain communion with God through special ritual practices that might include breathing exercises, the chanting of phrases from the
Quran, or physical movements such as rhythmic dancing, all of which were
intended to put the participant in a state to reach out to God. In the twelfth
and thirteenth centuries, groups of Sufis who practiced the same ritual and
followed the same master formed themselves into structured brotherhoods
(tariqahs). Although most brotherhood organizations were local, several established regional branches, and a few managed to set up networks throughout the world of Islam. In many locales the brotherhoods became the centers
of communal volunteer activities, distributing food to the poor, organizing
relief in times of famine or illness, and in general serving as a focal point of
social as well as religious life. For the majority of Muslims,
spiritual fulfill˛
ment was found in the Sufi experience. Just as the shari ah bound society together under a uniform legal system, the brotherhoods functioned as a structured subsystem in which diverse emotive practices found an outlet within an
Islamic framework.
The Status of Women in the Quran
As with other features of Islam during its formative centuries, the social and
legal status of women underwent considerable change. Moreover, women’s
roles in society differed depending on the social class to which they belonged
and the region of the Islamic world in which they lived. Although there were
P A R T O N E — The Development of Islamic Civilization
many variables shaping the roles of women throughout Islamic history, the
Quran set forth guidelines that were intended to improve their status in
seventh-century Arabia.
The Quranic reforms concentrated on the areas of marriage, divorce, and
inheritance. In pre-Islamic Arabia, women were sold to their husbands by
their family or tribe in exchange for a dowry. The Quran prohibited this
practice by making the dowry payable to the bride alone, not to her family,
thus giving women the legal right to own material wealth. In addition, the
wife was allowed to keep the dowry even if the marriage ended in divorce.
Another marriage reform was contained in the Quranic injunction that restricted to four the number of wives a man could have and in the admonition
that if a husband feared he could not treat each of his wives equally, he
should marry only one. This proclamation is often misunderstood because it
is not placed in historical context. Polygamy was unlimited in pre-Islamic
Arabia, and the Quranic prohibition against taking more than four wives was
indeed a reform.
Prior to the advent of Islam, divorce was a completely unregulated male prerogative among the Arabs of the peninsula. Quranic legislation managed to
curtail the unbridled rights of husbands to divorce their wives, but husbands
were still able to repudiate their wives without stating a cause, a practice that
sustained male domination in marriages. Women, who had
˛ no divorce rights in
pre-Islamic times, did acquire them through the shari ah. However, a wife’s
ability to initiate divorce remained limited and involved far more complex legal
processes than prevailed for husbands.
In the realm of inheritance, the regulations of the Quran instituted major
advances for women. Whereas before Islam women were completely excluded
from inheriting, the Quran decreed that wives, daughters, sisters, and grandmothers were entitled to fixed shares of the deceased’s estate. To be sure, the
proportion of the estate assigned to females was less than that to which males
were entitled, but the very act of granting women legal status as inheritors represented a profound change from existing Arab practices. Women were acknowledged as having economic rights and were therefore given legal status
within the community of Islam.
Notwithstanding the Quran’s reformist attitude toward gender relationships,
the divine revelations did not accord women equal status with men. For example, the Quran stated that “men are the managers of the affairs of women for
that God has preferred in bounty one of them over another” (Sura 4). And as
the expansion of Islam brought the Arabs into contact with other cultures and
required them to adapt to urban life, the reformist
tendencies of the Quran
were abandoned. In the regulations of the shari ah as well as in the customs of
everyday life, the status of women declined.
