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Muhammad and the Caliphate

POLITICAL HISTORY OF THE ISLAMIC EMPIRE UP TO THE MONGOL CONQUEST

Fred M. Donner

Islam as a religion and civilization made its entry onto the world stage with the life and career of the Prophet Muhammad ibn Abd Allah (ca. 570–632) in western Arabia. After his death, a series of successors called caliphs claimed political authority over the Muslim community. During the period of the caliphate, Islam grew into a religious tradition and civilization of worldwide importance. A properly historical view of Islam’s appearance and early development, however, demands that these processes be situated against the cultural background of sixth-century Arabia and, more generally, the Near East.

Muhammad and the Caliphate

(Left) Pilgrims to Mecca worshiping around the Kaaba, the cubical stone structure covered with cloth, which stands in the middle of the Masjid al-Haram in Mecca. Muslims revere the Kaaba as the House of God and direct their prayers toward it five times a day.

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Historical Setting

The Near East in the sixth century was divided between two great empires, the Byzantine or Later Roman Empire in the west and the Sasanian Empire in the east, with the kingdoms of Himyar in southern Arabia and Axum in the Horn of Africa constituting smaller players in the political arena. This Byzantine-Sasanian rivalry was merely the most recent phase in a long struggle between Rome and Persia that had lasted for more than five hundred years. The two empires not only raised competing claims to world dominion, they also represented different cultural traditions: the Byzantines espoused Hellenistic culture, while the Sasanians looked to ancient Iranian and Semitic cultural traditions and rejected Hellenism as alien. This cultural antagonism was specifically exacerbated by religious rivalry; in the third and fourth centuries the Byzantine emperors had declared themselves champions of Christianity, which itself had been heavily imbued with Hellenistic culture, whereas the Sasanian Great Kings espoused the Iranian faith known as Zoroastrianism (Magianism) as their official religion. On the eve of Islam, religious identities in the Near East, particularly Greek or Byzantine Christianity and Zoroastrianism, had thus acquired acutely political overtones.

Muhammad and the Caliphate

The great church of Hagia Sophia in Istanbul was built by the Byzantine emperor Justinian in the sixth century. It was transformed into a mosque after the Ottomans conquered Constantinople in 1453, and the minarets were added then.

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Although both the Byzantine and Sasanian empires espoused official religions, neither empire had a religiously homogeneous population. Large populations of Jews were scattered throughout the Near East; they were especially numerous in such cities as Alexandria, Jerusalem, Antioch, Hamadan, Rayy, Susa, the Byzantine capital at Constantinople, and the Sasanian capital at Ctesiphon. Many more Jews were settled in places like Tiberias in Palestine and in southern Mesopotamia, where Jewish academies continued a long tradition of religious learning and contributed to producing the Palestinian and Babylonian Talmuds (the authoritative bodies of Jewish tradition) during the fourth, fifth, and sixth centuries. Christians were numerous, perhaps the majority of the Near Eastern population in the sixth century, but they were divided into several sects that differed on points of theology. Each sect viewed itself as the true or orthodox (“right-confessing”) Christianity and dismissed the others as heterodox. The Byzantine (or Greek Orthodox) faith, the official church of the Byzantine Empire, was widely established in Greece, the Balkans, and among the large Greek-speaking populations of Anatolia (Asia Minor). In Syria-Palestine and Egypt, however, the Byzantine church was mainly limited to the towns. A few Byzantine Christians were even found in the Sasanian Empire, mainly in Mesopotamia, but their position was precarious. Christians following the teachings of Bishop Nestorius (Nestorianism) had been forced to leave the Byzantine Empire after Nestorius was deposed for heresy by the Council of Ephesus in 431. They had to take refuge in the Sasanian Empire, scattered widely between Mesopotamia, Iran, and the fringes of Central Asia. Another Christian sect, the Monophysites, had been declared a heresy by the Council of Chalcedon in 451, but Monophysitism was nonetheless the creed of most indigenous Christians of Axum, Egypt, Syria-Palestine, Mesopotamia, Armenia, and Iran, particularly in the countryside. Zoroastrians were found mainly in Iran and southern Mesopotamia; few lived outside the Sasanian Empire. Communities of all three religions (Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism)—which are called the scriptural religions because they shared the idea of a divinely inspired, revealed scripture—were also found in Arabia.

The Byzantines and Sasanians fought many wars between the fourth and sixth centuries in an effort to secure and extend their own territories. They competed with particular intensity for key border zones such as upper Mesopotamia and Armenia. They also tried to seize key towns from one another to gain control over, and therefore to tax, the lucrative “Orient trade.” This commerce brought southern Arabian incense, Chinese silk, Indian pepper and cottons, spices, and other goods from the Indian Ocean region to the cities of the Mediterranean basin. The Byzantines and Sasanians also attempted to gain the advantage by establishing alliances with lesser states in the region. The most important of these client states was the Christian kingdom of Axum, with which the Byzantines established an uneasy alliance. Both Byzantines and Sasanians also formed alliances with tribal groups who lived on the Arabian fringes of their territories. Arabia was wedged between the two empires. The Sasanians established a series of protectorates over tribes and small states on the east Arabian coast and in Oman, whereas the Byzantines brought tribes on the fringes of Palestine and Syria into their orbit.

