Medieval Islamic civilisations

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Key points

  • The Medieval Islamic Empire was a collection of regions in which Islam was practised.
  • From the mid-600s, the Islamic Empire spread throughout the Middle East, west across North Africa and Spain, and east as far as present-day India.
  • At first the empire was ruled by one , but after a few centuries it split into regional states as local rulers asserted their own independence. The most powerful early dynasties were the Umayyads in Damascus followed by the Abbasids in Baghdad.
  • The Islamic Empire flourished with trade, invention and innovation.

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How did Islam begin?

In the year 610, a successful called Muhammad reported hearing voices that recited passages to him, which he later recognised as revelations from God. Muhammad shared them with his wife and close friends, and gradually attracted a small group of followers from his home town of Mecca who began to practise a new religion. This new religion became known as Islam. People who practise Islam are called Muslims.

However, powerful people in Mecca felt threatened by Muhammad’s popularity and his that there was only one God, and they opposed him. He took his followers to Medina in 622, where he built an Islamic community around the they constructed there.

Muhammad taught his followers to worship the one God from whom he received the revelations. They were to lead simple lives based on their religious beliefs and observances, and help those in need. The main religious observances later became known as the Five Pillars of Islam. Find out more on the key facts about Islam in this religious studies guide.

They are:

  • Shahadah – the declaration there is no god but God, Allah, and Muhammad is his Messenger
  • Salat – set prayers to be performed five times a day
  • Zakat – giving a proportion of your wealth to the poor
  • Sawm – fasting during the holy month of Ramadan
  • Hajj – an annual pilgrimage to the Kaaba in the holy city of Mecca

Before long, Muhammad had gained so many followers that he was able to return to Mecca and conquer the city. The people of the surrounding areas soon became Muslims, and rulers and tribes from other areas of the gradually accepted Islam.

How did Islam spread during Muhammad’s life?

The new faith of Islam acted as a call to all Arabs in the region to unite as one community and to work towards justice in society and a fair sharing of wealth.

In the eighth year of his migration to Medina, Muhammad had gained so many followers that he was able to return to Mecca at the head of a large army and conquer the city. From this time on he was accepted as the true final Prophet of God and Mecca became the centre of the Muslim world.

The people of the surrounding tribes became Muslims, and rulers and tribes from other areas of the Arabian Peninsula gradually accepted Islam. By the time of his death, Muhammad was accepted as the leader of most of the Arabian Peninsula.

Growth of the Islamic Empires, 632-1258

By Prophet Muhammad’s death in 632, Islam had spread widely across the Arabian Peninsula. He was succeeded by four ‘rightly guided ’, who had been among his companions.

CaliphPeriod of ruleFact
Abu Bakr632 – 634A close friend and father-in-law to Muhammad. He ensured the community remained united.
Umar634 – 644Islam spread far outside the Arabian Peninsula during this time; he conquered present-day Iran and Iraq.
Uthman644 – 656There was further expansion of the empire under his leadership, and the revelations received by Muhammad were gathered into the .
Ali656 – 661Divisions between Muslims in the empire arose during his rule.

In 661 Ali was killed, which led to the rise of the . They ruled the Islamic Empire until 750 from their capital at Damascus in Syria and oversaw further expansion as far west as Spain and as far east as India.

In 750, the seized power from the Umayyads and built a new capital, Baghdad, on the River Tigris in Iraq in 762.

Under Abbasid rule, Islamic culture developed and scientific research flourished. Many who had been followers of other faiths to Islam. This period is sometimes called the Golden Age of Islam, as Arab learning in the sciences and arts reached new heights, whilst the splendidly decorated buildings in Baghdad and other cities became the envy of travellers.

Abbasid rule

What was Baghdad like under Abbasid rule?

Baghdad was known as the Round City. It was built as a circle with the impressive Caliph’s Palace at its centre. The palace had a green dome so that it could be seen by travellers approaching the city. Tens of thousands of people were employed in building the city, which soon became the world’s largest city. It became a great trading centre with many of its people making the textiles, leather, and paper that were sold and sent across the world. Many worked at the city’s bazaars or on the trade caravans. Others worked on farms outside the city.

