Organization and Impact of Islam
From the Umayyads to
The Umayyad was a wealthy merchant clan from Mecca.
Their dynasty solved the problem of succession (temporarily) and established
the role and function of the Muslim caliph. The caliph
was the head of state for the Muslim community as well as the supreme judge,
chief religious figure and military commander.
Under the Umayyads Islam spread out of Arabia into the
Mesopotamia, Palestine, Persia, North Africa, and Western Europe. (overhead map) To
control such a vast area they ruled the dar
al-Islam as military conquerors and showed strong favoritism toward the
Arab military aristocracy. Non-Arab
Muslims, whose numbers were increasingly growing, resented this. The frustration of other Muslim was
compounded when the Umayyad took to luxurious living and came to care little
for Islamic doctrine or morality.
Consequently, a rebellion in Persia
headed by the Abbasid clan would
overthrow the Umayyads and establish a more lasting dynasty from its center in Baghdad.
(The Abbasid exploited Shia discontent with the
Umayyads. After warring with the
Umayyads for years, the Abbasid invited them to a feast of reconciliation. While there, they arrested the entire Umayyad
clan and slaughtered them.)
The Abbasid borrowed their ruling techniques from the
Persians. The central authority was
based in Baghdad where the caliph
lived in opulent splendor. Each province
had a governor who implemented the policies of the caliph.
The dar al-Islam as
an organizing social and political force
Islam became deeply rooted through the use of ulama and qadis. Ulama are specialists
in the interpretation of the Quran and the sharia. It was their job to shape and apply public
policy according to Islamic theology.
Qadis were Islamic judges who heard cases and settled disputes among
Muslims. They rendered their decisions
according to sharia and the Quran. Both
ulama and qadis assured the continuity of Islamic civilization and proved to be
important forces in institutionalizing the religion.
On important result of these institutions was an increase in
trade. Unlike Christianity, Islam did
not originally have prohibitions against wealth and profit. Muhammad himself was a merchant. With the establishing of ulama and qadis,
merchants were protected by Islamic law and had recourse to a systematic method
of having disputes settled. Banking and credit flourish, easing
financial transactions. Within this framework of legal protection and
regulation, trade and financial transactions became much safer and easier.
Moreover, with the invention of a saddle for camels, the
deserts of north Africa and Arabia
were no longer as obstructive as before.
Trade routes connected most all major urban centers of the dar
al-Islam. Muslims opened up the eastern
part of the Silkroad trade routes with China. After learning about the compass from the Chinese, and the lateen sail from Asia (borrowed from the
Hindu dhows), the Muslim entered into the lucrative Indian Ocean trade network.
Several important diffusions took place among different
regions of the dar al-Islam. In addition
to the compass and lateen sail mentioned above, the western portion of the
Islamic world benefited from crops brought over from India
and the east. They included wheat, rice,
sugarcane, vegetables such as spinach and eggplant, fruits such as citrus,
melons and coconuts. Because of the
climate of much of the Arab world, there was only a small window of opportunity
to practice agriculture. But because
many of these new crops could be grown in dry hot climates, the introduction of
new crops made year round farming possible in some areas of southwest Asia
and North Africa.
Diets became more varied and healthy, and the increase in food
production allowed the population to grow.
Muslims also spread the cultivation of cotton, which spawned a new industry in textiles.
Islam would spread across these trade routes and impact a
large portion of the world. Much of this
religious diffusion was the result of the rise of Sufism in Islam. Sufis
rebelled against the intellectual and formalized version of Islam that emerged
among scholars in Baghdad. While maintaining traditional Muslim theology
and beliefs, the Sufis stressed a more emotional practice of religion. They rejected the academic approach to
religion and strove instead for a mystical union with Allah. The Sufis were enormously important because
of their missionary activity in spreading Islam. Their version of Islam required devotion
rather than the mastery of complex doctrine. Many practiced asceticism and gave themselves to
feeding the poor and helping the unfortunate.
The Spread and Effect
As Islam spread across the Arabian Peninsula
and later across North Africa and the Middle
East, it had an aggregating effect. The occupants of these areas had been nomadic
tribes for a very long time. They were
polytheistic and reaped all the political problems associated with polytheism. Remember, although tribes or regions may
share the same pantheon of gods, they tend to place primary importance on
different individual gods. Consequently,
the belief in many gods lends itself very readily to conflicting loyalties and
competition in politics. This had long
been an impediment to peace or unification in many areas into which Islam would
Conversion to monotheism meant that these barriers were no
longer relevant and unification became easier.
Likewise, one’s ancestral bloodline—once the unifying bond within a
tribe—gave way to a new loyalty based on a common faith in one god. As a result, Islam facilitated the rise of
large empires in areas once characterized by small kingdoms, marauding bandits
or tribal nomads.
