The sweep of Empire (632-750 C.E.)
The death of Mohammed shocked many Arabs who had attributed divine qualities to the prophet. In order to ease their doubts, one of Mohammed’s chief followers, Abu Bakr, addressed the crowd gathered in Mecca: “Whichever of you worships Mohammed, know that Mohammed is dead. But whichever of you worships God, know that God is alive and does not die.” Then he quoted a passage from the Quran: “Mohammed is a prophet only; there have been prophets before him. If he dies or is slain, will you turn back?” Their nerves soothed and their faith reassured, the Arabs struck out on a path of conquest almost unparalleled in its scope and speed.
The civilizing influences filtering into Arabia from Rome and Persia had two effects combining to give the Arabs the dynamic energy for conquering an empire. For one thing, those influences made Arabia fertile ground in which Islam could take root. Second, they helped the Arabs to unify and expand outward, especially when inspired by Islam, whose warriors believed that death in a holy war for the faith led to being transported instantly to Paradise. Add to this very capable leaders armed with the lightning fast tactics of the desert, and Islam’s armies became the most potent forces of their day.
Two other outside factors also made the Arabs’ rapid expansion possible. First, there was the degree of support, or at least non-resistance from the many Aramaic speaking peoples under Roman and Persian rule, since they felt much closer kinship to the Arabs than to their rulers. Also the Muslims were tolerant of Christians and Jews, charging only a special tax instead of forcing them to convert. This contrasted sharply with the harsher Byzantine policies against the Monophysite Christians in Egypt, Syria, and Palestine. The second factor was timing. Both the Byzantine and Persian Empires were worn out from years of prolonged warfare against each other. Likewise, Visigothic Spain was suffering internal decay and was thus ready for a fall.
The Arabs’ first victims were the Byzantines and Persians. At the Yarmuk River in Palestine they were facing a large enemy force when a sandstorm blew up in the Byzantines’ faces. Taking this as a sign from God, the Arabs charged and destroyed the Byzantine army. Syria and Palestine, along with Jerusalem, a city Muslims also revere, fell into the Arabs’ hands. The Patriarch of Jerusalem, resplendent in his finest robes, had to meet this rag tag army of desert nomads and personally lead their leader’s horse into the city. Nothing could better symbolize the contrast between the wealthy civilized subjects and their new masters fresh out of the desert.
The Arab advance continued northward into Asia Minor toward Constantinople, a particularly prized goal for Muslims. Despite their desert origins, they rapidly built a navy (with the help of their newly conquered Greek and Phoenician subjects) with which they twice besieged Constantinople (674 and 717). In each case, the Byzantines’ dreadful new weapon, Greek fire, helped save the city and empire. The Byzantines held fast, and a fairly stable frontier between Christianity and Islam gradually took shape in Asia Minor.
Sweeping westward the Arabs took Egypt with an army of only 4,000 men, following quickly with the conquest of North Africa. In 711 C.E., a small Muslim force crossed into Spain, where the Visigothic kingdom also crumbled before its onslaught. Storming into southern Gaul (France), the Arabs were finally stopped by the Franks at the Battle of Tours (733). Eventually a stable frontier formed in northern Spain between the Muslim and Christian worlds.
The Arabs also advanced eastward into Persia, which, also exhausted by prolonged war with the Byzantines, collapsed like a house of cards in 651. However, Persian culture would re-emerge as a major influence on Islamic civilization as it developed. In 711 C.E. (the same year Muslim forces entered Spain), the Arabs entered northwestern India and started to establish their power there. They also extended their rule into Central Asia and beat a Chinese army in a battle near the Talas River, which brought the Arabs a new type of product, paper, and helped establish Islam as the dominant religion in Central Asia. Thus, by 750 AD, after little more than a century, the Islamic Empire stretched from Spain in the west to north India and the frontiers of China in the east, the most far-flung empire of its day.
Adapting to empire
In the year 640, a messenger brought news to the Caliph Omar in Mecca that his forces had taken Alexandria with its 4000 villas, 4000 baths, and 400 places of entertainment. To celebrate this victory, Omar had the messenger share a meal of bread and dates with him, the simple fare of desert nomads. However, as ill suited to ruling such an empire the Arabs may have seemed, contact with their civilized Persian and Byzantine subjects allowed them to adapt quite quickly. They had three things to do: decide who was to rule, set up a system of government to rule the empire, and absorb and adapt the older cultures they ruled to Islam.
The first problem was who should be caliph, the spiritual and secular successor to Mohammed. The first four caliphs were elected by a tribal council of elders and are referred to as the Orthodox Caliphs, ruling from 632 to 661 C.E. However, as the empire grew, this form of government became increasingly inadequate. In addition, tribal and clan jealousies continued. Of the four Orthodox Caliphs, only one, Abu Bakr (632-634) died a natural death. Finally, the Umayyad clan took over and established the Umayyad Dynasty (661-750). From now on, the dynastic principle of one family choosing the caliph would dominate.
However, not everyone saw the Umayyads as rightful rulers. Some known as Shiites felt that only descendants of Ali, the last Orthodox Caliph and a member of Mohammed’s family, should be caliph. Those who felt any Arab could be caliph were known as Sunnites. The Sunnite-Shiite split is still one of the major factors dividing the Muslim world today.
In 750 C.E., a revolt led by Abbas, a governor of Persia, overthrew the Ummayads and established the Abassid Dynasty (750-1258). Abbas was a ruthless man who worked to exterminate the Umayyad clan to a man. He even invited eighty Umayyads to a banquet and had them murdered at the table, then covering the bodies so he could finish his meal in peace. One member of the clan did survive, Abd-al-Rahman, who barely escaped Abbasid agents to make his way across the Mediterranean through the use of disguises and trickery. He arrived in Spain and founded an independent Umayyad dynasty. This was the first crack in the unity of the Islamic state. It would never be unified again.
