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Chapter: 9th Social Science : History: The Middle Ages

Islam and the Rise of Islamic Empires

Prophet Mohammad established Islam. Islam gave a message of brotherhood. Mohammad laid stress on the equality of all those who were Muslims.

Islam and the Rise of Islamic Empires

Prophet Mohammad established Islam. Islam gave a message of brotherhood. Mohammad laid stress on the equality of all those who were Muslims. This message of equality and brotherhood had great appeal not only for the Arabs, who were divided into warring tribes, but also for people in other parts of the world. However, faced with persecution in his place of birth, Mohammad and his followers moved to the city of Yethrib. The flight of Mohammad from Mecca in 622 AD (CE) is called Hijrat in Arabic. In honour of his coming, the people of Yethrib renamed the city to Madinat-un-Nabi-the city of the Prophet. It is now known as Medina. Mohammad died ten years after the Hijrat (AD (CE) 632). By the time of his death, united under a common faith, the Arabs became a powerful force.


(a)  Arabian

Abu Bakr and Omar who succeeded Prophet Mohammad as Khalif or Caliph (both religious and temporal leader) laid the foundation for an Islamic Empire. In a short period of time, the Arabs defeated both the Eastern Roman Empire and the Sassanid King of Persia. Jerusalem, the holy city of Jews and Christians, was won by the Arabs, and the whole of Spain and Persia came under the new Arab Empire.

Islam advocated simplicity and equality. These two ideas impressed people fed up with the old order of oppression and exploitation. The Arabs easily overran many regions. Egyptians had suffered much under the Roman Empire and so they opted for Arabs. Led by the General Tariq, the Arabs, after conquering Morocco and Africa, crossed into Europe and took Spain which they ruled for many hundreds of years. The Arabs, until then largely nomads from the deserts, became the rulers of a mighty empire. They were called Saracens (from sahra and nashin - the dwellers of the desert).

Birth of Sunni and Shia Sects

The quarrel for the leadership of Arabia led to a division in Islam. The two sects formed out of the division were the Sunnis and Shias. The Sunnites, Sunni Muslims, maintained that the head of the Islamic state and successor to the Prophet should be elected by representatives of the whole body of believers. The Shiites, the followers of Shia sect, opposed elevation to any highest political and religious office other than those related to the Prophet by blood or by marriage.

Rule of Ommiad or Umayyad dynasty

The Caliphs, belonging to a branch of Mohammad’s family, known as Ommiads or Umayyads ruled for about 100 years. Damascus was their capital. They developed a new style of architecture known as Saracenic architecture. The arches, the pillars, and the minarets and domes came to India later and blended with Indian ideas.

The Muslim Arabs carried Islam far and wide. But while they were fighting at distant lands, the Arabs at home were quarrelling. Ali, the son-in -law of Prophet Mohammad and his son Hussein were murdered. Umayyads were overthrown by Abbasids. This branch descended from Prophet Mohammad’s uncle Abbas and hence his followers were called Abbasids.

Rule of Abbasids

Abbasid rule began in 750 A.D. (C.E.) assuming the title of “the Commander of the Faithful”, Abbasid Caliph wielded authority as any other Emperor. The Abbasids tried to rival the old empires in splendour. The capital was shifted from Damascus to Baghdad in Iraq.

Baghdad- a city known as the city of Arabian Nights, ‘was a vast city of palaces and public offices and schools and colleges, and great shops and parks and gardens. The merchants carried on a vast trade with the East and West. Visitors came to Baghdad from all over the world, especially learned men and students and artists Nehru, Glimpses of World History.

Arabs’ Scholarly Pursuits

Abbasid Caliphs did not attempt to conquer new lands. Instead they tried to consolidate the Empire. They were more interested in scholarly pursuits. The Arabs had a scientific spirit of inquiry. In some subjects like medicine and mathematics they learnt much from India. Many Arab students went to Takshashila, which was still a great university for specialized medicine. Indian scholars and mathematicians came in large numbers to Baghdad. Sanskrit books on medicine and other subjects were translated into Arabic. In medicine and surgery, Arab physicians and surgeons earned a great reputation.


(b)  Disintegration of Arab Empire and Rise of Seljuq Turks

The Abbasid Empire was at the height of its glory during the reign of Harun-al-Rashid. Soon after his death, the Arab Empire started disintegrating. Independent kingdoms arose everywhere. The Caliph became more and more powerless to control those kingdoms. The Turks (known as Seljuq Turks), who had become Muslims, succeeded in taking possession of Baghdad. They also defeated the Byzantine army of Constantinople and posed a challenge to the European states. The Christian pilgrims to the holy city of Jerusalem were put to a lot of hardships by the Turks. The resultant conflict led to the Crusades.


(c) Crusades and Fall of Seljuq Turks

The Pope and the Church called upon all the Christian peoples of Europe to march to the rescue of the “holy city” (Jerusalem). The Crusaders had to fight against the Seljuq Turks who controlled those parts. The struggle between Christianity and Islam beginning in 1095 continued for nearly 200 years and is called the Crusades.

The Crusades did not achieve the desired end. Jerusalem continued to remain in Ottoman hands for another 700 years. This continuous fighting associated with Crusades weakened the Seljuq Turks. The Mongol invasion from the East side-lined this cause and Christians and Muslims alike started shifting their attention towards the advancing Mongols, led by Chengiz Khan. The destruction of Baghdad in 1258 A.D. (C.E.), by the Mongols, put an end to what remained of the Abbasid Empire.


(d) Impact of Crusades

Crusades ended the feudal relations. Many of the nobles who went to East to take part in the Crusades either stayed too long a period or did not return. The serfs took advantage of their absence to break away from their bondage to the soil. Increasing demand for products of the East led to expansion of trade. Venice, Genoa and Pisa emerged as important commercial centres in the Mediterranean region. Constantinople ceased to be the middle man in the trade between the East and the West. The elimination of powerful nobles had its influence in strengthening the monarchy in France and England. One notable outcome of Crusades was the loss of prestige suffered by Pope and Papacy.    

Mongols and Chengiz Khan

Mongols were nomads. They came into Europe from the Steppes of Asiatic Russia. They were herdsmen. The Mongols were experts in warfare and produced a remarkable chief, Chengiz Khan. He was a great military genius. His religion was Shamanism, a worship of the “Everlasting Blue Sky. Mongols’ hold over Russia for about 300 years made Russia technologically backward from the rest of Europe until the end of Middle Ages.”

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