Another effect of the spread of Islam was an increase in
trade. Unlike early Christianity,
Muslims were not reluctant to engage in trade and profit; Muhammad himself was
a merchant. As new areas were drawn into
the orbit of Islamic civilization, the new religion provided merchants with a
safe context for trade. The application
of sharia—Islamic law derived from
the Koran—ensured a certain measure of uniformity in the application of
criminal justice. Sharia law protected
commerce and imposed stiff punishments for theft and dishonesty. Muslim jurists called qadis were established to resolve disputes through the application
of sharia. Merchants were thus provided
with a forum for making complaints and having them resolved in a consistent and
systematic way. Trade and travel were
not as risky or perilous as before and both thrived with the coming of Islam.
Despite these generalizations, Islam’s effect in any given
area was dependent on the institutions and belief systems already in
place. It is necessary to look at some
of these areas individually.
Islam first came to India
during the reign of Uthman, the third caliph, when Muslims conquered the Indian
kingdom of Sind
to resolve some trade disputes. Then
again, after the Turks had converted to Islam they invaded India
and established the Sultanate at Delhi. The social pattern of conversions in India
was very different than in Africa. The authority and prestige of India’s
upper castes was entirely dependent upon Hinduism. Conversion would destroy the notions of
dharma and the hierarchy of castes themselves.
The lower castes were more inclined to convert because Islam’s stress on
equality was more attractive to them.
Converts also came from the Buddhists, another group with nothing to
gain from the Hindu caste system. At any
rate, since converts came primarily from people will little to no influence in
society, Islam did not affect India’s
social or political structures in a fundamental way. In fact, the exchange of culture and ideas
was basically one way, with Islamic civilization benefiting greatly from Hindu
culture. The most important item in this
regard is the Hindu numbering system.
(Because the Muslim Arabs would introduce these to Western
Europe, they would be incorrectly named Arabic numerals.) Muslims also borrowed important mathematical
concepts from Hindus, such as a symbol for zero, negative integers and other
things that would lead to more advanced forms of mathematics.
Islam reached Western Europe through Spain
having crossed the Straits of Gibraltar from North Africa. From Spain,
it spread across the Pyrenees until the Franks routed
the Muslim armies at the Battle of Tours
in 732. Islam would retain a presence in
until the last Muslim stronghold at Granada
was defeated in 1492. Despite the
impermanence of the Muslims in Western Europe, it would
have several significant effects on European civilization. The Muslims came into contact with ancient
Greek thought which they not only copied, but went beyond it. In science, medicine and geography no
civilization had attained the level of learning the Muslim scholars had. The scientific writings of Aristotle were
copied, taught, and preserved by Muslim scholars and eventually transmitted to
Medieval European universities. The
Greek thought of the Arabs thus exercised a strong influence upon the
Christians of Europe in the Middle Ages.
Perhaps the most important result of Europe’s
contact with Islamic civilization came out of the Crusades. Although unsuccessful, the Crusades
introduced Europeans for the first time to the extravagance of Muslim
civilization. When the Crusaders brought
home silks, porcelain, spices and other goods, demand for these things in Europe
began to grow, especially as the emerging bourgeois class of Europeans became a
market for these luxury goods. The
groundwork was laid for the age of trade and exploration.
The Muslim Abbasid dynasty began trade relations with the
nomadic Turks who roamed the plains of central Asia and Anatolia. Eventually, these Turks converted to Islam and
the religion had the same political effect there as it did in Africa. As monotheism replaced polytheism, warring
tribes were able to unite and strengthen.
Faith in Allah provided a broader basis for loyalty than blood or
ancestry. One result of this political
transformation was the rise of the Seljuk
Turks. It was the advancement of
these Turks into the Christian Holy Land (Palestine)
and their threat to the Byzantine capital of Constantinople
that provoked the Crusades by Pope
The beginning of trans-Saharan trade, made possible by the
domestication of the camel, profoundly influenced the world of sub-Saharan Africa.
Gold, salt and slaves began to make their way across the desert. With them came Islam.
Because Islam does not separate religious authority from
political authority, it was most appealing to tribal leaders because it
strengthened the African concept of kingship.
Kings who converted had more power and authority at their disposal. Several Muslim empires would emerge as a
The common people did not practice Islam in as pure a form
as did the kings and other people of influence.
Most people combined it with their established beliefs of ancestor
worship and fetishes. Nor did it greatly
affect gender roles. “Women in
sub-Saharan Africa possessed more opportunities than did
women in other parts of the world. Even
the arrival of Islam did not substantially worsen the condition of women in
For reasons described above, Islam dramatically increased
trade in Sub-Saharan Africa. It also
increased the slave trade. Muslims
considered the enslavement of unbelievers as a step toward their conversion. Also, in Islamic law persons born to slave
parents were not automatically slaves, as in the American South. This meant that there was a constant demand
for slaves because each generation of slaves had to be purchased anew. Moreover, “private ownership of land was not
an established institution in Sub-Saharan Africa, a fact that made the
possession of slaves an important barometer of personal wealth. As many as ten million African slaves were
shipped north as part of the trans-Saharan slave trade between 750 and 1500
In summary, the coming of Islam to Sub-Saharan Africa
facilitated the rise of political empires, encouraged trade and wealth, and
increased the traffic in slavery. In its
pure form, Islam was more attractive to kings because of its concept of the
caliph combined political power with religious authority. And it did not greatly affect the lower
classes or traditional gender roles.