Regional and Transregional Interactions (c. 600 CE to c. 1450)

CHAPTER 11   Rise and Spread of Islam

CHAPTER 12   Expansion of China

CHAPTER 13   Changes in European Institutions

CHAPTER 14   Interregional Trade and Exchange

CHAPTER 15   Empires in the Americas


Rise and Spread of Islam


Summary: As the empires that lent their grandeur to the classical period of early civilization fell into decline, the barren desert of the Arabian Peninsula witnessed the development of a belief system that evolved into a religious, political, and economic world system. Dar al-Islam,or the house of Islam, united sacred and secular institutions.


Key Terms

An asterisk ( *) denotes items listed in the glossary.

Allah *



Battle of Tours*


Dar al-Islam *

Five Pillars*

Hadith *

hajj *


hijrah *

jihad *



minaret *



People of the Book*

Quran *


shariah *






umma *


The World of Muhammad

The Arabian peninsula into which Muhammad was born in 570 was a hub of ancient caravan routes. Although the coastal regions of the peninsula were inhabited by settled peoples, the interior region provided a homeland for nomadic tribes called Bedouins. Located in the interior of the peninsula was the city of Mecca, which served both as a commercial center and as the location of a religious shrine for the polytheistic worship common to the nomadic peoples of the peninsula. Pilgrims were in the habit of visiting Mecca and its revered shrine, the Ka’aba , a cubic structure that housed a meteorite. The merchants of Mecca enjoyed a substantial profit from these pilgrims.

Muhammad, an orphan from the merchant class of Mecca, was raised by his grandfather and uncle. He married a wealthy local widow and businesswoman named Khadija. About 610 CE, Muhammad experienced the first of a number of revelations that he believed came from the archangel Gabriel. In these revelations he was told that there is only one God, called “Allah ” in Arabic. (Allah was one of the gods in the Arabic pantheon.) Although the peoples of the Arabian peninsula had already been exposed to monotheism through Jewish traders and Arabic converts to Christianity, Muhammad’s fervent proclamation of the existence of only one god angered the merchants of Mecca, who anticipated decreased profits from pilgrimages if the revelations of Muhammad were widely accepted. In 622 CE, realizing that his life was in danger, Muhammad and his followers fled to the city of Yathrib (later called Medina), about 200 miles northwest of Mecca. Here Muhammad was allowed to freely exercise his role as prophet of the new faith, and the numbers of believers in the new religion grew. The flight of Muhammad from Mecca to Medina, called the hijrah, became the first year in the Muslim calendar.

In Medina, Muhammad oversaw the daily lives of his followers, organizing them into a community of believers known as the umma. The well-being of the umma included programs concerning all aspects of life, from relief for widows and orphans to campaigns of military defense.

In 629 CE, Muhammad and his followers journeyed to Mecca to make a pilgrimage to the Ka’aba, now incorporated as a shrine in the Islamic faith. The following year they returned as successful conquerors of the city, and in 632 CE, they again participated in the hajj . In 632 CE, Muhammad died without appointing a successor, an omission that would have a profound effect on the future of Islam.

The Teachings of Islam

The term Islam means “submission,” while the name Muslim , applied to the followers of Islam, means “one who submits.” Muhammad viewed his revelations as a completion of those of Judaism and Christianity and perceived himself not as a deity but as the last in a series of prophets of the one god, Allah . He considered Abraham, Moses, and Jesus also among the prophets of Allah . According to the teachings of Islam, the faithful must follow a set of regulations known as the Five Pillars . They include:

•  Faith. In order to be considered a follower of Islam, a person must proclaim in the presence of a Muslim the following statement: “There is no god but Allah , and Muhammad is his prophet.”

•  Prayer . The Muslim must pray at five prescribed times daily, each time facing the holy city of Mecca.

•  Fasting . The faithful must fast from dawn to dusk during the days of the holy month of Ramadan , a commemoration of the first revelation to Muhammad.

•  Alms-giving . The Muslim is to pay the zakat,or tithe for the needy.

•  The hajj. At least once, the follower of Islam is required to make a pilgrimage to the Ka’aba in the holy city of Mecca. The faithful are released from this requirement if they are too ill or too poor to make the journey.

