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The Rise of Muhammad and the Caliphates: Islam Enters the World Scene

Whenever you read human history, themes emerge. War and love are two big ones. Another is religion. 

Pretty much from the moment humans started writing things down we have evidence of people believing in gods. The names of these gods vary widely from culture to culture, and the number of gods people worship has also changed throughout time and across the globe.

Today, religion remains one of the most powerful components of human culture. And while you can find followers of any religion in pretty much any part of the world, people living in certain areas tend to practice a certain religion. 

For example, in western Europe, the majority of people are Christian. The same is true in South America. 

In the Middle East, and also in many parts of Asia and Africa, Islam is the most popular religion. In fact, while not the largest religion in the world, Islam soon will be. It’s growing faster than any other faith.

But as has always been the case, when it comes to the story of  the spread Islam, religion and politics have done quite a bit of mixing and mingling. In fact, part of the reason Islam is so widespread is because of this. 

It all started in the 7th century AD with the rise of the first Islamic Caliphate. This completely reshaped the political landscape of the Arabian peninsula and also the Middle Eastern world. 

The Rise of Islam: Unifying Arabia

If you traveled around the Arabian Peninsula in the year 600 AD, your trip would involve stops in towns inhabited by many different kinds of people. They would have spoken different languages, followed different leaders, and, perhaps most importantly, worshiped different gods.

Fast forward 100 years to 700 AD and things would have been much, much different. People still would have looked different and spoken different languages, but by this point, a lot of people had started believing in the same god. And many were unified under the same political entity. 

The god? His name is Allah, the one and only deity of the religion now known as Islam. 

The political entity? The Rashidun Caliphate. 

So, what happened in these 100 years that changed so much? Well, to put it simply, the prophet Muhammad happened. 


The Prophet Muhammad 

Muhammad was born in approximately 570 AD in Mecca, a large city in what is now Saudi Arabia. For the first 40 years of his life, he was a Christian. But then something changed. He began having spiritual visions, believing he was communicating directly with God. 

In these visions, he was told by the angel Gabriel that the way people were worshiping God was all wrong and needed to be fixed. He was also instructed to preach these new messages from God to others, which he immediately began doing. 

As is often the case when someone starts expressing new views, Muhammad was originally ridiculed.. The people of Mecca were polytheists, which meant they believed in many gods and not just one all-powerful God. And the Christians and Jews living in the regions didn’t like hearing that what they were doing was wrong. 

Yet Muhammad’s message still rang true to many and he quickly gained a large following. In response to his growing popularity, he was kicked out of Mecca.

From there, he traveled around the Arabian Peninsula, preaching this new word of God and gathering followers. He then settled in Medina, another important city on the Arabian peninsula. But he didn’t stop there. With much of the region now converted to Islam and on his side, he put together an army of more than 10,000 soldiers and marched back to Mecca, conquering it with ease in the year 630 AD.

Once he’d secured Mecca, he and his armies expanded outwards across the southwestern part of the Arabian peninsula, spreading both the word of Islam and their newfound political power. 

Muhammad’s Death 

In the last few decades of Muhammad’s life, not only did he manage to spread a new religion across a vast region, he also united it politically. But by the time of his death, the movement he had started was much bigger than just one man. And it’s hard to keep something so big united as one. 

What ultimately divided followers of Islam was who would follow Muhammad as the leader of this new yet massive political and religious entity. 

Muhammad was not a king, so his next of kin did not automatically qualify. And the movement wasn’t exactly a democracy or a republic, meaning people weren’t about to vote for their next leader. 

Instead, he was a prophet. Who comes after a prophet? Turns out that’s a good question, one no one knew how to answer.

The early converts to Islam decided on naming  a “caliph.” This word comes from the Arabic term for “steward” or “messenger.” 

Muslims believe that Muhammad was able to speak directly to God, and his leadership was actually God’s leadership. It wasn’t political but rather religious. Those that came after him were also given this title, as their official duty was to spread the word of Islam and to bring God to the people of the world.

For this reason, the political entities that appeared in the Muslim world over the next few centuries were called caliphates, as they were ruled by caliphs, aka “messengers of God.”

The Sunni-Shia Split 

In the end, a man named Abu Bakr was chosen by a group of four of Muhammad’s closest companions to take over as the first post-Muhammad caliph. But his transition to power was anything but smooth.

For starters, many of the the Arabian tribes that had united under Muhammad felt no allegiance to Bakr, and so his first task was to subdue them, through both diplomacy and warfare.

Others believed that Bakr’s rise to power was illegitimate. They thought that Muhammad had in fact named a successor, a man named Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, which meant that Bakr took the throne illegally. 

This group broke completely from the new Muslim regime and eventually evolved into its own sect, known today as Shia Islam.

Those that followed Bakr became part of another sect, known today as Sunni Islam. 

This division still exists today, though around 85 percent of the Muslim world follows Sunni Islam. Many of the beliefs and practices are the same in both groups. 

Despite these similarities, this split that occurred nearly 1,500 years ago still causes tensions today. It is often fueled by politicians looking to create rifts in the Muslim world with the goal of boosting their own power and authority.

