A History of the Modern Middle East: Sample

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations

Preface to the Sixth Edition


A Note About Place Names and Transliteration

Part One: The Development of Islamic Civilization to the Eighteenth Century

1. The Rise and Expansion of Islam

Pre-Islamic Arabia

Muhammad and the Foundations of Islam

The Arab Conquests and the First Empire

The First Civil War and the End of the Rashidun Caliphate

From Arab Exclusivism to Islamic Universalism: The Umayyad and Abbasid Empires


2. The Development of Islamic Civilization to the Fifteenth Century

Patterns of Islamic History

The Creation and Uses of Wealth

Islamic Rituals and Institutions

Two Versions of Leadership: Sunni Caliph and Shi‘a Imam

The Middle East from the Eleventh to the Fifteenth Centuries: An Overview


3. The Ottoman and Safavid Empires: A New Imperial Synthesis

The Rise of the Ottoman Empire

Ottoman Ruling Institutions and Attitudes

The Loss of Ottoman Superiority

The Triumph of Shi‘ism: The Safavid Empire of Iran, 1501–1736

Conclusion: The Sunni-Shi‘a Struggle for Iraq

Part Two: The Beginnings of the Era of Transformation

4. Forging a New Synthesis: The Pattern of Reforms, 1789–1849

Selim III (1789–1806: Between Old and New

A Revived Center of Power: The Egypt of Muhammad Ali, 1805–1848

Nationalism and Great Power Intervention: The Greek Revolt, 1821–1829

Sultan Mahmud II (1808–1839): Centralization and Transformation


5. The Ottoman Empire and Egypt During the Era of the Tanzimat

The Tanzimat: Continued Ottoman Reform Under the Bureaucrats

The Arab Provinces of Greater Syria During the Tanzimat

Egypt During the Era of Civilian Reform

Conclusion: The Dualism of the Nineteenth-Century Reforms

6. Egypt and Iran in the Late Nineteenth Century

England on the Nile: The British Occupation of Egypt, 1882–1914

Iran During the Second Half of the Nineteenth Century


7. The Response of Islamic Society

Religious Assertiveness and Authoritarian Reform: The Era of Abdul Hamid II

Islamic Puritanism on the Tribal Frontiers: The Wahhabi, Sanusi, and Mahdiyyah Movements

The Reform of High Islam

Emerging Currents of Arab Cultural Distinctiveness


8. The Era of the Young Turks and the Iranian Constitutionalists

The Revolt of 1908 and the Young Turks in Power

The Period of the Iranian Constitutional Revolution


9. World War I and the End of the Ottoman Order

The Middle East in World War I: An Overview of Military and Diplomatic Initiatives

The Peace Settlement

Conclusion: The End of the Ottoman Order in the Middle East

Part Three: The Struggle for Independence: The Interwar Era to the End of World War II

10. Authoritarian Reform in Turkey and Iran

The Atatürk Era in Turkey

Iran under Reza Shah

Turkey and Iran During World War II: Sovereignty and Occupation


11. The Arab Struggle for Independence: Egypt, Iraq, and Transjordan from the Interwar Era to 1945

The Struggle for Power in Egypt in the Interwar Period

An Overview of World War II

Egypt During World War II: Pivot of the British Defense System

Iraq Between the Wars

Iraq During World War II

Transjordan: The Desert Mandate


12. The Arab Struggle for Independence: Syria, Lebanon, and Saudi Arabia from the Interwar Era to 1945

The French Mandate in Syria and Lebanon

Lebanon under the Mandate: The Establishment of Confessional Politics

Syria and Lebanon During World War II: The Troubled Path to Independence

New Kingdom in Arabia: The Rise of the Saudi State

The Search for Identity: Regionalism, Arabism, Islam


13. The Palestine Mandate and the Birth of the State of Israel

The Emergence of Political Zionism

The Balfour Declaration

The Mandate for Palestine: British Administration

The Palestinian Arab Community: Leadership and Institutions

The Jewish Community: Leadership and Institutions

Immigration and Lands

Communal Conflict and the British Response

World War II and the Birth of the State of Israel

The First Arab-Israeli War


Part Four: The Independent Middle East from the End of World War II to the 1970s

14. Democracy and Authoritarianism: Turkey and Iran

The Role of the United States in the Postwar Years

Turkey: The Transition to a Multiparty System

Turkish Foreign Policy and the Cyprus Question

Iran: The Reestablishment of Royal Autocracy


15. The Middle East in the Age of Nasser: The Egyptian Base

The Paralysis of the Old Regime, 1945–1952

The Free Officers and the Cou D’État of 1952

Foreign Relations after 1952

The Adoption of Arab Socialism


16. The Middle East in the Age of Nasser: The Radicalization of Arab Politics

Syria: The Military in Politics

Iraq: The End of the Monarchy

The Hasimite Kingdom of Jordan: The Survival of Monarchy

Lebanon: The Precarious Sectarian Balance

Israel, The Arab States, and the June War

Conclusion: The Nasser Era in Perspective

17. Israel and the Palestinians from 1948 to the 1970s

The Israeli Political System and Political Culture

The Elections of 1977: Israel in Transition

The Palestinian Factor after 1948


Part Five: The Resurgence of Islam: The Middle East from the 1970s to the 1991 Gulf War

18. The Iranian Revolution and the Revival of Islam

The Stages of Revolution in Iran

The Revival of Islam


19. Changing Patterns of War and Peace: Egypt and Lebanon in the 1970s and 1980s

Egypt Under Sadat: Domestic and Diplomatic Realignments

The Lebanese Civil War, 1975–1990

Egypt in the 1980s


20. The Arabian Peninsula in the Petroleum Era

The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia

Kuwait, Oman, and the Smaller Gulf States


21. The Consolidation of Authoritarian Rule in Syria and Iraq: The Regimes of Hafiz al-Asad and Saddam Husayn

Syria in the Al-Asad Era

Iraq in the Era of Saddam Husayn and the Ba‘th

The Iran-Iraq War, 1980–1988


Part Six: Challenges to the Existing Order: The Middle East in the 1990s and 2000s

22. The Palestinian Intifada and the 1991 Gulf War

The Intifada from 1987 to 1991

The Gulf Crisis of 1990–1991

The Aftermath of the Gulf War


23. A Peace So Near, a Peace So Far: Palestinian-Israeli Relations Since the 1991 Gulf War

The Road to the Oslo Peace Accords

The Unraveling of the Oslo Peace Process

The Road from Taba


24. Patterns of Continuity and Change in Turkey, Iran, and Lebanon

Turkey and Iran: Nations at a Crossroads

Hizbullah and the Struggle for Lebanon


25. America’s Troubled Moment in the Middle East

The Policy of Dual Containment

Al-Qa‘Ida and the Attacks of September 11, 2001

The Occupation of Iraq

Iran’s Nuclear Program


26. The 2011 Arab Uprisings and Their Aftermath

Understanding the Uprisings’ Dynamics



Yemen and Libya

Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Monarchies

Conclusion: Connecting Threads

List of Major Rulers


Select Bibliography



Preface to the Sixth Edition

Bill Cleveland passed away on September 28, 2006, following years of struggle with leukemia and related complications. Just weeks earlier, Bill had officially retired from the Department of History at Simon Fraser University, where his skill and dedication in the classroom were widely acclaimed.