The revelations and teachings of Muhammad were not compiled into a single written document until after his death. The resulting Quran, or holy book of the Muslims, was completed in 650 CE. In addition, the sayings of Muhammad were compiled into the books of the Hadith. After the death of Muhammad the shariah, or moral law, was compiled. In addition to addressing issues of everyday life, the shariah established political order and provided for criminal justice.

Split Between the Sunni and the Shia

After the death of Muhammad in 632 CE, the umma chose Abu-Bakr, one of the original followers of Muhammad, as the first caliph , or successor to the prophet. The office of caliph united both secular and religious authority in the person of one leader. When the third caliph, Uthman of the Umayyad family, was assassinated, Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of Muhammad, was appointed caliph. Soon controversy arose over his appointment. As time progressed, the disagreement became more pronounced, resulting in a split in the Muslim world that exists to the present. After the assassination of Ali in 661 CE, the Shia sect, believing that only a member of the family of Muhammad should serve as caliph, arose to support the descendants of Ali. The Sunni , who eventually became the largest segment of Islam, believed that the successor to the caliphate should be chosen from among the umma, or Muslim community, and accepted the earliest caliphs as the legitimate rulers of Islam.

The Early Expansion of Islam

Shortly after the death of Muhammad, the new religion of Islam embarked upon a rapid drive for expansion. Unlike the Buddhist and Christian religions, which expanded by means of missionary endeavor and commercial activity, Islam at first extended its influence by military conquest. Islam spread swiftly throughout portions of Eurasia and Africa:

•  Within a year after the death of Muhammad, most of the Arabian Peninsula was united under the banner of Islam.

•  Persia was conquered in 651 CE with the overthrow of the Sassanid dynasty.

•  By the latter years of the seventh century, the new faith had reached Syria, Mesopotamia, Palestine, and Egypt.

•  At the same time, Islam extended into Central Asia east of the Caspian Sea, where it competed with Buddhism.

•  During the eighth century, Muslim armies reached present-day Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco; Hindu-dominated northwest India; and the Iberian peninsula (present-day Spain and Portugal).

The earliest Muslim conquerors were not as concerned with the spread of religious belief as they were with the extension of power for the Muslim leaders and people.

The Umayyad Caliphate

After the assassination of Ali in 661 CE, the Umayyad family came to power in the Islamic world. Establishing their capital at Damascus in Syria, the Umayyad were noted for the following:

•  An empire that emphasized Arabic ethnicity over adherence to Islam.

•  Inferior status assigned to converts to Islam.

•  Respect for Jews and Christians as “People of the Book .” Although required to pay taxes for charity and on property, Jews and Christians were allowed freedom of worship and self-rule within their communities.

•  Luxurious living for the ruling families, which prompted riots among the general population.

These riots among the general population led to the overthrow of the Umayyad by the Abbasid dynasty in 750 CE. Although most of the Umayyad were killed in the takeover, one member of the family escaped to Spain, where he established the Caliphate of Córdoba.

The Abbasid Caliphate

The Abbasids, originally supported by the Shi’ites (Shia) , became increasingly receptive to the Sunni also. Establishing their capital at Baghdad in present-day Iraq, the Abbasids differed from the Umayyad in granting equal status to converts to Islam. Under the Abbasids:

•  Converts experienced new opportunities for advanced education and career advancement.

•  Trade was heightened from the western Mediterranean world to China.

•  The learning of the ancient Greeks, Romans, and Persians was preserved. Greek logic, particularly that of Aristotle, penetrated Muslim thought.

•  The Indian system of numbers, which included the use of zero as a place holder, was carried by caravan from India to the Middle East and subsequently to Western Europe, where the numbers were labeled “Arabic” numerals.

•  In mathematics, the fields of algebra, geometry, and trigonometry were further refined.

•  The astrolabe , which measured the position of the stars, was improved.

•  The study of astronomy produced maps of the stars.

•  Optic surgery became a specialty, and human anatomy was studied in detail.

•  Muslim cartographers produced some of the most detailed maps in the world.

•  The number and size of urban centers such as Baghdad, Cairo, and Córdoba increased.

•  Institutions of higher learning in Cairo, Baghdad, and Córdoba arose by the twelfth century.

