Home » The Worlds of Islam Afro-Eurasian Connections

The Worlds of Islam Afro-Eurasian Connections

The Hajj The pilgrimage to Mecca, known as the hajj, has long been a central religious ritual in Islamic practice. It also
embodies the cosmopolitan character of Islam as pilgrims from all over the vast Islamic realm assemble in the city where the
faith was born. This painting shows a group of joyful pilgrims, led by a band, on their way to Mecca.
C hapter 9
The Worlds of Islam
Afro-Eurasian Connections
The Birth of a New Religion
The Homeland of Islam
The Messenger and the Message
The Transformation of Arabia
The Making of an Arab Empire
War, Conquest, and Tolerance
Divisions and Controversies
Women and Men in Early Islam
Islam and Cultural Encounter:
A Four-Way Comparison
The Case of India
The Case of Anatolia
The Case of West Africa
The Case of Spain
The World of Islam as a New
Networks of Faith
Networks of Exchange
Re”ections: Past and Present:
Choosing Our History
Zooming In: Mullah Nasruddin,
the Wise Fool of Islam
Zooming In: Mansa Musa, West
African Monarch and Muslim
Working with Evidence: The Life
of the Prophet
Hassan Kargbo, a citizen of the small West African country of Sierra
Leone, is a “ChrisMus,” which in local parlance is a person who
identi!es with both Chris tianity and Islam. “I see it as the same religion,” he stated. Interviewed in early 2014, he acknowledged going
to church every Sunday, wearing a Jesus bracelet, and praying at a
mosque every day. Kelfala Conteh, the caretaker of an ancient mosque
in Sierra Leone’s capital of Freetown, reported, “Of course [Chris tians]
come here. We have both Chris tians and Muslims praying side by
side.” Wurie Bah, another Muslim from Freetown, said, “We all believe
in God. If my friends invite me to church, of course I will go.” On one
of the colorfully decorated minibuses that carry passengers around
the city is the declaration that “God loves Allah.”1
In the world of the early twenty-!rst century, where headlines
often highlight violence among Muslims and violent con”ict with
Chris tians or Jews, it is perhaps useful to recall places such as Sierra
Leone where religious tolerance is both practiced and celebrated.
Nor is it alone. Indonesia, the most heavily populated Muslim country
in the world, has inscribed freedom of religion in its constitution; has
of!cially recognized Chris tian, Hindu, and Buddhist holidays as well
as those of Islam; and has generally maintained peace among its
various religious communities. Tunisia, the cradle of the Arab Spring,
adopted a new constitution in early 2014 that represented a compromise between advocates of a secular state and those committed to a
more Islamic regime. It commits the country to democ racy, freedom
of conscience, and gender equality.
The many faces of contemporary Islam echo the earlier history of
this newest of humankind’s major religions. During the !rst Muslim
millennium (600–1600), the Islamic world found expression in various forms, some
displaying a broad acceptance for diversity and others engaged in serious and at times
violent con!ict with those of a different religious outlook. Furthermore, both then
and now, the world of Islam occupied a central position in the larger international
arena, interacting with most of the other civilizations.
As in China, Muslim societies over much of the past century have been seeking
to overcome several hundred years of humiliating European intrusion and to
!nd their place in the modern world. In doing so, many Muslims have found inspiration and encouragement in the early history of their civilization and their faith.
For a thousand years (roughly 600–1600), peoples claiming allegiance to Islam represented a highly successful, prosperous, and expansive civilization, encompassing
parts of Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. While Chinese culture and Buddhism provided the cultural anchor for East Asia during the third-wave millennium
and Chris tianity did the same for Europe, the realm of Islam touched on both of
them and decisively shaped the history of the entire Afro-Eurasian world.
The signi!cance of a burgeoning Islamic world during the third-wave era was
enormous. It thrust the previously marginal and largely nomadic Arabs into a central role in world history, for it was among them and in their language that the
newest of the world’s major religions was born. The sudden emergence and rapid
spread of that religion in the seventh century c.e. was accompanied by the creation
of a huge empire that stretched from Spain to India. Both within that empire and
beyond it, a new and innovative civilization took shape, drawing on Arab, Persian,
Turkish, Greco-Roman, South Asian, and African cultures. It was clearly the largest and most in$uential of the new third-wave civilizations. Finally, the broad reach
of Islam generated many of the great cultural encounters of this age of accelerating
connections, as Islamic civilization challenged and provoked Christendom, penetrated and was transformed by African cultures, and also took
root in India, Central Asia, and Southeast Asia. The spread of
Islam continued in the modern era so that by 2013 some 1.6
billion people, or 23 percent of the world’s population, identi-
!ed as Muslims. It was second only to Chris tianity as the world’s
most widely practiced religion, and it extended far beyond the
Arab lands where it had originated.
The Birth of a New Religion
Most of the major religious or cultural traditions of the second-wave era had emerged
from the core of established civilizations — Confucianism and Daoism from China,
Hinduism and Buddhism from India, Greek philosophy from the Mediterranean
world, and Zoroastrianism from Persia. Chris tianity and Islam, by contrast, emerged
more from the margins of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern civilizations. Christianity, of course, appeared among a small Middle Eastern people, the Jews, in a
In what ways did the civilization of
Islam draw on other civilizations in
the Afro-Eurasian world? And in
what respects did it shape or transform those civilizations?
remote province of the Roman Empire, while Islam took hold in the cities and
deserts of the Arabian Peninsula.
The Homeland of Islam
The central region of the Arabian Peninsula had long been inhabited by nomadic
Arabs, known as Bedouins, who herded their sheep and camels in seasonal migrations. These peoples lived in !ercely independent clans and tribes, which often
engaged in bitter blood feuds with one another. They recognized a variety of gods,
ancestors, and nature spirits; valued personal bravery, group loyalty, and hospitality; and greatly treasured their highly expressive oral poetry. But there was more to
Arabia than camel-herding nomads. In scattered oases, the highlands of Yemen, and
interior mountain communities, sedentary village-based agriculture was practiced,
570–632 Life of Muhammad
632–661 Era of Rightly Guided Caliphs
633–644 Muslim conquest of Persia
650s Quran compiled
656–661; 680–692 Civil war; emergence of Sunni/Shia split
661–750 Umayyad caliphate
711–718 Conquest of Spain
750–900 High point of Abbasid caliphate
751 Battle of Talas River
756 Baghdad established as capital of Abbasid caliphate
800–1000 Emergence of Su!sm
1099 Crusaders seize Jerusalem
1206 Delhi sultanate established in India
1258 Mongols sack Baghdad; formal end of Abbasid caliphate
1324 Mansa Musa’s pilgrimage to Mecca
1453 Ottoman Empire conquers Constantinople; end of
Byzantine Empire
1492 Chris tian reconquest of Spain complete; end of Muslim
1526 Mughal Empire established in India
and in the northern and southern regions of Arabia,
small kingdoms had $ourished in earlier times. Arabia
also sat astride increasingly important trade routes that
connected the Indian Ocean world with that of the
Mediterranean Sea, a location that gave rise to cosmopolitan commercial cities, whose values and practices
were often in con$ict with those of traditional Arab
tribes (see Map 9.1).
One of those cities, Mecca, came to occupy a distinctive role in Arabia. Though somewhat o& the
major long-distance trade routes, Mecca was the site of
the Kaaba, the most prominent religious shrine in Arabia, which housed representations of some 360 deities
and was the destination for many pilgrims. Mecca’s
dominant tribe, the Quraysh (koor-EYE’SH), had
come to control access to the Kaaba and had grown
wealthy by taxing the local trade that accompanied the
annual pilgrimage season. By the sixth century, Mecca
was home to people from various tribes and clans as
well as an assortment of individual outlaws, exiles, refugees, and foreign merchants, but much of its growing
wealth was concentrated in the hands of a few ruling
Quraysh families.
Furthermore, Arabia was located on the periphery of two established and rival
civilizations of that time — the Byzantine Empire, heir to the Roman world, and
the Sassanid Empire, heir to the imperial traditions of Persia. This location, coupled
with long-distance trade, ensured some familiarity with the larger world, particularly in the cities and settled farming regions of the peninsula. Many Jews and
Chris tians as well as some Zoroastrians lived among the Arabs, and their monotheistic ideas became widely known. By the time of Muhammad, most of the settled
Arabs had acknowledged the preeminent position of Allah, the supreme god of the
Arab pantheon, although they usually found the lesser gods, including the three
daughters of Allah, far more accessible. Moreover, they increasingly identi!ed
Allah with Yahweh, the Jewish High God, and regarded themselves too as “children of Abraham.” A few Arabs were beginning to explore the possibility that
Allah/Yahweh was the only God and that the many others, residing in the Kaaba
and in shrines across the peninsula, were nothing more than “helpless and harmless
To an outside observer around 600, it might well have seemed that Arabs were
moving toward Judaism religiously or that Chris tianity, the most rapidly growing
religion in western Asia, would encompass Arabia as well. Any such expectations,
however, were thoroughly confounded by the dramatic events of the seventh
Q Description
In what ways did the early
history of Islam re!ect its
Arabian origins?
0 250 500 kilometers
0 250 500 miles
Arabian Sea
Nile R.
Red Sea
Persian Gulf
Tigris R.
Euphrates R.
Gulf of Aden Map 9.1 Arabia at the Time of Muhammad
Located adjacent to the Byzantine and Persian empires, the
eastern coast of Arabia was the site of a major trade route
between the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea.
The Messenger and the Message
The catalyst for those events and for the birth of this new religion was a single
individual, Muhammad Ibn Abdullah (570–632 c.e.), who was born in Mecca to a
Quraysh family. As a young boy, Muhammad lost his parents, came under the care
of an uncle, and worked as a shepherd to pay his keep. Later he became a trader and
traveled as far north as Syria. At the age of twenty-!ve, he married a wealthy
widow, Khadija, herself a prosperous merchant, with whom he fathered six children. A highly re$ective man deeply troubled by the religious corruption and social
inequalities of Mecca, he often undertook periods of withdrawal and meditation in
the arid mountains outside the city. There, like the Buddha and Jesus, Muhammad
had a powerful, overwhelming religious experience that left him convinced, albeit
reluctantly, that he was Allah’s messenger to the Arabs, commissioned to bring to
them a scripture in their own language. (See Working with Evidence: The Life of
the Prophet, page 399, for images from the life of Muhammad.)
According to Muslim tradition, the revelations began in 610 and continued
periodically over the next twenty-two years. Those revelations, recorded in the
Quran, became the sacred scriptures of Islam, which to this day most Muslims
regard as the very words of God and the core of their faith. Intended to be recited
rather than simply read for information, the Quran, Muslims claim, when heard in
its original Arabic, conveys nothing less than the very presence of the Divine. Its
unmatched poetic beauty, miraculous to Muslims, convinced many that it was
indeed a revelation from God. One of the earliest converts testi!ed to its power:
“When I heard the Quran, my heart was softened and I wept and Islam entered
into me.”3
In its Arabian setting, the Quran’s
message, delivered through Muhammad,
was revolutionary. Religiously, it was
radically monotheistic, presenting Allah as
the only God, the all-powerful Creator,
good, just, and ever merciful. Allah was
the “Lord sustainer of the worlds, the
Compassionate, the Caring, master of the
day of reckoning” and known to human
beings “on the farthest horizon and within
their own selves.”4
Here was an exalted
conception of Deity that drew heavily on
traditions of Jewish and Chris tian monotheism. As “the Messenger of God,”
Muhammad presented himself in the line
of earlier prophets — Abraham, Moses,
Jesus, and many others. He was the last,
“the seal of the prophets,” bearing God’s
Q Description
What did the Quran expect
from those who followed
its teachings?
Muslims, Jews, and Chris tians
The close relationship of three Middle Eastern monotheistic traditions is illustrated in this
!fteenth-century Persian painting, which portrays Muhammad leading Moses, Abraham,
and Jesus in prayer. The !re surrounding the Prophet’s head represents his religious fervor.
The painting re”ects the Islamic belief that the revelations granted to Muhammad built on
and completed those given earlier to Jews and Chris tians. (From Miradj, by Mir Haydar, Royal
workshop of the Timurid Dynasty in Herat, Afghanistan, 1436. © BnF, Dist. RMN–Grand Palais/Art
Resource, NY)
!nal revelation to humankind. It was not so much a call to a new faith as an invitation to return to the old and pure religion of Abraham from which Jews, Christians, and Arabs alike had deviated. Jews had wrongly conceived of themselves as
a uniquely “chosen people”; Chris tians had made their prophet into a god; and
Arabs had become wildly polytheistic. To all of this, the message of the Quran was
a corrective.