Ruling the empire
From the start, the Umayyads saw that they must adapt Byzantine and Persian techniques for ruling their empire. Therefore, they instituted some major changes. They moved the capital from Mecca to a much more central location, Damascus in Syria. They created the first Muslim coinage. They also adapted Byzantine and Persian bureaucratic methods as well as the Persian system of relay riders for faster communication of news from the further parts of the empire.
The Abbasids continued Umayyad centralizing policies. Consequently, more and more Persians, Greeks, Jews, and other non-Arabs gained positions of responsibility, since they had the training and experience necessary for running the government. This signified more equality and less distinction between the Arab conquerors and their subjects, especially for those non-Arabs who converted to Islam. Even the Abbasid caliphs had less and less Arab blood in them, since few of them married Arab wives.
Nothing better shows these changes in Muslim government than the position and status of the caliph himself, which was modeled after the Persian concept of kingship. Although he still tried to advertise his religious functions by wearing the tattered robe of Mohammed upon occasion and styling himself as the “Shadow of God on earth”, he was no longer a simple man of the people. Just getting an audience with him involved dealing with a multitude of officials. Upon approaching the throne, one prostrated himself, while the caliph remained out of sight, speaking to people through an elaborate screen that hid him from view. An executioner with drawn sword reminded one of the need to behave according to the strictest rules. This contrasted sharply with the Caliph Omar sharing his bread and dates with a messenger.
Exalting the caliph and keeping him hidden from view also isolated him from his people and the problems of his empire. As a result, the vizier, or prime minister, assumed more power and became the power behind the throne for the generally weak or disinterested caliphs. Later, mamelukes, slave bodyguards, also gained increasing power, virtually holding the caliph as a prisoner in his own palace.
Symbolic of the great changes going on in Muslim government and culture was the new capital the Abbasids built: Baghdad. Just as Constantinople was the crown jewel of the Christian world, so Baghdad became the same sort of gem for Islam. Its site in Mesopotamia was flanked by the Tigris River and various canals, thus making it easy to defend. Its central location also put the government in closer communication with the empire’s far-flung provinces.
The form of the city shows the growing influence of Persian culture at court. Its layout was round in the Persian style, and had three sets of surrounding walls. The middle wall was the tallest, supposedly being 112 feet tall, 164 feet thick at the base, and 46 feet thick on top! Two highways split the city into four quadrants, each with a central market. The central part of the city was dominated by a great mosque and the caliph’s palace, which was made of marble with a golden gate and a massive green dome 120 feet in diameter. On top of the dome was a statue of a lancer. According to legend, this statue would point toward parts of the empire where there was trouble. Baghdad was supposed to be inhabited mainly by the caliph, his court, and government officials, but such a capital drew a large population from all over the empire, its population reaching, according to some estimates, as high as one and a half million.
At first, all these expenditures stimulated trade with Western Europe, which helped both the Arab and Frankish empires. Unfortunately, continued heavy spending by the caliphs on expensive palaces, court ritual, adorning such cities such as Baghdad, and patronizing culture and the arts drained the treasury, which in turn wrecked trade with Europe. With trade so disrupted, Vikings in Russia and the Baltic Sea and Arabs in the Mediterranean turned increasingly to raiding and piracy in the ninth and tenth centuries. This brought the Dark Ages to their lowest point in Western Europe.
The development of Islamic Civilization
The period of roughly 750-1000 C.E. is known as a cultural golden age for Islam. During this period, the vigorous desert tribesman from Arabia assimilated the older cultures of the Near East and Mediterranean and infused new life into them.
The basis for such a golden age was the orderliness and resulting prosperity that Arab rule brought the empire from India to the Atlantic. The Arabs flourished as middlemen in a trade that involved silks and porcelains from China, gems and spices from India, slaves and gold from Africa, and slaves and furs from Europe. The stability and range of this trade are seen by a custom of writing letters of credit that would be honored in other cities of the empire. The Arab word for this, sakk, is the origin for our word “check”. The Italian city-states would adopt these practices to become the premier centers of business in Europe in later centuries.
There were three main cultures the Arabs assimilated and fused into what we call Muslim civilization: Indian, Persian, and Greek. From India, the Arabs picked up two concepts essential to the evolution of mathematics: the place value digit and zero. Both of these were vital to being able to do much more complex calculations than the old system of using letters represent numbers.
From the Persians, the Arabs inherited the full scope of Near Eastern cultures that extended back to the early days of Sumer. Much of Muslim art and literature was heavily influenced by Persia. The classic One Thousand and One Arabian Nights, with such tales as Sinbad the Sailor and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves, dates from this period. Poetry also flourished, although it should be noted that the Arabs already had a strong poetic tradition before the conquests. Even such games as Backgammon, Chess, and Polo came to Islamic civilization by way of Persia.
The Greeks also contributed substantially to Muslim culture in the fields of philosophy, math, science, and architecture. Mohammed had said nothing wastes the money of the faithful more than building. However, the Muslims were great builders who owed much of their architectural skill and style to the Greeks. It takes little imagination to see the relationship between the dome of a Moslem mosque and the dome of a Byzantine church such as the Hagia Sophia.
Arab rule and civilization had important results by way of providing economic stability and the spread of civilization. In time, it would pass many of its ideas to India, modern Islamic culture, and even Western Europe where they would be instrumental in the flowering of culture known as the Italian Renaissance.