The first edition of Bill’s textbook, published in 1994, concluded with an initial assessment of the significance of the 1991 Gulf War as a major turning point in the modern history of the region. The textbook was revised for republication in 2000, 2004 and 2008. These editions were able to observe more clearly the patterns of continuity and change that had unfolded since the Gulf War, and reflect on both the 2001 al-Qa‘ida attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center and the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

In the fifth edition, published in 2013, a new Part Six, “Challenges to the Existing Order: The Middle East in the 1990s and 2000s,” was created to identify more clearly the development of historical trends since the Gulf War: the rise and fall of the Oslo peace process; the development and evolution of Islamist movements and institutions in Turkey, Iran, and Lebanon; the efforts of the United States to assert its hegemony; and the dramatic Arab uprisings of 2011. This sixth edition expands on the regional impact of all of these far-reaching developments. Also new to this edition are the “Key Events” timelines that precede each of the six parts, and the List of Major Rulers that can be found with the Glossary at the end of the book.

This book is intended to introduce Middle Eastern history to students and general readers who have not previously studied the subject. In the pages that follow, the term Middle East refers to the region from Egypt in the west through Iran in the east, and from Turkey in the north to the Arabian Peninsula in the south. Sound arguments exist, perhaps now more than ever, for extending the geographical coverage to include Arab North Africa, the Sudan, and Islamic Afghanistan. However, for purposes of coherence and manageability this text concentrates on the central Middle East. The primary chronological focus of the book is from the late eighteenth to the early twenty-first centuries.

Part One offers a general survey of the patterns of Middle Eastern history from the rise of Islam to the eighteenth century. Chapters 1 and 2 present the main features of Islamic faith and ritual and examine the emergence of Islamic social and political institutions from the time of the Prophet Muhammad to the end of the fourteenth century. In trying to portray Islam on its own terms and in its proper historical setting, these chapters underline the importance of the interaction between the Islam of the Quranic revelations and the settled civilizations of the Near East. They also stress the global aspects of Islamic civilization and try to demonstrate that the dynamic of that civilization cannot be understood by focusing only on the rise and decline of one Middle Eastern Islamic empire, but rather must be seen as a global pattern of several different centers of Islamic florescence, each true to the essentials of the Quranic revelations yet also anchored in economically and culturally unique settings. Chapter 3 examines the rise of the Ottoman Empire and the formation of Ottoman ruling institutions and discusses the rise and fall of the Iran-based Safavid Empire.

Part Two focuses on three main centers of political authority—the Ottoman Empire, the autonomous province of Egypt, and the Qajar Empire of Iran—from the early nineteenth century to the peace settlements of 1919–1920. The patterns of transformation in Iran were different from those in Egypt and the Ottoman Empire. These chapters attempt to identify and explain the differences and to show their significance for the development of modern Iran. The modern history of the Ottoman-Egyptian Middle East is approached with the belief that the area was organized by a long-established system based on Ottoman-Islamic practices and values. The Ottoman system had never been either static or uniform throughout the region, and it was again in flux on the eve of its nineteenth- and twentieth-century transformation. Nevertheless, after three hundred years, the general objectives and practices of Ottoman rule were understood and their application was predictable to the inhabitants of the various regions of the empire.

One prominent theme of the book is that the disruption and eventual destruction of established Ottoman-Islamic ruling practices and social relationships during and after the reforming era was a wrenching and disorienting experience for the peoples of the Middle East. The terminology of this process of change has often been presented under the headings of “modernization” or “Westernization.” However, those terms have taken on connotations that are either value-laden, culturally judgmental, or both. This book instead employs the term transformation, which better conveys the objectives of nineteenth-century reformers and also places nineteenth-century changes in the context of earlier eras of Middle Eastern transformation. The nineteenth century was not the first instance of externally inspired transformation in the Islamic Middle East, nor was it the first attempt at Ottoman reform. The rise and consolidation of the Ottoman Empire in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries was itself a transforming process. So, too, was the imposition of Shi‘ism in Iran during the same period. Nineteenth-century Middle Eastern rulers did not intend to “Westernize” their states but merely sought to adopt selected European technological improvements and organizational methods for their armed forces. However, as Part Two demonstrates, as greater numbers of influential administrators and military officers became committed to selective borrowing from Europe, the transformation was accelerated and spread to spheres outside the purely military.

Next, Chapter 4 discusses the early phase of the transformation as embodied in the reform programs of the Ottoman sultans, Selim III and Mahmud II, and Muhammad Ali of Egypt. Chapter 5 examines the acceleration of the transformation during the Ottoman Tanzimat and the reign of Isma‘il in Egypt, showing how the combination of increased expenditures and the loss of local markets to European merchants led to the bankruptcy of the two states and the eventual British occupation of Egypt. It also focuses on educational changes and shows the patterns by which the so-called French knowers came to be favored over the graduates of religious institutions for positions in the bureaucracy, the teaching profession, and the judiciary. Chapter 6 explores the impact of the British occupation on Egypt up to the outbreak of World War I and examines Qajar Iran during the reign of Nasir al-Din Shah. Introducing late nineteenth-century Iran at this point in the book enables readers to grasp the differences between the Ottoman-Egyptian experiences already discussed and the circumstances affecting Iran.

Chapter 7 presents the perspective of individuals who opposed the transformation or at least wished it to be more firmly grounded in Islamic practices and principles. The Ottoman ruler Sultan Abdul Hamid II and three rural reformist movements, the Wahhabi, the Sanusi, and the Mahdiyyah, are representative of the trend of resistance to European-style reforms that surfaced in the late nineteenth century. The chapter also deals with the ideas of Islamic reform put forward by Muhammad Abduh as well as with the more secular “Arab awakening” sparked by the activities of Christian missionaries and the introduction of the printing press. The discussion in Chapter 8 concentrates on two very different protest movements in favor of constitutional government. The Young Turk revolution restored the Ottoman constitution and brought to power a group of military officers and civil servants educated in the new institutions and determined to reform, and thus to save, the Ottoman Empire. The first section of this chapter examines their policies and seeks to identify the main currents of communal identity that competed for the loyalties of the Ottoman population on the eve of World War I. The second section discusses the Iranian constitutional upheaval of 1905–1911 and compares it to the Young Turk era.

Chapter 9 deals with World War I in the Middle East, the various wartime agreements and treaties regarding the disposition of Ottoman territories, and the final peace settlement that divided the former Ottoman Arab lands between Britain and France. The conclusion of this chapter argues that the passing of the Ottoman Empire and of the organizing principles on which it was based was of seminal importance for the peoples of the Middle East, particularly the inhabitants of the former Arab provinces of the empire. The Arabs had not prepared for a post-Ottoman order, and certainly not for one that found them ruled by British and French occupiers. For the quarter century after 1920, the Arab leaders were preoccupied with gaining full independence from the European powers and establishing national identities for their new states.