Submission to Allah (“Muslim” means “one who submits”) was the primary
obligation of believers and the means of achieving a God-conscious life in this
world and a place in Paradise after death. According to the Quran, however, submission was not merely an individual or a spir it ual act, for it involved the creation
of a whole new society. Over and again, the Quran denounced the prevailing social
practices of an increasingly prosperous Mecca: the hoarding of wealth, the exploitation of the poor, the charging of high rates of interest on loans, corrupt business
deals, the abuse of women, and the neglect of widows and orphans. Like the Jewish
prophets of the Old Testament, the Quran demanded social justice and laid out a
prescription for its implementation. It sought a return to the older values of Arab
tribal life — solidarity, equality, concern for the poor — which had been undermined, particularly in Mecca, by growing wealth and commercialism.
The message of the Quran challenged not only the ancient polytheism of Arab
religion and the social injustices of Mecca but also the entire tribal and clan structure of Arab society, which was so prone to war, feuding, and violence. The just
and moral society of Islam was the umma (OOM-mah), the community of all believers, replacing tribal, ethnic, or racial identities. Such a society would be a “witness
over the nations,” for according to the Quran, “You are the best community
evolved for mankind, enjoining what is right and forbidding what is wrong.”5
In this
community, women too had an honored and spir it ually equal place. “The believers, men and women, are protectors of one another,” declared the Quran.6
umma, then, was to be a new and just community, bound by common belief rather
than by territory, language, or tribe.
The core message of the Quran — the remembrance of God — was e&ectively
summarized as a set of !ve requirements for believers, known as the Pillars of Islam.
The !rst pillar expressed the heart of the Islamic message: “There is no god but
God, and Muhammad is the messenger of God.” The second pillar was ritual prayer,
performed !ve times a day. Accompanying practices, including cleansing, bowing,
kneeling, and prostration, expressed believers’ submission to Allah and provided a
frequent reminder, amid the busyness of daily life, that they were living in the presence of God. The third pillar, almsgiving, re$ected the Quran’s repeated demands
for social justice by requiring believers to give generously to support the poor and
needy of the community. The fourth pillar established a month of fasting during
Ramadan, which meant abstaining from food, drink, and sexual relations from the
!rst light of dawn to sundown. It provided an occasion for self- puri!cation and a
reminder of the needs of the hungry. The !fth pillar encouraged a pilgrimage to
Mecca, known as the hajj (HAHJ), during which believers from all over the Islamic
world assembled once a year and put on identical simple white clothing as they
reenacted key events in Islamic history. For at least the few days of the hajj, the
many worlds of Islam must surely have seemed a single realm.
A further requirement for believers, sometimes called the sixth pillar, was
“ struggle,” or jihad in Arabic. Its more general meaning, which Muhammad referred
to as the “greater jihad,” was an interior personal e&ort of each believer against greed
and sel!shness, a spir it ual striving toward living a God-conscious life. In its “lesser”
form, the “jihad of the sword,” the Quran authorized armed struggle against the
forces of unbelief and evil as a means of establishing Muslim rule and of defending
the umma from the threats of in!del aggressors. The understanding and use of the
jihad concept have varied widely over the many centuries of Islamic history and
remain a matter of much controversy among Muslims in the twenty-!rst century.
The Transformation of Arabia
As the revelations granted to Muhammad became known in Mecca, they attracted
a small following of some close relatives, a few prominent Meccan leaders, and an
assortment of lower-class dependents, freed slaves, and members of poorer clans.
Those teachings also soon attracted the vociferous opposition of Mecca’s elite families, particularly those of Muhammad’s own tribe, the Quraysh. Muhammad’s claim
to be a “messenger of Allah,” his unyielding monotheism, his call for social reform,
his condemnation of Mecca’s business practices, and his apparent disloyalty to his
own tribe enraged the wealthy and ruling families of Mecca. So great had this
opposition become that in 622 Muhammad and his small band of followers emigrated to the more welcoming town of Yathrib, soon to be called Medina, the city
of the Prophet. This agricultural settlement of mixed Arab and Jewish population
had invited Muhammad to serve as an arbitrator of their intractable con$icts. The
emigration to Yathrib, known in Arabic as the hijra (HIJJ-ruh) (“the journey”), was
a momentous turning point in the early history of Islam and thereafter marked the
beginning of a new Islamic calendar.
The new community, or umma, that took shape in Medina was a kind of
“supertribe,” but very di&erent from the traditional tribes of Arab society. Membership was a matter of belief rather than birth, allowing the community to expand
rapidly. Furthermore, all authority, both political and religious, was concentrated
in the hands of Muhammad, who proceeded to introduce radical changes. Usury
was outlawed, tax-free marketplaces were established, and a mandatory payment to
support the poor was imposed.
In Medina, Muhammad not only began to create a new society but also declared
his movement’s independence from its earlier a’liation with Judaism. In the early
years, he had anticipated a warm response from Jews and Chris tians, based on a
common monotheism and prophetic tradition, and had directed his followers to
pray facing Jerusalem. But when some Jewish groups allied with his enemies,
Muhammad acted harshly to suppress them, exiling some and enslaving or killing
Q Change
How was Arabia transformed by the rise of
others. This was not, however, a general suppression of Jews since others among
them remained loyal to Muhammad’s new state. But the Prophet now redirected
his followers’ prayer toward Mecca, essentially declaring Islam an Arab religion,
though one with a universal message.
From its base in Medina, the Islamic community rapidly extended its reach
throughout Arabia. Early military successes against Muhammad’s Meccan opponents convinced other Arab tribes that the Muslims and their God were on the rise,
and they sought to negotiate alliances with the new power. Growing numbers
converted. The religious appeal of the new faith, its promise of ma te rial gain, the
end of incessant warfare among feuding tribes, periodic military actions skillfully
led by Muhammad, and the Prophet’s willingness to enter into marriage alliances
with leading tribes — all of this contributed to the consolidation of Islamic control
throughout Arabia. In 630, Muhammad triumphantly and peacefully entered
Mecca itself, purging the Kaaba of its idols and declaring it a shrine to the one God,
Allah. By the time Muhammad died in 632, most of Arabia had come under the
control of this new Islamic state, and many had embraced the new faith.
Thus the birth of Islam di&ered sharply from that of Chris tianity. Jesus’ teaching
about “giving to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” re$ected the
minority and subordinate status of the Jews within the Roman Empire. Early
Chris tians found themselves periodically persecuted by Roman authorities for more
than three centuries, requiring them to work out some means of dealing with an
often-hostile state. The answer lay in the development of a separate church hierarchy and the concept of two coexisting authorities, one religious and one political,
an arrangement that persisted even after the state became Chris tian.
The young Islamic community, by contrast, constituted a state, and soon a huge
empire, at the very beginning of its history. Muhammad was not only a religious
!gure but also, unlike Jesus or the Buddha, a political and military leader able to
implement his vision of an ideal Islamic society. Nor did Islam give rise to a separate
religious organization, although tension between religious and political goals frequently generated con$ict. No professional clergy mediating between God and
humankind emerged within Islam. Teachers, religious scholars, prayer leaders, and
judges within an Islamic legal system did not have the religious role that priests held
within Chris tianity. No distinction between religious law and civil law, so important in the Chris tian world, existed within the realm of Islam. One law, known as
the sharia (shah-REE-ah), regulated every aspect of life. The sharia (literally, “a
path to water,” which is the source of life) evolved over the several centuries following the birth of this new religion and found expression in a number of separate
schools of Islamic legal practice.
In little more than twenty years (610–632), a profound transformation had
occurred in the Arabian Peninsula. What would subsequently become a new religion had been born, though it was one with roots in earlier Jewish, Chris tian,
and Zoroastrian traditions. A new and vigorous state had emerged, bringing
peace to the warring tribes of Arabia. Within that state, a distinctive society had
begun to take shape, one that served ever after as a model for Islamic communities
everywhere. In his farewell sermon, Muhammad described the outlines of this
All mankind is from Adam and Eve, an Arab has no superiority over a nonArab nor a non-Arab has any superiority over an Arab; also a white has no
superiority over a black nor a black has any superiority over a white — except
by piety and good action. Learn that every Muslim is a brother to every Muslim
and that the Muslims constitute one brotherhood.7
The Making of an Arab Empire
It did not take long for the immense transformations occurring in Arabia to have
an impact beyond the peninsula. In the centuries that followed, the energies born
of those vast changes profoundly transformed much of the Afro-Eurasian world.
The new Arab state became a huge empire, encompassing all or part of Egyp tian,
Roman/Byzantine, Persian, Mesopotamian, and Indian civilizations. The Islamic
faith spread widely within and outside that empire. So too did the culture and language of Arabia, as many Arabs migrated far beyond their original homeland and
many others found it advantageous to learn Arabic. From the mixing and blending
of these many peoples emerged the new and distinctive third-wave civilization of
Islam, bound by the ties of a common faith but divided by di&erences of culture,
class, politics, gender, and religious understanding. These enormously consequential processes — the making of a new religion, a new empire, and a new civilization — were central to world history during the third-wave millennium.
War, Conquest, and Tolerance
Within a few years of Muhammad’s death in 632, Arab armies engaged the Byzantine and Persian Sassanid empires, the great powers of the region. It was the beginning of a process that rapidly gave rise to an Arab empire that stretched from Spain
to India, penetrating both Europe and China and governing most of the lands
between them (see Map 9.2). In creating that empire, Arabs were continuing a long
pattern of tribal raids into surrounding civilizations, but now these Arabs were
newly orga nized in a state of their own with a central command able to mobilize
the military potential of the entire population. The Byzantine and Persian empires
had for a century or more su&ered periodic epidemics of the plague that decimated
their urban populations, while the more remote and scattered Arabs of the Arabian
Desert were more protected from this pestilence. Furthermore, these great empires,
weakened by decades of war with each other and by internal revolts, continued
to view the Arabs as a mere nuisance rather than a serious threat. But by 644, the
Sassanid Empire had been defeated by Arab forces, while Byzantium, the remaining eastern regions of the old Roman Empire, soon lost the southern half of its
territories. Beyond these victories, Muslim forces, operating on both land and sea,
swept westward across North Africa, conquered Spain in the early 700s, and attacked
southern France. To the east, Arab armies reached the Indus River and seized some
of the major oases towns of Central Asia. In 751, they in$icted a crushing defeat
on Chinese forces in the Battle of Talas River, which had lasting consequences for
the cultural evolution of Asia, for it checked the further expansion of China to the
west and made pos sible the conversion to Islam of Central Asia’s Turkic-speaking
people. Most of the violence of conquest involved imperial armies, though on
occasion civilians too were caught up in the !ghting and su&ered terribly. In 634,
for example, a battle between Byzantine and Arab forces in Palestine resulted in the
death of some 4,000 villagers.
The motives driv ing the creation of the Arab Empire were broadly similar to
those of other empires. The merchant leaders of the new Islamic community
wanted to capture pro!table trade routes and wealthy agricultural regions. Individual Arabs found in military expansion a route to wealth and social promotion.
The need to harness the immense energies of the Arabian transformation was also
Q Change
Why were Arabs able to
construct such a huge
empire so quickly?
0 250 500 kilometers
0 250 500 miles
Under Muhammad, 622–632
632– 656
Boundaries of Abbasid Caliphate, ca. 800
Spread of Islam
Black Sea Adriatic Sea
Arabian Sea
Red Sea
Persian Gulf
Caspian Sea
Nile R.
Dnieper R.
Tigris R.
Euphrates R.
Mediterranean Sea
Jaxartes R.
Indus R.
Danube R.
Gulf of Oman
Gulf of Aden
Don R.
Volga R.
Oxus R.
Crete Cyprus
Homs Isfahan
Kufa Acre
Qum Merv
Seville Córdoba
Map 9.2 The Arab Empire and the Initial Expansion of Islam, 622–900 C.E.
Far more so than with Buddhism or Chris tianity, the initial spread of Islam was both rapid and
extensive. And unlike the other two world religions, Islam quickly gave rise to a huge empire, ruled
by Muslim Arabs, which encompassed many of the older civilizations of the region.
important. The fragile unity of the umma threatened to come apart after Muhammad’s death, and external expansion provided a common task for the community.
