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The Islamic Empire - a Quick History

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Victor Cohen

on 29 January 2014

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Transcript of The Islamic Empire - a Quick History

The Islamic Empire - a Quick History
Going back hundreds of years prior to the formation of the Islamic empire, two "worlds" formed around the major trade routes of the Mediterranean Ocean and the land-based trade routes of that connected Mesopotamia, Egypt, India, Central Asia.
To fully understand how the rise of Islam fits within the political history of Afro-Eurasia, we need to go back into the Iron Age . . . to around 500 BCE.
While each region had more interaction internally than with the other, there were some key moments that saw these two worlds meet:
The Persian emperor Darius pushes on his "western frontier" in 500 BCE and is defeated by Greek forces;
Alexander the Great had, by the time of his death in 323 BCE, had conquered Persia and had created a single empire that united these regions, which left a Greek influence throughout the region long after his death.
Once Alexander the Great died – Greek
influence faded – and Persia was taken
over by a nomadic tribe, the Parthians.



As Rome was beginning its first expansion
in 300 BCE, - the Parthians were conquering
the land to the east. In 33 BCE, the western
border of the Parthian Empire was set when
it defeated the Romans at the Euphrates river.
in 224 CE, the Parthian Empire falls to the Sassanids, a Persian dynasty. 60 years later, the Roman Empire is split into two.
The Sassanid Empire ruled this region for close to 500 years, until the rise of the Islamic Empire. Among its many achievements, the Sassanids . . .
maintained the western border against the Roman – and then Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire;
established Zoroastrianism as the state religion – which prefaced key elements of the Muslim religion, such as the idea that people choose freely to do good or evil, and that these choices affect the fate of the world as a whole;
created a Persian identity that remained strong even after the Islamic conquest.
Islam emerges in a region previously uncontrolled by either the Byzantine or the Sassanid Empire – the Arabian Peninsula. By the death of Mohammed in 10 AH (632 CE), most of Arabia is under Muslim control – and 30 years later, Islam has become the largest empire in the region, ruled by people who personally knew Mohammed, and were firm believers in both the Muslim religion and social project.
While the Islamic Empire outlasted either of the Persian empires that came before it, in this course we're only going to be looking at the first 90 years of its existence - or the span of time it took to grow to its fullest extent.
The "Rightly-Guided" Caliphs
After the death of Mohammed, the Islamic empire is governed by four people – all of whom had a close relationship with Mohammed himself.
Under these four people, Islam grows into Persia, North Africa, and Spain, dwarfing all other empires around it. These four rulers were called “caliphs” – or deputies – rather than emperors.
Abu Bakr – Mohammed’s father-in-law, and first follower outside his immediate family (governed from 11-13 AH, or 632 - 634 CE)
Omar Al Faroq – a loyal companion to Mohammed since his days in Medina (13-24 AH, or 634 -644 CE).
Othman – a wealthy businessman from Medina, and a convert to Islam 9 years before the Hirja (22-36 AH or from 644 - 656 CE)
Ali – Mohammed’s cousin and son-in-law (36-40 AH, or 656 - 661 CE).
The first Caliph - Abu Bakr - governed Islam for
two years - from 11 - 13 AH (634 CE) - and consolidated Islamic control over Arabia.
The second Caliph - Omar Al Faroq - governed Islam for a decade. Under his guidance:
Islam conquered the Byzantine empire - in 14 AH (636 CE), destroying the main Byzantine army;
In 15 AH (637 CE), 30,000 Islamic fighters met 60,000 Sassanids; four days later, the Sasanids gave up. Three years later, the Sassanid empire was under Islamic control, and by 29 AH (651 CE), the Islamic empire included Persia.
Meanwhile - other Islamic armies were routing the Byzantine army along the Mediterranean coast, from Egypt across North Africa. By Omar's assassination in 22 AH (644 CE) by a Persian - Islamic rule covered more than 2 million square miles.
One has to ask - how did this relatively young empire conquer two centuries-old empires in such a short span of time - 11 years? There are several answers:
Religious Muslims would say that Allah aided this young empire.
Historians suggest that not only were Muslim warriors fighting harder for their reward in heaven - but they were also fighting FOR something - Islam - against mercenaries and draftees who had little invested in the fight by comparison.
Also - under Islamic rule, religious freedom was allowed, and in some cases Islamic rule was an improvement from the rule of previous empires.
Certainly – Muslims were fighting for a cause they believed in – the validity of Islam. And Islamic community values were worth fighting for – fellowship, honestly, decency, compassion, democratic decision making, equality.
Byzantine and Islamic Navy at War - 636
And finally - under Omar – soldiers got four fifths of war plunder, divided equally- the Muslim way. And - one fifth of the plunder went to Medina, distributed to the needy (though this decreased over time).