Part Three covers the period from the imposition of the mandate system to the creation of Israel in 1948. The thorny question of how to present Middle Eastern history after the Ottoman collapse and the emergence of several new states has received a variety of answers in other books. The hope here is that a comparative state approach brings out the characteristics of special chronological eras or periods. In short, Part Three argues that there was an interwar era that possessed certain common features that distinguish it from preceding and succeeding periods. The emphasis, for example, on the importance of the Ottoman background to this period in Turkey and the Arab successor states suggests the existence of continuities in the political leadership that set the tone for the relationship between the local elite and the European occupying power. Chapter 10 compares the objectives and impact of the reform programs of Atatürk in Turkey and Reza Shah in Iran. The treatment of the Arab states tries not only to show the internal continuities and breaks with the late Ottoman era but also to demonstrate that the British and French patterns of administrative control played an important role in shaping the development of the states under their rule. Chapter 11 discusses Egypt, Iraq, and Transjordan, countries in which Britain exercised dominance, and Chapter 12 examines French rule in Syria and Lebanon as well as the special case of the rise of Saudi Arabia. The latter chapter concludes with an analysis of the major political ideologies of the interwar period: regionalism, pan-Arab nationalism, and the continuing appeal of Islamic solidarity. Chapter 13 deals with the Palestine mandate and the birth of Israel.

Part Four is a study of the Middle East from 1945 to the early 1970s. Chapter 14 discusses Turkey to the restoration of civilian government in 1983 and Iran to the eve of revolution in the mid-1970s. Chapters 15 and 16 treat the Arab states, and their relations with Israel, during the period defined as “the Nasser era,” a term employed in the belief that Nasserism exercised a major influence on the Arab world, not just by the inspiration it provided during the rule of the Egyptian president but also by the despair it left in the wake of its unexpected collapse in 1967. Chapter 17 examines Israeli political culture and institutions from 1948 to 1977; it also treats the emergence of the Palestine Liberation Organization and the impact of that organization’s search for a regional base of operations up to Black September 1970.

Part Five examines the Middle East in the 1970s and the 1980s, with a focus on the resurgence of Islam. These chapters were reorganized in the fifth edition, but the introduction retains the earlier editions’ guidelines for understanding the new historical patterns that emerged in the early 1970s. Of course, no single organizing theme can accurately embrace the diversity of the emergent trends, but the resurgence of Islamic-based political activity is certainly one of the most far-reaching. Chapter 18 is divided into two parts: The first analyzes the Iranian revolution of 1979 and discusses the significance of the creation of the Islamic Republic of Iran; the second examines the resurgence of politicized Islam as a general Middle Eastern phenomenon. Chapter 19, which focuses on Egypt and Lebanon during the 1970s and 1980s, discusses the pressures that influenced President Anwar Sadat of Egypt to launch a war against Israel in 1973 and to sign a peace treaty with that same state in 1979. It also examines Egypt’s Islamist opposition, many features of which characterized the Islamic resurgence as a whole. Turning to Lebanon, the chapter focuses on the local demographic changes that combined with the activities of Palestinian organizations to plunge Lebanon into a bloody sectarian war and to prompt Israel to invade the country in 1982. The chapter concludes with a section on the early years of Husni Mubarak’s rule in Egypt (the increased attraction of Islam as a mainstream opposition movement is a theme returned to in the analysis in Chapter 26 of Mubarak’s fall). The focus in Chapter 20 is on Saudi Arabia and Yemen from the early 1950s to the 1980s and on the oil-producing Arab states of the Persian Gulf from their formation to the 1980s. It stresses the effects of the oil price revolution of 1973 and discusses the tensions caused by the ruling families’ deployment of vast wealth to create social and technological change as well as to prevent political change, and considers the role played by Islam as a legitimating factor. Presidents Hafiz al-Asad of Syria and Saddam Husayn of Iraq both dominated their respective countries for about three decades. Chapter 21 examines their rise to power, their domestic and foreign policies, the transformation in the social composition of the ruling elite that their rule represented and encouraged, and their brutal repression of the Islamist opposition. The chapter closes with a discussion of the Iran-Iraq War of 1980–1988, the aftermath of which set the stage for Husayn’s invasion of Kuwait in 1990.

Part Six covers developments in the region from the early 1990s onward. From 1987 to 1991 the Middle East was rocked by a series of internal crises and an external intervention that had momentous consequences for the future of the region. Chapter 22 examines the Palestinian uprising known as the intifada and the origins and outcome of the Gulf War of 1991. The chapter concludes with a discussion of the impact of the prolonged aftermath of the war on Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Yemen, and Iraq up to the turn of the twenty-first century. Chapter 23 is devoted to an analysis of the rise and fall of the Oslo peace process, concluding with a discussion of the second intifada and its ramifications. Chapter 24 provides both a comparative discussion of Turkey and Iran since the 1990s, and a section on political developments in Lebanon. Chapter 25 examines the era of American dominance since 1990: It opens with an analysis of US Middle Eastern policy following the 1991 Gulf War and then treats the intensification of military unilateralism post–September 11, with a particular focus on the disastrous 2003 invasion of Iraq—from the ruins of which emerged the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)—and the perceived challenges posed by Iran’s nuclear program. The final Chapter 26 considers the significance of the 2011 Arab uprisings and their immediate aftermath, including the evident success of counter-revolutionary forces in Egypt and the Gulf and the collapse of Syria, Libya and Yemen into brutal civil wars. The chapter, and book, concludes by drawing some connecting threads with the historical legacy spawned a century ago by the dismemberment of the Ottoman Empire.

The focus of this book is primarily political, but discussions of major social, economic, and ideological currents have been weaved into the narrative in the hope that a full and integrated history of the Middle East emerges. Of course, a single book cannot cover everything (and should not try to do so). In recognition of this fact, the book provides an annotated and updated bibliography that offers guidance to readers seeking more in-depth information on the topics dealt with in this book as well as on other aspects of the Middle Eastern past that are not treated here.

