The Sasanid Empire
and the Rise of Islam,
The Sasanid Empire, 224–651, Part 1
• The Sasanid kingdom was established in 224 and controlled the
areas of Iran and Mesopotamia.
• The Sasanids confronted Arab pastoralists on their Euphrates border and
the Byzantine Empire on the west.
• Relations with the Byzantines alternated between war and peaceful trading
• In times of peace, the Byzantine cities of Syria and the Arab nomads who
guided caravans between the Sasanid and Byzantine Empires all flourished
• Arabs also benefited from the invention of the camel saddle, which allowed
them to take control of the caravan trade.
• Politics and Society
• Centralized control
• The Iranian hinterland was ruled by a largely autonomous local aristocracy
that did not pose a threat, however, to the stability of the Sasanid Empire.
• Like the Byzantines, the Sasanids maintained strong central control of their
state and managed the successful integration of frontier peoples into it.
• Connections: Silk Road, Byzantine Empire
• The Silk Road brought new products to the Sasanid Empire, including a
number of crops from India and China.
The Sasanid Empire, 224–651, Part 2
Religion and Empire
Zoroastrianism / Christianity
The Sasanid Empire made Zoroastrianism its official religion.
Similarly, the Byzantine Empire made Christianity its official religion.
Both Zoroastrianism and Christianity were officially intolerant of other religions.
The Sasanid Empire, however, did contain sizeable Jewish and Christian communities.
State sponsorship of Zoroastrianism and Christianity set a precedent for the link
that developed between the Islamic religion and the Islamic state.
Contrast with Byzantine
• The Byzantine and Sasanid empires were characterized by state involvement in
theological struggles. The Byzantine Empire went to war with the Sasanids over the
latter’s persecution of Christians, but the Byzantine emperors and bishops themselves
purged Christianity of beliefs that they considered heretical, such as the Monophysite
doctrine and Nestorianism. In the third century, Mani of Mesopotamia founded a religion
whose beliefs centered around the struggle between good and evil. Mani was killed by
the Sasanid shah, but Manichaeism spread widely in Central Asia. Arabs had some
awareness of these religious conflicts and knew about Christianity.
State, religion and identity
• During this period, religion replaced citizenship, language, and ethnicity as the
paramount factor in people’s identity, providing a further preview of the way in which
ideas about identity would move as Islam expanded.
Sasanid Silver Plate with Gold Decoration
Chronology of The Arab Lands and Iran and
The Arab Lands
Iran and Central Asia
224-651 Sasanid Empire
570-632 Life of the Prophet Muhammad
634 Conquests of Iraq and Syria commence
639-642 Conquest of Egypt by Arabs
656-661 Ali caliph; first civil war
661-750 Umayyad Caliphate rules from Damascus
711 Berbers and Arabs invade Spain from North Africa
711 Arabs capture Sind in India
747 Abbasid revolt begins in Khurasan
750 Beginning of Abbasid Caliphate
755 Umayyad state established in Spain
776-809 Caliphate of Harun al-Rashid
835-892 Abbasid capital moved from Baghdad to Samarra
875 Independent Samanid state founded in Bukhara
909 Fatimids seize North Africa, found Shi'ite Caliphate 929
Abd al-Rahman III declares himself caliph in Cordoba
945 Shi'ite Buyids take control in Baghdad
969 Fatimids conquer Egypt
945 Buyids from northern Iran take control of Abbasid
1055 Seljuk Turks take control in Baghdad
1099 First Crusade captures Jerusalem
1171 Fall of Fatimid Egypt
1187 Saladin recaptures Jerusalem
1250 Mamluks control Egypt
1258 Mongols sack Baghdad and end Abbasid Caliphate
1260 Mamluks defeat Mongols at Ain Jalut
1036 Beginning of Turkish Seljuk rule in Khurasan
The Origins of Islam, Part 1
• The Arabian Peninsula before Muhammad
• Most Arabs were settled people. Nomads were a minority, but they were
important in the caravan trade that linked Yemen to Mesopotamia and Syria.
