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Islamic Civilization
Content Goals and Objectives:
Goal 3 – The Islamic World
The student will trace and evaluate the impact of the Islamic movement on medieval
3.01 Survey the major developments of the Arabian Peninsula before the arrival of the
Islamic movement.
3.02 Trace the life and teachings of Mohammed.
3.03 Categorize the major tenets of Islam and their impact on the Arabian Peninsula.
3.04 Map the expansion of Islam from the Arabian Peninsula into Asia, Africa, and
3.05 Summarize the political achievements and developments of the Umayyad Dynasty.
3.06 Assess the political achievements and developments of the Abbasic Caliphate as
successor to the Umayyad Dynasty.
Arabian Peninsula and the Bedouin
The Arabian Peninsula is 1 million square miles of arid desert between the Red Sea on
the west and the Persian Gulf on the east. It is made mostly of scarcely populated hot
plains and deserts. The people that chose to live in this hostile climate on the peninsula
were called the Bedouin. They were typically nomadic and herded sheep, camels, and
goats from vegetated area to area. Like most nomadic cultures the Bedouin lived in tribes
of related families. Each tribe was led by a sheikh or chief. Their culture was simple in
most respects but eventually it developed its own written language, Arabic, and also a
trade network that spanned the peninsula.
As the commerce network developed connecting all of the points of the peninsula it
became a crossroads for the trade of luxury goods between the west and the east trading
settlements. As a result the Bedouin towns grew in population and strength. Mecca
(sometimes spelled Makkah) was such a town. It developed quickly in the 500s CE
because it was commercial crossroad. It also was a place of religious pilgrimage for the
Bedouins and Arabs. A shrine had been constructed for the mysterious stone of Kaaba
and other statues of Arabic gods. The Bedouin religion during this time had grown into
an odd eclectic mix of polytheism and animism. s trade connections increased in Mecca
so did contacts with monotheistic religions, Judaism and Christianity. This would
arguably have a major influence on the Bedouin and Arabic religion.
It was within this cultural background that Muhammad was born in Mecca around 570
CE. His parents died early in his life and he was raised by his closest relative, an uncle.
Muhammad was involved in the practice that made Mecca what it was, and that was
commerce. After practicing the trade for several years Muhammad married a wealthy
older widow. So at the age of 25 he was financially set. But living the life of luxury did
not suit Muhammad. In his spare time he walked the city of Mecca and saw many
problems. He worried about the greed of people and the mistreatment of the poor. This
drove Muhammad to spend many hours alone in the desert pondering the meaning of life
and suffering. Around 610 he heard a voice in his head instructing him to recite and warn
the people. Muhammad came to the conclusion that it was Allah (Arab word for God)
speaking to him. It wasn’t until 613 that Muhammad shared with others what Allah told
him and this was only after reassurances from a relative that he was, in fact, not crazy.
Mohammad’s Message
In general Muhammad’s message was simple, very much like the Bedouin culture. The
message was that there was only one God, Allah, and everyone was equal in his eyes so
everyone should be treated equally (Not a bad message at any rate.) This message was
not well received by the merchants of Mecca who perceived the economic inequalities as
natural condition. In addition, if Muhammad’s new religion, now called Islam meaning
“submit,” was a threat to the economic livelihood of the city coming from the pilgrims
who visited the Shrine of Kaaba. From the merchants’ viewpoint, if Islam was accepted
by the population of Arabia, the revenues received from pilgrims visiting the Shrine of
Kaaba might dry up. After all the stone was considered to be part of the pagan past
according to Mohammad. So in response, the merchants of Mecca persecuted
Muhammad and his first followers, called Muslims.
Exile and Return
The persecutions did not stop Muhammad but inspired him to create an Islamic state. In
622 Muhammad left Mecca to travel to a nearby city that appeared to be more
sympathetic to his message, Yathrib. His journey to Yathrib is known as the Hijrah and it
now marks the first year of the Muslim calendar. In Yathrib, Muhammad formed an
Islamic state named Medina (Sometimes spelled Madinah.). By 630 he returned to Mecca
with an army of followers to conquer the city for Islam. When he arrived at Mecca the
city gates swung open to him and he was accepted as the city’s rightful ruler. Then very
rapidly Muhammad took his forces and his appeal with the Arabic people of the
peninsula and consolidated the whole Arabian Peninsula under the rule of an Islamic
Islamic Teachings
During this time period the practices of Islam solidified into what they are today. At the
foundation of the Islam is the Quran (Sometimes spelled Koran.). The story has it that
Muhammad was revealed the content of the Quran over a 22 year period by the angel
Gabriel. The text was written in Arabic and according to tradition should only be read as
such to understand the truth of its revelation. In the end that revelation became the holy
book of Islam and the final authority in matter of faith and lifestyle for the Islamic
The Five Pillars of Islam
The Five Pillars of Islam found in the Quran represent the core of the practices of Islam.
According to the Quran a member of the Islamic faith must practice these five pillars.
The first pillar is faith which is professed in the recited creed, “There is no God but
Allah, Muhammad is His prophet.” The second pillar is prayer five times daily which is
announced or called by the muezzin or reciter. The third pillar is almsgiving or zakat
which means simply giving to the poor. The fourth pillar is the required fasting during the
holy month of Ramadan. The final and fifth pillar is the undertaking of a pilgrimage to
Mecca or hajj once during one’s lifetime. In addition to the practices found in the Quran,
Islamic social teachings can be found in the Hadith which is a collection of sayings and
acts of Muhammad. There is also Sharia or Islamic law which is derived from both the
Quran and Hadith.
The “People of the Book” and the “Seal of the Prophets”
Another fundamental belief of Islam is that Allah sent many other prophets, including
Moses found in the Old Testament and Jesus found in the New Testament of the Bible, to
instruct the people. Because of that belief Muslims accept Christians and Jews as people
who worship the same God. So they are sometimes referred to as “People of the Book.”
