III. The Postclassical Period, 500–1500 > B. The Middle East and North Africa, 500–1500
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
(See 636–651)
B. The Middle East and North Africa, 500–1500
1. The Rise and Expansion of Islam, 610–945
a. Overview
In the early 7th century, Arab Muslim armies spread out from the Arabian Peninsula into the surrounding lands and, in a wave of expansion that lasted about a hundred years, conquered almost the entire Middle East and North Africa. The Sassanian Empire based in Iran and Iraq ceased to exist, while the Byzantine Empire to the west lost large territories around the Mediterranean basin, including Syria, Egypt, and North Africa (See 622–30). The political map of the region was completely redrawn as a new Islamic empire established its dominion over lands stretching from Spain to central Asia. The conquerors were initially a small minority ruling a non-Muslim society, but they set in motion changes that in time reshaped the overall identity and fortunes of the region.  1
The Arabs brought with them their newly founded faith of Islam. While they did not force conversion on the conquered population—mostly Christians, Jews, and Zoroastrians—the Muslims made the adoption of the new faith socially and economically advantageous. By the mid-10th century a sizable part of the population had converted, and while the region was not yet predominantly Muslim, mass conversion was well advanced, to be completed in the following three centuries or so.  2
The Arabic language, which until the conquests was confined to Arabia, spread in the region together with Islam. In the lands from Iraq to Morocco the populations became essentially Arabic-speaking; other languages, such as Greek, Aramaic, and Coptic, steadily disappeared from common use, surviving mostly in liturgy and religious writings. In Iran, the Persian language held out against this process of Arabicization, but not without adopting the Arabic script and a vast vocabulary of Arabic words.  3
The Islamic religion that arrived in the Middle East in the 7th century was rudimentary in form, consisting mostly of basic rituals, the divine revelation of the Qur'an, and the directives of the Prophet Muhammad. The period up to the mid-10th century marked the formative stage in which Islam elaborated its structures and established its distinctive institutions. Islamic law, theology, tradition, and mysticism took shape, to be developed to full maturity in the succeeding three or four centuries. A class of Muslim religious leaders and scholars, the ulama, emerged as the custodians and interpreters of the faith for the growing community. Their writings defined the terms of speculative thought and communal debate on the nature of Islam and its place in society.  4
During this formative phase, Islam, and Arab-Islamic civilization in general, were very much influenced by the Middle Eastern milieu in which they evolved. Greek philosophy and medicine, Iranian concepts of state, Byzantine administrative practice, Christian asceticism, Jewish and Zoroastrian codes of ritual purity, local architecture, cuisine, and popular lore—these and other elements of the regional heritage carried over into the Islamic period. Arab-Islamic civilization evolved as a synthesis of elements of different origins brought together in an original unity.  5
The structure of politics also underwent great changes. The Islamic empire was initially a unitary state ruled by a caliph and dominated by a small Arab elite that excluded non-Arab converts to Islam from an equal share in the benefits of power. By the mid-10th century the Abbasid Caliphate had been broken up into many virtually independent political entities. Struggles over succession gave rise to opposition and separatist movements, and to the greatest sectarian divide within Islam: that between Sunnis and Shi’ites. The Arabs lost their monopoly on power as the system was opened to all Muslims regardless of origin. The Abbasid caliphs became figureheads with little political authority, and the creation of an imperial slave army composed of imported Turks—an innovation of the period that remained a feature of Middle Eastern regimes until modern times—further transformed the political landscape, introducing a new power group that came to dominate the region's politics.  6
But while government became fragmented, the region evolved into a thriving commonwealth. A single trading system now linked the basins of the Mediterranean and the Indian Ocean. People, goods, and ideas moved freely within this vast sphere of interaction, relying on transport by water and caravans (wheeled transport having essentially disappeared in the region around the time of the Arab conquest, not to return until the 19th century). Large cities, foremost among them Baghdad, emerged as luxurious centers of culture, power, manufacturing, and consumption. In the agricultural countryside, where most of the population continued to live, a “green revolution” took place. New crops, including rice, sugarcane, cotton, oranges, and lemons, entered the region from China and India, and these, together with new techniques and investments in irrigation, improved both yields and diets. The population of the Middle East and North Africa may have experienced an overall expansion during the period, reaching a relatively high level of some 25 to 30 million in the 10th century.  7
The Encyclopedia of World History, Sixth edition. Peter N. Stearns, general editor. Copyright © 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Maps by Mary Reilly, copyright 2001 by Houghton Mifflin Company. Published by Houghton Mifflin Company. All rights reserved.