Islamic Civilization to the Fifteenth Century — C H A P T E R 2
The Islamic
community is divided into two major branches, Sunnis and Shi as
(or Shi ites). The fundamental difference between them is over who should
hold the political leadership of the Islamic community and what the religious
dimension of that leadership should be. Sunni Muslims accept the legality of
the selection of the Rashidun caliphs and their successors, the Umayyads and
the Abbasids. They acknowledge the caliphs as mortal beings with no divine
powers. Thus, although the caliphs represented the religious leadership of the
community, their authority was temporal, and they left matters of doctrine and
to the ulama. The caliphs were responsible for upholding the
shari ah and ensuring that opportunities for the fulfillment of an Islamic way of
life prevailed within the community. The term Sunni is derived from the word
sunnah, meaning tradition or custom, and is used in this context to refer to
those Muslims who followed the custom of the community. Sunnis constitute
the vast majority of Muslims in the world and are sometimes designated as orthodox Muslims,
though that definition is misleading.
The Shi as contend that with the exception of Ali and his descendants, all of
the caliphs were usurpers. They also hold a much different view than the Sunnis of the religious functions
the leader of the community is empowered to ex˛
ercise. Although Shi a doctrine was
˛ elaborated over the course of several centuries, the core of the Sunni-Shi a split originated in the years immediately
following the death of the Prophet Muhammad.
As discussed above, disputes over the succession to the caliphate led to a
Muslim civil war that pitted the supporters
of Ali, the Prophet’s cousin and
son-in-law, against the forces of Mu awiyah, the founder of the Umayyad dynasty. Although
the civil war produced no clear victor, Ali’s murder in 661 en˛
abled Mu awiyah to secure his claim to the caliphate and to make certain that
his˛son, Yazid, succeeded him. During the first year of Yazid’s reign (680), the
shi a (partisans) of Ali persuaded
Ali’s son, Husayn, to lead a rebellion against
the Umayyads. In the Shi a version of the history of this episode, Husayn was
motivated by a desire to reverse the secularizing and materialist tendencies of
the Umayyads and to redirect the community along the path that Muhammad
had prescribed for it. But the popular support Husayn had been promised
failed to materialize, and in 680 the grandson of the Prophet and his small
band of followers were killed by Umayyad forces at the town
˛ of Karbala
˛ in Iraq.
This was a seminal event in the development of Shi ism: Shi as viewed
Husayn’s rebellion as a protest against Umayyad tyranny, and his death took
˛ on
the aura of martyrdom. Karbala developed into the holiest shrine of Shi ism,
and the annual rites of mourning for Husayn at that site became the most
P A R T O N E — The Development of Islamic Civilization
important religious ceremony in the Shi a calendar. From a doctrinal perspective, Husayn’s death became a symbol of the suffering to which the forces of
oppression had subjected the Prophet’s family and the usurpation
of that fam˛
ily’s right to rule. Husayn’s martyrdom thus solidified the Shi as’ belief that the
individuals most qualified to hold supreme political authority over the Islamic
community were the descendants of the Prophet˛ through the line of Ali and his
wife, Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter. The Shi as hold
˛ that Muhammad had
selected Ali as his successor and that each of the Shi a leaders (Imams) since
that time had designated his successor before his death. This process was continuous from Ali, regarded as the first Imam, to the twelfth
Imam, who (as ex˛
plained below)
has been ascribed a major part in Shi a Islam.
As Shi a doctrine evolved in the decades after Husayn’s martyrdom, it accorded
˛ the Imams a special religious role that the Sunni caliphs did not have.
Shi ism maintains that Muhammad was granted divine inspiration that he in
turn transmitted to Ali and that was then passed to the designated Imams after
him. Even though Sunni
dominance prevented these Imams from exercising po˛
litical authority, Shi as consider them the vessels through
˛ which God provided
his uninterrupted guidance to human society. The Shi a Imams are regarded as
having been divinely inspired; they possessed esoteric knowledge not granted to
other humans, including knowledge of the hidden meanings of the Quran, and
were therefore able to offer infallible pronouncements on religious law and to
˛ interpretations that took into consideration changing circumstances.
Shi a doctrine took on added complexity, and added importance for the history of the modern Middle East, by the way it interpreted events involving
˛ the
twelfth Imam, Muhammad al-Mahdi.