While many among the new conquerors viewed the mission of empire in terms
of jihad, bringing righteous government to the peoples they conquered, this did not
mean imposing a new religion. In fact, for the better part of a century after Muhammad’s death, his followers usually referred to themselves as “believers,” a term that
appears in the Quran far more often than “Muslims” and one that included pious
Jews and Chris tians as well as newly monotheistic Arabs. Such a posture eased the
acceptance of the new political order, for many people recently incorporated in the
emerging Arab Empire were already monotheists and familiar with the core ideas
and practices of the Believers’ Movement — prayer, fasting, pilgrimage, revelation,
and prophets. Furthermore, the new rulers were remarkably tolerant of established
Jewish and Chris tian faiths. The !rst governor of Arab-ruled Jerusalem was a Jew.
Many old Chris tian churches continued to operate and new ones were constructed.
A Nestorian Chris tian patriarch in Iraq wrote to one of his bishops around 647 c.e.
observing that the new rulers “not only do not !ght Chris tianity, they even commend our religion, show honor to the priests and monasteries and saints of the Lord,
and make gifts to the monasteries and churches.”8
Formal agreements or treaties
recognized Jews, Chris tians, and Zoroastrians as “ people of the book,” giving them
the status of dhimmis (dihm-mees), protected but second-class subjects. Such people
were permitted to freely practice their own religion, so long as they paid a special
tax known as the jizya. Theoretically the tax was a substitute for military ser vice,
supposedly forbidden to non-Muslims. In practice, many dhimmis served in the
highest o’ces within Muslim kingdoms and in their armies as well.
In other ways too, the Arab rulers of an expanding empire sought to limit the
disruptive impact of conquest. To prevent indiscriminate destruction and exploitation of conquered peoples, occupying Arab armies were restricted to garrison
towns, segregated from the native population. Local elites and bureaucratic structures were incorporated into the new Arab Empire. Nonetheless, the empire worked
many changes on its subjects, the most enduring of which was the mass conversion
of Middle Eastern peoples to what became by the eighth century the new and separate religion of Islam.
For some people, no doubt, converting to Islam was or subsequently became a
matter of profound spir it ual or psychological transformation, but far more often, at
least initially, it was “social conversion,” motivated more by convenience than conviction.9
It happened at various rates and in di&erent ways, but in the four centuries
or so after the death of Muhammad, millions of individuals and many whole societies within the Arab Empire found their cultural identity bound up with a belief in
Allah and the message of his prophet. They had become Muslims. How had this
immense cultural change occurred?
In some ways, perhaps, the change was not so dramatic, as major elements of
Islam — monotheism; ritual prayer and cleansing ceremonies; fasting; divine revelation; the ideas of Heaven, Hell, and !nal judgment — were quite familiar to Jews,
Chris tians, and Zoroastrians. Furthermore, Islam was from the beginning associated
with the sponsorship of a powerful state, quite unlike the experience of early Buddhism or Chris tianity. Conquest called into question the power of old gods, while
the growing prestige of the Arab Empire attracted many to Allah. Although deliberately forced conversion was rare and forbidden, living in an Islamic-governed
state provided a variety of incentives for claiming Muslim identity. Slaves and prisoners of war were among the early converts, particularly in Persia. Converts could
also avoid the jizya, the tax imposed on non-Muslims. People aspiring to o’cial
positions found conversion to Islam an aid to social mobility. In Islam, merchants
found a religion friendly to commerce. The Prophet himself had been a trader, acting as a commercial agent for his wife Khadija. As Islamic law developed over
several centuries, it de!ned what merchants might expect from one another and so
reduced the uncertainty of long-distance commerce. And in the expansive Arab
Empire, merchants enjoyed a huge and secure arena for trade.
Conversion was not an automatic or easy process. Vigorous resistance delayed
conversion for centuries among the Berbers of North Africa; a small group of zealous Spanish Chris tians in the ninth century provoked their own martyrdom by
publicly insulting the Prophet; and some Persian Zoroastrians $ed to avoid Muslim
rule. More generally, though, a remarkable and lasting religious transformation
occurred throughout the Arab Empire.
In Persia, for example, between 750 and 900, about 80 percent of the population made the transition to a Muslim religious identity. But they did so in a manner
quite distinct from the people of Iraq, Syria, Egypt, and North Africa. In these
regions, converts to Islam gradually abandoned their native languages, adopted Arabic, and came to see themselves as Arabs. In Iran or Persia, by contrast, Arab conquest did not involve cultural Arabization, despite some initial e&orts to impose the
Arabic language. By the tenth century, the vast majority of Persians had become
Muslims, but the Persian language (called Farsi in Iran) $ourished, enriched now by
a number of Arabic loan words and written in an Arabic script. In 1010, that language received its classic literary expression when the Persian poet Ferdowsi completed his epic work, the Shahnama (The Book of Kings). A huge text of some 60,000
rhyming couplets, it recorded the mythical and pre-Islamic history of Iran and gave
an enduring expression to a distinctly Persian cultural identity. Thus, in places
where large-scale Arab migration had occurred, such as Egypt, North Africa, and
Iraq, Arabic culture and language, as well as the religion of Islam, took hold. Such
areas are today both Muslim and Arab, while the peoples of Iran, Turkey, Pakistan,
Indonesia, and West Africa, for example, have “Islamized” without “Arabizing.”
The preservation of Persian language and culture had enormous implications
for the world of Islam. Many religious ideas of Persian Zoroastrianism — an evil
satanic power, !nal judgment, Heaven and Hell, Paradise — found their way into
Q Explanation
What accounts for the
widespread conversion to
Islam, often indirectly via Jewish or Chris tian precedents. In Iran, Central Asia, India,
and later in the Ottoman Empire, Islam was accompanied by pervasive Persian
in$uences. Persian administrative and bureaucratic techniques; Persian court practices with their palaces, gardens, and splendid garments; Persian architecture, poetry,
music, and painting — all of this decisively shaped the high culture of these eastern
Islamic lands. One of the Abbasid caliphs, himself an Arab, observed: “The Persians
ruled for a thousand years and did not need us Arabs even for a day. We have been
ruling them for one or two centuries and cannot do without them for an hour.”10
Divisions and Controversies
The ideal of a uni!ed Muslim community, so important to Muhammad, proved
di’cult to realize as conquest and conversion vastly enlarged the Islamic umma. A
central problem involved leadership and authority in the absence of Muhammad’s
towering presence. Who should hold the role of caliph (KAY-lihf), the successor
to Muhammad as the political leader of the umma, the protector and defender of
the faith? That issue crystallized a variety of emerging con$icts within the Islamic
world — between early and later converts, among various Arab tribes and factions,
between Arabs and non-Arabs, between privileged and wealthy rulers and their far
less fortunate subjects. Many of these political and social con$icts found expression
in religious terms as various understandings of the Quran and of Muhammad’s life
and teachings took shape within the growing Islamic community.
The !rst four caliphs, known among most Muslims as the Rightly Guided
Caliphs (632–661), were close “companions of the Prophet,” selected by the Muslim elders of Medina. Division surfaced almost immediately as a series of Arab tribal
rebellions and new “prophets” persuaded the !rst caliph, Abu Bakr, to suppress
them forcibly. The third and fourth caliphs, Uthman and Ali, were both assassinated, and by 656, less than twenty-!ve years after Muhammad’s death, civil war
pitted Muslim against Muslim.
Out of that con$ict emerged one of the deepest and most enduring rifts within
the Islamic world. On one side were the Sunni (SOON-nee) Muslims, who held
that the caliphs were rightful political and military leaders, selected by the Islamic
community. On the other side of this sharp divide was the Shia (SHEE-ah) (an Arabic word meaning “party” or “faction”) branch of Islam. Its adherents felt strongly
that leadership in the Islamic world should derive from the line of Ali and his son
Husayn, blood relatives of Muhammad, both of whom died at the hands of their
political or religious enemies. If the caliph was the idealized communal leader for
Sunnis, imams (leaders) served this purpose for most of the Shia Muslims. They
were widely thought to have some special charisma based on descent from the
Prophet, giving them a religious authority that the caliphs lacked and allowing
them to infallibly interpret divine revelation and law.
Thus what began as a purely political con$ict acquired over time a deeper signi!cance. For much of early Islamic history, Shia Muslims saw themselves as the
Q Comparison
What is the difference
between Sunni and Shia
minority opposition within Islam. They felt that history had taken a wrong turn
and that they were “the defenders of the oppressed, the critics and opponents of
privilege and power,” while the Sunnis were the advocates of the established
order.11 Various armed revolts by Shias over the centuries, most of which failed, led
to a distinctive conception of martyrdom and to the expectation that their defeated
leaders were merely in hiding and not really dead and that they would return in the
fullness of time. Thus a messianic element entered Shia Islam. The Sunni/Shia
schism became a lasting division in the Islamic world, re$ected in con$icts among
various Islamic states, and was exacerbated by further splits among the Shia. Those
divisions echo still in the twenty-!rst century.
As the Arab Empire grew, its caliphs were transformed from modest Arab chiefs
into absolute monarchs, “the shadow of God on earth,” of the Byzantine or Persian variety, complete with elaborate court rituals, a complex bureaucracy, a standing army, and centralized systems of taxation and coinage. They were also subject
to the dynastic rivalries and succession disputes common to other empires. The !rst
dynasty, following the era of the Rightly Guided Caliphs, came from the Umayyad
(oo-MEYE-ahd) family (r. 661–750). Under its leadership, the Arab Empire expanded
greatly, caliphs became hereditary rulers, and the capital moved from Medina to the
cosmopolitan Roman/Byzantine city of Damascus in Syria. Its ruling class was an
The Kaaba
Located in Mecca, this stone structure, covered with a black cloth and known as the Kaaba, was originally home to
the numerous deities of pre-Islamic Arabia. Cleansed by Muhammad, it became the sacred shrine of Islam and the
destination of countless pilgrims undertaking the hajj. Part of that ritual involves circling the Kaaba seven times, as
shown here in a photograph from 2013. (Ibraheem Abu Mustafa/Reuters/Landov)
Arab military aristocracy, drawn from various tribes. But Umayyad rule provoked
growing criticism and unrest. The Shia viewed the Umayyad caliphs as illegitimate
usurpers, and non-Arab Muslims resented their second-class citizenship in the empire.
Many Arabs protested the luxurious living and impiety of their rulers. The Umayyads, they charged, “made God’s servants slaves, God’s property something to be taken
by turns among the rich, and God’s religion a cause of corruption.”12
Such grievances lay behind the overthrow of the Umayyads in 750 and their
replacement by a new Arab dynasty, the Abbasids. With a splendid new capital in
Baghdad, the Abbasid caliphs presided over a $ourishing and prosperous Islamic
civilization in which non-Arabs, espe cially Persians, now played a prominent role.
But the political unity of the Abbasid Empire did not last long. Beginning in the
mid-ninth century, many local governors or military commanders e&ectively asserted
the autonomy of their regions, while still giving formal allegiance to the caliph in
Baghdad. Long before Mongol conquest put an o’cial end to the Abbasid Empire
in 1258, the Islamic world had fractured politically into a series
of “sultanates,” many ruled by Persian or Turkish military
A further tension within the world of Islam, though one
that seldom produced violent con$ict, lay in di&erent answers
to one central question: what does it mean to be a Muslim, to
submit wholly to Allah? That question took on added urgency
as the expanding Arab Empire incorporated various peoples
and cultures that had been unknown during Muhammad’s
lifetime. One answer lay in the development of the sharia, the
body of Islamic law developed primarily in the eighth and
ninth centuries by religious scholars, Sunni and Shia alike,
known as the ulama.
Based on the Quran, the life and teachings of Muhammad,
deductive reasoning, and the consensus of scholars, the emerging sharia addressed in great detail practically every aspect of
life. It was a blueprint for an authentic Islamic society, providing meticulous guidance for prayer and ritual cleansing; marriage, divorce, and inheritance; business and commercial relationships; the treatment of slaves; political life; personal hygiene;
dietary requirements; and much more. Debates among the
ulama led to the creation of four schools of law among Sunni
Muslims and still others in the lands of Shia Islam. To the
ulama and their followers, living as a Muslim meant following
the sharia and thus participating in the creation of an Islamic
A second and quite di&erent understanding of the faith
emerged among those who saw the worldly success of Islamic
civilization as a distraction and deviation from the purer
Q Comparison
In what ways were Su#
Muslims critical of mainstream Islam?