The Rashidun and Umayyad Caliphates

For the first 30 years after Muhamad’s death, this newfound caliphate expanded rapidly. Powered by religious fervor and unity, the caliphate conquered the rest of the Arabian peninsula, Mesopotamia, nearly two-thirds of the western Asian lands held by the Byzantine Empire, as well as much of North Africa.

This period is known as the Rashidun Caliphate. The word Rashidun means “rightly guided” and is a reference to the belief that these leaders were amongst Muhammad’s closest companions who were working to implement his vision, which was a world where Islam was the primary religion. 

Things changed in 661 AD when a man named Muāwiyah, who had been a governor in what is now Syria, took over the caliphate. He stopped the tradition of electing the next caliph and instituted a hereditary dynasty, which meant his sons and grandsons would follow him as the leader of the caliphate. 

And so the Ummayyad Caliphate was born, a name that comes from Muāwiyah’s great-grandfather.

The Ummayyad Caliphate expanded Islamic rule even further, crossing into what is now Morocco and conquering the Iberian Peninsula, which was at the time mainly Christian and Jewish. 

The Caliphate Throughout the Middle Ages

The Umayyad Caliphate lasted until 751 AD. It suffered the same fate as pretty much every other empire in history: it got too big for its own good. 

At its peak, its territory stretched from Spain in the west to what is now Pakistan in the east, and internal tensions eventually led to its split. 

One of the instigators of this conflict was a man known as As-Saffah, who capitalized on a revolution within the Umayyad Caliphate, built an army of his own, and eventually took over as Caliph under a new dynasty, known today as the Abbasid dynasty. 

This name comes from one of Muhammad’s uncles. Members of the Abbasid dynasty claimed ancestry with this family member of Muhhammed. It is impossible to understate the importance of the prophet Muhammad in the Islamic faith.

The Abbassid Caliphate moved its capital from Damascus to a newly founded city, Baghdad, which is the modern capital of Iraq. But it was nowhere near as big as the Ummayyad Caliphate had been. Instead, the rise of the Abbasid dynasty led to a fracture in the Muslim world that allowed for the rise of a number of different caliphates. 

For example, the Caliphate of Cordoba continued Umayyad rule in what is now Spain. The Fatimid Caliphate ruled over Northern Africa and the eastern shores of the Mediterranean. A number of other political entities also emerged known as Sultanates, the most famous being the Sultanate of Cairo, which is in Egypt. 

Impacts of the Muslim Caliphate

What began as a religious mission by a man who believed to be able to speak to God later turned into a total transformation of the Medieval  world. The rise of caliphates reorganized the political landscape of the Middle Eastern world, giving rise to Islam and creating further separation between Europe, which was largely Christian, and the Middle East, which was now mainly Muslim.

The Muslim Caliphate also breathed fresh air into Medieval world culture. Starting with the Rashidun Caliphate and continuing until the Abbasid Caliphate, civilization flourished alongside the spread of Islam. 

Muslim rulers built massive libraries, established some of the world’s first universities, commissioned massive building projects and artwork, and developed concepts, such as algebra, that are the foundation of modern science and mathematics. 

Such progress was not possible in Europe, at least not to the same scale, because warfare, political instability, disease, and a lack of unity made it nearly impossible. 

Christian Europe Pushes Back on the Muslim World

On the other hand, the rise of Islam also shook Europe. The Catholic church had become extremely powerful after the fall of Rome, and as Muslim societies began expanding they began encroaching on Catholic lands. They even conquered some, the most significant being the Iberian Peninsula. 

This perceived threat of a Muslim invasion into Christian lands sparked a lot of fear in Christian Europe. And when there’s fear, there’s, you guessed it, war! 

For about 250 years, Christians traveled from Europe to the Middle East to try and “take back” Jerusalem, which they perceived to be their “Holy Land.” 

These bloody conflicts are known today as the Crusades. They not only defined much of Medieval History, but they also helped contribute to the often tense relations between the Western World, which is mainly Christian, and the Middle East, which is mainly Muslim. 

Wondering if these tensions still exist? Check the news. They 100 percent do.

The Caliphate Today

The concept of the caliphate lived on into the modern age. The Ottoman Empire, which ruled from c. 1500 – 1914 AD was the most recent version. And while it doesn’t exist today, the idea still very much does. 

Many fundamentalist Muslims still see the universal spread of Islam as their primary goal. And extremist groups are willing to use violence to achieve this aim. However, the majority of the Muslim world is divided up into modern nation states which have helped contribute to the diversity of the Islamic faith. 

In fact, the largest majority Muslim nation in the world isn’t even in the Middle East. It’s Indonesia!

But the impacts of the Caliphate and its long history are still being felt today. Travel from Europe into Turkey and then over into Syria. At the start of your journey, town centers will be dominated by Catholic churches and Sunday’s are the designated day of rest. But by the time your journey ends, mosques will feature and Fridays are the day of prayer and rest. 

This cultural divide always existed, but as Islam grew and combined with politics, it unified the Middle East, North Africa, and Western Asia in a way that was decidedly different from Europe. 

Forever connected but forever separate. 

Written by Matthew Jones

Illustrated by Jean Galvao