The decline of Abbasid rule over time

  • By the mid-800s, the lands under Abbasid rule were so vast they were difficult to be ruled by a single ruler from one capital. Regional governors and religious groups competed for power.
  • In the 1000s, the took lands from the Abbasids and defeated the army to conquer Anatolia, present-day Turkey.
  • In 1258, the Mongol armies from the East destroyed Baghdad and ended Abbasid rule.

Activity - Put the events in order

Trade and travel during the Abassid period

Islamic merchants travelled as far as South Africa, China and Russia to trade in goods such as:

  • silk
  • spices
  • precious metals
  • carpets
  • glassware
  • pottery

Thousands of Arab coins have been dug up by archaeologists in Sweden and elsewhere, showing the extent of Arab trade with Vikings and others.

Islamic astronomers and merchants improved the , which was a navigation instrument that allowed travellers to find their way and to find the direction of Mecca for prayer. It also helped sailors to travel more accurately as they could use it to identify the position of the sun and stars to work out faster routes to their destinations.

Islamic teachings and culture spread across the world along the trade routes. By the 1300s, many people converted to Islam in southern India, Indonesia and Malaysia.

An astrolabe, used to find the direction of Mecca and navigate using the stars

Learning in the Islamic world

Muslim scholars collected and translated books from across the known world. In Baghdad, the Abbasid caliph created a centre of learning which was known as the House of Wisdom, or the Grand Library of Baghdad. The Islamic Empire was a time of great innovation, especially in maths, science, and medicine.

Maths and science

Arab mathematicians helped to popularise the Indian number system, with its symbol for zero, and invented algebra. The word ‘algorithm’ is derived from the name of the Persian mathematician al-Khwarizmi. The Arab number system was much simpler to use than Roman numbers, and was adopted in Europe, together with many other Arab scientific and philosophical discoveries. Another mathematician, Ibn al-Haytham, invented a camera that helped explain how the eye sees.

Medicine

Some of the earliest and most advanced hospitals were built in Baghdad, Isfahan and Cairo in the early Islamic centuries. The doctors were highly skilled and worked hard to thoroughly understand diseases, injuries and treatments. Many Muslim doctors published influential works on medicine, for example:

  • Al-Razi made important discoveries about smallpox and is the first known writer of a book about children’s diseases.
  • Al-Zahrawi designed new surgical tools and wrote a textbook that was used by surgeons for hundreds of years.
  • Ibn Sina completed a huge medical encyclopaedia in 1025, which was still in use in European medical schools in the 1600s.
  • Ibn Nafis wrote about the circulation of the blood in the 1200s, long before it was understood by doctors in the West.

Hygiene

Hygiene and cleanliness are very important in Islam. Many Islamic cities had sewage systems and public baths, at a time when these were neglected in Europe. Engineers designed and built dams and channels to bring clean water to towns, for people to drink and to water crops.

Why were there developments in the Islamic Empire at a time when Europe wasn’t usually open to new ideas?

The Abbasid caliphs encouraged learning in every area. Thanks to the taxes they collected across their vast empire, they possessed incredible wealth. They paid bilingual scholars in Baghdad (many of them Christians) to translate books from ancient Greek. The Arabs developed this knowledge at a time when it had been lost in Europe, due to the fall of the Roman Empire.

Libraries, universities, hospitals and schools, known as madrasas, were built across the Islamic world, and Muslims learned how to make paper from the Chinese. ​ ​

The Qur’an also encouraged learning. Caring for the sick and keeping clean were religious duties, which increased the motivation to develop medicine, hospitals and safer hygiene.

Islamic design

Huge palaces and mosques were the envy of travellers from across the world. Mosque design influenced gothic architecture in Europe, particularly the pointed arch.

Islam discourages depictions of the human body, so instead Muslim artists used abstract geometrical patterns and , especially verses from the Qur’an, to decorate textiles, ceramics, mosques and books, mostly the Qur’an itself.

The technique of lustre-glazing, which added a shiny glaze to pottery, was invented in Iraq in the 9th century. It spread across the Islamic world and became fashionable across Europe. These early Islamic art forms remain popular today across the Islamic world and beyond.

This is the Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem. It shows how Arabic calligraphy and geometric tilework were used for decoration.

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