Su!s and Worldly Power
This early seventeenth-century painting from India illustrates
the tension between Su!s and worldly authorities. Here the
Muslim Mughal emperor Jahangir, seated on an hourglass
throne, gives his attention to the white-bearded Su! holy man
rather than to the prominent men, including a European !gure, shown in the bottom left. (bpk, Berlin/Museum für Islamische
Kunst, Staatliche Museum, Berlin, Germany/Photo: Georg Niedermeiser/
Art Resource, NY)
spir it uality of Muhammad’s time. Known as Su!s (SOO-fees), they represented
Islam’s mystical dimension, in that they sought a direct and personal experience of
the Divine. Through renunciation of the ma te rial world, meditation on the words
of the Quran, the chanting of the names of God, the use of music and dance, and
the veneration of Muhammad and various “saints,” Su!s pursued an interior life,
seeking to tame the ego and achieve spir it ual union with Allah. To describe that
inexpressible experience, they often resorted to metaphors of drunkenness or the
embrace of lovers. “Stain your prayer rug with wine,” urged the famous Su!
poet Ha!z, referring to the intoxication of the believer with the Divine Presence.
(See the Zooming In feature on Mullah Nasruddin, above, for an expression of
popular or folk Su!sm.)
n the Islamic world, a mullah was a
man of some learning, often a local
cleric or leader of a village mosque.
Far and away the most famous and
beloved of mullahs is Nasruddin,
considered both a wise man and a
fool, both a sage and a simpleton.
Stories about him have circulated for
centuries and were well known long
before the earliest written references
to him appeared in the thirteenth
century. Many peoples have claimed
him, some have sought to !nd a historical !gure on which he is based,
and in the Turkish city of Aksehir
there is even a tomb and an annual
Nasruddin festival, where people
dress in costumes to reenact his jokes
and stories.
In fact, Mullah Nasruddin has
long been an imaginary folk character
within the world of Islam and espe cially among Su!s,
gently expressing a skeptical attitude toward the rational
mind, sanctimonious posturing, human vanity, and the
many faces of the ego. His tales usually take place in a
village setting and highlight the limitations of the intellect; the role of humor and intuition in spir it ual life; the
importance of generosity, tolerance,
and humility; and the many mysteries
of exis tence. The only way to get
acquainted with Mullah Nasruddin is
to re$ect on some of his tales. Here
are just a few of the thousands:13
pilgrimage and had fallen asleep
with his feet pointing toward the
Kaaba, the large black cube that
is the central shrine of Islam. He
was awakened and rebuked by
some pious Muslims, who told
him it was o&ensive to have his
dirty feet pointing at the Kaaba,
where God himself resided. The
Mullah apologized profusely and
then added, “Perhaps you could
move my feet to some place where
God is not present.”
and upon entering took the seat of greatest honor.
Approached by the chief of the guard, he was asked if
he was a diplomat, a minister of the king, or perhaps
the king himself in disguise. To each of these queries,
Mullah Nasruddin,
the Wise Fool of Islam
Mullah Nasruddin.
photo: Turkish miniature, ca. 1500/© akg-images/The Image Works
This mystical tendency in Islamic practice, which became widely popular by
the ninth and tenth centuries, was at times sharply critical of the more scholarly and
legalistic practitioners of the sharia. To Su!s, establishment teachings about the law
and correct behavior, while useful for daily living, did little to bring the believer
into the presence of God. For some, even the Quran had its limits. Why spend time
reading a love letter (the Quran), asked one Su! master, when one might be in the
very presence of the Beloved who wrote it?14 Furthermore, Su!s felt that many of
the ulama had been compromised by their association with worldly and corrupt
governments. Su!s therefore often charted their own course to God, implicitly challenging the religious authority of the ulama. For these orthodox religious scholars,
Su! ideas and practice sometimes verged on heresy, as Su!s on occasion claimed
he replied, “No, I am more than that.” “Then who are
you?” demanded the guard. His answer: “I am nobody.”
God he had been having. He asked if this meant he
had become enlightened. The Mullah replied by asking him about his goats and servants. The man was
enraged at this apparent dismissal of his visions. Then
the Mullah explained, “If you are becoming more tender and kind toward your goats and servants, then you
are on the way to enlightenment. If not, your visions
are an illusion of your ego.”
“the nature of Allah” in the local mosque together
with many highly learned scholars. When the scholars
had !nished their eloquent and wise expositions, the
humble Mullah arose and hesitantly began his talk by
declaring “Allah is an eggplant,” while holding one
of the vegetables aloft. An uproar followed at this blasphemy. When he was !nally given a chance to explain
himself, the Mullah declared, “Everyone before me
has spoken of what they do not know or have never
seen. But we can all see this eggplant. Can anyone
deny that Allah is manifest in all things?” When no
one was willing to dispute the point, the Mullah concluded, “Well, then Allah is an eggplant.”
tavern, a thoroughly intoxicated Mullah was stumbling
along the streets. A local police o’cial approached
him and asked, “Who are you? Where did you come
from? Where are you going? Why are you out so
late?” The Mullah replied, “If I had answers to all
those questions, I’d be home already.” [Note: To
Su!s, taverns and drunkenness often symbolized
spir it ual insight or mystical “intoxication” with the
r 8IFOTPNFOFJHICPSTUPME/BTSVEEJOUIBUIJTEPOkey was lost, the Mullah exclaimed, “Thank goodness I was not on the donkey or I’d be lost as well.”
[Note: In Su! circles, the donkey has long symbolized
the unruly human ego.]
The Mullah’s tales have been understood on several
levels. Most obviously, they are jokes. But they also
convey moral teachings about individual behavior as
well as social commentary. And espe cially for Su!s, they
have become a spir it ual resource, gradually dissolving
limited and culturally conditioned thinking, while opening the way to more fully realizing humanity’s divine
Questions: Pick several of these tales and explain in your own
words the lessons they might convey for Muslims. In what ways
might these tales be considered subversive of established authorities? Might they strike a chord with contemporary sensibilities of
our own time?
unity with God, received new revelations, or incorporated novel religious practices
from outside the Islamic world.
Despite their di&erences, adherents of the legalistic emphasis of the sharia and
practitioners of Su! spir it uality coexisted, mostly peacefully, mixing and mingling,
collaborating and disagreeing, in various combinations. For many centuries, roughly
1100 to 1800, Su!sm was central to mainstream Islam, and many, perhaps most,
Muslims a’liated with one or another Su! organization, making use of its spir it ual
practices. A major Islamic thinker, al-Ghazali (1058–1111), himself both a legal
scholar and a Su! practitioner, in fact worked out an intellectual accommodation
among these di&erent strands of Islamic thought. Rational philosophy alone could
never enable believers to know Allah, he argued. Nor were revelation and the law
su’cient, for Muslims must know God in their hearts, through direct personal
encounter with Allah. Nonetheless, di&erences in emphasis remained an element of
tension and sometimes discord within the world of Islam.
Women and Men in Early Islam
What did the rise of Islam and the making of the Arab Empire mean for the daily
lives of women and their relationship with men? Virtually every aspect of this question has been and remains highly controversial. The debates begin with the Quran
itself. Did its teachings release women from earlier restrictions, or did they impose
new limitations? At the level of spir it ual life, the Quran was quite clear and explicit:
men and women were equal. Numerous passages in the Quran use gender- inclusive
language, referring to “believers, both men and women.”
Those who surrender themselves to Allah and accept the true faith; who are
devout, sincere, patient, humble, charitable, and chaste; who fast and are ever
mindful of Allah — on these, both men and women, Allah will bestow forgiveness and rich reward.15
But in social terms, and espe cially within marriage, the Quran, like the written
texts of almost all civilizations, viewed women as inferior and subordinate: “Men
have authority over women because Allah has made the one superior to the other,
and because they spend their wealth to maintain them. Good women are obedient.”16 More speci!cally, the Quran provided a mix of rights, restrictions, and protections for women. Female infanticide, for example, widely practiced in many cultures
as a means of gender selection, was now forbidden for Muslims. Women were given
control over their own property, particularly their dowries, and were granted rights
of inheritance, but at half the rate of their male counterparts. Marriage was considered
a contract between consenting parties, thus making marriage by capture illegitimate.
Divorce was pos sible for both parties, although it was far more readily available for
men. The practice of taking multiple husbands, which operated in some pre-Islamic
Arab tribes, was prohibited, while polygyny (the practice of having multiple wives)
was permitted, though more clearly regulated than before. Men were limited to four
Q Change
How did the rise of Islam
change the lives of women?
wives and required to treat each of them equally. (The di’culty of doing so has been
interpreted by some as virtually requiring monogamy.) Men were, however, permitted to have sexual relations with female slaves, but any children born of those unions
were free, as was the mother once her owner died. Furthermore, men were strongly
encouraged to marry orphans, widows, and slaves.
Such Quranic prescriptions were but one factor shaping the lives of women
and men. At least as important were the long-established practices of the societies
into which Islam spread and the growing sophistication, prosperity, and urbanization of Islamic civilization. As had been the case in Athens and China during their
“golden ages,” Muslim women, particularly in the upper classes, experienced growing restrictions as Islamic civilization $ourished culturally and economically in the
Abbasid era. In early Islamic times, a number of women played visible public roles,
particularly Muhammad’s youngest wife, Aisha. Women prayed in the mosques,
although separately, standing beside the men. Nor were women generally veiled or
secluded. As the Arab Empire grew in size and splendor, however, the position of
women became more limited. The second caliph, Umar, asked women to o&er
prayers at home. Now veiling and the seclusion of women became standard practice among the upper and ruling classes, removing them from public life. Separate
quarters within the homes of the wealthy were the domain of women, from which
they could emerge only completely veiled. The caliph Mansur (r. 754–775) carried
this separation of the sexes even further when he ordered a separate bridge for
women to be built over the Euphrates River in the new capital of Baghdad. Such
seclusion was less pos sible for lower-class women, who lacked the servants of the
rich and had to leave the home for shopping or work.
Such practices derived far more from established traditions of Middle Eastern
cultures than from the Quran itself, but they soon gained an Islamic rationale in the
writings of Muslim thinkers. The famous philosopher and religious scholar alGhazali clearly saw a relationship between Muslim piety and the separation of the
It is not permissible for a stranger to hear the sound of a pestle being pounded
by a woman he does not know. If he knocks at the door, it is not proper for
the woman to answer him softly and easily because men’s hearts can be drawn
to [women] for the most tri$ing [reason]. . . . However, if the woman has to
answer the knock, she should stick her !nger in her mouth so that her voice
sounds like that of an old woman.17
Other signs of a tightening patriarchy — such as “honor killing” of women by their
male relatives for violating sexual taboos and, in some places, clitoridectomy (female
genital cutting) — likewise derived from local cultures, with no sanction in the
Quran or Islamic law. Where they were practiced, such customs often came to be
seen as Islamic, but they were certainly not limited to the Islamic world. In many
cultures, concern with family honor linked to women’s sexuality dictated harsh
punishments for women who violated sexual taboos.
Negative views of women, presenting them variously as weak, de!cient, and
a sexually charged threat to men and social stability, emerged in the hadiths (hahDEETHS), traditions about the sayings or actions of Muhammad, which became
an important source of Islamic law. A changing interpretation of the Adam and Eve
story illustrates the point. The Quran attaches equal blame to both Adam and Eve
for yielding to the temptation of Satan, and both alike ask for and receive God’s
forgiveness. Nothing suggests that Eve tempted or seduced Adam into sin. In later
centuries, however, several hadiths and other writings took up Judeo-Chris tian
versions of the story that blamed Eve, and thus women in general, for Adam’s sin
and for the punishment that followed, including expulsion from the garden and
pain in childbirth.18
Even as women faced growing restrictions in society generally, Islam, like Buddhism and Chris tianity, also o&ered new outlets for them in religious life. The Su!
practice of mystical union with Allah allowed a greater role for women than did
mainstream Islam. Some Su! orders had parallel groups for women, and a few welcomed women as equal members. Among the earliest of well-known Su! practitioners was Rabia, an eighth-century woman from Basra in southern Iraq, who
renounced numerous proposals of marriage and engaged, apparently successfully, in
repeated religious debates with men. The greatest of the Su! scholars, Ibn al-Arabi
(1165–1240), sang the praises of divine beauty in an explicitly feminine form. The
spir it ual equality that the Quran accorded to male and female alike allowed women
also to aspire to union with God. But for some male Su! scholars, such as the
twelfth-century mystical poet Attar, doing so meant that “she is a man and one cannot any more call her a woman.”19
Beyond Su! practice, within the world of Shia Islam, women teachers of the
faith were called mullahs, the same as their male counterparts. Islamic education,
either in the home or in Quranic schools, allowed some to become literate and a
few to achieve higher levels of learning. Visits to the tombs of major Islamic !gures
as well as the ritual of the public bath likewise provided some opportunity for
women to interact with other women beyond their own family circle.