Cultural Accomplishments of the first two Caliphs?
Abu Bakr and Omar – consolidated Muslim doctrine, defined Islamic way of life, and how it could operate as a social and political project. Only one Umma, with a world-changing destiny – to spread Dar Al-Islam, the world of peace.
Began the Muslim calendar with the Hirja – world time flows forward from this one point.
Created the ulama – scholars who studied the Qur’an and the stories of Mohammed’s life to help others live and lead in a properly Islamic manner.
Made education compulsory for men and women; women had an equal role in social, political, commercial life. However - men and women pray separately; drinking alcohol is banned.
Second Two Caliphs and the Schism of the Muslim World – Sunni and Shia
Othman, the 3rd Caliph - 22-36 AH
Early convert to Islam - nine years before the Hijra; a wealthy man from Mecca, and a member of the Umayyad clan, one of the groups who wanted Mohammed killed.
Elected into an empire – collect taxes, run courts, maintain infrastructure, set salaries. Spread Dar al-Islam, but administer it too.
Public works – streets, buildings, 5,000 new mosques across the empire.
Began a trend of appointing clan members to important positions – Othman’s brother-in-law was governor of Egypt; cousin was governor of Damascus.
Challenges arose from the transition from a religious movement into a functioning empire, especially in Iraq and Egypt, were Othman's appointed rulers - members of his clan - were accused of corruption.
These tensions, between Islam’s religious goals and its quite worldly rule, culminated in the killing of Othman by an angry mob of Egyptians petitioning to have their corrupt governor replaced. The fallout from this event - the killing of Othman - marks the beginning of the breakdown of unity within the Islamic world.
Ali, Mohammed's son-in-law and cousin, and ruled from 36-40 AH (656-661)
He was supported by the opponents of Othman who saw Othman as abandoning the Islamic faith, and his murder a just act.
Ali tried to roll back Othman’s practices of benefiting his clan, the Umayad, by firing all the governors - but none of them stepped down.
Ali ultimately had to wage a small war against the Umayyad clan, and eventually made a bargain allowing them to rule Egypt and Syria, leaving him the rest of the Islamic empire.
The death of Ali meant the last of Mohammed's closest associates were dead, and religious unity within Islam was broken.
The question that split the Sunni and Shia was both political as well as religious - should the leader of Islam be elected by the Umma, or divinely selected?This split in Islamic life exists even today. The Sunni
believe in the appointment of a leader by consensus of the Umma, whereas the Shia, Ali's followers, believe in divine succession.
Umayyad Caliphate - 40 – 120 AH (661 – 737 CE)
The Umayyads – Othman’s clan – originally opposed Muhammad when he rose to prominence in Mecca. Othman, the third Caliph, was their first convert to Islam.
The Umayyad reign focused on securing the borders of the Islamic world, and revenue from these ongoing wars enriched the Umayyad government – all revenue (tax, war plunder) was used to fund public works and charity, without raising taxes on citizens.
Trade networks flourished, enriching both Islamic world at home and abroad, and carrying with it Islam-inspired social ideals.
"Arabization" and "Islamification"
Arabic was declared the official language of government (replacing Persian and Greek).
Peoples under this rule? Indians, Persians, Greeks, Egyptians, Arabs, Bedouin, Mesopotamians, north Africans.
Converting to Islam was incentivized - career opportunities for religion-related careers, and avoided poll tax on non-Muslims, the jizya.
Unconverted could still own land, operate businesses, and work for the government, though under the Umayyad rule, positions of authority were reserved generally for the Arab aristocracy.
Under the Umayyad rulership -
They were chosen by the Umma to lead the Islamic world on the basis of their perceived wisdom, piety, and ability to follow the ideas of Mohammed. They are known today as the “Rightly Guided” caliphs.
The Sunni term "the Four Rightly Guided Caliphs" was first used by the Abbasid Dynasty – 750 CE – to mid 13th century CE - to refer to the four first political leaders of Islam after Mohammed’s death.
Mohammed never made any guidelines for how Islam should be governed after his death – or even how a new leader should be chosen, or who this person could be.
Upon Mohammed’s death, two of his closest companions were chosen by the Umma - the community of Muslims founded in Medina - to lead Islam – Abu Bakr, Mohammed’s father-in-law and one of the first Muslims, and Omar, one of Mohammed’s closest and longest advisors – and also an early convert to Islam.
Mohammed's young cousin, Ali - the person who had impersonated Mohammed as he fled Mecca - was also a worthy successor, many felt - but he was considered too young by the Umma - the Islamic community - in spite of his leadership in the three battles that helped defend Medina and the Umma itself.
Ali was a logical successor in some ways: he was the second person to convert to Islam, after Khadija, and the husband of Mohammed's daughter as well; he also was felt to have a great degree of religious charisma by many, which they felt also made him the logical successor to Mohammed.
