The Arab Empire
Asia, Africa, Europe
One of the most significant events in history happened in the early seventh century in the deep interior of the Arabian Peninsula. The introduction of a new religion, Islam, to the world by the Prophet Mohammed united numerous warring Arab tribes. With their new found religious fervor, Arab armies march forth to spread the word of Islam. Arab invasions of surrounding lands resulted in the establishment of one of the largest empires in history, the Arab Empire.
In the major Arab trading city of Mecca, Mohammed was born around 570. A member of the Quraysh tribe, Mohammed means “highly praised” in Arabic. Mohammed never knew his father and his mother died when he was six years old. Abu Talib, Mohammed’s paternal uncle raised him to adulthood.
Without a normal family and limited financial support, Mohammed was forced to work hard in his early years to support himself. He performed various jobs such as tending sheep, cleaning buildings and selling different trade goods. He eventually was hired as a trade agent by a rich widow named Khadija. Representing her business interests, Mohammed traveled throughout Arabia and nearby lands. During his travels, Mohammed came into contact with and became interested in foreign peoples and religions.
Mohammed met Catholic Christians in Syria, which was part of the Byzantine (Eastern Roman) Empire. In other areas he met Jews and Abyssinian (Ethiopian) Christians. During discussions with peoples of these faiths, he came to know of God and the Prophets of the Bible; Jesus, Moses, Abraham and others of the Christian and Jewish religions.
Mohammed married Khadija and was faithful to her for the remaining 25 years of her life. His marriage to the wealthy Khadija allowed Mohammed more personal leisure time. In the year 610, Mohammed traveled to Hira and while sleeping in a nearby cave, was awaken by an angel according to Mohammed’s first biographer Ibn Ishaq.
Mohammed claimed that he spoke with the angel and that later he was spoken to by the angel Gabriel. Mohammed was convinced over time that he was destined by Allah (Arabic for God), to honor Allah and that he should share the word of Allah with the world. Mohammed began preaching publicly in Mecca in 613. Gradually and through hard work and turmoil, the new religion of Islam grew in acceptance, strength and power.
Death of Mohammed
Following the death of Mohammed in 632, believers of Islam, in search of new converts to Islam and plunder, surged out from Arabia to conquer surrounding lands. Territories ruled for centuries by the mighty Byzantine (Eastern Roman) and Persian Empires were quickly overwhelmed. Key lands such as Syria, Egypt, Persia, North Africa, Palestine, Iraq, Armenia, Afghanistan, India and Spain came under control of the new Arab Empire.
For 600 years, Islam was the most potent and vital religion, culture and military force in the world. The Arab Empire was ruled by successors of Mohammed. These new leaders were called Caliphs and the political-religious state of the Muslim community and the peoples and lands under their control was known as the Caliphate. The first Caliphs were Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman and Ali. The assassination of Uthman and the ineffectual and tumultuous reign of Ali contributed to the first major split within the Muslim community that resulted into two major groups of Muslim believers; the Shia and the Sunni.
Muawiyah, a member of Uthman’s Umayyad clan, skillfully took over the Caliphate and established the Umayyad Empire which lasted until 750. Many consider the years of rule by the Umayyads to be the golden age of the religion of Islam. The religion was thoroughly analyzed, embellished, documented and translated widely. Peoples from the newly conquered lands were converted to the new faith by the millions.
The Abbasids were a new political faction headed by Abbas, a descendant of one of Mohammed’s uncles. The Abbasids’ power base was in Persia, which chafed under the control of the Umayyads. Around 750 the Abbasids replaced the Umayyads as the new Caliphate. The Abbasid dynasty would last for 500 years.
Golden Age of Islam
The Abbasid Caliph Harun al-Rashid (r.786-809), presided over the Golden Age of Islam. The Abbasids moved the capital of the Arab Empire from Damascus to an ancient village called Baghdad, about 20 miles from the former Persian capital of Ctesiphon. This site was chosen as it dominated the intersections of great trade routes along the Empire and beyond. Commerce, trade and riches were flowing into the Abbasid Empire. Trade, new building and the study of arts, medicine and more flourished. Great caravans and ships arrived into the Empire. Silk, peacocks, ink, porcelain and spices came from China. Rubies, dyes, ebony, silver arrived from India. Perfumes, gold, pearls and slaves arrived from the Persian Gulf and Africa.
Prosperity birthed a new profession of banking and business management that reached a level of sophistication in Islam that would not be attained by the West for over 300 years. Medicine, writing, mathematics, art, architecture, philosophy and more all expanded to new heights unknown to the rest of the world. Arab scholars absorbed ancient Greek writings, philosophy, medicine and mathematics and dramatically enhanced and expanded this knowledge. Magnificent mosques, Muslim places of worship, were erected across the Empire, brilliantly decorated to celebrate submission to Allah.
The End of the Arab Empire
Over the years, the enormity of the Arab Empire proved difficult to control from Baghdad. Rival political and religious factions wrestled for control to escape the dominance of the Abbasids. Persian Buyids, Turkish tribes newly converted to Islam, rival Muslim Islamic sects and Christian Crusaders descended upon the Abbasids.
In 1055 Seljuk Turks conquered Baghdad but left the Abbasids as rulers. The Christian Crusaders from Europe recaptured the holy city of Jerusalem in 1099, stolen from the Christians by the Arabs almost three centuries earlier. More ominously, a threat from the East that would shatter almost every civilization in the world appeared. The powerful and seemingly unbeatable Mongols surged into Abbasid territory. In 1221 the Great Khan, leader of the Mongol armies, ordered the invasion and destruction of Abbasid Persia. His order was achieved with great ferocity.
In 1258, the Mongol Khan Hulagu seized and destroyed Baghdad and the Abbasid dynasty collapsed completely. This timeframe recognizes the end of the Arab Empire. From 1258 onwards, Islam and Arab culture, knowledge and influence would continue to grow but under new Muslim rulers. Eventually the Ottoman Turks would control most of the Muslim world and the Ottoman Caliph would rule from Constantinople in Turkey until 1918.