This caravan trade brought Arabs into contact with the Byzantine and
• The nomads were polytheists who worshiped natural forces and celestial
bodies, but they were also familiar with other religions, including Christianity.
• Mecca was a caravan city between Yemen and Syria. Mecca was also a cult
center that attracted nomads to worship the idols enshrined in a small
cubical shrine called the Ka’ba.
The Origins of Islam, Part 2
• Muhammad in Mecca
• Muhammad was born in Mecca, grew up as an orphan, and then got
involved in the caravan trade. In 610, he began receiving revelations that he
concluded were the words of the one god, Allah. Others in his community
believed that he might be possessed by a spirit.
• The message of Muhammad’s revelations was that there is one god, Allah,
and that all people ought to submit to him. At the final judgment, those who
had submitted to Allah would go to paradise; those who had not, to hell.
Muhammad’s revelations were considered to be the final revelations,
following and superseding the earlier revelations of God to Noah, Moses,
and Jesus. Muhammad’s authority as the agent of the one true God
alarmed traditional elites in Mecca by threatening their hold on the city’s
• The Formation of the Umma
• Muhammad and his followers fled from Mecca to Medina in 622 in what
came to be known as the “hijra.” In Medina, Muhammad’s Meccan followers
and converts from Medina formed a single community of believers, the
• During the last decade of Muhammad’s life, the umma in Medina developed
into a model for the sort of Islamic state that would later expand to include all
of Arabia and lands beyond in Africa, Europe, the Middle East, and Asia.
The Origins of Islam , Part 3
Succession to Muhammad
• Muhammad’s father-in-law Abu Bakr took over leadership of the umma as the
successor (caliph) of Muhammad. Abu Bakr faced two main tasks: standardization of
the Islamic religion and consolidation of the Islamic state. Abu Bakr successfully reestablished Muslim authority over the Arabs and oversaw the compilation and
organization of the Quran in book form.
• Disagreements over the question of succession to the caliphate emerged following the
assassination of the third caliph, Uthman. A civil war was fought between those who
supported keeping the caliphate in Uthman’s clan (the Ummaya) and those who
supported the claim of Muhammad’s first cousin and son-in-law Ali. The Umayya forces
won and established the Umayyad Caliphate in 661.
Sunnis, Shi’ites and Kharijites
• These disagreements led to the development of three rival sects in the Muslim
• The Shi’ites supported Ali’s claim to the caliphate and believed that the position of
caliph rightly belonged to the descendants of Ali.
• Those known as the Sunnis believed that the first three caliphs had been correctly
chosen and supported the Umayyad Caliphate.
• The most militant followers of Ali formed the Kharijite (rebel) sects.
• Most of the more than 800 million Muslims of today are either Sunnis or Shi’ites.
Map 10.1 Early Expansion of Muslim Rule
The Rise and Fall of the Caliphate, 632–1258, Part 1
• The Islamic Conquests, 634–711
• Syria to Spain
• The Islamic conquests of areas outside Arabia began in the seventh century.
In the first wave of conquest, the Arabs took Syria, Egypt, and the Sasanid
Empire. In the late seventh and early eighth centuries, Islamic forces took
Tunisia, Spain, Algeria, Morocco, and Sind.
• Arab society and conquest
• The most convincing explanations for the rapidity of the Muslim advance are
the talent of the Muslim leaders and the structure of Arab society.
• Regular armies and minority rule
• During the period of expansion, the Arab forces were organized into regular,
paid armies and kept in military camps and garrison towns so that they did
not overrun the countryside. The Arab Muslims became minority rulers,
thinly spread over non-Muslim societies that they dominated and taxed, but
did not try to convert.
The Rise and Fall of the Caliphate, 632–1258, Part 2
• The Umayyad and Early Abbasid Caliphates, 661-850
• An Arab, not Islamic, empire
– The Umayyads ruled an Arab empire, not a Muslim empire.
