It’s amazing the way the author squeezed over one thousand years of history into 214 pages without leaving out any vital details. The story starts in the Arabian Peninsular (where else?), giving the background of pre-Islam Arabs and Arabia.
The first two chapters, to me. were rather boring because I was re-reading the stories I’ve heard so many times since I was a little girl. The story of an orphan boy, Muhammad, who grew up to be the most trusted man in Mecca. However, if you’ve never read the biography of Prophet Muhammad (pbuh), then Chapter 2 is vital because it introduces him to the reader — his life, his character, why people followed him and the basic tenets of his teaching.
The Muslims were persecuted by the elite of Mecca who saw Islam as a threat to their power, which led to the Muslims migrating to Medina. From there, Islam spread quickly and widely.
The four caliphs who took over leadership of the Muslim world after the death of the prophet — Abu Bakr, ‘Umar, ‘Uthman and Ali — were known as ‘The Rightly Guided Caliphs’. ‘Umar’s time as capliph was marked not only for his military conquests, but also his administration over the conquered territories. For the people under the conquered territories, life barely changed. The previously ruling Byzantine and Sassanid armies and aristocratic class left, but the local populations remained untouched.
For the local population, there were two main changes: 1) who they paid taxes to, and 2) they were given the freedom to practice their religions. For example, the Monophysite Christians were allowed to practice their religion in Syria — a change from the oppressive Byzantine government who imposed their Greek Orthodox belief on them. Jews were allowed to go back to their holy city, Jerusalem, to worship.
The nature of of the Muslim government and society changed fundamentally after the era of The Guided Capliphs. The caliphate became hereditary — a title passed from father to son. The expansion of the Islamic territories continued. Islam spread westward from the Arabian Peninsular to North Africa and Europe. It spread eastward to India, China and the Far East.
The Umayyads conquered most of Iberia in just four years with only a few thousand soldiers, indicating that they received support from local population who were tired of the oppressive policies of their conquerors/rulers. In India, early converts to Islam were Buddhists and members of lower castes, who were attracted to the egalitarian nature of Islam.
The rapid expansion meant that a huge number of peoples who came under Muslim rule were not Muslims themselves. In early to mid-700s, it is estimated that only 10% of the population was Muslim. The rest of the population was a blend of Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, Buddhists and Hindus. The jizya (tax) imposed on the non-Muslim populations was lower than the pre-Islamic taxes of the Byzantines or Sassanids.
The ninth through thirteenth centuries in the Muslim world was an era of scientific, religious, philosophical and cultural development at a scale and depth that have never been seen in world history before. Previous accomplishments of other civilizations were brought together, compared and built upon to create a new golden age of scientific discoveries. This era served as a bridge between the knowledge of the ancients and Renaissance Europe, and laid the foundation for today’s modern scientific world.
During the Abassid era, a scholar who translated any book from its original language into Arabic was given the book’s weight in gold. The most renowned scholars — Muslims and non-Muslims — flocked to Baghdad. The best of Persia, Egypt, India and former Byzantine lands were brought together to advance science in a way that benefit the entire world. Arabic became the lingua franca that united people from different backgrounds. Unlike modern secular science, Islam itself orders the acquisition of knowledge, making scientific research an act of worship.
This Golden Age saw advancements in various fields of science and famous scholars such as al-Khwarizmi, Omar Khayam, al-Biruni, Ibn Sina and al-Battani. They expanded and further developed the work of previous scholars. For example, al-Biruni showed why Ptolemy never fully proved that earth does not move in a scientific way and that Ptolemy’s calculation was off because he did not consider earth’s motion. Unlike European astronomers, Muslims were not harassed by the religious establishment for their views because scientific endeavors were seen as a form of worship.
In the first 300 years, Islam spread rapidly. When the military expansion stopped, the intellectual expansion began and sciences were pushed into a new frontier. The next 900 years were turbulent years for the Muslim world, which did not really end until the rise of the Ottoman Empire in the 1500s. With the fall of the Ottoman Empire, Muslim territories were divided among the European colonial powers and the borders of the Middle East and East Asia were redrawn to be what it is today. The Muslim world has not recovered from the devastating lost of its caliphate.
If you want to read about the history of Islam and how Muslims and Islamic civilization have impacted the world, “Lost Islamic History” is a good place to start.