Islam and Cultural Encounter:
A Four-Way Comparison
In its earliest centuries, the rapid spread of Islam had been accompanied by the
creation of an immense Arab Empire, very much in the tradition of earlier Mediterranean and Middle Eastern empires. By the tenth century, however, little political unity remained, and in 1258 even the powerless symbol of that earlier unity
vanished as Mongol forces sacked Baghdad and killed the last Abbasid caliph. But
even as the empire disintegrated, the civilization that was born within it grew and
$ourished. Perhaps the most signi!cant sign of a $ourishing Islamic civilization was
the continued spread of the religion both within and beyond the boundaries of a
vanishing Arab Empire (see Map 9.3), although that process di&ered considerably
from place to place. The examples of India, Anatolia, West Africa, and Spain illustrate the various ways that Islam penetrated these societies as well as the rather different outcomes of these epic cultural encounters.
The Case of India
In South Asia, Islam found a permanent place in a long-established civilization as
invasions by Turkic-speaking warrior groups from Central Asia, recently converted
to Islam, brought the faith to northern India. Thus the Turks became the third
major carrier of Islam, after the Arabs and Persians, as their conquests initiated an
enduring encounter between Islam and a Hindu-based Indian civilization. Beginning around 1000, those conquests gave rise to a series of Turkic and Muslim
regimes that governed much of India until the British takeover in the eighteenth
0 500 1,000 kilometers
0 500 1,000 miles
Islamic world in 900
Islamic world in 1300
Islamic world in 1500
Long-distance trade routes in 1500
Ibn Battuta’s travels
Arabian Sea Bay of
Mediterranean Sea
Caspian Sea
Red Sea
Black Sea
Damascus Baghdad
Genoa Venice
Map 9.3 The Growing World of Islam, 900–1500
Islam as a religion, a civilization, and an arena of commerce continued to grow even as the Arab
Empire fragmented.
and nineteenth centuries. The early centuries of this encounter were violent indeed,
as the invaders smashed Hindu and Buddhist temples and carried o& vast quantities
of Indian treasure. With the establishment of the Sultanate of Delhi in 1206 (see
Map 9.4), Turkic rule became more systematic, although the Turks’ small numbers
and internal con$icts allowed only a very modest penetration of Indian society.
In the centuries that followed, substantial Muslim communities emerged in
India, particularly in regions less tightly integrated into the dominant Hindu culture. Disillusioned Buddhists as well as low-caste Hindus and untouchables found
the more egalitarian Islam attractive. So did peoples just beginning to make the transition to settled agriculture. Others bene!ted from converting to Islam by avoiding
the tax imposed on non-Muslims. Su!s were particularly important in facilitating
conversion, for India had always valued “god-!lled men” who were detached from
worldly a&airs. Su! holy men, willing to accommodate local gods and religious
festivals, helped to develop a “popular Islam” that was not always so sharply distinguished from the more devotional (bhakti) forms of Hinduism.
Unlike the earlier experience of Islam in the Middle East, North Africa, and
Persia, where Islam rapidly became the dominant faith, in India it was never able
to claim more than 20 to 25 percent of the total population. Furthermore, Muslim communities were espe cially concentrated in the
Punjab and Sind regions of northwestern India and in
Bengal to the east. The core regions of Hindu culture
in the northern Indian plain were not seriously challenged by the new faith, despite centuries of Muslim
rule. One reason perhaps lay in the sharpness of the
cultural divide between Islam and Hinduism. Islam
was the most radically monotheistic of the world’s
religions, forbidding any representation of Allah, while
Hinduism was surely among the most proli!cally
polytheistic, generating endless statues and images
of the Divine in many forms. The Muslim notion
of the equality of all believers contrasted sharply with
the hierarchical assumptions of the caste system.
Believing in sexual modesty, Muslims were deeply
o&ended by the open eroticism of some Hindu religious art.
Although such di&erences may have limited the
appeal of Islam in India, they also may have prevented
it from being absorbed into the tolerant and inclusive embrace of Hinduism, as so many other religious
ideas, practices, and communities had been. The religious exclusivity of Islam, born of its !rm monotheistic belief and the idea of a unique revelation, set a
boundary that the great sponge of Hinduism could
not completely absorb.
Q Comparison
What similarities and differences can you identify in
the spread of Islam to India,
Anatolia, West Africa, and
0 250 500 kilometers
0 250 500 miles
Bay of
Ganges R.
Indus R.
Sultanate of Delhi,
ca. 1300
Vijayanagar, ca. 1500
Map 9.4 The Sultanate of Delhi
Between 1206 and 1526 a number of Muslim dynasties ruled
northern India as the Delhi sultanate, while an explicitly Hindu
kingdom of Vijayanagar arose in the south after 1340. It drew
on north Indian Muslim architectural features and made use
of Muslim mercenaries for its military forces.
Certainly, not all was con$ict across
that boundary. Many prominent Hindus willingly served in the political and
military structures of a Muslim-ruled
India. Mystical seekers after the Divine
blurred the distinction between Hindu
and Muslim, suggesting that God was
to be found “neither in temple nor in
mosque.” “Look within your heart,”
wrote the great !fteenth-century mystic poet Kabir, “for there you will !nd
both [Allah] and Ram [a famous Hindu
deity].”20 During the early sixteenth
century, a new and distinct religious
tradition emerged in India, known as
Sikhism (SIHK-iz’m), which blended
elements of Islam, such as devotion to
one universal God, with Hindu concepts, such as karma and rebirth. “There
is no Hindu and no Muslim. All are
children of God,” declared Guru Nanak
(1469–1539), the founder of Sikhism.
Nonetheless, Muslims usually lived
quite separately, remaining a distinctive minority within an ancient Indian civilization, which they now largely governed but which they proved unable to completely transform.
The Case of Anatolia
At the same time as India was being subjected to Turkic invasion, so too was Anatolia (now modern Turkey), where the largely Chris tian and Greek-speaking population was then governed by the Byzantine Empire (see Map 9.2 and Map 9.5).
Here, as in India, the invaders initially wreaked havoc as Byzantine authority melted
away in the eleventh century. Su! practitioners likewise played a major role in the
process of conversion. The outcome, however, was a far more profound cultural
transformation than in India. By 1500, the population was 90 percent Muslim and
largely Turkic-speaking, and Anatolia was the heartland of the powerful Turkish
Ottoman Empire that had overrun Chris tian Byzantium. Why did the Turkic intrusion into Anatolia generate a much more thorough Islamization than in India?
One factor clearly lies in a very di&erent demographic balance. The population
of Anatolia — perhaps 8 million — was far smaller than India’s roughly 48 million
people, but far more Turkic-speaking peoples settled in Anatolia, giving them a
much greater cultural weight than the smaller colonizing force in India. Furthermore, the disruption of Anatolian society was much more extensive. Massacres,
Q Change
In what ways was Anatolia
changed by its incorporation into the Islamic world?
0 250 500 kilometers
0 250 500 miles
Ottoman Empire in 1359
Ottoman Empire in 1451
Black Sea
Maritsa R.
M e d i t e r r a n e a n S e a
Danube R.
Map 9.5 The Ottoman Empire by the Mid-Fifteenth Century
As Turkic-speaking migrants bearing the religion of Islam penetrated Anatolia,
the Ottoman Empire took shape, reaching into southeastern Europe and #nally
displacing the Chris tian Byzantine Empire. Subsequently, it came to control
much of the Middle East and North Africa as well.
enslavement, famine, and $ight led to a sharp drop in the native population. The
Byzantine state had been fatally weakened. Church properties were con!scated,
and monasteries were destroyed or deserted. Priests and bishops were sometimes
unable to serve their congregations. Chris tians, though seldom forced to convert,
su&ered many discriminations. They had to wear special clothing and pay special
taxes, and they were forbidden to ride saddled horses or carry swords. Not a few
Chris tians came to believe that these disasters represented proof that Islam was the
true religion. Thus Byzantine civilization in Anatolia, previously focused on the
centralized institutions of church and state, was rendered leaderless and dispirited,
whereas India’s decentralized civilization, lacking a uni!ed political or religious
establishment, was better able to absorb the shock of external invasion while retaining its core values and identity.
The Turkish rulers of Anatolia built a new society that welcomed converts and
granted them ma te rial rewards and opportunity for high o’ce. Moreover, the cultural barriers to conversion were arguably less severe than in India. The common
monotheism of Islam and Chris tianity, and Muslim respect for Jesus and the Christian scriptures, made conversion easier than crossing the great gulf between Islam
and Hinduism. Such similarities lent support to the suggestion of some Su! teachers
that the two religions were but di&erent versions of the same faith. Su!s also established schools, mills, orchards, hospices, and rest places for travelers and thus replaced
the destroyed or decaying institutions of Chris tian Anatolia. All of this contributed
to the thorough religious transformation of Anatolia and laid a foundation for the
Ottoman Empire, which by 1500 had become the most impressive and powerful
state within the Islamic world.
But the Islamization of Anatolia occurred within a distinctly Turkish context. A
Turkish language, not Arabic, predominated. Some Su! religious practices, such as
ecstatic turning dances, actually derived from Central Asian Turkic shamanism. And
Turkic tradition, common among pastoral peoples, o&ered a freer, more genderequal life for women. This practice caught the attention of the Arab Moroccan visitor Ibn Battuta during his travels among the Turks in the fourteenth century. He
commented, “A remarkable thing that I saw . . . was the respect shown to women
by the Turks, for they hold a more digni!ed position than the men. . . . The windows of the tent are open and her face is visible, for the Turkish women do not veil
themselves.”21 He was not pleased.
The Case of West Africa
Still another pattern of Islamic expansion prevailed in West Africa. Here Islam
accompanied Muslim traders across the Sahara rather than being brought by invading Arab or Turkic armies. Its gradual acceptance in the emerging civilization of
West African states in the centuries after 1000 was largely peaceful and voluntary,
lacking the incentives associated elsewhere with foreign conquest. Introduced by
Muslim merchants from an already-Islamized North Africa, the new faith was
accepted primarily in the urban centers of the West African empires — Ghana, Mali,
Songhay, Kanem-Bornu, and others (see Map 9.6 and Zooming In: Mansa Musa,
page 390). For African merchant communities, Islam provided an important link to
Muslim trading partners, much as Buddhism had done in Southeast Asia. For the
monarchs and their courts, it o&ered a source of literate o’cials to assist in state
administration as well as religious legitimacy, particularly for those who gained the
prestige conferred by a pilgrimage to Mecca. Islam was a world religion with a single
Creator-God, able to comfort and protect people whose political and economic
horizons had expanded well beyond the local realm where ancestral spirits and traditional deities might be e&ective. It had a religious appeal for societies that were
now participating in a wider world.
By the sixteenth century, a number of West African cities had become major
centers of Islamic religious and intellectual life, attracting scholars from throughout
the Muslim world. Timbuktu boasted more than 150 lower-level Quranic schools
and several major centers of higher education with thousands of students from all
over West Africa and beyond. Libraries held tens of thousands of books and scholarly manuscripts (see the image on page 305). Monarchs subsidized the construction of mosques as West Africa became an integral part of a larger Islamic world.
Arabic became an important language of religion, education, administration, and
trade, but it did not become the dominant language of daily life. Nor did West
0 500 1,000 kilometers
0 500 1,000 miles Trans-Sahara
trade routes
Extent of Islamic
expansion by 1500
Mediterranean Sea
Black Sea
Red Sea
Persian Gulf
Nile R.
Niger R.
Map 9.6 West Africa and the World of Islam
Both trans-Saharan commerce and Islam linked the civilization of West Africa to the larger Muslim
Africa experience the massive migration of Arab peoples that had promoted
the Arabization of North Africa and the
Middle East. Moreover, in contrast to
India and Anatolia, Su! holy men
played a far more modest role until at
least the eighteenth century. Scholars,
merchants, and rulers, rather than mystic preachers, initially established Islam
in West Africa.
Islam remained the culture of urban
elites and spread little into the rural areas
of West Africa until the nineteenth century. No thorough religious transformation occurred in West Africa as it
had in Anatolia. Although many rulers
adopted Islam, they governed people
who steadfastly practiced African religions and whose sensibilities they had to respect if social peace were to prevail.
