The Sasanid Empire and the Rise of Islam, 200–1200
I0. The Sasanid Empire, 224–651
A0. Politics and Society
10. 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 relationships. In times of peace, the
Byzantine cities of Syria and the Arab nomads who guided caravans between the
Sasanid and Byzantine Empires all flourished on trade. Arabs also benefited
from the invention of the camel saddle, which allowed them to take control of
the caravan trade.
20. The Iranian hinterland was ruled by a largely autonomous local aristocracy that
did not, however, pose a threat to the stability of the Sasanid Empire.
30. The Silk Road brought new products to the Sasanid Empire, including a number
of crops from India and China.
B0. Religion and Empire
10. The Sasanid Empire made Zoroastrianism its official religion. The Byzantine
Empire made Christianity its official religion. Both Zoroastrianism and
Christianity were intolerant of other religions. State sponsorship of
Zoroastrianism and Christianity set a precedent for the link that developed
between the Islamic religion and the Islamic state.
20. 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.
30. During this period, religion had replaced citizenship, language, and ethnicity as
the paramount factor in people’s identity.
II0. The Origins of Islam
A0. The Arabian Peninsula Before Muhammad
10. Most Arabs were settled people. Nomads were a minority, but they were
important in the caravan trade that linked Yemen to Mesopotamia and the
Mediterranean. This caravan trade gave rise to and supported the merchants of
caravan cities such as Petra and Palmyra. It also brought Arabs into contact with
the Byzantine and Sasanid civilizations.
20. The nomads were polytheists who worshiped natural forces and celestial bodies,
but they were also familiar with other religions including Christianity.
30. 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. B0. Muhammad in Mecca
10. 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.
20. 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 superceding the earlier revelations of God to Noah, Moses, and Jesus.
C0. The Formation of the Umma
10. Muhammad and his followers fled from Mecca to Medina in 622. In Medina,
Muhammad’s Meccan followers and converts from Medina formed a single
community of believers, the umma.
20. During the last decade of Muhammad’s life the umma in Medina developed into
the core of the Islamic state that would later expand to include all of Arabia and
lands beyond in Africa, Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia.
30. 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 re-established Muslim authority over the Arabs and
oversaw the compilation and organization of the Quran in book form.
40. 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
50. These disagreements led to the development of three rival sects in the Muslim
community. 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 800 million Muslims of today are either
Sunnis or Shi’ites.
III0. The Rise and Fall of the Caliphate, 632–1258
A0. The Islamic Conquests, 634–711
10. 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.
20. Common explanations for the rapidity of the Muslim advance include lust for
booty, religious fanaticism, and the weakness of the foes of Islam. None of these
explanations has a strong basis in fact. The most convincing explanation finds
the causes of Muslim expansion in the talent of the Muslim leaders and the
structure of Arab society.
30. 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. B0. The Umayyad and Early Abbasid Caliphates, 661–850
10. The Umayyads ruled an Arab empire, not a Muslim empire. They administered
their territory through the establish