The sixth edition is accompanied by a test bank and PowerPoint slides for instructors using the book. The test bank includes approximately thirty test questions for each chapter in a mix of different types (short answer, essay, and multiple choice). The PowerPoint slides include basic lecture outlines that can be easily expanded to fit individual courses, as well as the maps and photos from the book. Visit https://westviewpress.com/books/a-history-of -the-modern-middle-east/ for more information.
Part One Introduction

Part One: The Development of Islamic Civilization to the Eighteenth Century

Islam is often viewed solely in terms of its origins in the barren, sparsely settled Arabian Peninsula. To be sure, Islam was revealed to the Prophet Muhammad in the years 610 CE to 632 CE in the Arabian city of Mecca. However, during the century following Muhammad’s death, the Arabs expanded out of the peninsula and conquered an empire stretching from Spain to present-day Pakistan. The great capital cities of the first Arab-Islamic empires, Damascus and Baghdad, were located not in Arabia but in the long-settled lands of antiquity. To understand the development of Islam and Islamic civilization, we must recognize that the Middle East region into which Islam expanded was a rich repository of centuries of accumulated intellectual exchanges, religious experiences, and administrative practices. Islamic society built upon these existing foundations and was shaped by them. As Ira Lapidus noted, “The civilization of Islam, though born in Mecca, also had its progenitors in Palestine, Babylon, and Persepolis.”[1]

Ancient Near Eastern civilization developed within the city-states that first appeared in lower Iraq around 3500 BCE. These settled communities created written alphabets, governing institutions, and elaborate religious rituals. By about 2400 BCE, larger political entities emerged as regional empires in which several cities were incorporated into a single state ruled by a dominant monarch. The growth of ever-larger regional empires acted as an integrative force, unifying greater numbers of people under common legal systems and exposing them to shared cultural and religious experiences. Over the course of centuries, improvements in agricultural and military technology, transportation and communications, in social and administrative organization enabled empires to dominate increasingly extensive territories. This process first culminated in Egypt’s Nile Valley, where an advanced civilization took shape under the rule of the pharaohs. The monuments to gods and kings that line the Nile testify to the shared religious and dynastic traditions of the ancient Egyptians. The Iranian-based Acheminid Empire (550 BCE–331 BCE) had a similar unifying effect, as it brought all the Middle Eastern lands from Egypt to the Oxus River into a single imperial framework.

In the wake of Alexander the Great’s conquests in the fourth century BCE, the Middle Eastern lands between Iran and the Mediterranean Sea absorbed yet another layer of tradition as Greek became the language of administration and high culture. Alexandria and Antioch developed into centers of Greek learning, and Greek became the dominant language of discourse among the urban elite from Egypt to Anatolia.

The absorption of new ideas and techniques continued with the Roman conquest and the consolidation of Rome’s efficient administrative practices in Egypt, Palestine, Syria, and Anatolia during the first century BCE. Yet although the Mediterranean lands of the Middle East were administered as provinces of the Roman Empire, their high culture remained more Hellenic than Latin. With the transfer of the imperial Roman capital to Constantinople in 330 CE and the fall of western Rome a century later, the eastern identity of the empire was solidified. That identity was represented by the Byzantine Empire, which preserved the administrative practices of Rome within the context of Hellenic civilization.

Formative Islam not only interacted with the existing material cultures outlined above but also established religious beliefs and practices. At the time of the rise of Islam, the official religions of the dominant Byzantine and Sasanian empires had largely subsumed local and regional cults, though they were still in existence. Subject peoples were expected to abandon their local gods and goddesses and adhere to the officially sanctioned imperial religion. Imperial consolidation led to religious consolidation and the emergence of monotheism, the belief in the supremacy of one god. By the time of the Arab-Islamic conquests, most Middle East inhabitants belonged to one of three monotheistic faiths.

Monotheism was first preached by the prophets of ancient Israel and is one of the most significant and enduring legacies of the Jewish faith. Although the Romans dispersed the Jews from Palestine in the first and second centuries CE, Jewish communities continued to flourish in the Middle East on the eve of Islam’s rise. Another form of monotheism was Zoroastrianism. In the seventh century BCE, the Iranian prophet Zoroaster preached a doctrine that upheld the existence of a supreme God pitted in a constant struggle against the forces of evil. The rulers of the Iranian-based Sasanian Empire (234 CE–634 CE) revived Zoroastrianism and adopted it as their state’s official religion.

A third monotheistic faith, Christianity, grew rapidly from Roman times onward and was proclaimed the state religion of the Byzantine Empire in the late fourth century. However, differing interpretations over the nature of Christ divided the adherents of the faith and led to the growth of separate churches, each jealously guarding its version of the truth. At the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the main body of the church defined Christ as having two natures, divine and human. But other Christian communities, known as Monophysites, believed that Christ had only a single nature, which was divine. The Monophysite doctrine was institutionalized in the Coptic church of Egypt, which had its own religious hierarchy and conducted its ritual in the native Egyptian Coptic language. The Armenian church in Anatolia also held to the Monophysite interpretation, as did certain groups in Syria. At the time of Islam’s rise, these regional Monophysite churches, with their vernacular liturgies, were under attack from the Byzantine authorities, who sought to impose on the empire’s subjects the official Greek Orthodox version of Christianity.

Islam unified Byzantium’s Greco-Christian territories and Iranian-Zoroastrianism’s lands into a single religiously based universal empire. The encounter between the new faith of Islam and the Middle East’s established traditions led to the creation of a new civilization that was profoundly and unmistakably Islamic yet also bore evidence of the centuries of accumulated practices that had preceded it.


[1] Ira M. Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies (Cambridge, 1990), p. 3.

Part One Timeline


Chapter One

Chapter 1. The Rise and Expansion of Islam

On the eve of the rise of Islam, two competing imperial states, the Roman-Byzantine Empire in the west and the Sasanian Empire of Iran in the east, ruled the settled lands of the Middle East. The Byzantine emperors were successors to the Caesars and presided over an imposing edifice of high cultural and political traditions that blended Greek learning, Roman administration, and Greek Orthodox Christianity. In the early seventh century, the emperor’s territorial possessions stretched from the Italian peninsula across southern Europe to the magnificent capital city of Constantinople. The empire’s Middle Eastern provinces included Egypt, Palestine, and Syria as well as parts of Iraq and Anatolia. Supported by a standing professional army, a highly developed bureaucracy, and the priesthood of the Orthodox church, the Byzantium rulers appeared to be powerful and secure.

In the late sixth and early seventh centuries, however, Byzantium was weakened by challenges to its military, religious, and administrative authority. Beginning in 540, the imperial rivalry between the Byzantines and Sasanians erupted into open warfare that continued almost uninterrupted until 629. Campaign and counter­campaign exhausted the military forces of both empires, depleted their treasuries, and inflicted extensive damage to the lands and cities lying between the Nile and the Euphrates. To meet the financial demands of constant warfare, the Byzantine emperors periodically raised taxes, a measure that alienated their subjects, who had already suffered economic hardships from warring armies passing back and forth across their lands.

Religious divisions created additional tensions between the Byzantine state and its subjects. Once the Byzantine Empire adopted Greek Orthodox Christianity as the state religion in the late fourth century, the emperors and the church attempted to enforce popular acceptance of this officially approved version of the faith. But peoples within the empire continued to adhere to other forms of Christianity and to Judaism as well as to use their own vernacular languages for scripture and ritual. Unwilling to tolerate these challenges to official orthodoxy, the state branded them as heretical and undertook to suppress them. The persecution of Jews and of Christians outside the Greek Orthodox community caused great disaffection within the empire and explains in part why many Byzantine subjects welcomed the arrival of the more religiously tolerant Muslim rulers.