Only in the Islamic view it was Muhammad that was the last prophet. It was through him
that the full and perfect religion was revealed or in other terms Muhammad was the “Seal
of the Prophets.” So although there is some kinship with the “People of the Book,” there
is also friction because they have not accepted the “Seal of the Prophets.”
After Muhammad
In 632 after Muhammad passed away the Islamic state that he forged was passed on to
men called caliphs, meaning successor, which were elected for life. The first of these men
was Abu Bakr, Mohammad’s father-in-law. He was followed by Umar and Uthman.
These men were named “The Rightly Guided Caliphs,” because of their exceptional
leadership abilities and religious devotion. It was during their rule that the Islamic state of
the Arabian Peninsula expanded to the rest of the Middle East including North Africa,
Egypt, Persia, and Levant (area of Palestine). But after the “Rightly Guided Caliphs”
questions of succession of caliphs caused a major rift in the unity of Islam.
When Uthman died in 656 a dispute over who would succeed him led to civil war
between members of Muhammad’s family, including Muhammad’s son-in-law and wife.
Finally after several years of struggle, another leader, not related to Muhammad’s family,
named Muawiyah announced that he was the new caliph and established his rule of the
expanded Islamic state. A majority of the Muslims accepted his rule which marked the
beginning of the Umayyad Dynasty. These Muslim refer to themselves as Sunni or the
“People of Tradition and Community.” Today this group makes up about 80 percent of
the Islamic community. But there were members of the Islamic community who did not
accept Muawiyah’s rule because he was not related to Muhammad. This group is known
as the Shiites from Shi’at Ali or “Party of Ali” referring to their belief that Ali was
Muhammad’s rightful successor.
The Umayyad Dynasty
The Umayyad dynasty founded by Muawiyah did not retain power long but it did spread
the Islamic faith through conquest. The first major change initiated by the dynasty was
that the capital was moved from Mecca to Damascus in present-day Syria. From the
strategic vantage point of Damascus, the Umayyad dynasty was able to add even more
territory to the Islamic state including all of North Africa and the Middle East. More
importantly Islamic faith spread on to the continent of Europe through the conquest of
Spain. Islamic forces were only stopped from entering and conquering the region of
France by the Merovingian ruler Charles Martel at the Battle of Tours. The Umayyad
dynasty also harassed the borders of the Byzantine Empire. Only the high and thick walls
of Constantinople protected eastern Europe from falling to Islamic rule.
But it was the underlying political philosophy of the Umayyad dynasty that spelled its
defeat. Unlike the “Rightly Guided Caliphs,” the dynasty’s government was politically
based rather than religiously. This did not sit well with many Muslims. In addition the
original intent of Muhammad to some was to spread Islam through conversion. The
Umayyad’s preferred to be religiously tolerant and accepting of other religions. Nonconverts in conquered territories were allowed to keep their legal systems and worship as
they pleased. This policy made ruling conquered territories for the Umayyads much
easier. But oddly enough converts to Islam were actually taxed in an effort to maintain
the old Islamic aristocracy. A change in rule was in the works.
The Rise of the Abbasids
By 747 Muslim and Muslim converts had become disenchanted with the Umayyad rule.
These men, numbering 50,000 had started to settle in the eastern Iran. The Abbasid
family whose ancestors had been a cousin of Muhammad allied themselves with this
group to overthrow the Umayyad dynasty in 750. From there the capital of the Islamic
state was moved to Baghdad which was once the site of Babylon and a major cultural
center of the old Persian Empire. This gave the Abbasid dynasty a distinctly
cosmopolitan outlook during its reign which lasted until 1258. It was during the Abbasid
dynasty that Islamic culture experienced its Golden Age, more specifically during the
rule of Harun al-Rashid (786-809). The empire also became a truly global civilization
incorporating a variety of religions and cultures within its large borders.
Islamic Culture
It almost goes without saying that the culture of both the Umayyad and Abbasid Islamic
empires was influenced heavily by the teachings of Islam. But oddly the Islamic culture
retained much of its male dominated nature despite the teachings of the Quran on the
equality of women. Muslim men could have up to four wives and many slave women in
which to form a harem. In addition women were kept, meaning that they stayed at home
not to be seen or heard. Of course this also meant that women received little education.
Muslim males, on the other hand, entered school at the age of seven. Once completing
their required education some continued their studies at madrasas or theological schools
where they learned to become political or religious leaders in Islamic society.
Despite the inequalities, the culture did flourish in the areas of art, literature, and
philosophy. Calligraphy, the art of elegant handwriting, developed in response to the
need for religious decoration which did not involve human images (The Islamic people
were iconoclasts to the extreme whose influence could be felt in the Christian Byzantine
Empire!). So to developed the art of arabesque in which intricate geometric designs were
created for religious decoration.
Philosophy and Literature
During the Abbasid period in which Islamic culture reached its zenith, many libraries
were created and stocked across the empire. This expansion can be compared with the
spread of libraries and learning during the Greek Hellenistic period. Because of this, there
were much advancement in the areas of philosophy and literature. Muslim philosophers,
most notably Ibn-Rushd, Ibn Sina, Al-Kindi, and Moses Maimonides, tried to combine
the teaching of the Quran with those of Greek philosophy (The teachings of Aristotle in
particular.). Others like Tabari, Ibn al-Athir, and Ibn Khaldun, wrote histories in which
events were arranged in the order that they occurred. Ibn Khaldun even went so far as to
examine at history scientifically by looking for cause and effect relationships in events.
Finally in literature Muslim writers produced many influential works, including the
Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam and A Thousand and One Arabian Nights.