According to the majority Shi a posi˛
tion, sometimes called Twelver Shi ism, the twelfth Imam entered into a condition of occultation in the year 874. He disappeared but did not die; he was—
and, over eleven centuries later, remains—concealed by God. At some point
before the Day of Judgment, he will return as the Mahdi, the expected one, and
will fill˛ the earth with justice.
Shi a doctrine accords al-Mahdi the status of the Hidden Imam who, because he is still alive, continues to exercise control over human affairs.˛ However, this notion posed both political and religious problems for the Shi a community. How was the community to be guided in the absence of the Hidden
Imam? How was his divine inspiration to be communicated
to his followers?
Chapter 6 examines the process by which the Shi a ulama in Iran established
their claim to represent the Hidden Imam, a claim that had important consequences for the shaping of modern Iranian˛ society.
The followers of another version of Shi ism, known as Isma ilis or Seveners,
differ from the Twelvers in their interpretation of the line of succession between the seventh and eighth Imams. They contend that the imamate has con-
Islamic Civilization to the Fifteenth Century — C H A P T E R 2
tinued uninterrupted to the present day, and they follow the Aga Khan as their
infallible Imam.
During the eleventh century, military power and the ruling authority that went
with it passed from Arabs to Turks in the central Islamic lands. Turkish pastoral
nomads from Asia had been in contact with Islam from the early period of the
Arab conquests, and Turks had served as professional soldiers in the armies of
various Abbasid caliphs. Several of the Turkish tribes on the frontier of settlement along the Oxus River had adopted Sunni Islam; when they eventually entered the central Islamic territories they did so as defenders of the faith, not as
agents of its destruction.
By the middle of the eleventh century, a confederation of Turkish tribes
known as the Seljuks had established domination over Iran, and in 1055 the
Abbasid caliph invited the Seljuk leader to assume administrative and military
authority in Baghdad. The Turkish Seljuks became the lieutenants of the caliph
and the defenders of the high Islamic tradition. In this capacity, the Seljuk sultans (temporal rulers) created a huge empire stretching from northeastern Iran
through the Arab lands. In the period of Seljuk ascendancy, other Turkish
tribes migrated westward and established a permanent Turkish presence in
northwestern Iran and the Caucasus region. Following the Seljuks’ defeat of the
Byzantine army at the battle of Manzikert in 1071, these migrating tribes
moved into Anatolia and began the gradual transformation of that land from a
Greek-speaking Christian territory to a Turkish-speaking Muslim one.
Despite the Seljuks’ early success at empire building, they were unable to
maintain lasting central authority over the territories under their control. By
1157 their empire had broken up into a series of smaller successor states ruled,
for the most part, by Seljuk princes. But the Seljuk period had lasting importance. It demonstrated the absorptive qualities of Islam, as the Turks adjusted
quickly to urban life and adopted the high cultural traditions of Islam, such˛as
patronage of the arts, sponsorship of architecture, and respect for the shari ah
and the ulama. In addition, the Seljuks were responsible for a rejuvenation of
Sunni Islam; it was the Seljuk minister Nizam al-Mulk who founded the
madrasah system of state-sponsored education for the ulama. Moreover, the
Seljuks expanded the domains of Islam into eastern Anatolia, thus laying the
groundwork for the emergence of the Ottoman state, the most imposing of all
the Islamic empires.
Following the breakup of the Seljuk Empire, western Iran and the central
Arab lands were divided among several ruling dynasties. Although these states
P A R T O N E — The Development of Islamic Civilization
were not major powers, they were more than mere city-states, commanding
sufficient resources to enable their princes to maintain luxurious courts and
continue the tradition of offering patronage to poets and scholars. It was into
this politically fragmented Middle Eastern world of the eleventh and twelfth
centuries that the European Crusaders made their first appearance and established the four Latin kingdoms of Edessa, Antioch, Tripoli, and Jerusalem.
After slightly less than 200 years of troubled occupation of the region and the
launching of several Crusades, the Europeans were ejected from the eastern
Mediterranean. Other than leading to the creation of a spirit of resistance and
cooperation among rulers in Syria and Egypt, whose combined efforts led to
the Crusaders’ defeat, the influence of the Crusades was minimal.
