Chapter 7 Summary
In the 7th century c.e., the Arab followers of Muhammad surged from the Arabian peninsula to create the first global civilization. They quickly conquered an empire, incorporating elements of the classical civilizations of Greece, Egypt, and Persia. Islamic merchants, mystics, and warriors continued their expansion in Europe, Asia, and Africa. The process provided links for exchange among civilized centers and forged a truly global civilization. Muslim scientific and philosophical works written in Arabic made it an international language.
Desert and Town: The Pre-Islamic Arabian World. The inhospitable Arabian Peninsula was inhabited by Bedouin societies. Some desert-dwellers herded camels and goats. Others practiced agriculture in oasis towns. Important agricultural and commercial centers flourished in southern coastal regions. The towns were extensions of Bedouin society, sharing its culture and ruled by its clans.
Clan Identity, Clan Rivalries, and the Cycle of Vengeance. Mobile kin-related clans were the basis of social organization. The clans clustered into larger tribal units that functioned only during crises. In the harsh environment, individual survival depended upon clan loyalty. Wealth and status varied within clans. Leaders, or shaykhs, although elected by councils, were usually wealthy men. Free warriors enforced their decisions. Slave families served the leaders or the clan as a whole. Clan cohesion was reinforced by interclan rivalry and by conflicts over water and pasturage. The resulting enmity might inaugurate feuds enduring for centuries. The strife divided Bedouin society, making it vulnerable to rivals.
Towns and Long-Distance Trade. Cities had developed as entrepots in the trading system linking the Mediterranean to East Asia. The most important, Mecca, in western Arabia, had been founded by the Umayyad clan of the Quraysh tribe. The city was the site of the Kaaba, an important religious shrine that attracted pilgrims and visitors during an obligatory annual truce in interclan feuds. A second important town, Medina, an agricultural oasis and commercial center, lay to the northeast. Quarrels among Medina’s two Bedouin and three Jewish clans hampered its development and later opened a place for Muhammad.
Marriage and Family in Pre-Islamic Arabia. Women may have enjoyed more freedom than in the Byzantine and Sasanian empires. They had key economic roles in clan life. Descent was traced through the female line, and males paid a bride-price to the wife’s family. Women did not wear veils and were not secluded. Both sexes had multiple marriage partners. Still, males, carrying on the honored warrior tradition, remained superior. Traditional practices of property control, inheritance, and divorce favored men. Women commonly did drudge labor. Female status was even more restricted in urban centers.
Poets and Neglected Gods. Arab material culture, because of isolation and the environment, was not highly developed. The main focus of creativity was in orally transmitted poetry. Bedouin religion was a blend of animism and polytheism. Some tribes recognized a supreme deity, Allah, but focused instead on spirits associated with nature. Religion and ethics were not connected. In all, the Bedouin did not take their religion seriously.
The Life of Muhammad and the Genesis of Islam. In the 6th century c.e., camel nomads dominated Arabia. Cities were dependent upon alliances with surrounding tribes. Pressures for change came from the Byzantine and Sasanian empires and from the presence of Judaisim and Christianity. Muhammad, a member of the Banu Hasim clan of the Quraysh, was born about 570 c.e. Left an orphan; he was raised by his father’s family and became a merchant. Muhammad resided in Mecca, where he married a wealthy widow, Khadijah. Merchant travels allowed Muhammad to observe the forces undermining clan unity and to encounter monotheistic ideas. Muhammad became dissatisfied with a life focused on material gain and went to meditate in the hills. In 610, he began receiving revelations transmitted from god via the angel Gabriel. Later, written in Arabic and collected in the Qur’an, they formed the basis for Islam.
Persecution, Flight, and Victory. As Muhammad’s initially very small following grew, he was seen as a threat by Mecca’s rulers. The new faith endangered the gods of the Kaaba. With his life in danger, Muhammad was invited to come to Medina to mediate its clan quarrels. In 622, Muhammad left Mecca for Medina; the flight, the hijra, became the first year of the Islamic calendar. In Medina, his skilled leadership brought new followers. Hostilities between Mecca and Medina ended with Muhammad’s triumph. A treaty of 628 with the Quraysh allowed his followers the permission to visit the Kaaba. Muhammad returned to Mecca in 629 and converted most of its inhabitants to Islam.