The Sasanian Empire of Iran, with its capital at Ctesiphon on the Tigris River, contested Byzantium for control of the territories between Iraq and Egypt. Heir to the 1,200-year-old Acheminid tradition of universal Iranian empire, the Sasanian state was based on the principle of absolute monarchy. The emperor was the king of kings (shahanshah), a distant and all-powerful ruler living in palatial splendor and surrounded by elaborate ceremonial trappings. Over the centuries, Iranian bureaucratic practices had become refined, and a large and experienced scribal class administered the Sasanian Empire. Like their Byzantine counterparts, the Sasanian emperors had at their disposal an effective standing professional army, which was noted for its heavily armed and armored cavalry.

Yet popular discontent, much of which stemmed from religious diversity, diluted the Sasanian Empire’s apparent strength. By the late sixth century, the official Sasanian state religion of Zoroastrianism had become more significant as a ceremonial faith for the ruling elite than as the religion of the population. In the western part of the empire in particular, people were more attracted to various strains of Christianity and Judaism than to Zoroastrianism. In the absence of a unifying religious affiliation with their ruler, many subjects of the Sasanian Empire lacked feelings of loyalty toward the state.

Although the Byzantine and Sasanian empires were in transition when Islam first extended into them, it is important to recognize their impact on the development of Islamic governing practices and religious doctrine. Formative Islam would be influenced by the Greek legacy of Byzantium, by the bureaucratic tradition of Iran, and by the concepts of emperor that had developed in the Constantinople and Ctesiphon courts. Islam must be understood as a product of the societies into which it spread as well as of the society from which it originated.

Pre-Islamic Arabia

With the exception of Yemen in the south and a few scattered oasis settlements elsewhere, the Arabian Peninsula is a vast desert. It is the home of the Arabs, an ancient Semitic people whose origins cannot be traced with certainty. In contrast to the rigorously administered domains of the Byzantine and Sasanian empires, the Arabian Peninsula of the early seventh century lacked any central organizing authority. It had no state structure, no common legal system, and no administrative center. Tribes were the largest units of social and political organization to which an individual’s loyalties were given. Each tribe was an entity unto itself, bound by ties of kinship based on a belief in common descent from a founding ancestor. The majority of Arabia’s inhabitants were pastoral nomads raising camels, sheep, or goats. The dearth of pasturelands required constant movement from one grazing ground to another. Competition for the scarce resources of the land created rivalries among the tribes, and warfare became ingrained as a way of life. All males were expected to be warriors, and accounts of the exploits of the most daring among them became enshrined in tribal culture. The widespread experience of the Arabs in warfare would be a significant factor in the early expansion of Islam.

Notwithstanding the divisions inherent in the tribal structure of pre-Islamic Arabia, forces of cultural unity were present. The Bedouin ethos of bravery and honor was celebrated in a special style of Arabic poetry known as a qasidah. The existence of this poetry, which was recited at market fairs and tribal gatherings, has convinced historians that the Arabs of the seventh century possessed a common poetic language that could be understood across different regions of the peninsula. This was of the utmost significance for the spread of Islam because it meant that the Prophet Muhammad’s religious message could be communicated to Arabic speakers across a broad expanse of territory.

Isolated though it was, the Arabian Peninsula was not completely cut off from the forces that shaped Middle Eastern civilization. On the eve of Islam’s rise, two Arab tribal confederations guarded the northern Arabian frontiers as client states of Byzantium and the Sasanians, respectively. Both of these Arab confederations were Christian, providing evidence of the spread of the concept of monotheism among the Arabs before Muhammad’s time.

At the southwestern tip of Arabia, Yemen provided another entry point for external influences into the peninsula. Unlike the rest of Arabia, Yemen was a fertile and well-watered region able to support a settled agricultural society. By the fourth and fifth centuries CE, several Arab communities in southern Arabia had adopted Christianity, and the ruler of Yemen’s last pre-Islamic dynasty converted to Judaism. Yet despite the fermentation of religious doctrines in the settled regions of northern and southern Arabia, most of the tribes of the interior continued to practice various forms of animism, worshipping local idols or deities.

During the two centuries before Islam, Arabia acquired increasing importance as a commercial transit route between the Middle Eastern empires and Yemen. The wars between Byzantium and the Sasanians disrupted the east–west overland routes and gave rise to a brisk north–south caravan trade through the Hijaz, Arabia’s coastal plain adjacent to the Red Sea. The main Arabian beneficiary of this commercial network was the city of Mecca, which developed into the most important commercial center of the peninsula. By the early seventh century, Meccan merchants had accumulated sufficient capital to organize their own caravans and to provide payments to an extensive network of tribes in exchange for pledges to allow the caravans to pass in peace.

In addition to its role as a commercial center, Mecca was a religious site of major significance. The city’s shrine, the Ka‘ba, became the center of an animistic cult that attracted worshipers throughout western Arabia. By the time of Muhammad’s birth, the Ka‘ba had become the site of an annual pilgrimage during which warfare was suspended, and Mecca’s sanctuary became a kind of neutral ground where tribal disputes could be resolved. The city derived considerable income from its religious role, and its leading families recognized the importance of the sanctuary as a source of wealth and influence.

Mecca’s leading clans were all members of the Quraysh tribe that settled the city, established its religious role, and dominated its political and commercial life. Although formal municipal organizations did not exist, a council of prominent Quraysh merchants loosely regulated the city’s affairs. Historians have suggested that prior to the birth of Islam, Mecca was in a state of transition between the vanishing tribal ways and a nascent urbanism spawned by merchant capitalism. Customary tribal values were being displaced, but no fully developed set of communal values suitable for an urban setting had yet emerged.

Muhammad and the Foundations of Islam

Muhammad ibn Abdullah, the future Prophet of Islam, was born in Mecca around 570. His early life gave little indication of the compelling prophet and skillful statesman he would later become. He was born into the Hashim clan, a subtribe of the Quraysh. Orphaned at two, Muhammad was raised and sheltered by his uncle, Abu Talib. As a young man, he engaged in the caravan trade and may have journeyed to Damascus. His financial position was secured when, in his early twenties, he married a wealthy widow, Khadijah. Khadijah holds an honored place in the history of Islam; she was the first convert to the new faith after Muhammad himself, and she supported him during the difficult early years of his prophethood, when most of Mecca’s population scorned him.

Muhammad was widely respected as a decent and trustworthy individual. He lived an otherwise ordinary life as merchant, husband, and father to the four daughters born to Khadijah. But as Muhammad neared his fortieth year, his behavior gradually began to change. He often left Mecca, sometimes for days at a time, to meditate in solitude in the mountains outside the city. Some scholars have conjectured that Muhammad was reflecting on what he saw as the problems that afflicted Meccan society and was seeking ways to resolve them. It was during one of his solitary vigils on Mount Hira that Muhammad was summoned to his prophetic mission, an event known in Islam as the Night of Power. The summons came as a command from God, transmitted through the angel Gabriel, for Muhammad to recite to his fellow Meccans the divine messages he had been chosen to receive. The Night of Power marked the beginning of a movement that would transform Arab life and lead to the emergence of a universal monotheistic religion.

