Muhammad had been accepted as the political and religious leader of the Islamic community. The death of Muhammad left his followers with a problem: Muhammad had never named a successor

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The Arabs

Muhammad had been accepted as the political and religious leader of the Islamic community. The death of Muhammad left his followers with a problem: Muhammad had never named a successor. Although he had several daughters, he had left no son. In a male-oriented society, who would lead the community of the faithful?

Shortly after Muhammad's death, some of his closest followers chose Abū Bakr (uh • BOO BA • kuhr), a wealthy merchant and Muhammad’s father-in-law, to be their leader. Abū Bakr had been Muhammad’s companion on the journey to Madinah in 622. There Abū Bakr had functioned as Muhammad’s chief adviser and also led the public prayers during Muhammad’s final illness. In 632 Abū Bakr was named caliph (KAY • luhf ), the religious and political successor to Muhammad.

Under Abū Bakr's leadership, the Islamic movement grew. He suppressed tribal political and religious uprisings, thereby uniting the Muslim world. Muhammad had overcome military efforts by the early Makkans to defeat his movement. The Quran permitted fair, defensive warfare as jihad (jih • HAHD), or "struggle in the way of God." Muhammad’s successors expanded their territory.

Unified under Abū Bakr, the Arabs began to turn the energy they had once directed toward each other against neighboring peoples. At Yarmūk in 636, the Arab army defeated the Byzantine army in a dust storm that let the Arabs take their enemy by surprise.

Four years later, they took control of the Byzantine province of Syria in Southwest Asia. By 642, Egypt and other areas of northern Africa had been added to the new Arab Empire. To the east, the Arabs had conquered the entire Persian Empire by 650.

The Arabs, led by a series of brilliant generals, had put together a large, dedicated army that traveled long distances and crossed mountains and harsh terrain. The courage of the Arab soldiers was enhanced by the belief that Muslim warriors were assured a place in paradise if they died in battle.

Early caliphs ruled their far-flung empire from Madinah. After Abū Bakr died, problems arose over who should become the next caliph. There were no clear successors to Abū Bakr, and the first two caliphs to rule after his death were assassinated. In 656 Ali, Muhammad's son-in-law and one of the first converts to Islam, was chosen to be caliph, but he was also assassinated after ruling for five years.

In the conquered territories, Muslim administrators were relatively tolerant, sometimes allowing local officials to continue to govern. Both Christians and Jews were allowed to practice their religions. Following the concept ofdhimmitude, however, these peoples were free to practice their religions, but they were also subjected to some regulations in order to make them aware that they had been subdued by their conquerors. Those who chose not to convert were required to be loyal to Muslim rule and to pay special taxes.

In 661 the general Mu'āwiyah (moo • AH • wee • uh), the governor of Syria and one of Ali’s chief rivals, became caliph. He was known for one outstanding virtue: he used force only when absolutely necessary. As he said, "I never use my sword when my whip will do, nor my whip when my tongue will do."

Mu‘āwiyah moved quickly to make the office of caliph, called the caliphate, hereditary in his own family. In doing this, he established the Umayyad (oo • MY • uhd) dynasty. He then moved the capital of the Arab Empire from Madinah to Damascus, in Syria.

At the beginning of the eighth century, the Arabs carried out new attacks at both the eastern and western ends of the Mediterranean world. Arab armies moved across North Africa and conquered and converted the Berbers, a pastoral people who lived along the Mediterranean coast.

Around 710, combined Berber and Arab forces crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and occupied southern Spain in Europe. By 725, most of Spain had become a Muslim state with its center at Córdoba. In 732, however, Arab forces were defeated at the Battle of Tours in Gaul (now France). Arab expansion in Europe had come to a halt.

In 717 another Muslim force had launched an attack on Constantinople with the hope of defeating the Byzantine Empire. The Byzantines survived, however, by destroying the Muslim fleet. This created an uneasy frontier in southern Asia Minor between the Byzantine Empire and the Islamic world

By 750, the Arab advance had finally come to an end, but not before the southern and eastern Mediterranean parts of the old Roman Empire had been conquered. Arab power also extended to the east in Mesopotamia and Persia and northward into central Asia.

The Umayyad dynasty at Damascus now ruled an enormous empire. Expansion had brought great wealth and new ethnic groups into the fold of Islam, as well as contact with other civilizations. As a result, the new Arab Empire would be influenced by Byzantine and Persian cultures.

In spite of Umayyad successes, internal struggles threatened the empire’s stability. Many Muslims of non-Arab background, such as Persians and Byzantines, did not like the way local administrators favored the Arabs. Financial troubles further weakened the Umayyad dynasty. Also, since the empire was so vast, it was difficult to rule from a capital that was far from the frontiers. These distant regions began to develop their own power, which was hostile to the caliphate.