Arabs and Islam. The new religion initially was adopted by town dwellers and Bedouins in the region where Muhammad lived. But Islam offered opportunities for uniting Arabs by providing a distinct indigenous monotheism, supplanting clan divisions and allowing an end to clan feuding. The umma, the community of the faithful, transcended old tribal boundaries. Islam also offered an ethical system capable of healing social rifts within Arabian society. All believers were equal before Allah; the strong and wealthy were responsible for the care of the weak and poor. The prophet’s teachings and the Qur’an became the basis for laws regulating the Muslim faithful. All faced a last judgment by a stern but compassionate god.
Universal Elements in Islam. Islam by nature contained beliefs appealing to individuals in many cultures: monotheism, legal codes, egalitarianism, and a strong sense of community. Islam, while regarding Muhammad’s message as the culmination of divine revelation, accepted the validity of similar components previously incorporated in Judaism and Christianity. Islam’s five pillars provide a basis for underlying unity: (1) acceptance of Islam; (2) prayer five times daily; (3) fasting during the month of Ramadan; (4) payment of a tithe (zakat) for charity; and (5) the hajj, or pilgrimage to Mecca.
The Arab Empire of the Umayyads. Muhammad’s defeat of Mecca had won the allegiance of many Bedouin tribes, but the unity was threatened when he died in 632. Tribes broke away and his followers quarreled about the succession. The community managed to select new leaders who reunited Islam by 633 and then began campaigns beyond Arabia. Arab religious zeal and the weaknesses of opponents resulted in victories in Mesopotamia, North Africa, and Persia. The new empire was governed by a warrior elite under the Umayyads and other clans; they had little interest in conversion.
Consolidation and Division in the Islamic Community. Muhammad was the last of the prophets. No successor could claim his attributes, nor had he established a procedure for selecting a new leader. After a troubled process, Abu Bakr was chosen as caliph, the leader of the Islamic community. Breakaway tribes and rival prophets were defeated during the Ridda wars to restore Islamic unity. Arab armies invaded the weak Byzantine and Persian empires, where they were joined by Bedouins who had migrated earlier.
Motives for Arab Conquest. Islam provided the Arabs with a sense of common cause and a way of releasing martial energies against neighboring opponents. The rich booty and tribute gained often was more of a motivation than spreading Islam since converts were exempt from taxes and shared the spoils of victory.
Weaknesses of the Adversary Empires. The weak Sasanian Empire was ruled by an emperor manipulated by a landed, aristocratic class that exploited the agricultural masses. Official Zoroastrianism lacked popular roots, and the more popular creed of Mazdak had been brutally suppressed. The Arabs defeated the poorly prepared Sasanian military and ended the dynasty in 651. The Byzantines were more resilient adversaries. The empire had been weakened by the defection of frontier Arabs and persecuted Christian sects and by long wars with the Sasanians. The Arabs quickly seized western Iraq, Syria, Palestine, and Egypt. From the 640s, Arabs had gained naval supremacy in the eastern Mediterranean and extended conquests westward into North Africa and southern Europe. The weakened Byzantines held off attacks in their core Asia Minor and Balkan territories.
The Problem of Succession and the Sunni-Shia Split. Arab victories for a time covered old tribal, internal divisions. The murder of Uthman, the third caliph, caused a succession struggle. Muhammad’s earliest followers supported Ali, but he was rejected by the Umayyads. In the ensuing hostilities, Ali won the advantage, until at Siffin in 657; he accepted a plea for mediation. Ali then lost the support of his most radical adherents, and the Umayyads won the renewed hostilities. The Umayyad leader, Mu’awiya, was proclaimed caliph in 660. Ali was assassinated in 661, and his son, Hasan, renounced claims to the caliphate. Ali’s second son, Husayn, was killed at Karbala in 680. The dispute left permanent divisions within Islam. The Sunnis backed the Umayyads, while the Shia upheld the rights of Ali’s descendants to be caliphs.
The Umayyad Imperium. With internal disputes resolved, Muslims during the 7th and 8th centuries pushed forward into central Asia, northwest India, North Africa, and southwestern Europe. The Franks checked the advance north into Europe at Poitiers in 732, but Muslims retained Iberia for centuries. By the 9th century, they dominated the Mediterranean. The Umayyad political capital was at Damascus. The caliphs built an imperial administration with both bureaucracy and military dominated by a Muslim-Arab elite. The warriors remained concentrated in garrison towns to prevent assimilation by the conquered.