For the remaining twenty-two years of his life, Muhammad continued to receive revelations, which his companions recorded, memorized, and later collected into a single book, the Quran (Recitation), which constitutes the core of the Islamic faith. The Quran is a sacred work in both form and content. It contains God’s commands and represents the direct word of God; its language is, therefore, divine and unchangeable. Throughout the centuries since the Night of Power, non-Muslims, especially the Christian and Jewish monotheists for whom Islam represented the most direct challenge, have had difficulty accepting the idea that the Quran contains God’s words, not Muhammad’s. The point here is not to debate the contesting claims to religious truth but to insist on the depth of Muhammad’s experience and the utterly convincing language in which that experience was conveyed. The verses of the Quran, especially those from the Meccan period, reveal an individual possessed of a compelling sense of urgency and inspired by a commitment that transcended his previous existence and pushed him into the role for which he believed he had been chosen—the Prophet of God.

Muhammad’s prophethood can be divided into two phases, the period at Mecca (610–622) and the years in Medina (622–632). The difference in the Prophet’s circumstances during these two periods of his life is reflected in the style and content of the revelations. The Quran was revealed in a series of chapters (suras) and is organized according to the length of the chapters, with the longest first and the shortest at the end. The shorter chapters are from the Meccan years, when Muhammad concentrated on establishing the theological foundations of the faith. The central element of the Meccan period was an uncompromising monotheism. As an early Meccan revelation insisted,

Say: He is God, One, God, the Everlasting Refuge,

who has not begotten, and has not been begotten,

and equal to Him is not anyone.

(Sura 112)[1]

The Arabic word for one supreme God, Allah, refers to the monotheistic deities of Judaism and Christianity as well as Islam. It is thus incorrect to employ the term Allah in an exclusively Islamic context. The term translates as God, and that is how it should be employed and understood.

What did the omnipotent deity of the Quran want from his human creations? In the Meccan revelations, he demanded that they practice prescribed patterns of worship and behavior. They were to submit to his will and show their gratitude toward him as the provider of the bounties of the earth. Islam means submission, and the followers of the faith, Muslims, are those who have submitted to the will of God. In addition to matters of ritual, God set forth commandments on how human beings should relate to one another in their daily social intercourse. He warned the people of Mecca to pay more attention to the less fortunate in society and to moderate their search for wealth. The following bluntly critical passage demonstrates God’s displeasure at practices in the Mecca of Muhammad’s day:

No indeed; but you honor not the orphan,

and you urge not the feeding of the needy,

and you devour the inheritance greedily,

and you love wealth with an ardent love.

(Sura 89)

The Quran chastised those who were uncharitable and warned those who felt that their wealth had made them immune from punishment, that God would be the final judge of their afterlife. The concept of the Day of Judgment was a central element of the faith. The revelations warned the people of Mecca that the Almighty would assess their deeds, their attitudes, and even their innermost thoughts on Judgment Day. The theology of the Quran was thus basic and straightforward. Humans were instructed to obey the revealed will of an omnipotent God of judgment: Those who accepted him and followed all of his commands would be rewarded with paradise; those who rejected God and deviated from his commands would be condemned to the fires of Gehenna.

Muhammad’s preaching attracted few converts and aroused considerable opposition during the Meccan period of his mission. After all, he posed a challenge to the social, economic, and religious structure of the city. Not only did he criticize the wealthy Quraysh merchants’ attitudes; he also condemned the religious practices that made Mecca a prosperous pilgrimage center. As the years passed and the Meccan opposition turned from scorn to threats of physical harm, Muhammad and his followers began to search for a more hospitable location. When an invitation came to them to settle in Yathrib (later Medina), Muhammad accepted it.

Located some 200 miles (322 kilometers) north of Mecca, Medina was a fertile oasis city suffering from the ravages of an extended blood feud among its several tribes. Muhammad was invited as a mediator, and Medinan representatives had promised him that any Muslims who accompanied him would receive protection. In 622 the small community of Muslims gradually migrated from Mecca to Medina. Known as the hijrah (emigration), this marked a turning point in the development of Islam: 622 is the first year of the Muslim calendar.

During his ten years in Medina, Muhammad’s status rose dramatically. From a scorned prophet with few followers, he became the head of a small state and the dominant figure throughout Arabia. This transformation was achieved through a combination of warfare, negotiation, and preaching, the success of which seemed to confirm Muhammad’s right not only to prophethood but to political leadership as well. Muhammad consolidated his authority in Medina by convincing influential personalities in the city to embrace Islam and accept his leadership. Once he established his power base, he was able to take measures against the groups that continued to deny his prophetic and political authority. Among the latter were several Jewish tribes whose members would not accept the legitimacy of Muhammad’s claim as the Prophet. Muhammad eventually expelled them from Medina and ordered their property confiscated and distributed among the Muslim emigrants.

Even as he was consolidating his position in Medina, Muhammad made plans to bring Mecca into the expanding Islamic community. His strategy was to disrupt the caravan trade on which Mecca’s prosperity depended. Within a year of his arrival in Medina, he ordered the first of what would become an ongoing series of raids on Meccan caravans. The initial raid occurred during one of the sacred pilgrimage months when, according to established custom, hostilities were to be suspended. This was disturbing to many Medina Muslims, who continued to respect existing traditions. However, a divine revelation sanctified warfare against unbelievers and designated all Muslims who engaged in spreading Islam through force of arms as deserving of special merit.

In retaliation for Muhammad’s attacks on their caravans, the Meccans launched several campaigns against the Muslims in Medina, but each time, the outnumbered Muslim forces managed to hold their own and even to gain limited victories. Muhammad emerged during these encounters as an innovative military tactician, and his success in thwarting the Meccans enhanced his prestige among the neighboring tribes. Many swore their allegiance to him not because they fully understood or accepted the religious message of Islam but because association with Muhammad’s endeavor appeared to guarantee victory, and with it came the spoils of war. The growth of the Prophet’s forces and his effective alliances with the tribes enabled him to stifle the trade of Mecca, seriously threatening the city’s prosperity.

In 630 Muhammad led a force of 10,000 men to the outskirts of Mecca. Demonstrating his qualities as a statesman, he promised the inhabitants that their lives would be spared and their property would remain secure if they surrendered the city and accepted Islam. The Quraysh leadership agreed to the terms, and the Prophet made a victorious entry into the city from which he had fled just eight years earlier. According to accounts of the occasion, Muhammad had the idols in the Ka‘ba destroyed, proclaiming the shrine sacred to God. Mecca would remain a pilgrimage center, and the Ka‘ba would become the focal point of the new faith.

In the years between the hijrah and the surrender of Mecca, Muhammad’s leadership role became more complex. Medina developed into a small city-state with a treasury, a military, and an ever-increasing number of converts. The Quran reflected the changing circumstances by offering instructions on how the expanded functions of the state were to be organized and how people should conduct their relations with one another. The all-embracing nature of Islam was established in these commandments. For example, contracting a debt agreement in writing before a witness—as the Quran required—was a religious duty, and failure to follow this prescription was a sin. In this way, the details of marriage, inheritance, divorce, diet, and economic practice were made part of the religious experience of Muslims. Muhammad created a community (ummah) in which the laws of human behavior in daily life were prescribed by God.