An especially important revolt took place in what is now Iraq early in the Umayyad period. It was led by Hussein (hoo • SAYN), second son of Ali—the son-in-law of Muhammad. Hussein encouraged his followers to rise up against Umayyad rule in 680. He set off to do battle, but his soldiers defected, leaving him with an army of 72 warriors against 10,000 Umayyad soldiers. Hussein’s tiny force fought courageously, but all died.

This struggle led to a split of Islam into two groups. The Shia (SHEE • AH) Muslims accept only the descendants of Ali as the true rulers of Islam. The Sunni (SU • NEE) Muslims did not all agree with Umayyad rule but accepted the Umayyads as caliphs. This political split led to the development of two branches of Muslims that persist to the present. The Sunnis are a majority in the Muslim world, but most of the people in Iraq and neighboring Iran consider themselves to be Shia. 

Resentment against Umayyad rule grew among non-Arab Muslims over the favoritism shown to Arabs. The Umayyads also helped bring about their demise by corrupt behavior. Abū al-'Abbās, a descendant of Muhammad’s uncle, overthrew the Umayyad dynasty in 750. Abū al-'Abbās established a new caliphate ruled by the Abbasid (uh • BA • suhd) dynasty, which lasted until 1258.

In 762 the Abbasids built a new capital city at Baghdad, on the Tigris River, far to the east of the Umayyad capital at Damascus. Baghdad's location took advantage of river traffic in the Persian Gulf and the caravan route from the Mediterranean to central Asia.

The move eastward increased Persian influence and encouraged a new cultural outlook. Under the Umayyads, warriors had been seen as the ideal citizens. Under the Abbasids, judges, merchants, and government officials were the new heroes. The Abbasid rulers tried to break down the distinctions between Arab and non-Arab Muslims. This change opened Islamic culture to the influence of the civilizations they had conquered. All Muslims, regardless of ethnic background, could now hold both civil and military offices. Many Arabs began to intermarry with conquered peoples.

The best known of the caliphs of the time was Ha¯ru¯n al-Rashı-d (ha • ROON ahl•rah • SHEED), whose reign is often described as the golden age of the Abbasid caliphate. Ha¯ru¯n al-Rashı-d was known for his charity, and he also lavished support on artists and writers.

This was a period of growing prosperity in the Muslim world. The Arabs had conquered many of the richest provinces of the Roman Empire, and they now controlled the trade routes to the East. Baghdad became the center of a large trade empire that helped spread products and knowledge from the Islamic world to Asia, Africa, and Europe. For example, from Persia the knowledge of planting sugarcane and building windmills spread west along the trade routes.

Under the Abbasids, the caliph began to act more regally. The bureaucracy assisting the caliph grew more complex. A council headed by a prime minister, known as a vizier, advised the caliph. During council meetings, the caliph sat behind a screen listening to the council’s discussions and then whispered his orders to the vizier.

Despite its prosperity, all was not well in the empire of the Abbasids. There was much fighting over the succession to the caliphate. When Hārūn al-Rashı-d died, his two sons fought to succeed him, almost destroying the city of Baghdad.

Vast wealth gave rise to financial corruption. Members of Hārūn al-Rashı-d’s clan were given large sums of money from the state treasury. His wife was reported to have spent vast sums on a pilgrimage to Makkah.

The shortage of qualified Arabs for key positions in the army and the civil service also contributed to the decline of the Abbasids. Caliphs began to recruit officials from among non-Arabs, such as Persians and Turks. These people were trained to serve the caliphs, but gradually they dominated the army and the bureaucracy. 

Eventually, rulers of the provinces of the Abbasid Empire began to break away and establish independent dynasties. Spain had established a separate caliphate when a prince of the Umayyad dynasty fled there in 750. Morocco became independent, and a new dynasty under the Fatimids was established in Egypt, with its capital at Cairo, in 973. The Muslim Empire was now politically divided.

The Fatimid dynasty in Egypt soon became the dynamic center of Islamic civilization. From their position in the heart of the Nile delta, the Fatimids played a major role in trade from the Mediterranean to the Red Sea. They created a strong army by hiring nonnative soldiers. One such group was the Seljuk (SEHL • JOOK) Turks. 

The Seljuk Turks were a nomadic people from central Asia. They had converted to Islam and prospered as soldiers for the Abbasid caliphate. As the Abbasids grew weaker, the Seljuk Turks grew stronger, moving gradually into Iran and Armenia. By the eleventh century, they had taken over the eastern provinces of the Abbasid Empire.

In 1055 a Turkish leader captured Baghdad and took command of the empire. His title was sultan—or "holder of power." The Abbasid caliph was still the chief religious authority, but, after they captured Baghdad, the Seljuk Turks held the real military and political power of the state.

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