•  In the arts, calligraphy and designs called arabesques adorned writing and pottery.

•  New architectural styles arose. Buildings were commonly centered around a patio area. Minarets , towers from which the faithful received the call to prayer, topped mosques , or Muslim places of worship.

•  Great literature, such as poetic works and The Arabian Nights, enriched Muslim culture. Persian language and literary style was blended with that of Arabic.

•  Mystics called Sufis , focusing on an emotional union with Allah , began missionary work to spread Islam.

Although responsible for much of the advancement of Islamic culture, the Abbasids found their vast empire increasingly difficult to govern. The dynasty failed to address the problem of succession within the Islamic world, and high taxes made the leaders less and less popular. Independent kingdoms began to arise within the Abbasid Empire, one of them in Persia, where local leaders, calling themselves “sultan ,” took control of Baghdad in 945 CE. The Persians were challenged by the Seljuk Turks from central Asia, who also chipped away at the Byzantine Empire. The weakening Persian sultanate allied with the Seljuks, whose contacts with the Abbasids had led them to begin converting to Sunni Islam in the middle of the tenth century. By the middle of the eleventh century, the Seljuks controlled Baghdad. In the thirteenth century, the Abbasid dynasty ended when Mongol invaders executed the Abbasid caliph.

It was the Seljuk takeover of Jerusalem that prompted the beginnings of the Crusades in 1095 CE (see Chapter 13 ). Divisions within the Muslim world allowed Christians from Western Europe to capture Jerusalem during the First Crusade. Under Saladin, however, Muslim armies reconquered most of the lost territory during the twelfth century.


The flowering of Islamic culture became particularly pronounced in al-Andalus, or Islamic Spain. In 711 CE, Berbers from North Africa conquered the Iberian peninsula, penetrating the European continent until their advance was stopped about 200 miles south of Paris at the Battle of Toursin 732 CE. Allies of the Umayyad dynasty, the caliphs of al-Andalus served to preserve Greco-Roman culture, enhancing it with the scientific and mathematical developments of the Muslim world. The Caliphate of Córdoba boasted a magnificent library and free education in Muslim schools. Interregional commerce thrived, while Arabic words such as alcohol, álgebra, and sofá were added to the Spanish vocabulary, and Muslim styles such as minarets, rounded arches, and arabesques were used in Spanish art and architecture.

Islam in India and Southeast Asia

Between the seventh and twelfth centuries, Muslims expanded their influence from northwest India to the Indus valley and a large portion of northern India. Centering their government at Delhi, the rulers of the Delhi Sultanate extended their power by military conquest, controlling northern India from 1206 to 1526. Unsuccessful at achieving popularity among the Indians as a whole because of their monotheistic beliefs, the Muslim conquerors found acceptance among some Buddhists. Members of lower Hindu castes and untouchables also found Islam appealing because of its accepting and egalitarian nature. Although militarily powerful, the Delhi Sultanate failed to establish a strong administration. It did, however, introduce Islam to the culture of India.

In Southeast Asia, Islam spread more from commercial contacts and conversion than from military victories. By the eighth century, Muslim traders reached Southeast Asia, with migrants from Persia and southern Arabia arriving during the tenth century. Although the new faith did not gain widespread popularity among Buddhist areas of mainland Southeast Asia, the inhabitants of some of the islands of the Indian Ocean, familiar with Islam from trading contacts, were receptive to the new faith. Hinduism and Buddhism remained popular with many of the island peoples of the Indian Ocean. At the same time, however, Islam also found a stronghold on the islands of Malaysia, Indonesia, and the southern Philippines.

Islam in Africa

The spirit of jihad , or Islamic holy war, brought Islam into Africa in the eighth century. Wave after wave of traders and travelers carried the message of Muhammad across the sands of the Sahara along caravan routes. In the tenth century, Egypt was added to the Muslim territories. The authoritarian rulers of African states in the savannas south of the Sahara Desert adapted well to the Muslim concept of the unification of secular and spiritual powers in the person of the caliph. By the tenth century, the rulers of the kingdom of Ghana in West Africa converted to Islam, followed in the thirteenth century by the conversion of the rulers of the empire of Mali to the east of Ghana. Although widely accepted by the rulers of these regions, the common people preferred to remain loyal to their traditional polytheistic beliefs. When they did convert to Islam, they tended to blend some of their traditional beliefs and practices with those of Islam. Some Sudanic societies were resistant to Islam because their matrilineal structure offered women more freedom than did the practice of Islam.

