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Muhammad and the Golden Age of Islam




Islam is the third branch of the monotheistic religions (the first two are Judaism and Christianity) engrafted to the Abrahamic tree with the teaching of Muhammad ibn Abdullah, called by his followers "the Prophet."

Muhammad received his first revelation in 610 A.D, at that time he was living in Mecca, married to a wealthy widow. Mecca was a prosperous trade city, located in the western part of Arabian Peninsula in a region called Hijaz. (map 1, click on the map for a bigger size)

The Quraysh tribe merchants ruled Mecca at the time and they soon became reluctant to accept the morally inclined, monotheistic teachings of Muhammad. Moreover, the new teaching endangered the prominence of Mecca's shrine Ka'ba that was a great center of cult worship, annual pilgrimage and a valuable source of revenue for the local elites.  Muhammad was challenging the traditional religious, social and economic structure of the city and, not surprisingly, he was forced to leave it.

In 622, he immigrated with a group of followers to Medina, an oasis town some 200 miles (322 km) north of Mecca. This emigration, called hijrah, was a turning point in development of Islam. For less than ten years Muhammad, supported by a growing number of followers, built a small state in Medina and became a prominent leader in Arabia. This influence was achieved, as professor William Cleveland mentions in his history of Middle East ( A History of Middle East, Westview Press, 2004), through a combination of warfare, negotiation, and preaching. After subduing Medina, Muhammad turned again to Mecca, first disrupting caravan trade, and later, in 630, attacking the city with 10 000 men. Mecca fell under the power of her former exile.

These political successes made of Muhammad not only religious leader, but also political one. His influence grew fast among the Arabs. After his death (632) this, at first sight spontaneous, religious and political movement has taken deep roots in the hearths of all Arab peoples.

Muhammad's teachings and deeds were collected and written down by his scribers and followers. The community of his adherents, called ummah (a community under the guidance of Allah, following in its everyday life Muhammad's advices and example), needed a leader to continue its thriving.

For the ummah the question who will take the place of spiritual and political leader after Muhammad's death became a question of division for centuries, bitter sectarian confrontation and bloodshed marked the history of Islam. The Prophet had no son, a legal successor, and his followers had to decide who would be their legitimate leader. There were two competing fractions - the first exiles, the small group of Muhammad's friends from his immigration to Medina; and the other group, the people who had blood kingship with the Prophet.

The group of Muhammad's followers in Medina promptly choose as a successor Abu Bakr ibn Qahafa. He was one of the first converts in Islam, close friend of the Prophet and political leader of Medina's Muslims. While the Muhammad's relatives were not happy with the choice, Abu Bakr had reasonable right to be a successor. He was called khalif (caliph) which means in Arabic "successor". At the beginning this was not a title that would guarantee religious and secular power for its bearer, but in the next decades the caliph will become the indisputable religious and political leader of the Islamic society and his office will be called Caliphate.

The period of the first four caliphs is called the Golden Age in Islam. Their leadership (Rashidun) continued 29 years and five months, and it is often described as the best rule in the history of Islamic society. In his book Traditionalists, Militants and Liberals in Present Islam (The Research and Publishing House, Montreal, 1977) Jebran Chamieh writes that the epoch of the first caliphs was idealized by the Islamic fundamentalists some three hundred years later. During the Umayyad (661-750) and Abbasids (750-945) Caliphates the Muslims thought the personalities of these four caliphs as purely human. Later, when the political fights, the corruption and the worldly temptations destroyed the image of the caliph as a humble, gentle, deeply religious and wise person, the personalities of the first four caliphs were elevated to a mythical status.

After Muhammad's death the Islam continued its conquest in the Middle East. It was a real golden age for Islam. It spreaded over Syria, Egypt, West Africa, reaching Spain. During this period of swift expansion, the Islamic communities were not peaceful to each other. The caliphs were not democratic leaders, rather they were absolute political and religious heads of the community ready to suppress any threat disputing their authority. They ruled with strong hand involved in endless disputes for power and influence. Many of them were killed. The assassination of the forth Rashidun Caliph Ali in the mosque of Kufa in 661, the caliph from the fraction of Muhammad's family (he was a Prophet's cousin and son-in-law), has initiated the centuries long battle between sunni and shiah.

The reasons behind the Muslim advance in Asia, Africa and South-Western Europe, can be summarized in the following: political weakness of the conquered nations; the exhaustion of the old empires - Byzantium in North West of Arabian Peninsula and the Persian Sasanian Empire in North-East; tolerance to the religion of the submitted people (the population in the new territories was generally Christian, Jewish or Zoroastrian, all of these beliefs were respected by the Muslims) and political pragmatism of Islamic rulers and state organization. The fact that the conquered people were not forced to convert into Islam can be explained not only with the religious tolerance that Koran preaches, but also with the Islamic tax code: the Muslims were exempted from paying taxes and thus not useful for the state treasury. The Islamic rulers were clever to keep their sources of revenue healthy not making the mistake to mix political and economic goals with missionary zeal.

As we have already said, two Islamic dynasties rose between seventh and eighth centuries - the dynasties of Umayyads and Abbasids. A general characteristic of both Islamic Empires is that they suspended the traditional form of Arabic life, which was nomadic and tribal. They built a complicated imperial system borrowing Byzantine and Sasanian administrative practices, spiced with their original Arabic culture and the teachings of Quran.

During rule of the Umayyads the center of Islam moved to Siria, Damascus became capital of the Empire. Later, the Abbasids, the dynasty that succeeded the Umayyads, moved Islam in East, making Bagdad (Iraq) their capital.

The first two Caliphate empires covered North Africa, Middle East, Iran, Arabian Peninsula, Armenia, Azerbaijan, and Transoxiana (near to Aral Sea). They were extremely multicultural. The universalism, the multiculturalism of Islamic empires will be preserved until the very end of Ottoman Empire.

Every empire is multicultural, and Islamic empires were not an exception. The fact of universalism, the semi-autonomous existence of the conquered nations is good to be kept in mind, because it is a basic cause of many imperial disintegrations. | 1 OF 2 | NEXT |


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