Thus they made few e&orts to impose the new religion on their rural subjects or to
govern in strict accordance with Islamic law. The fourteenth-century Arab visitor
Ibn Battuta was appalled that practicing Muslims in Mali permitted their women to
appear in public almost naked and to mingle freely with unrelated men. “The association of women with men is agreeable to us,” he was told, “and a part of good
conduct to which no suspicion attaches. They are not like the women of your
country.”22 Ibn Battuta also noted with disapproval a “dance of the masks” on the
occasion of an Islamic festival and the traditional practice of sprinkling dust on one’s
head as a sign of respect for the king. Sonni Ali, a !fteenth-century ruler of Songhay, observed Ramadan and built mosques, but he also consulted traditional diviners and performed customary sacri!ces. In such ways, Islam became Africanized
even as parts of West Africa became Islamized.
The Case of Spain
The chief site of Islamic encounter with Chris tian Europe occurred in Spain, called
al-Andalus by Muslims, which was conquered by Arab and Berber forces in the
early eighth century during the !rst wave of Islamic expansion. By the tenth century, Muslim Spain was a vibrant civilization, often portrayed as a place of harmony
and tolerance between its Muslim rulers and its Chris tian and Jewish subjects.
Certainly, Spain’s agricultural economy was the most prosperous in Europe
during this time, and its capital of Córdoba was among the largest and most splendid cities in the world. Muslims, Chris tians, and Jews alike contributed to a brilliant
high culture in which astronomy, medicine, the arts, architecture, and literature
The Great Mosque at Jenne
This mosque in the city of Jenne, initially constructed in the thirteenth century, illustrates the
assimilation of Islam into West African civilization. (Antonello Lanzellotto/TIPS Images/age fotostock)
$ourished. Furthermore, social relationships among upper-class members of di&erent faiths were easy and frequent. By 1000, perhaps 75 percent of the population
had converted to Islam. Many of the remaining Chris tians learned Arabic, veiled
their women, stopped eating pork, appreciated Arabic music and poetry, and sometimes married Muslims. One Chris tian bishop complained that Spanish Chris tians
knew the rules of Arabic grammar better than those of Latin. During the reign of
Abd al-Rahman III (r. 912–961), freedom of worship was declared as well as the
opportunity for all to rise in the bureaucracy of the state.
But this so-called golden age of Muslim Spain was both limited and brief. Even
assimilated or Arabized Chris tians remained religious in!dels and second-class citizens in the eyes of their Muslim counterparts, and by the late tenth century toleration began to erode. The Córdoba-based regime fragmented into numerous rival
states. Warfare with the remaining Chris tian kingdoms in northern Spain picked up
in the tenth and eleventh centuries, and more puritanical and rigid forms of Islam
entered Spain from North Africa. Under the rule of al-Mansur (r. 981–1002), an
o’cial policy of tolerance turned to one of overt persecution against Chris tians,
which now included the plundering of churches and the seizure of their wealth,
although he employed many Chris tian mercenaries in his armies. Social life also
changed. Devout Muslims avoided contact with Chris tians; Chris tian homes had to
be built lower than those of Muslims; priests were forbidden to carry a cross or a
Bible, lest they o&end Muslim sensibilities; and Arabized Chris tians were permitted
to live only in particular places. Thus, writes one scholar, “the era of harmonious
interaction between Muslim and Chris tian in Spain came to an end, replaced by
intolerance, prejudice, and mutual suspicion.”23
That intolerance intensi!ed as the Chris tian reconquest of Spain gained ground
after 1200. The end came in 1492, when Ferdinand and Isabella, the Catholic monarchs of a uni!ed Spain, took Granada, the last Muslim stronghold on the Iberian
Peninsula. To Christopher Columbus, who witnessed the event before leaving on
his !rst transatlantic voyage, it was a grand Chris tian triumph. “I saw the royal banners of your Highnesses planted by force of arms upon the towers of the Alhambra,” he wrote. To Muslims, it was a catastrophe. Tradition has it that Abu Abdullah, the !nal ruler of Muslim Granada, wept as he left his beloved city for the last
time. Observing his grief, Abu Abdullah’s mother famously said to him: “Thou
dost weep like a woman for what thou couldst not defend as a man.”
After the conquest, many Muslims were forced to emigrate, replaced by Christian settlers. While those who remained under Chris tian rule were legally guaranteed freedom of worship, they were forbidden to make converts, to give the call to
prayer, or to go on pilgrimage. And all Jews, some 200,000 of them, were expelled
from the country. In the early seventeenth century, even Muslim converts to Christianity were likewise banished from Spain. And yet cultural interchange persisted
for a time. The translation of Arab texts into Latin continued under Chris tian rule,
while Chris tian churches and palaces were constructed on the sites of older mosques
and incorporated Islamic artistic and architectural features.
Thus Spain, unlike most other regions incorporated into the Islamic world, experienced a religious reversal as Chris tian rule was reestablished and Islam painfully
eradicated from the Iberian Peninsula. In world historical terms, perhaps the chief
signi!cance of Muslim Spain was its role in making the rich heritage of Islamic
learning available to Chris tian Europe. As a cross-cultural encounter, it was largely
a one-way street. European scholars wanted the secular knowledge — Greek as well as Arab — that had accumulated in the
Islamic world, and they $ocked to Spain to acquire it. That
knowledge of philosophy, mathematics, medicine, optics,
astronomy, botany, and more played a major role in the making of a new European civilization in the thirteenth century
and beyond. Muslim Spain remained only as a memory.
n 1324, Mansa Musa, the
ruler, or mansa, of the Kingdom of Mali, set out on an
arduous journey from his West
African homeland to the holy
city of Mecca. His kingdom
stretched from the Atlantic coast
a thousand miles or more to the
fabled inland city of Timbuktu
and beyond, even as his pilgrimage to Mecca re$ected the
growing penetration of Islam in
this emerging West African civilization. A pious Muslim, Mansa
Musa was $uent in Arabic, was an avid builder of
mosques, and was inclined on occasion to free a few
In the fourteenth century, Mali was an expanding
empire. According to Musa, one of his immediate predecessors had launched a substantial maritime expedition
“to discover the furthest limits of the Atlantic Ocean.”24
The voyagers never returned, and no other record of this
trip exists, but it is intriguing to consider that Africans
and Europeans alike may have been exploring the Atlantic at roughly the same time. Mansa Musa, however,
was more inclined to expand on land as he sought access
to the gold!elds to the south and the trans-Saharan
trade network to the north.
Control of this lucrative commercial complex enriched
Mansa Musa’s empire, enabled
a major building program of
mosques and palaces, and
turned the city of Timbuktu
into a thriving center of trade,
religion, and intellectual life.
Merchants and scholars from
across West and North Africa
$ocked to the city.
Mansa Musa’s journey to
Mecca fascinated observers at
the time and continues to intrigue historians today. Such
a pilgrimage has long been one of the duties — and privileges — of all Muslims. It also added the prestigious title
of hajji to their names. For rulers in particular, it conveyed a spir it ual power known as baraka, which helped
legitimate their rule.
When Mansa Musa began his journey in 1324, he was
accompanied by an enormous entourage, with thousands
of fellow pilgrims, some 500 slaves, his wife and other
women, hundreds of camels, and a huge quantity of gold.
It was the gold that attracted the most attention, as he disMansa Musa, West African Monarch
and Muslim Pilgrim
Mansa Musa.
photo: Detail from the Catalan Atlas, 1375, by Abraham Cresques (1375–1387)/
Bibliothèque National de France, Paris, France/Bridgeman Images
“Islam had a revolutionary impact on
every society that it touched.” What
evidence might support this statement,
and what might challenge it?
The World of Islam as a New Civilization
As the religion spread and the Abbasid dynasty declined, the civilization of Islam,
unlike that of China but similar to Western Christendom, operated without a dominant political center, bound more by a shared religious culture than by a shared state.
Twice that civilization was threatened from outside. The most serious intrusion
came during the thirteenth century from the Mongols, whose conquest of Central
Asia and Persia proved devastating while incorporating many Muslims within the
huge Mongol domains (see Chapter 11). Less serious but more well known, at least in
the West, were the Chris tian Crusaders who established in the twelfth and thirteenth
centuries several small and temporary outposts along the eastern Mediterranean (see
Chapter 10).
tributed it lavishly along his journey. Egyp tian sources
reported that the value of gold in their country was
depressed for years after his visit. On his return trip,
Mansa Musa apparently had exhausted his supply and had
to borrow money from Egyp tian merchants at high interest rates. Those merchants also made a killing on Musa’s
pilgrims, who, unsophisticated in big-city shopping, were
made to pay far more than their purchases were worth.
Europeans too now became aware of Mansa Musa, featuring him holding a large nugget of gold in a famous
map from 1375 with a caption reading: “This Negro lord
is called Musa Mali. . . . So abundant is the gold found
in his country that he is the richest and most noble king
in all the land.”25
In Cairo, Mansa Musa displayed both his pride and
his ignorance of Islamic law. Invited to see the sultan
of Egypt, he was initially reluctant because of a protocol
requirement to kiss the ground and the sultan’s hand.
He consented only when he was persuaded that he was
really prostrating before God, not the sultan. And in conversation with learned clerics, Mansa Musa was surprised
to learn that Muslim rulers were not allowed to take the
beautiful unmarried women of their realm as concubines.
“By God, I did not know that,” he replied. “I hereby
leave it and abandon it utterly.”26
In Mecca, Mansa Musa completed the requirements
of the hajj, dressing in the common garb of all pilgrims,
repeatedly circling the Kaaba, performing ritual prayers,
and visiting various sites associated with Muhammad’s
life, including a side trip to the Prophet’s tomb in
Medina. He also sought to recruit a number of sharifs,
prestigious descendants of Muhammad’s family, to add
Islamic luster to his kingdom. After considerable di’-
culty and expense, he found four men who were willing
to return with him to what Arabs understood to be the
remote frontier of the Islamic world. Some reports suggested that they were simply freed slaves, hoping for
better lives.
In the end, perhaps Mansa Musa’s goals for the pilgrimage were achieved. On a personal level, one source
reported that he was so moved by the pilgrimage that he
actually considered abandoning his throne altogether and
returning to Mecca, where he might live as “a dweller
near the sanctuary [the Kaaba].”27 His visit certainly elevated Mali’s status in the Islamic world. Some 200 years
after that visit, one account of his pilgrimage placed the
sultan of Mali as one of four major rulers in the Islamic
world, equal to those of Baghdad and Egypt. Mansa
Musa would have been pleased.
Question: What signi#cance did Mansa Musa likely attach to his
pilgrimage? How might Egyp tians, Arabians, and Europeans have
viewed it?
Despite these external threats and its various internal con$icts, Islamic civilization $ourished and often prospered, embracing at least parts of virtually every other
civilization in the Afro-Eurasian hemisphere. It was in that sense “history’s !rst
truly global civilization,” although the Americas, of course, were not involved.28
What held this Islamic world together? What enabled many people to feel themselves part of a single civilization despite its political fragmentation, religious controversies, and cultural and regional diversity?
Networks of Faith
At the core of that vast civilization was a common commitment to Islam. No group
was more important in the transmission of those beliefs and practices than the
ulama. These learned scholars were not “priests” in the Chris tian sense, for in
Islam, at least theoretically, no person could stand between the believer and Allah.
Rather, they served as judges, interpreters, administrators, prayer leaders, and reciters of the Quran, but espe cially as preservers and teachers of the sharia. Supported
mostly by their local communities, some also received the patronage of sultans, or
rulers, and were therefore subject to criticism for corruption and undue submission
to state authority. In their homes, mosques, shrines, and Quranic schools, the ulama
passed on the core teachings of the faith. Beginning in the eleventh century, formal
colleges called madrassas o&ered more advanced instruction in the Quran and the
sayings of Muhammad; grammar and rhetoric; sometimes philosophy, theology,
mathematics, and medicine; and, above all else, law. Teaching was informal, mostly
oral, and involved much memorization of texts. It was also largely con serv ative,
seeking to preserve an established body of Islamic learning.
The ulama were an “international elite,” and the system of education they created served to bind together an immense and diverse civilization. Common texts
were shared widely across the world of Islam. Students and teachers alike traveled
great distances in search of the most learned scholars. From Indonesia to West
Africa, educated Muslims inhabited a “shared world of debate and reference.”29
Paralleling the educational network of the ulama were the emerging religious
orders of the Su!s. By the tenth century, particular Su! shaykhs (shakes), or teachers, began to attract groups of dis ciples who were eager to learn their unique devotional practices and techniques of personal transformation. The dis ciples usually
swore allegiance to their teacher and valued highly the chain of transmission by
which those teachings and practices had come down from earlier masters. In the
twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Su!s began to organize in a variety of larger associations, some limited to particular regions and others with chapters throughout the
Islamic world. The Qadiriya order, for example, began in Baghdad but spread
widely throughout the Arab world and into sub-Saharan Africa.