• Use of Byzantine/Sasanid structures
– They administered their territory through the established Sasanid and Byzantine apparatus,
gradually bringing in Muslim bureaucrats and the Arabic language
– Rebellions overthrew the Umayyads in 750; one branch of the family, however, remained in
power in Spain.
• Upon the fall of the Umayyads, the family of Abbas—an uncle of
Muhammad—took over and established the Abbasid Caliphate.
• Rulership and ceremony
– The Abbasids, who held the caliphate until 1258, provided renewed religious leadership, which
they combined with a style of rulership and royal ceremony derived from the Sasanids.
• Baghdad and Islamic culture
– Literature and learning, including the translation of Greek texts and secular Arab poetry, thrived
under the Abbasids. Baghdad was a center of Abbasid culture; other areas shared in this
culture to varying extents. The Abbasid period also saw an acceleration of the rate of
conversion of non-Muslim subjects to Islam in the ninth century. As a result the Islamic world
saw the rise of a more diverse and cosmopolitan ruling elite.
Political Fragmentation, 850-1050, Part 1
• Decline of the Abbasids
• Problems of control
• Abbasid power began to decline in the second half of the ninth century
because the caliphs found it impossible to maintain control over their vast
territory. One factor in the decline of Abbasid power was the difficulty of
transportation and communications. Another factor was the dissatisfaction of
the provincial populations with a political and economic system that was
centered on Baghdad. In the ninth century, local revolts carved the Abbasid
realm into smaller Muslim states that did not pay taxes or homage to the
caliphs in Baghdad.
• Mercenaries and Mamluks
• In Baghdad, the caliphs had come to rely on Turkish slave troops known as
Mamluks. In the late ninth century, when they were not paid properly, the
mamluks took control of the caliphate, choosing whomever they wanted to
be caliph and dominating the government.
Political Fragmentation, 850-1050, Part 2
• Provincial/Regional Regimes
• Then in 945, the caliphate fell under the control of the Iranian Shi’ite Buyids.
As the Abbasid Caliphate declined, various provincial regimes rose to power.
These included the Samanids in Bukhara and the Fatimids in Egypt.
• The kingdom of Ghana was one of the early sub-Saharan beneficiaries of
the trans-Saharan trade. The origins and early history of Ghana are obscure
but it prospered until 1076 when invaded by desert nomads.
• Islamic Spain
• In Spain, the Umayyads held power over a society in which Islamic, Roman,
German, and Jewish cultures combined to form a unique Iberian variant of
Islamic civilization. Muslim Spain saw substantial urbanization; the
introduction of citrus crops; a diverse, irrigated, agricultural sector; and a
florescence of Muslim and Jewish intellectual activity.
• Identity and scholarship
• Underlying the political diversity of the fragmented Muslim world was a
strong sense of religious identity preserved by the religious scholars—the
Map 10.2 Rise and Fall of the Abbasid Caliphate
Mosque of Ibn Tulun in Fustat
Assault from Within and Without, 1050-1258
• External Pressures
• Seljuk Turks
• In Central Asia and the Middle East, another nomad group, the Seljuk Turks,
took advantage of the decline of the Abbasids to establish the Suljuk
Sultanate. The Seljuks ruled a territory stretching from Afghanistan to
Baghdad and took Anatolia from the Byzantines in 1071.
• The Crusades
• The Crusades also put some pressure on the Islamic lands, but the Muslims
were able to unite under Saladin and his descendants to drive the Christians
out. However, Saladin’s descendants were not able to restore unity and
order to the Islamic world, which was hit by another Turkish invasion in 1250
and by the Mongol invasions of the thirteenth century.
• Internal Deterioration
• Baghdad’s collapse -- Irrigation failures/Food shortage/Lack of revenue
• Turkish depredations, the deterioration of the Tigris-Euphrates irrigation
system, insufficient revenue, and insufficient food resources led to the
collapse of the city of Baghdad.
