The Rise, Expansion, Decline, and Resurgence of Islamic Civilization
The rise, expansion, decline, and resurgence of Islamic civilization form one of the greatest models of human development in world history. In the course of the last fourteen centuries, Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), the Rightly Guided Khalifats, Muslim scholars, dynasties, scientists, and laborers together created a unique culture that has directly and indirectly influenced societies on every continent.
What is Islam? The word “Islam” means several things. Islam is the youngest of the world’s three major religions. Islam means “total submission to the Will of Allah”. It is a way of life governing all aspects of human life and behavior. Islam is a spiritual and intellectual force that in our time binds together about one out of every five people of the world’s population. Islam unites its followers through a common faith, revealed scripture and a written language (Arabic), despite its diverse identity of race, nation, and political affiliation.
As inheritors of earlier civilizations such as Asia, classical Greece and Rome, as well as Byzantium and Africa, Muslims took possession of this mixed heritage, preserving much of it and transforming much of it. Their cultural and political experience had a profound influence on the late medieval world of Western Europe, where Muslim achievements played an essential part in the evolution of the Renaissance and thus on the formation of later societies, including our own.
During the most recent three centuries the Western world has become familiar with many of the monuments and works of art and literature produced in various Islamic periods and lands. The Taj Mahal, the great masjids of Cairo, Damascus, Istanbul, and Isfahan, the exquisite Islamic calligraphy and paintings of the Muslims world, and the fabulous tales of the ‘A Thousand and One Nights,” these are but a few of the celebrated Islamic handiworks that the Western world now recognizes as integral parts of their own cultural inheritance.
One aspect of the Islamic heritage that has been until recent years less familiar to the West, yet it has had a fundamental influence on all post-medieval lives is the historic achievement of Muslim scientists, physicians, astronomers, mathematicians, technologists, and anthropologists. Here we find a unique community that included Christians, Jews and Muslims, which formed the first multi-ethnic and multi-national group of its kind in the world’s history. They worked in harmony toward the advancement of human development and wellbeing. The contributions of this extraordinary community are the subject of this illustrated study of Muslim heritage.
From the ninth century on, scientists in Islamic lands acquired, through translations into Arabic, revealed treasuries of Greek, Indian, Persian, and Babylonian philosophic and scientific thought. Muslim scholars and others proceeded diligently to assimilate and codify this intellectual legacy, all the while enriching it with innovation and invention, particularly in the areas of mathematics, optics, medicine, and astronomy. Their ultimate achievement was an unprecedented and harmoniously synthesized body of knowledge that benefited the majority of mankind. These achievements can be considered the world’s first truly international science.
What inspired the early scientific effort of the Islamic world? What sustained it? What obstacles confronted its progress as the centuries passed? What factors, within and beyond Islamic lands, contributed to its eclipse? What, ultimately, was the extent of the Islamic scientific enterprise? How did it influence the development of our modern world? A look at the dynamic birth of Islamic civilization can open the way toward finding answers to many of these questions.
(Islam as Empire)
Within three years f the death of the Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) in the year 632 CE, Muslim companions began advancing beyond the Arabian Peninsula into territories long ruled by the Byzantine and Sassanid empires. Led by the earliest Muslim caliphs, the spiritual and political leaders who succeeded Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), Muslim forces spread out explosively in all directions. They had conquered Syria, Iraq, and Jerusalem by 637 CE, Egypt by 642 CE, Central Asia and western North Africa by 670 CE. Less then fifty years later the armies of Islam had invaded Spain, Persia, and India and were conducting raids across the Pyrenees.
Within a single century Muslims had conquered not only much of the Middle East, North Africa, and the Iberian Peninsula but also parts of the Indian subcontinent. The foundation of a great empire had been established throughout lands that stretched nearly six thousand miles between the Atlantic and Indian oceans. During the fourteen centuries that followed, the outside boundaries of this empire advanced in a few areas and retreated in many others. The political empire itself split into two, three, then many caliphates, and each one the equivalent of a principality. These independent domains eventually shrank, were absorbed, or disappeared. Ultimately imperial Islam came to abandon much of its political identity and almost all of its independence. But long before this decline occurred – and for nearly half a millennium – Muslim caliphs ruled over lands, peoples and resources that rivaled in extent those controlled by imperial Rome at its own zenith seven centuries earlier.
Early Muslim conquests were accelerated by the weakened condition of the Byzantines and Persians, long afflicted with political oppression, dissension, and widespread civil disarray. Perhaps it was time for a new and compelling force of ideas, and spirit. The religious zeal of Prophet Muhammad’s (pbuh) followers, the strengthening bond of their new faith, their commanders’ capabilities of leadership, and their soldiers concerted military skills, superior to those of opposing tribal groups, were all crucial factors in the Muslims’ conquests as they expanded both eastward and westward. The forces opposing the Muslim armies could not match the conquerors’ superior strategies of attack, which derived in good part from the desert environment out of which the early armies had come and which featured the camel as basic and rapid transport.
The Muslims whose battalions spread so far and so fast belonged to a desert society composed of farmers and nomadic shepherds, as well as a variety of merchants and commercial traders. The traditional business of this society lay in exchanging agricultural products, textiles, gold, and spices; its markets were strategically situated along the major trade routes that crisscrossed Arabia and linked it with neighboring regions on the East African coast and with India across the Arabian Sea. The rapid course of the Muslim advance across much of the Near East, North Africa, and the Iberian peninsula resembles the carefully planned strategies that guided the invasion of Europe by the Allied force during the Second World War.
However, the Muslims do not appear to have projected any specific agenda for their conquest of the vast areas they ultimately won other than the driving force of liberating the land in order to invite and call humanity to the message of Islam. The Muslim leaders may have heard tales of the richer lands, bigger harvests, and fabulous treasure that lay still further ahead, greater than any known in the dry environment of the Arabian heartland. Desire for the valuable fruits of conquest (ghaneemah), however, was secondary to the driving force of what was in good part a religious mission of obedience to Allah and His messenger Muhammad (pbuh) and the spread of the religion of Islam.
Muslim success in getting one defeated population after another to accept and serve their new rulers was made easier by the long-deprived and harsh conditions that the people endured under the former regimes. Muslim rule was generally less harsh than that of the previous invaders and occupiers. Under Islamic law Christians and Jews were not required to convert if they paid suitable tribute (jizyah); they were also freed from obligatory (and dreaded) military service. Of course, Islamic unaccepted practices such as idol worship, paganism, black magic, and witchcraft were all outlawed and subjected to the death penalty if the devotees refused to desist.
The Prophet Muhammad (pbuh) was the head of the first Muslim state, was succeeded by four Caliphs, three related to him by marriage. This group of leaders was known as the Khulafaa ar-Rashoon (The Rightly Guided Successors), they ruled until 661 CE, when a new and different era began. From that point followed nearly twelve centuries of dynastic and political maneuvering and strife, including periodic war. Between 1095 and 1291 CE, with Christian crusaders.