Su! orders were espe cially signi!cant in the frontier regions of Islam because
they followed conquering armies or traders into Central and Southeast Asia, India,
Anatolia, parts of Africa, and elsewhere. Their devotional teachings, modest ways
Q Description
What makes it pos sible to
speak of the Islamic world
as a distinct and coherent
of living, and reputation for supernatural powers gained a hearing for the new faith.
Their emphasis on personal experience of the Divine, rather than on the law,
allowed the Su!s to accommodate elements of local belief and practice and encouraged the growth of a popular or blended Islam. The veneration of deceased Su!
“saints,” or “friends of God,” particularly at their tombs, created sacred spaces that
enabled Islam to take root in many places despite its foreign origins. But that $exibility also often earned Su! practitioners the enmity of the ulama, who were sharply
critical of any deviations from the sharia.
Like the madrassas and the sharia, Su! religious ideas and institutions spanned the
Islamic world and were yet another thread in the cosmopolitan web of Islamic civilization. Particular devotional teachings and practices spread widely, as did the writings
of such famous Su! poets as Ha!z and Rumi. Devotees made pilgrimages to the
distant tombs of famous teachers, who, they often believed, might intercede with
God on their behalf. Wandering Su!s, in search of the wisdom of renowned shaykhs,
found fellow seekers and welcome shelter in the compounds of these religious orders.
In addition to the networks of the Su!s and the ulama, many thousands of
people, from kings to peasants, made the grand pilgrimage to Mecca — the hajj —
no doubt gaining some sense of the umma. There men and women together, hailing from all over the Islamic world, joined as one people to rehearse the central
elements of their faith. The claims of local identities based on family, clan, tribe,
ethnicity, or state never disappeared, but now overarching them all was the inclusive unity of the Muslim community.
Networks of Exchange
The world of Islamic civilization cohered not only as a network of faith but also as
an immense arena of exchange in which goods, technologies, food products, and
ideas circulated widely. Now large areas of the Afro-Eurasian world operated within
a single political system, practiced Islam, and spoke Arabic. This huge region rapidly became a vast trading zone of hemispheric dimensions. In part, this was due to
its central location in the Afro-Eurasian world and the breaking down of earlier
political barriers between the Byzantine and Persian empires. Furthermore, commerce was valued positively within Islamic teaching, and laws regulating it !gured
prominently in the sharia, creating a predictable framework for exchange across
many cultures. The pilgrimage to Mecca, as well as the urbanization that accompanied the growth of Islamic civilization, likewise fostered commerce. Baghdad,
established in 756 as the capital of the Abbasid Empire, soon grew into a magni!-
cent city of half a million people. The appetite of urban elites for luxury goods
stimulated both craft production and the desire for foreign products.
Thus Muslim merchants, Arabs and Persians in particular, quickly became
prominent and sometimes dominant players in all the major Afro-Eurasian trade
routes of the third-wave era — in the Mediterranean Sea, along the revived Silk
Roads, across the Sahara, and throughout the Indian Ocean basin (see Chapter 7).
Q Connection
In what ways was the world
of Islam a “cosmopolitan
By the eighth century, Arab and Persian traders had established a commercial colony in Canton in southern China, thus linking the Islamic heartland with Asia’s
other giant and $ourishing economy. Various forms of banking, partnerships, business contracts, and instruments for granting credit facilitated these long-distance
economic relationships and generated a prosperous, sophisticated, and highly commercialized economy that spanned the Old World.
The vast expanse of Islamic civilization also contributed to ecological change
as agricultural products and practices spread from one region to another, a process already under way in the earlier Roman and Persian empires. Among the food
crops that circulated within and beyond the Islamic world were di&erent varieties
of sugarcane, rice, apricots, artichokes, eggplants, lemons, oranges, almonds, !gs,
and bananas. Equally signi!cant were water-management practices, so important to
the arid or semi-arid environments of many parts of the Islamic world. Persian-style
reservoirs and irrigation technologies spread as far as Tunisia and Morocco, the northern fringes of the Sahara, Spain,
and Yemen. By connecting di&erent environmental zones,
particularly those where water availability was the major
obstacle to agricultural growth, particular regions could
draw upon a wide range of crops and practices. All of this
contributed to an “Islamic Green Revolution” of increased
food production as well as to population growth, urbanization, and industrial development across the Islamic world.
Technology too di&used widely within the realm of
Islam. Muslim technicians made improvements on rockets,
!rst developed in China, by developing one that carried
a small warhead and another used to attack ships. Papermaking techniques entered the Abbasid Empire from China
in the eighth century or earlier, with paper mills soon operating in Persia, Iraq, and Egypt. This revolutionary technology, which everywhere served to strengthen bureaucratic
governments, passed from the Middle East into India and
Europe over the following centuries. Everywhere it spurred
the emergence of books and written culture at the expense
of earlier orally based cultural expressions.
Ideas likewise circulated across the Islamic world. The
religion itself drew heavily and quite openly on Jewish and
Chris tian precedents. Persia also contributed much in the
way of bureaucratic practice, court ritual, and poetry, with
Persian becoming a major literary language in elite circles.
Scienti!c, medical, and philosophical texts, espe cially from
ancient Greece, the Hellenistic world, and India, were systematically translated into Arabic, providing an enormous
boost to Islamic scholarship and science for several centuA Muslim Astronomical Observatory
Drawing initially on Greek, Indian, and Persian astronomy, the
Islamic world after 1000 developed its own distinctive tradition of
astronomical observation and prediction, re”ected in this Turkish
observatory constructed in 1557. Muslim astronomy subsequently
exercised considerable in”uence in both China and Europe. (University Library, Istanbul, Turkey/Bridgeman Images)
ries. In 830, the Abbasid caliph al-Mamun, himself a poet and scholar with a passion for foreign learning, established the House of Wisdom in Baghdad as an academic center for this research and translation. Stimulated by Greek texts, a school
of Islamic thinkers known as Mutazalites (“those who stand apart”) argued that
reason, rather than revelation, was the “surest way to truth.”30 In the long run,
however, the philosophers’ emphasis on logic, rationality, and the laws of nature
was subject to increasing criticism by those who held that only the Quran, the sayings of the Prophet, or mystical experience represented a genuine path to God.
But the realm of Islam was much more than a museum of ancient achievements
from the civilizations that it encompassed. Those traditions mixed and blended to
generate a distinctive Islamic civilization with many new contributions to the world
of learning. (See Snapshot, above.) Using Indian numerical notation, for example,
Arab scholars developed algebra as a novel mathematical discipline. They also
Person/Dates Achievement
al-Khwarazim (790–840) Mathematician; spread use of Arabic numerals in Islamic
world; wrote #rst book on algebra
al-Razi (865–925) Discovered sulfuric acid; wrote a vast encyclopedia of medicine drawing on Greek, Syrian, Indian, and Persian work
and his own clinical observation
al-Biruni (973–1048) Mathematician, astronomer, cartographer; calculated the
radius of the earth with great accuracy; worked out numerous mathematical innovations; developed a technique for
displaying a hemisphere on a plane
Ibn Sina (Avicenna) (980–1037) Proli#c writer in almost all #elds of science and philosophy;
espe cially known for Canon of Medicine, a fourteen-volume
work that set standards for medical practice in Islamic and
Chris tian worlds for centuries
Omar Khayyam (1048–1131) Mathematician; critic of Euclid’s geometry; mea sured the
solar year with great accuracy; Su# poet; author of The
Ibn Rushd (Averroës) (1126–1198) Translated and commented widely on Aristotle; rationalist
philosopher; made major contributions in law, mathematics, and medicine
Nasir al-Din Tusi (1201–1274) Founder of the famous Maragha observatory in Persia (data
from Maragha prob ably in!uenced Copernicus); mapped
the motion of stars and planets
Ibn Khaldun (1332–1406) Greatest Arab historian; identi#ed trends and structures in
world history over long periods of time
Snapshot Key Achievements in Islamic Science and Scholarship
undertook much original work in astronomy and optics. They built on earlier
Greek and Indian practice to create a remarkable tradition in medicine and pharmacology. Arab physicians such as al-Razi and Ibn Sina accurately diagnosed many
diseases, such as hay fever, measles, smallpox, diphtheria, rabies, and diabetes. In
addition, treatments such as using a mercury ointment for scabies, cataract and hernia operations, and !lling teeth with gold emerged from Arab doctors. The !rst
hospitals, traveling clinics, and examinations for physicians and pharmacologists
were also developed within the Islamic world. In the eleventh and twelfth centuries, this enormous body of Arab medical scholarship entered Europe via Spain, and
it remained at the core of European medical practice for many centuries.
Past and Present: Choosing Our History
Prominent among the many uses of history is the perspective it provides on the present. Although historians sometimes worry that an excessive “present-mindedness”
may distort our perception of the past, all of us look to history, almost instinctively,
to comprehend the world we now inhabit. Given the obvious importance of the
Islamic world in the international arena of the twenty-!rst century, how might
some grasp of the early development of Islamic civilization assist us in understanding our present circumstances?
Certainly, that history reminds us of the central role that Islam played in the
Afro-Eurasian world for a thousand years or more. From 600 to 1600 or later, it
was a proud, cosmopolitan, often prosperous, and frequently powerful civilization
that spanned Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia. What followed were several centuries of European or Western imperialism that many Muslims found humiliating, even if some were attracted by elements of modern Western culture. In their
recent e&orts to overcome those centuries of subordination and exploitation, Muslims have found encouragement and inspiration in re$ecting on the more distant
and perhaps more glorious past. But they have not all chosen to emphasize the same
past. Those labeled as “fundamentalists” have often viewed the early Islamic community associated with Medina, Mecca, and Muhammad as a model for Islamic
renewal in the present. Others, often known as Islamic modernizers, have looked
to the somewhat later achievements of Islamic science and scholarship as a foundation for a more open engagement with the West and the modern world.
The history of Islam also reveals to us a world of great diversity and debate.
Sharp religious di&erences between Sunni and Shia understandings of the faith; differences in emphasis between advocates of the sharia and of Su! spir it uality; political con$icts among various groups and regions within the larger Islamic world;
di&erent postures toward women in Arab lands and in West Africa — all of this and
more divided the umma and divide it still. Recalling that diversity is a useful
reminder for any who would tag all Muslims with a single label.
A further dimension of that diversity lies in the many cultural encounters that
the spread of Islam has spawned. Sometimes great con$ict and violence have
accompanied those encounters, as in the Crusades and in Turkic invasions of India
and Anatolia. At other times and places, Muslims and non-Muslims have lived
together in relative tranquillity and tolerance — in Spain, in West Africa, in India,
and in the Ottoman Empire. Some commentaries on the current interaction of
Islam and the West seem to assume an eternal hostility or an inevitable clash of civilizations. The record of the past, however, shows considerable variation in the interaction of Muslims and others. While the past certainly shapes and conditions what
happens next, the future, as always, remains open. Within limits, we can choose the
history on which we seek to build.
Second Thoughts
What’s the Signi!cance?
Quran, 367–69
umma, 368
Pillars of Islam, 368
hijra, 369
sharia, 370
jizya, 373
Umayyad caliphate, 376–77
Abbasid caliphate, 377
ulama, 377, 392
Su!sm, 377–80
Mullah Nasruddin, 378–79
al-Ghazali, 380
Sikhism, 385
Ibn Battuta, 386–88
Timbuktu, 387
al-Andalus, 388–90
Mansa Musa, 390–91
madrassas, 392
House of Wisdom, 395
Ibn Sina, 395–96
Big Picture Questions
1. How might you account for the immense religious and political/military success of Islam in its early
2. In what ways might Islamic civilization be described as cosmopolitan, international, or global?
3. “Islam was simultaneously a single world of shared meaning and interaction and a series of separate, distinct, and con”icting communities.” What evidence could you provide to support both sides
of this argument?
4. What changes did Islamic expansion generate in those societies that encountered it, and how was
Islam itself transformed by those encounters?
5. Looking Back: What distinguished the early centuries of Islamic history from a similar phase in the
history of Chris tianity and Buddhism?
Next Steps: For Further Study
Reza Aslan, No God but God (2005). A well-written and popular history of Islam by an Iranian immigrant
to the United States.
