III. The Postclassical Period, 500–1500 > B. The Middle East and North Africa, 500–1500 > 2. The Muslim Middle East and North Africa, c. 945–1500
  The Encyclopedia of World History.  2001.
2. The Muslim Middle East and North Africa, c. 945–1500
a. Overview
Between the breakup of the Abbasid Empire in the 10th century and the restoration of an imperial hegemony under the Ottomans in the 16th century, the Middle East and North Africa lost any semblance of political unity. Dozens of dynasties ruling over parts of the region came and went, and the boundaries of states shifted endlessly. A broad political division emerged, however, among several territorial units: Iran and Iraq, Egypt and Syria, and North Africa. To these was added the area of Anatolia (Asia Minor), which first came under Muslim rule during this period; after being tied initially to the political destinies of Iran and Iraq, it developed into a distinct political entity that became linked, under the expanding Ottoman state, with the newly conquered Balkan lands.  1
The Muslim advance into Anatolia and Europe brought a final end to the Byzantine Empire, for eight centuries a neighbor and adversary of the Muslim states in the eastern Mediterranean. In the western Mediterranean, however, Muslim states were on the defensive as the Christians reconquered all of Spain and established military outposts on the North African coast.  2
The end of the Abbasid imperial order reduced the caliphate in Baghdad to little more than a symbolic presence; real power was vested in the institution of the sultanate and a new type of regime characteristic of the postimperial era. The bureaucratic, landowning, and merchant elites that had dominated the region gave way to slave soldiers and tribal warriors. Slave armies, composed most commonly of Turks, became the mainstay of dynasties everywhere; in Mamluk Egypt and Syria (1250–1517) the Turkish and Circassian slave soldiers even became the rulers in place of a dynastic order. From the 11th century, large-scale migration of central Asian Turkish nomads into the region overran large territories and brought to power Turkish tribal chieftains. In North Africa, Berber tribal warriors defeated Arab-dominated regimes and established new dynasties.  3
In the midst of this political upheaval, the Middle East endured two major non-Muslim military invasions, by the Crusaders and the Mongols. The onslaught from the east was by far the more consequential for the region and caused unparalleled devastation. The Crusader presence, on the other hand, was more in the nature of a prolonged nuisance; it loomed large only in European annals. In the long term, neither invasion was able to reverse the Muslim hold on the region.  4
The long-term social and economic effects of these movements of tribes and armies across the region were felt most acutely in Iran, Iraq, and Anatolia. The influx of Turkish nomads made large tracts of agricultural land the domain of pastoralists. It also brought into the region a new ethnic element, one that became a formidable presence not only within the political elites. The economic fortune of the lands farther west, especially Egypt and Syria, was generally better, although the Black Death (See Interregional Exchanges) and the recurrent plague epidemics that followed it caused massive dislocations everywhere. The population appears to have suffered an overall decline during the period.  5
Despite the unsettled conditions and political fragmentation, this was a period of remarkable cultural achievement. A unity built on a universal religion and civilization took the place of political unity. The mass conversion to Islam was completed, and the population became almost solidly Muslim. And the faith itself reached maturity as an elaborate system of belief: Islamic law developed into a comprehensive code, with four recognized schools of interpretation; the madrasa came into being as the institution of advanced religious learning; Sufism developed organized orders and became integrated into Islamic thought and worship (See 950–1300); the Sunni-Shi’ite sectarian divide became clearly defined; and a large body of distinguished writing gave definitive form to Islamic tradition and learning.  6
Impressive creativity also marked secular fields of study, ranging from astronomy and algebra to philosophy and history. The period produced some of the region's most celebrated Arabic, Persian, and Turkish literary works, and some of its finest architectural and artistic creations. While religious opinion had its quarrels with philosophy, Islam in general did not seriously oppose or stifle work in the physical and natural sciences, which remained productive into the 15th century.  7
In the sphere of high culture, as in politics and economics, men were dominant. The period reinforced an inherited social order based on the superior rights and power of men. Islamic law, more readily enforced in the cities, did provide women with rights to property, inheritance, and matrimonial support, and these helped them acquire leverage within their families. But in many respects the legal norms and social practice worked in men's favor. In both the city and the countryside, needy women worked outdoors, in menial and lowly professions. The female seclusion associated with Islamic society was an ideal achieved only in the better-off classes. Women's veiling, part of a code of female modesty and sexual segregation, was commonplace, particularly in the cities.  8
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.