Converts and “People of the Book.” Umayyad policy did not prevent interaction—intermarriage and conversion—between Arabs and their subjects. Muslim converts, malawi, still paid taxes and did not receive a share of booty; they were blocked from important positions in the army or bureaucracy. Most of the conquered peoples were dhimmis, or “people of the book.” The first were Jews and Christians; later the term also included Zoroastrians and Hindus. The dhimmis had to pay taxes but were allowed to retain their own religious and social organization.
Family and Gender Roles in the Umayyad Age. Gender relationships altered as the Muslim community expanded. Initially, the more favorable status of women among the Arabs prevailed over the seclusion and male domination common in the Middle East. Muhammad and the Qur’an stressed the moral and ethical dimensions of marriage. The adultery of both partners was denounced; female infanticide was forbidden. Although women could have only one husband, men were allowed four wives, but all had to be treated equally. Muhammad strengthened women’s legal rights in inheritance and divorce. Both sexes were equal before Allah.
Umayyad Decline and Fall. The spoils of victory brought luxurious living styles and decline of military talents to the Umayyads. Many Muslims considered such conduct a retreat from Islamic virtues, and revolts occurred throughout the empire. The most important occurred in the mid-8th century among frontier warriors settled near the Iranian borderland town of Merv. Many men had married locally and developed regional loyalties. Angry at not receiving adequate shares of booty, they revolted when new troops were introduced. The rebels were led by the Abbasid clan. Allied with Shia and mawali, Abu al-Abbas defeated the Umayyads in 750, later assassinating most of their clan leaders.
From Arab to Islamic Empire: The Early Abbasid Era. The triumph of the new dynasty reflected a series of fundamental changes within the Islamic world. The increased size of Muslim civilization brought growing regional identities and made it difficult to hold the empire together. The Abbasid victory led to increased bureaucratic expansion, absolutism, and luxurious living. The Abbasids championed conversion and transformed the character of the previous Arab-dominated Islamic community. Once in power, the Abbasids turned against the Shia and other allies to support a less tolerant Sunni Islam. At their new capital, Baghdad, the rulers accepted Persian ruling concepts, elevating themselves to a different status than the earlier Muslim leaders. A growing bureaucracy worked under the direction of the wazir, or chief administrator. The great extent of the empire hindered efficiency, but the regime worked well for more than a century. The constant presence of the royal executioner symbolized the absolute power of the rulers over their subjects.
Islamic Conversion and Mawali Acceptance. Under the Abbasids, new converts, both Arabs and others, were fully integrated into the Muslim community. The old distinction between mawali and older believers disappeared. Most conversions occurred peacefully. Many individuals sincerely accepted appealing, ethical Islamic beliefs. Others perhaps reacted to the advantages of avoiding special taxes and to the opportunities for advancement open to believers in education, administration, and commerce. Persians, for example, soon became the real source of power in the imperial system.
Town and Country: Commercial Boom and Agrarian Expansion. The rise of the mawali was accompanied by the growth in wealth and status of merchant and landlord classes. Urban expansion was linked to a revival of an Afro-Eurasian trading network in decline since the fall of the Han and Roman empires. Muslim merchants moved goods from the western Mediterranean to the South China Sea. The resulting profits stimulated urban development. Mosques, schools, baths, rest houses, and hospitals served the public. Handicraft production increased in both government and private workshops. The most skilled artisans formed guild-like organizations to negotiate wages and working conditions and to provide support services. Slaves performed unskilled labor and served caliphs and high officials. Some slaves held powerful positions and gained freedom, but unskilled slaves, many of them Africans, frequently worked under terrible conditions. A rural, landed elite, the ayan, emerged. The majority of peasants occupied land as tenants and had to give most of their harvest to the owners.
The First Flowering of Islamic Learning. The Arabs before Islam were without writing and knew little of the outside world. They were very receptive to the accomplishments of the many civilizations falling to Muslim armies. Under the Abbasids, Islamic creativity first appeared in mosque and palace construction. Islamic learning flourished in religious, legal, and philosophical discourse, with special focus on the sciences and mathematics. Scholars recovered and preserved the works of earlier civilizations. Greek writings were saved and later passed on to the Christian world. Muslims also introduced Indian numbers into the Mediterranean world.