Fred M. Donner, Muhammad and the Believers (2010). An innovative account of the !rst century of Islam
by a leading scholar of that era.
Richard Eaton, Islamic History as Global History (1990). A short account by a major scholar that examines
Islam in a global framework.
John Esposito, ed., The Oxford History of Islam (1999). Up-to-date essays on various periods and themes
in Islamic history. Beautifully illustrated.
Francis Robinson, ed., Cambridge Illustrated History of the Islamic World (1996). A series of essays by
major scholars, with lovely pictures and maps.
Judith Tucker, Gender and Islamic History (1994). A brief overview of the changing lives of Islamic women.
The Man Who Walked across the World, http://topdocumentary!lms.com/man-who-walked-across-world/.
A documentary travelogue tracing the many journeys of Ibn Battuta.
“Religions: Islam,” http://www.bbc.co.uk/religion/religions/islam/. A BBC Web site providing information
about all aspects of Islamic life and culture.
The Life of the Prophet
n addition to the teachings of the Quran, Muslims have long revered their
Prophet as the most complete expression of God-conscious humanity and
an example for all who would follow the path of Islam. In the several centuries after his death, Muslim scholars collected every detail of his life and
sought to draw lessons about behavior based on his moral qualities and
actions: his utter devotion to Allah; his bravery and decisiveness in battle; his
honesty in business a&airs; his $exibility, compassion, and willingness to forgive in dealing with enemies; his habit of consulting with companions before
making a decision; his generosity and kindness to the poor and enslaved.
Early biographies of Muhammad also made much of his sexual virility and
attraction to women, which combined with his tenderness toward them to
create a new model of Islamic masculinity.31 The images that follow illustrate four major events in the life of Muhammad, long familiar to Muslims
These images derive from the tradition of Persian or Turkish miniature
painting — small, colorful, and exquisitely detailed works often used to illustrate books or manuscripts. One art historian described them as “ little festivals
of color in images separated from each other by pages of text.”32 Scenes from
the life of the Prophet Muhammad appeared occasionally in this art form,
which $ourished espe cially from the thirteenth through the sixteenth centuries. They provide a window into the ways Muslims have understood their
prophet and sought to learn from his example.
Representation of the Prophet Muhammad has long been controversial
within Islamic societies. While not prohibited in the Quran, visual depictions
of the Prophet have often been discouraged or even forbidden to prevent
idolatry. Nonetheless, Muhammad was on occasion portrayed in Persian and
Turkish miniature painting, sometimes in full face, but often with his face
obscured. Such depictions, however, were limited to illustrations of particular events in books of history or poetry. They were never used to decorate
mosques or the Quran. Nor were they employed as a teaching tool or for
devotional purposes, as was frequently the case in Chris tian religious art.
According to all Muslims, the central and de!ning experience in Muhammad’s life occurred in the year 610 c.e. in his initial encounter with an angel,
usually identi!ed as Gabriel, an event that marked the beginning of his revelations.33 For some time before this dramatic event, Muhammad had been in
the habit of withdrawing to a cave outside Mecca for prayer and meditation.
On this occasion, however, a towering and overpowering presence of the
angel appeared to him, !lling the entire horizon, squeezing the very breath
from his body, and commanding him to “recite” or to “read.” After repeated
protests that “I am not a reciter/reader,” Muhammad found himself speaking
what became the !rst revelation of the Quran.
When the vision passed, Muhammad $ed in terror to his wife Khadija,
fearing that he might be mad or possessed of some demonic spirit. Seeking to
comfort him, Khadija took her husband to her learned cousin Waraqa, a
Chris tian, who assured Muhammad that “he is the prophet of his people” and
the recipient of revelation from the same God who had earlier granted similar
messages to Abraham, Moses, and Jesus, among others. Further revelations
followed over the next twenty-two years until Muhammad’s death in 632,
after which they were compiled into the Quran.
Source 9.1, an early fourteenth-century Persian miniature painting, depicts
this encounter between Muhammad and Gabriel.
Q What impression of this encounter does the artist seek to convey by the
posture of the two !gures?
Q What religious meaning might Muslims derive from the idea that the
revelation to Muhammad came through an angelic messenger rather
than directly from Allah?
Q Traditional accounts of Muhammad’s encounter with the angel stress
the mysterious and overpowering “otherness” of the Divine Presence,
which accounts for Muhammad’s initial fear and terror. What is the religious signi!cance of such a depiction of the Divine? To what extent
does this image convey that impression?
Q Muslims have traditionally stressed that their prophet was illiterate, based
in part on his response to the angel: “I am not a reader.” Why might it
be important to Muslims to believe that Muhammad was illiterate?
By far the most frequently portrayed event in the life of Muhammad was
the miraj, the Prophet’s Night Journey, said to have taken place in 619 or 620.
The Quran refers brie$y to God’s taking the Prophet “from the sacred place
of worship to the far distant place of worship.” This passage became the basis
for a story, much embellished over the centuries, of rich and deep meaning
for Muslims. In this religious narrative, Muhammad was led one night by the
angel Gabriel from Mecca to Jerusalem. For the journey he was given a buraq,
a mythical winged creature with the body of a mule or donkey and the face
of a woman. Upon arriving in Jerusalem, Muhammad led prayers for an assembly of earlier prophets including Abraham, Moses, and Jesus. (See page 367 for
a !fteenth-century Persian painting illustrating this event.) Then, accompanied by many angels, Muhammad made his way through seven heavens almost
into the presence of God, where, according to the Quran, “he did see some
of the most profound of his Sustainer’s symbols.” There too Allah spoke to
Muhammad about the importance of regular prayer, commanding !fty prayers
a day, a !gure later reduced to !ve on the advice of Moses.
From the beginning, Muslims have been divided on how to interpret this
journey of the Prophet. For most, perhaps, it was taken quite literally as a
miraculous event. Some, however, viewed it as a dream or a vision, while
others understood it as the journey of Muhammad’s soul but not his body.
Miniature from the “Jami’ al-Tawarikh” of Rashid al-Din, ca. 1307/Edinburgh University Library, Scotland/With kind permission of the University of Edinburgh/
Bridgeman Images
Source 9.1 Muhammad and the Archangel Gabriel
The Prophet’s youngest wife, Aisha, for example, reported that “his body did
not leave its place.” Source 9.2, dating from the early sixteenth century, is
one of many representations of the Night Journey that emerged within Persian miniature painting.
Source 9.2 The Night Journey of Muhammad
By Aqa Mirak (!. ca. 1520–1576)/British Library, London, UK/© British Library Board. All rights reserved/Bridgeman Images
Q What signi!cance might attach to the female head of the buraq?
Q What are the accompanying angels o&ering to the Prophet during his
Q What meaning might the artist seek to convey by the image of the
world below and slightly to the right of the buraq?
Q What is the signi!cance of Muhammad’s encounter with earlier prophets such as Abraham, Moses, and Jesus?
Q Review the discussion of the Su! tradition of Islam on pages 377–80.
How might Su!s have understood the Night Journey?
The circumstances of Muhammad’s life required that he act as a political
leader at the same time as he was seeking to convey a new religious message.
By 622, intense hostility to that revolutionary message had forced him out of
Mecca to a new base in Medina, where he became a lawgiver, creating a
social and political framework for his small band of followers. Violent opposition from various quarters and the absence of any overall political authority
in the Arabian Peninsula made it necessary for Muhammad to also become a
military strategist to protect his $edgling community. In these ways, his task
was very di&erent from that of the Buddha or Jesus.
Among the leading adversaries of the embryonic community of “believers” in Medina were the forces of Muhammad’s own Quraysh clan in Mecca.
An important turning point in that struggle occurred in 624 at the Battle
of Badr in western Arabia. Despite being outnumbered more than three to
one (about 1,000 Meccans but only around 300 “believers” from Medina),
Muhammad’s forces emerged victorious. While the Meccans fought in traditional Arab style with much individual bravado and no uni!ed command,
Muhammad’s men were carefully drilled, well orga nized, and e&ectively led.
To Muslims, however, it was not human ingenuity but divine intervention
that occasioned this unlikely triumph. The Quran reported that Allah had
sent some 3,000 angels to assist Muhammad’s forces and reminded the believers that “it was not you that slew the enemy, but it was God that slew them.”
This battle established the new Muslim community as a force to be reckoned with in Arabia and was enormously encouraging to the “believers.” It
was also the occasion for a series of revelations to Muhammad about the
treatment of prisoners. They should not be abused in any way, but released,
o&ered for ransom, or allowed to earn enough money to purchase their freedom. According to a traditional saying (hadith) of the Prophet, Muhammad
asked his followers to treat captives as members of their own families. “You
must feed them as you feed yourselves and clothe them as you clothe
Visual Source 9.3, a sixteenth-century Turkish miniature painting, shows
the prep ara tion for the battle at Badr. Muhammad, shown in green dress with
his face obscured, is sending waves of horsemen into the struggle. While other
followers watch from behind, two of his close associates appear at the bottom
right, and an angel hovers over the scene.
Source 9.3 The Battle at Badr
From the Siyar-i-Nabi (Volume IV) of Murad III (1546–1595), 1595 /Musée du Louvre, Paris, France/© Chris tian Larrieu/Bridgeman Images
Q What elements of this image might suggest a natural or human understanding of the Muslim victory at Badr? And what might indicate divine
intervention as an explanation?
Q Documentary sources report only two horses and seventy camels on the
side of the “believers” at this battle and suggest a more ragtag group of
!ghters than the image portrays. Why do you think the artist presented
a rather more impressive picture?
Q What religious meanings did Muhammad and Muslims in general extract
from the battle at Badr?
In 630, just six years after the battle at Badr, Muhammad and some 10,000
soldiers triumphantly entered Mecca, almost completely without violence,
and in a posture of reconciliation rather than revenge. In sharp contrast to
traditional Arab practice, Muhammad issued a general amnesty for those who
had opposed him. Then he turned his attention to the religious rationale of
his entire movement. Riding his favorite camel, Muhammad circled the
Kaaba seven times, shouting “Allahu Akbar” (God is greater), thus declaring
the triumph of the Believer’s Movement. Refusing to enter the Kaaba until
it had been puri!ed from its idolatry, Muhammad ordered its 360 idols and
paintings removed. He then smashed each one, reciting a Quranic verse:
“The truth has come and falsehood has vanished away.” Muslim sources
record that the Prophet invited his cousin and son-in-law Ali, the !rst male
convert to the new faith, to stand on his shoulders to strike down the highest
idols. Thus the Kaaba was cleansed and, in Muslim thinking, restored to its
original purpose as a focal point for the worship of Allah alone.
Source 9.4, a !fteenth-century Persian image, portrays this dramatic event,
showing Muhammad with Ali on his shoulders, both enveloped in holy !re,
smashing the o&ensive idols while their followers look on.
Q What view of pre-Islamic Arab religion do the images of the idols
Q What fundamental religious teachings or spir it ual truths does this painting seek to convey? How might you understand the Muslim concern
with idolatry?
Q Some traditions suggest that Muhammad ordered pictures of Mary and
Jesus within the Kaaba to be left intact. What purpose might this tradition serve?
Miniature from “Raudat as-Safa” (“Garden of Purity”), by Mir Havand (d. 1489), Iran: Shiraz, ca. 1590/bpk, Berlin/
Museum für Islamische Kunst, Staatliche Museen, Berlin, Germany/Photo: Wolfgang Selbach/Art Resource, NY
Source 9.4 The Destruction of the Idols
The Life of the Prophet
1. Noticing point of view: Consider these four visual sources together
with the other images within the chapter. What general impression of
the Islamic world emerges? What point of view, if any, is re$ected in
this selection of visual sources? Do they convey a positive, negative,
or neutral impression of Islamic civilization? Explain your answer with
speci!c references to the various images.
2. Considering Muhammad: How might you describe the understanding of Muhammad that these images present? In what ways is
Muhammad an exemplar for Muslims of a fully realized human being?
Do such images have any usefulness for knowing “what really happened”
as opposed to grasping Muslim views of their prophet?
3. Re!ecting on religious history: What do these images reveal about
Muslims’ understandings of their relationship to earlier religious practices? What did they accept from the past, and what did they reject?
How does that understanding compare with Buddhists’ and Chris tians’
views of their place in religious history?
4. Comparing narrative textbook and visual sources: What do these
images add to the understanding of Islam you derived from the narrative
text of this chapter?
From the Psalter of Charles the Bold, 15th century/Victoria & Albert Museum, London, UK/Bridgeman Images

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