Along the east coast of Africa, Indian Ocean trade was the focal point that brought Islam to the inhabitants of the coastal areas and islands. East African cities such as Mogadishu, Mombasa, and Kilwa became vibrant centers of Islam that caught the attention of Ibn Battuta, an Arab traveler who journeyed throughout the world of Islam in the fourteenth century. Islam did not experience much success in finding converts in the interior of Africa. In East Africa, as in the western portion of the continent, rulers were the first to convert to Islam, followed much later, if at all, by the masses. Women in eastern Africa already experienced more freedoms than did their Muslim counterparts, a fact that made them resistant to the new faith.

Mamluk Dynasties

With the destruction of Islamic power in Baghdad at the hands of the Mongols (see Chapter 14 ), the Mamluk dynasties provided the force that made Egypt a center for Muslim culture and learning. The Mamluks were converts to Islam who maintained their position among the caliphs by adhering to a strict observance of Islam. By encouraging the safety of trade routes within their domain, the Mamluks contributed to the prosperity of Egypt during the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries until internal disorder led to their takeover in the sixteenth century by the Ottoman Turks (see Chapter 16 ).

Role of Women in Islamic Society

The role of women in Islam underwent considerable change from the time of Muhammad to the fifteenth century. In the early days of Islam, women were not required to veil and were not secluded from the public; these customs were adopted by Islam after later contact with Middle Eastern women. The seclusion of the harem originated with the Abbasid court. From the time of Muhammad onward, Muslim men, following the example of Muhammad, could have up to four wives, provided that they could afford to treat them equally. Women, by contrast, were allowed only one husband.

In many respects, however, Islamic women enjoyed greater privileges than women in other societies at the same time. Both men and women were equal before Allah , and female infanticide was forbidden. Women could own property both before and after marriage. In some circumstances, Islamic women could initiate divorce proceedings and were allowed to remarry if divorced by their husbands. As time progressed, however, the legal privileges enjoyed by Islamic women were counterbalanced by their seclusion from the public, a situation designed to keep women, especially those from the urban elite classes, away from the gaze of men. This isolation often created barriers against the acceptance of Islam, especially among African women. Furthermore, both the Quran and the shariah established a patriarchal society.

Slavery in Dar al-Islam

Islamic law forbade its followers from enslaving other Muslims, except in the case of prisoners of war. Neither was the position of a slave hereditary; Muslims were frequently known to free their slaves, especially if they converted to Islam during their period of servitude. Children born to a slave woman and a Muslim man were considered free.

Images Rapid Review

From the seventh to the fifteenth centuries, Islam served as a unifying force throughout many parts of Asia, Europe, and Africa, contributing to the cultural landscape of all three continents. Islam preserved the learning of the Greeks, Romans, and Persians, blending it with the artistic, scientific, and mathematical knowledge of its own culture. Educational opportunities were extended and urban centers established as Dar al-Islam extended its influence into the everyday lives of the inhabitants of the Eastern Hemisphere.

Images Review Questions

1 .    With regard to the doctrines of Islam in the period c. 600 CE to c. 1450

      (A)  the concept of monotheism was unknown to the inhabitants of the Arabian Peninsula prior to Muhammad’s teachings

      (B)  their teachings of equality made them more popular among the general population of Africa than among African rulers

      (C)  they were embraced by members of the lower Hindu castes in India because of their emphasis on equality

      (D)  they found widespread acceptance among Buddhists of both Central Asia and Southeast Asia

2 .    The area in which Islam showed the most profound change during the seventh to the fifteenth centuries was in

      (A)  its treatment toward People of the Book

      (B)  the development of the shariah

      (C)  the status of slaves

      (D)  the role of women

3 .    One of the weaknesses of the early Muslim empires was

      (A)  disregard for the cultural traditions of conquered peoples

      (B)  failure to resolve questions of succession

      (C)  insistence on conversion of non-Arabs within the empire

      (D)  indifference to the Sunni/Shi’ite split

4 .    The Abbasid dynasty

      (A)  created a social rift between Arabs and new converts

      (B)  was more interested in strengthening Arab power than in gaining converts

      (C)  healed the rift between Sunnis and Shi’ites

      (D)  proved the high point of Muslim cultural achievement

5 .    Which of the following qualifies as a primary source on the teachings of Muhammad?