Tomb of the Samanids in Bukhar
Spanish Muslim Textile of the Twelfth Century
Islamic Civilization, Part 1
Law and Dogma
Shari’a / hadith
• Islamic law—Shari’a—evolved over time in response to the Muslim community’s need
for a legal system. The most important source of law was the traditions of the Prophet
(sunna) as revealed in reports (hadith) about his words or deeds.
• Specialists on Islamic law collected and edited tens of thousands of hadith, discarding
those that seemed to be spurious and publishing the others. The Shari’a, developed
over centuries, held that all Muslims shared the same moral values.
Converts and Cities
Conversion and migration
• Conversion and urbanization were related. During the early period of Islamic expansion,
converts to Islam needed to learn about their new religion and found that the best way
to do so was to move to the wealthy, expanding urban areas where the Muslim
population was concentrated. Discrimination in their native, rural, non-Muslim villages
also spurred new converts to move to the cities.
Centers of learning
• Urban social life and the practice of Islam itself were varied because the Muslims had
no central authority to prescribe religious dogma. The growing cities provided an
expanding market for agricultural and manufactured products and contributed to an
increase in trade.
• In medicine and astronomy, Muslim scholars built on and surpassed the work of the
Greek and Hellenistic civilizations and developed skills and theories far more
sophisticated than those of Christian Europe.
Islamic Civilization, Part 2
• Women and Islam
• No public role
• Muslim women were veiled and secluded as they had been previously in the
Byzantine and the Sasanid empires. Women could be influential in the
family, but only slave women could have a public role or appear in public
• Some rights – Property, divorce, pilgrimage
• Muslim women did have rights under Islamic law. These rights included the
right to inherit and own property and to retain it in marriage, the right to
divorce, to remarry, to testify in court (to a degree), and to go on pilgrimage.
• Sexuality / Slavery
• Stories about Muhammad’s young wife A’isha illustrate what Muslims feared
most about women: sexual infidelity and meddling in politics. Muhammad’s
faithful first wife Khadija and his daughter Fatima are held up as models of
• Islam did not permit homosexuality, but notable Muslims including rulers and
poets advocated the practice of male homosexuality.
• Muslims were not permitted to enslave their fellow Muslims, Jews,
Christians, or Zoroastrians except when taken as prisoners of war. Muslims
could and did hold non-Muslim slaves, but the status of slave was not
Islamic Civilization, Part 3
• The Recentering of Islam
• Caliphate decline
• The decline of the caliphate and factionalism within the ulama deprived
Islam of a religious center.
• New authorities -- Madrasas / Sufi brotherhoods / Pilgrimage and identity
• During the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, two new sources of religious
authority developed: the madrasas (religious colleges) and the Sufi
• In medicine and astronomy, Muslim scholars built on and surpassed the
work of the Greek and Hellenistic civilizations and developed skills and
theories far more sophisticated than those of Christian Europe.
• Sufi brotherhoods were mystic fraternities whose members sought union
with God through rituals and training. The early Sufis were mystics who went
into ecstasies and expressed their ideas in poetry; the Sufi brotherhoods
developed into more prosaic organizations of Muslim men.
• Sufi brotherhoods provided their members with spiritual guidance and rules
for everyday life. The brotherhoods originated in the urban areas and then
spread to the countryside.
• The pilgrimage to Mecca also helped to forge bonds among Muslims from
Model of a Water-Lifting Device
Women Playing Chess in Muslim Spain
Quran Page Printed from a Woodblock
Muslim Head Coverings.
Similarities between the Sasanid and Roman Empires
Both empires from the third to the seventh centuries forged strong relations
between the ruler and the dominant religion.
As priestly hierarchies came to resemble governmental structures, citizens
began to identify themselves more with religion than ruler. Consequently,
founders of new religions, such as Muhammad, began commanding both political
and religious loyalty.
Comparing Local and Universal Islam
The concept of the umma united all Muslims in a universal community, even
though the religion spread out over diverse cultures and traditions.
New religious institutions such as the madrasas and Sufi brotherhoods also
provided a sense of community for Muslims as they carried Islam into new
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