It would be an exaggeration to call Arabia a cohesive, unified state after the surrender of Mecca; nevertheless, the transformation the Prophet created had been substantial. He had implanted the core concept of a community of believers united in their recognition of a single Supreme Deity and in their acceptance of that deity’s authority in their daily lives; he had conveyed notions of social morality that forbade alcohol and the blood feud and that recognized the legal status of women and demanded protection for the less fortunate in society. Muhammad combined in his person the roles of prophet, state builder, and social reformer. Today there is much emphasis on the martial elements of Islam, but to comprehend fully Muhammad’s mission, we need to consider the importance of Quranic passages like this one:

Be kind to parents, and the near kinsman,

and to orphans, and to the needy,

and to the neighbour who is of kin,

and to the neighbour who is a stranger,

and to the companion at your side,

and to the traveller.

(Sura 4)

The Arab Conquests and the First Empire

It would not have contradicted historical patterns if Arabia had rejected the Prophet’s summons and taken up the old ways again upon his death in 632. Instead, Muslim factions in Mecca and Medina resolved to continue the development of the new religious community and competed with one another to assert their control over it. Because Muhammad had no sons and because the Quran contained no clear instructions on how a successor should be chosen, the question of the leadership of the community was open to different interpretations. The early converts to Islam who had suffered with Muhammad in Mecca and participated in the hijrah to Medina preempted all other claimants by naming one of their own, Abu Bakr, as the new head of the community. The other factions accepted Abu Bakr’s leadership, but the dispute over the first succession sowed seeds of conflict that have affected Islam throughout its history.

Abu Bakr (632–634) was simply called the successor—khalif—anglicized as caliph. Eventually the term caliph came to designate the religious and political leader of the Islamic community, and the office became known as the caliphate. Abu Bakr and his three successors, Umar (634–644), Uthman (644–656), and Ali (656–661), are known in Islamic history as the Rashidun (rightly guided) caliphs in recognition of their personal closeness to the Prophet and their presumed adherence to Quranic regulations. Although two of them were assassinated and their reigns were filled with political and social turmoil, Muslims of later and even more troubled times looked back with nostalgia on the era when the four companions of the Prophet launched the movement that thrust the Arabs out of the peninsula and into world history.

The second caliph, Umar, recognized the need to direct the tribes’ raiding instincts away from intercommunal conflict and authorized attacks against the southern flanks of Byzantium and Sasanian Iran. Thus began the epoch of the Arab conquests and the building of an Islamic empire.

The speed and extent of the Arab conquests were remarkable. In 637 the Arab forces defeated the imperial Sasanian army at the battle of Qadisiyya, which was quickly followed by the capture of Ctesiphon and the beginning of the difficult Arab campaign across the Iranian plateau toward the Indian subcontinent. Success against Byzantium was equally swift. The Arabs captured Damascus in 635, and in 641 they occupied parts of the rich agricultural province of Egypt. By 670 the western campaign against Byzantine and Berber resistance had reached present-day Tunisia, and in 680 the daring Arab commander Uqba ibn Nafi led a small force from Tunisia through Algeria and Morocco to the Atlantic Ocean. The westward expansion of the Arabs culminated in the conquest of Spain in the first half of the eighth century. Within 100 years of the Prophet’s death, Arab forces had reached the Indian subcontinent in the east, and in the west, they had occupied Spain and crossed the Pyrenees into France before the forces of Charles Martel finally halted them at the battle of Poitiers in 732. In this first wave of conquests, the Sasanian Empire was completely destroyed and its territory absorbed within an Arab-Muslim administration. Byzantium, although it suffered the loss of its core Middle Eastern and North African provinces, retained control of Anatolia and the Balkans and presented a formidable barrier to Muslim expansion until the Ottomans overcame it in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.

Even more stunning than the speed and extent of the conquests was their durability: With the exception of Spain, which retained an Arab-Islamic presence until the fifteenth century, the areas occupied during the first century of expansion have remained Islamic, if not Arabic, to the present day. In North Africa, as in Egypt and the eastern Mediterranean—the heartlands of Hellenism and early Christianity—and in the long-settled region of Iraq, the Arabic language and the Islamic faith became dominant. Persian language and culture eventually reasserted themselves in Iran, but they were expressed in an Islamic idiom.

The conquests would not have been so swift or so durable without the existence of a combination of social, economic, and religious factors that facilitated the local population’s acceptance of the new Arab rulers. First, as we discussed earlier, monotheistic religions were widely practiced among the peoples in the conquered territories, and the Islamic assertion of monotheism placed it within the existing religious traditions. Second, Islam manifested considerable tolerance toward non-Muslims. The Quran commanded Muslims to protect “people of the Book”—that is, Jews and Christians who possessed a revealed scripture.

In practice, this tolerance was extended to the Zoroastrians of Iran and the Hindus of the Indian subcontinent. Forced conversions played only a small part in the Arab conquests, and for at least two centuries the majority of the inhabitants of the Islamic empire were non-Muslims. They were known as dhimmis, a term meaning followers of the religions tolerated by law. Dhimmis were allowed the freedom to practice their religion and to manage their internal affairs through their own religious officials. However, dhimmis were not regarded as equal to Muslims: They were required to pay a special poll tax (jizyah), prohibited from serving in the military and from wearing certain colors, and their residences and places of worship could not be as large as those of Muslims. Although these and other restrictions constituted a form of discrimination, they represented an unusually tolerant attitude for the era and stood in marked contrast to the practices of the Byzantine Empire.

The taxes imposed by the Arab-Islamic state were less burdensome than those levied by the Byzantine and Sasanian empires. Moreover, the Arab rulers tended to leave existing administrative practices and local customs undisturbed. Although some of the conquered peoples adopted Islam, the Arabs did not encourage conversions during the first century of their rule; this was partly because the jizyah constituted an important source of state revenue and partly because the Arabs, at this early stage in the development of Islam, regarded it as an exclusively Arab religion.

The First Civil War and The End of the Rashidun Caliphate

The question of the succession to the caliphate had been largely ignored in the rush of the early conquests. But when mutinous Arab tribesmen murdered the caliph Uthman in 656, the succession issue reemerged. It was resolved only after a civil war that left an enduring schism within the Islamic ummah. Ali was chosen to succeed the murdered Uthman. Next to the Prophet himself, Ali is the most revered of the founders of Islam: He was the Prophet’s cousin, the husband of the Prophet’s daughter Fatima, and one of the most dedicated of the early converts to Islam. Indeed, in some quarters of the ummah, the belief existed that Muhammad had intended for Ali to be his immediate successor. By the time he was finally selected as caliph, Ali represented a broad coalition of interests calling for greater equality among all Muslims, both Arab and non-Arab, and for the restoration of the leadership of the community to the house of Muhammad. But Mu‘awiyah, the powerful governor of Muslim Syria, contested Ali’s right to the caliphate.