Muhammad and the Caliphate

The Sasanians, rulers of Iran and adjacent areas in the centuries before Islam, maintained their capital at Ctesiphon, near present-day Baghdad. The main room of their palace was a giant iwan, a barrel-vaulted space, under which the ruler sat.

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Arabia occupied a strategic position in relation to the Orient trade, a fact that led both empires to intervene decisively in its affairs during the sixth century. In 525 the Byzantines persuaded Axum to invade and occupy the kingdom of Himyar in Yemen and its important trading ports, thus bringing the Red Sea trade to the Indian Ocean securely within the Byzantine orbit. In 575, however, the Sasanians, invited by the Himyarites, sent an expedition to oust the Axumites from Yemen, which for the next several decades was a Sasanian province ruled by a governor appointed by the Great King. Some time later, the Sasanians inaugurated the last and greatest of the Sasanian-Byzantine wars by launching a series of assaults on Byzantine territories farther north. Between 611 and 620 the Sasanians seized most of Anatolia, all of Syria-Palestine, and Egypt from the Byzantines. But in the next decade the Byzantine emperor Heraclius regained these territories, and in 628 he was able to conquer the Sasanians’ Mesopotamian heartlands, depose the Great King, and install another, more docile king. These dramatic events formed the political backdrop to the career of Islam’s Prophet Muhammad in the western Arabian towns of Mecca and Medina.

Although distant from the main centers of high civilization in the Near East, Arabia was not isolated. The Arabian peoples were aware of and affected by political, economic, and cultural developments in the more highly developed surrounding lands of the Near East. Trends in religion in particular resonated in various parts of Arabia. Many religions had established themselves in Arabia on the eve of Islam. Christianity was well-established in parts of eastern Arabia along the Persian Gulf coast and in Oman as well as in Yemen. The Yemeni city of Najran in particular later became famous because of the martyrdom of Christians there during the sixth century. Christianity had also spread among some of the pastoral nomadic tribes that occupied the northern fringes of the peninsula, where it bordered on Syria and Mesopotamia, and may also have been current among some pastoral groups farther south, in northern and central Arabia itself. Judaism was similarly widespread; important Jewish communities existed in the string of oasis towns stretching southward along the northern Red Sea coast of Arabia, including the towns of Khaybar and Yathrib (later called Medina, the Prophet Muhammad’s adoptive home). Jews were also found in eastern Arabia and especially in Yemen. Zoroastrianism was far less widespread in Arabia than either Christianity or Judaism, but a small following existed, particularly in parts of eastern Arabia and Oman, where the Sasanian Empire had established protectorates among the local populations. Arabian communities of all three scriptural religions—Christianity, Judaism, and Zoroastrianism—sometimes maintained contact with their co-religionists in the lands surrounding Arabia, where these religions were much more firmly established. For example, bishops from lower Mesopotamia were sent to Yemen, and Arabian Jews may have had some contact with the great academies of Jewish learning in Mesopotamia.

In addition to the scriptural religions, Arabia also was home to a host of local animist cults, which attributed divine powers to natural objects—the sun, the moon, Venus, certain sacred rocks or trees, and so on. These cults seem to have been late vestiges of the animist religions once widespread among the peoples of the ancient Near East, such as the Babylonians and Canaanites. Although animism still existed in Arabia in the sixth century, it was being supplanted by the scriptural religions in many areas. The remaining strongholds of these animistic cults were in central and western Arabia, especially in towns such as Taif and Mecca, which contained sanctuaries (harams) within whose confines members of the cult were forbidden to fight and had to observe other rules of the cult—a feature that made such harams important centers for markets and for social transactions of all kinds. In Mecca the cultic center was a cube-shaped building called the Kaaba, embedded in which was a meteoric black stone around which cult members performed circumambulations to gain the favor of the cult’s dieties.

The religious, cultural, economic, and political environment in Arabia and the Near East was thus a very complex one. Before examining Islam’s rise, however, it is important to note a feature of the Near Eastern landscape that profoundly influenced the course of the region’s history, including its history during the early Islamic centuries. There are extensive tracts of agriculturally marginal land in the Near East; these marginal lands consist either of arid steppe and desert, as in much of Arabia, or of semiarid mountainous terrain, as in parts of Iran and Anatolia. In these regions settled life, particularly larger towns and cities, tended to be widely scattered and in some cases virtually nonexistent. Some such areas, however, could sustain thinly scattered populations of pastoral nomads or mountaineering peoples living in small settlements and relying on a mixture of subsistence agriculture and herding. These nomadic or mountaineering peoples were often outside the effective control of any state, and they organized themselves politically in kinship-based entities (tribes) or in larger confederations of tribes. In many cases they also had strong martial traditions, apparently rooted in such diverse factors as their skill with riding animals and a culturally based attitude of superiority toward nonpastoralists or lowlanders. The result was that for several millennia the history of the Near East was marked by the repeated intrusion of powerful pastoral nomads or mountain tribespeople into the richer, settled lands and towns belonging to the various states of the region. Sometimes these intrusions were merely raids along a state’s borders, usually undertaken when a state was not strong enough to defend a district effectively. During other intrusions, however, nomads or mountain tribes toppled the ruling dynasties of moribund states and supplanted the rulers with members of their own group, who became a new ruling dynasty—usually settling down in the state’s heartlands in the process, but keeping a power base in the marginal region from which they had come. This process of periodic intrusion by peoples from the marginal regions into the state-dominated areas of the Near East is one of the main themes in the area’s history.

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