A far more serious threat to the Islamic world came from the east. During
the thirteenth century, all of the Islamic lands from India to Syria suffered the
effects of the Mongol conquests. Unlike the Arab conquests of the seventh and
eighth centuries, which brought a new religious and social order, or the Seljuk
expansion in the eleventh and twelfth centuries, which invigorated the existing
Islamic institutions, the Mongol invasions appeared to have little purpose other
than conquest and destruction. They devastated Iraq and Iran. The first wave
of invasions took place in the 1220s under the leadership of Genghis Khan,
whose armies vanquished the important commercial cities of Samarkand and
Bukhara and brought all of Iran under Mongol influence. In 1256 another
Mongol campaign was launched against the west by Genghis Khan’s son
Hülagü, whose objective was to conquer all of the Islamic lands as far as Egypt.
In 1258 his forces defeated the caliph’s army and then sacked the city of Baghdad and killed the Abbasid caliph, thus toppling the institution that had served
as the symbol of universal Islam for 500 years. The Mongol destruction of
Baghdad also brought to an end that city’s role as an important center of commercial and intellectual life. Although the rise of other Islamic cities had caused
Baghdad to lose its dominance well before the Mongol conquest, it had nevertheless remained the seat of the caliphs and the symbolic center of Islam. After
1258, the once thriving imperial capital was reduced to the status of a provincial city, and its population, economy, and influence declined precipitously.
Hülagü did not achieve his ambition of conquering Egypt. In 1260 the forces
of the Mamluks, a new Turkish military sultanate based in Cairo, defeated
the Mongols in a battle fought north of Jerusalem. As a result of their victory, the
Mamluks became the masters of Syria and ruled it and Egypt until 1517.
The rule of the Mamluks was not without turbulence, but its persistence for a
period of over 250 years shows once again the significance of the Turkish role in
governing Middle Eastern Islamic states from the eleventh century onward.
The Mamluk defeat of Hülagü’s forces did not end the wave of invasions
from the east. From 1381 to 1404, the armies of Timur Lang (Tamerlane) laid
Islamic Civilization to the Fifteenth Century — C H A P T E R 2
waste to large portions of Iran, defeated the Turkish princes of Anatolia, and
sacked Damascus. Although Timur conquered vast territories, he did not construct a stable empire. Following his death in 1405, Anatolia and the Arab
lands were once again fragmented into several small dynastic states.
Following the military victories of the Arab warriors, the Quraysh administrators and merchants consolidated the conquests and ensured that the production
and distribution of resources in the conquered territories were not unduly disturbed. In this process of consolidation, local customs were often allowed to
continue, and certain existing practices were incorporated into the Islamic tradition. But throughout this pragmatic creation of an empire, an Islamic impulse
guided the organization of state and society. The irreverent behavior of some
members of the elite could not disrupt the desire of society at large to sustain the
concept of the ummah espoused by Muhammad. The moral imperatives
of the
Quran were elaborated upon and formed the core of the shari ah, a sacred legal
system that made˛ everyday activities religious duties. Overseeing the enforcement of the shari ah and the purity of doctrine were the ulama, a class of scholars, judges, and teachers who set and transmitted the norms by which Islamic
society perpetuated itself. On a popular level, religious expression found outlets
in the Sufi brotherhoods and the rituals associated with them.
The Mongol invasions were a shock to the existing Islamic order in the Middle East, but they did not succeed in destroying it. Out of the chaos and instability of the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries, there emerged in the territory from Anatolia to India three substantial Islamic empires that stabilized
political conditions in the central Islamic lands, reshaped and reinvigorated
cultural and religious life, and launched Islam on a new era of expansion and
1. Marilyn R. Waldman, “The Islamic World,” New Encyclopaedia Britannica, 15th ed.
(Chicago, 1990), pp. 102–133.

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