Yet in other ways - these were also reasons NOT to make Ali the next leader of the Umma. Mohammed himself declared there would be no more prophets after him, making Ali's charisma a strike against him. Islam was also not founded to create a familial dynasty but a just and equal social order - which also made choosing Ali as the next leader a bad decision.
In the end - Ali supported the Umma's decision to make someone else the first "deputy" of Islam - though it is from this original conflict that the two major groups of Islam - the Sunni, and Shia (followers of Ali) - come to us.
Upon Mohammed' s death, many tribes in Arabia who had converted to Islam had declared they would still be practicing Muslims, but would no longer follow anyone else's leadership. Some even claimed they had found a new prophet.
Abu Bakr spent the first year of his rule fighting with these groups to maintain the idea that there was only one Umma, and that followers of Islam were not following Mohammed, but the word of Allah.
Taken together, these small battles are known as the "Apostate Wars." An apostate is someone who renounces a religious or political belief - synonyms for this term include "deserter" and "traitor."
Under Omar and Abu Bakr:
Codifies the Qur’an – it is this version we see today.
Ali's followers, the Shia (partisans) had been declaring Ali the rightful heir to Mohammed since the first Caliph was elected.
This compromise enraged Ali's followers - some of whom known as the Kharijites ("the ones who departed") abandoned Ali to continue their search for a righteous person to lead Islam. One of this group, went on to assassinate Ali.
Ali's followers hoped his son, Hassan, would take up the cause - but convinced of its futility, was bought off by the Umayyad and renounced any claim to the caliphate.
Mainstream Islam - as articulated by Abu Bakr and Omar - contends that Mohammed was strictly a messenger delivering divine guidelines on how to live. The message - and the model of living Mohammed left - was his only religious significance.
The followers of this branch of Islam make up 90 % of the Muslim community today.
The Shia, by contrast, believe that Mohammed had a mystical presence invested in him by Allah - an energy or light known as the "baraka" of Mohammed.
When Mohammed died, that energy (the Shia believe) passed on to Ali, making him the first "imam." This energy then passed to his son, Hassan, and so on.
While the term "imam" simply means the person who leads the communal prayer (every mosque has one), to the Shia - there is only one imam, one person still receiving direct guidance from Allah.
Hussein, Ali's other son, is considered the third imam. He was killed by the Umayyad as he made a claim for the caliphate, and each year the Shia commemorate his death.
The Abbasid Dynasaty – or the Return of the Shia and Persians
120 – 350 AH (737-961 CE)
Along with the Shia, the Persian members of Islam were not satisfied with the direction of the empire.
In 125 AH (747 CE), an Abbasid revolutionary army (named for its leader, Abu al-Abbas) began moving west, gaining recruits as they moved from those unhappy with Ummayad rule.
This army was multi-ethnic – made up of Persians and minority Islamic groups
Unlike other regions of the Muslim empire, Persia was not so readily absorbed into a national Islamic identity. Persians were a separate ethnicity, language community. As such, they were treated as second-class citizens under Ummayad rule, which favored Muslim Arab identity.
This army was composed of the Hashimites – radical anti-government conspirators – led by Abu Al-Abbas, who claimed descent from one of Muhammad’s uncles, a group of Shia, and Persians. They gathered in present-day Iran and Afghanistan, and waged a 28-year war for the right to rule the Islamic empire.
In 108 AH (750 CE), the Abbasid forces conquered the Ummayad army, proclaimed Abbas the new caliph of Islam, and helped solidify his rule by slaughtering the leading members of the Ummayad clan.
Rather than creating a more orthodox Islam, the Abbasids were secular rulers who used the religious establishment to help secure their legitimacy, and further persecuted the followers of Ali.
In 125 AH (747 CE), an Abbasid revolutionary army (named for its leader, Abu al-Abbas) began moving west, gaining recruits as they moved from those unhappy with Ummayad rule. This army was multi-ethnic – made up of Persians and minority Islamic groups
In spite of its contentious beginnings, Abbasid rule lasted for centuries - and saw Islam move into both Africa and India. The Abbasid caliphate was responsible for fighting off the Crusades, and while it was finally eroded by the Mongol Empire, its boundaries mark the general Islamic world today.

The map on the left also indicates the way a universal religion - the most recent one to emerge on Earth - has shaped human civilization in Afro-Eurasia.
Capital of Islamic empire moved to Damascus, a region controlled by the Umayyad as a result of Othamn's rule..
To assert the "Persian" identity of the new rulers of Islam, the capital of the empire was moved to Baghdad.
Regions where Islam is the majority religion today
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