      (A)  The Quran

      (B)  The Hadith

      (C)  The Five Pillars

      (D)  The umma

6 .    Muhammad

      (A)  made provisions for the future leadership of Islam

      (B)  established clear class distinctions for Islamic society

      (C)  built on the religious traditions of the Arabian peninsula

      (D)  went against established gender distinctions in the practice of his faith

7 .    The Five Pillars

      (A)  are inattentive to distinctions in social class

      (B)  are included in the Quran

      (C)  require religious instruction as an entrance to the Islamic faith

      (D)  provide unity within Islam

8 .    As a new faith, Islam gained strength

      (A)  within portions of the former Roman Empire

      (B)  when adherence to Arabic ethnicity was emphasized over adherence to Islam

      (C)  first in Mecca, then throughout the Arabian peninsula

      (D)  because of rules of succession established by the first caliphs

Images Answers and Explanations

1 .   C   Although the general population in India tended to cling to Hinduism, the lower castes and the untouchables often embraced Islam because it offered them the equality that the caste system did not. Monotheism (A) had already been introduced to the Arabian Peninsula by Jewish traders and Arab Christians. Islam was more popular among African rulers (B) than among the general population. In both Central Asia and Southeast Asia (D), Islam competed with Buddhism for followers.

2 .   D   The role of women changed significantly from the early days of Islam; contacts with other peoples introduced the veiling of women and their seclusion from society, both customs absent in the early Islamic culture. Throughout the period of the caliphate, the People of the Book (A) were respected by Muslim leaders. The precepts of the shariah remained consistent throughout the period (B). The status of slaves (C) as a nonhereditary class did not change during the caliphate.

3 .   B   Failure to resolve questions of succession led to the continued split between Sunnis and Shi’ites (D). Early Muslim empires tolerated both the legal systems and the cultural traditions (A) of non-Muslim peoples within the empire, and non-Islamic peoples were not required to convert (C).

4 .   D   With its preservation of Greco-Roman and Persian cultures and its own dissemination of knowledge and promotion of urbanization, the Abbasid dynasty proved the golden age of Islamic culture. The Abbasids accepted new converts on an equal basis with Arabs (A). Conversion was a primary goal of the Abbasids (B). The Sunni/Shi’ite split continues to the present (C).

5 .   B   The Hadith was a written compilation of the sayings of Muhammad, qualifying them as a primary source. The Quran (A) is a compilation of the revelations said to have been given to Muhammad by the archangel Gabriel. The Five Pillars (C) evolved as regulations exacted of every Muslim. The umma (D) is the term for the community of the faithful.

6 .   C   The god Allah was already among the gods in the Arabic pantheon. Monotheism was practiced by the Jewish and Christian minorities living on the Arabian peninsula. In failing to name a successor, Muhammad did not make provisions for the future leadership of Islam (A). Muhammad came from a modest background but married into a family of wealthy merchants, indicating a disregard for social distinctions, a policy that was carried out in the requirement of Muslims to give alms to the poor (B). Women of the Arabian peninsula were allowed to engage in commerce, a tradition that was carried on in early Islam (D).

7 .   D   The first pillar requires only a simple statement of faith, a requirement that serves to unify Islam. No formal religious instruction is required by this statement (C). The Five Pillars make provisions for the welfare of the poor in Islamic society (A). The Quran was written down after the Five Pillars were established (B).

8 .   A   In the eighth century, Islam had extended to Spain, which had been a part of the Roman Empire. Islam became more unified after it changed the policy of the Umayyads to reflect an emphasis on acceptance of the faith over Arabic ethnicity (B). The people of Mecca accepted Islam only after Muhammad’s reconquest of the city (C). The first caliphs conflicted over the choice of a successor to Muhammad because of the prophet’s failure to appoint a successor (D).

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