The forces of the two claimants to the leadership met at the battle of Siffin in 657. The results of the encounter were inconclusive, leaving both Ali and Mu‘awiyah in the same positions they had held before the battle. But in its aftermath, a substantial portion of Ali’s forces withdrew their support, allowing Mu‘awiyah to expand his power in Syria and Egypt and preventing Ali from establishing his uncontested right to the caliphate. Though Ali set up a capital in Kufa, one of the Arab garrison cities in lower Iraq, his position continued to deteriorate, and he was murdered in 661. Ali’s caliphate was short and divisive but far from inconsequential. It came to represent the validity of the legitimist position of authority within the Islamic ummah and, as we will see in later chapters, stood as an enduring symbol of the desire of a substantial minority of Muslims for a communal leader directly descended from the family of the Prophet. Indeed, attachment to the memory of Ali and his family and the tragedy associated with them was so passionate and vital that it gave rise to a permanent schism within the Islamic community.

From Arab Exclusivism to Islamic Universalism: The Umayyad and Abbasid Empires

Ali’s passing marked the end of the first phase in the Islamic community’s development and the beginning of a new period of imperial expansion and consolidation. Mu‘awiyah was recognized as caliph throughout the empire and became the founder of the Umayyad dynasty (661–750). He was a pragmatic ruler whose principal concerns were continued expansion of Islam, management of the state’s resources, and consolidation of his dynasty. During his caliphate, the political center of the empire was transferred from Mecca to the ancient city of Damascus, with all its Byzantine associations. Mu‘awiyah adopted certain Byzantine administrative practices and employed former Byzantine officials and craftsmen, initiating the transformation of the Arab empire into a Byzantine successor state and surrounding the caliphate with the trappings of monarchy.

Although the conquests continued to bring material wealth to Damascus under Mu‘awiyah’s successors, internal dissension troubled the Umayyad Empire. The policy of Arab exclusivism, which the Umayyad ruling elite had adopted, was partly responsible for this. This ruling elite continued to equate Islam with Arab descent and to administer the empire’s fiscal and social affairs in such a way as to favor the Arabs and to discriminate against the growing number of non-Arab converts to Islam. The discontent culminated in a revolution that overthrew the Umayyad house in 750 and brought to power a new dynasty—the Abbasids.

The office of the caliphate remained with the Abbasids from 750 to 1258. Under the Abbasids, the heroic age of the conquests gave way to the development of administrative institutions, commercial enterprises, and a legal system. The bureaucrat, the urban merchant, and the learned judge replaced the Arab warrior as the favored element in society. The consolidation of the conquests in the geographical center of a centuries-old mixture of cultural and religious traditions resulted in a complex interaction between the Middle East’s existing cultures and religions and the dynamic infusion of energy from Arabia. The new and vibrant Islamic civilization arose found its first—but by no means its last—expression in the period of the high caliphate (750–945) of the Abbasid Empire.

The first 150 years of the Abbasid Empire, represented by such caliphs as al-Mansur (754–775), Harun al-Rashid (786–809), and al-Ma‘mun (813–833), were a period of relative political stability, immense economic prosperity, and increasing universalism within the central Islamic domains. These conditions, in turn, allowed for the flowering of a rich and diverse civilization. The Abbasids abandoned the Arab exclusiveness that had generated so much discontent under the Umayyads. In its place, they adopted a universalist policy accepting the equality of all Muslims, regardless of their ethnic origins. This attitude, coupled with the revitalization of urban life and the expansion of commercial activity, led to a growing cosmopolitanism within the empire, as converts from among the conquered peoples participated fully in the economic and political life of the state.

The Abbasids’ universalism was symbolized by yet another transfer of the imperial capital, this time to a newly created city, Baghdad, established by al-Mansur on the west bank of the Tigris. The change of location brought the Islamic political center into more direct contact with Iranian imperial traditions, with their emphasis on royal absolutism and bureaucratic specialization, and added yet another layer of influences to the Arab and Byzantine experiences of the Islamic state. Abbasid administration was modeled on Sasanian government and employed large numbers of converted Iranians in its increasingly elaborate bureaucratic structure. Sasanian practices also had an impact on the office of the caliphate. During the era of the Rashidun, the caliphs functioned as first among equals and lived modestly on the model established by Muhammad. This emphasis on simplicity changed under the later Umayyads, who distanced themselves from the population, took pleasure from the riches that flowed into the treasury at Damascus, and became less consultative and more authoritarian. The Abbasid rulers, with their more direct exposure to the Iranian idea of an absolute king of kings, carried the evolution of the caliphate to absolutist monarchy further than any of their predecessors. The Abbasid caliphs lived in luxurious palaces, isolated from all but their most trusted inner circle of courtiers and advisers. They came to identify themselves not simply as successors to the Prophet but as “shadows of God on earth,” and they exercised vast powers over their subjects. Thus, the Abbasid solution to the problem of political authority was to centralize it and to place it in the hands of an absolute monarch who exercised the powers of both secular king and spiritual head of the Islamic ummah. For nearly two centuries following the revolution of 750, the Abbasid formula worked fairly well; the widespread acceptance of its benefits brought to the empire unprecedented prosperity, dazzling intellectual achievement, and general political stability.

But no monarch could maintain absolute control of an empire that stretched from Morocco to India. In the late eighth century, North Africa slipped away from Baghdad’s authority and became a region of autonomous Islamic states. During the ninth century, independent and often short-lived dynasties rose and fell in various parts of Iran. Yet despite the emergence of new centers of power, the Abbasid caliphs remained the dominant rulers of the Middle East until the tenth century, and Baghdad’s imperial court set a style of royal behavior that was imitated in provincial capitals and breakaway dynasties throughout the vast territories in which Islam had become established.


In the short span of time from the Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632 to the transfer of the imperial capital from Damascus to Baghdad in the 750s, the Islamic ummah had expanded from its Arab origins to embrace a universal world empire. The epoch of the Arab conquests is a decisive period in world history, one that transformed a nomadic desert population organized along tribal lines into the ruling elite of an imperial structure concentrated in the heartlands of classical antiquity. Arabic replaced Greek, Persian, Aramaic, and other established literary traditions as the language of administration and high culture, and Islam replaced—though it did not eliminate—Judaism, Christianity, Zoroastrianism, and paganism as the dominant religion in the Middle East. This process of replacement raises important questions. In its interaction with the existing literary, religious, and administrative traditions of Byzantium and Iran, how could the Islam of the revelations, the Islam of the Prophet’s caravan city of Mecca, survive as a guide to administrative, economic, and social practices? How could the peoples living within the territories of the extensive Arab conquests, with their long-established traditions, be organized to obey the commands on proper human behavior that God revealed to a Meccan merchant in seventh-century Arabia? In developing answers to these questions or simply in developing certain patterns of living and worship, Muslims affirmed their belief in the validity of Muhammad’s mission by creating a civilization centered on the revelations contained in the Quran.


[1] A. J. Arberry, The Koran Interpreted (New York, 1955). All subsequent Quranic quotations are from this translation.

We hope you have enjoyed this sample of:

A History of the Modern Middle East

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by William L. Cleveland and Martin Bunton.

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