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READ: The Caliphate

The Muslim world, whether governed by one or several powerful caliphates, was at the center of Afro-Eurasia.
The article below uses “Three Close Reads”. If you want to learn more about this strategy, click here.

First read: preview and skimming for gist

Fill out the Skimming for Gist section of the Three Close Reads Worksheet as you complete your first close read. As a reminder, this should be a quick process!

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

For this reading, you should be looking for unfamiliar vocabulary words, the major claim and key supporting details, and analysis and evidence. By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What reasons does the author give for the success of Arab armies in conquering surrounding regions under the Rashidun Caliphate?
  2. How did the Umayyad Caliphate learn to govern a large and diverse empire?
  3. What were attitudes toward non-Muslims under Umayyad rule, according to the author?
  4. How did the Abbasids transform who governed the Caliphate?
  5. What does the author argue were attitudes toward women in the Caliphate?
  6. What are some reasons the Caliphate broke into several parts between the tenth and thirteenth centuries?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

At the end of the third close read, respond to the following questions:
  1. The Caliphate is sometimes called a “successor to the Roman Empire,” along with western Christian (Catholic) and Byzantine communities. What evidence can you find in this article to support or refute this argument?
  2. The Caliphate was both a religious community and a political state. Does it seem like this arrangement was effective? What are some ways it might have been an advantage or disadvantage?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

The Caliphate

A painting of five adults and one small child. Four people are riding on the backs of camels, and they are wearing different colored robes. One person is standing and appears to be greeting them.
By Eman M. Elshaikh
The Muslim world, whether governed by one or several powerful caliphates, was at the center of Afro-Eurasia.

The center of the world

Around the turn of the first millennium CE, Baghdad was at the center of the world. Or so its writers would tell you. People like al-Khatib al-Baghdadi and Ibn al-Jawzi, writing from Baghdad, felt they were at the heart of it all, in the pulsing epicenter of the known world. That's not surprising; around the middle of Era 4, Baghdad was one of the greatest cities on the planet, boasting around a million residents—in proportion to today's population that would look like 26 million. It was cosmopolitan and wealthy, with flourishing trade, sciences, and arts. Baghdad was a dazzling city rivaled only by Hangzhou in Song China.
An old, drawn map of the city of Baghdad. In the center of the map reads “The Round City”.
The city of Baghdad between 150 and 300 AH (767 and 912 CE). By William Muir, public domain.
The city rose to such heights as the seat of the Abbasid Caliphate (750-1258] CE), a powerful and massive Muslim empire. From about the eighth century until well into Era 5, Muslim empires spread out across Afro-Eurasia. But it all started in the middle of the seventh century with a new political structure: the caliphate.

The institution of the caliphate

After the death of the Muslim prophet Muhammad in 632 CE, the Muslim community of Arabia was led by a caliph1. The caliph was to be a spiritual and political leader, elected by his fellow Muslims. From 632-661, under the Rashidun Caliphate, the Muslim community elected caliphs who were close associates and extended family members of Muhammad.
Under the Rashidun, the state expanded rapidly out of Arabia. The neighboring Byzantines and Persians were vulnerable. Weakened by plague, wars, and encroaching Central Asian groups, these empires weren't able to put up much of a fight.
The Arab soldiers, mostly nomadic, were more resistant to plague. Many had served in Byzantine and Persian militaries, and knew just how to exploit these weaknesses to conquer a lot of new land really fast.
Map shows the expansion of Muslim ruled states, gradually moving outward.
A map showing the expansion of Muslim-ruled states from 622-750 CE. Dark red shows expansion under Muhammad, 622-623. Orange shows expansion under the Rashidun Caliphate, 632-661. Yellow shows expansion under the Umayyad Caliphate, 661-750. Public domain.
But the state itself was still a confederation of Arab tribes settled in garrison cities2 . It was under the Umayyads (661-750) that the caliphate developed a more sophisticated state structure to rule over its vast territory. With the empire now stretching from Spain to Central Asia, state officials were busy... translating. In particular, Persian sources on statecraft (managing a state) were being translated into Arabic, as were sources from the Byzantine Empire.
Partly because of these efforts, Persian and Byzantine political structures influenced the emerging caliphates. One example is the diwan, an administrative system used to register and pay soldiers, collect taxes, and pay for public works like mosques and irrigation systems. Muslim rulers also appointed provincial governors, called emirs, to help manage each region, with indigenous officials supporting the emirs. This was similar to the Byzantine system. The caliph became an absolute, dynastic (hereditary) monarch ruling over subjects, much like a Persian king, and less like an elected deputy leading a community of fellow Muslims. Caliphs used religious ideas to justify their rule, but they were often challenged by devout Muslims and the class of religious scholars, called ulema.

From an Arab Empire to a Muslim Empire

Soon, the caliphs were focused more on ruling than on safeguarding the religion. We often think of the political expansion of the Islamic state and the spread of the Islamic religion as the same thing. In fact, caliphs usually didn't encourage conquered people to convert to Islam. Non-Muslims could often retain their own religions. They were required to pay a special tax, called a jizya, a source of income for the state. Many of those who did convert were not immediately accepted into the community. As the historian Patricia Crone claims, "the Arabs were not always willing to share their God with gentile converts."
Nor were they willing to share their power. Arabs remained the ruling class. Many resented the Umayyads and questioned their authority. After all, they were neither elected nor members of Muhammad's family. To make matters worse, people thought they acted unjustly and violated Islamic ideals, including equality for all Muslims, Arab or not.
A painting, faded with age, depicts a ruler seated in a throne surrounded by others looking up at him.
Depiction of the first Abbasid caliph As-Saffah as he receives pledges of allegiance in Kufa, the site of Umayyad opposition. From a work by Persian historian Muhammad Bal’ami, public domain.
One revolution later, and the Umayyads were out. They were replaced by the Abbasids (750-1258), who were related to Muhammad through his uncle. Though the Abbasids were Arab, the empire became a lot less Arab-centered under their rule. They moved the caliphate closer to their support base, quite literally, from Damascus to Baghdad—much closer to Persia.
The Abbasids were powerful monarchs, just like the Umayyads, though they sometimes shared control with powerful officials called viziers and high-level bureaucrats. And they weren't fairer or more Islamic, either. They did, however, create more space for non-Arabs, and many Turks and Persians held sway at the Abbasid court. More non-Arabs joined military ranks. Also, there was an influx of Central Asian people, as the Abbasids used enslaved soldiers, called mamluks, to ensure a loyal military.

Society under the caliphate

With all this talk of caliphates, it's easy to forget that most people living in the empires were not actually Muslims, at least not right away. Conquest didn't mean conversion. Conversion is complicated, but let's just say there weren't many mass conversions. For the most part, people converted individually for different reasons. These included sincere belief, avoiding the jizya tax, or gaining rights and privileges. Forced conversion wasn't really "a thing" in this period. Merchants, missionaries, and wandering holy people were the ones who really spread Islam, and it took centuries—but that's another story.
Muslims ruled over many Christians, Jews, Zoroastrians, and Hindus. They were generally considered protected peoples, called dhimmi, and were permitted to practice their religions in exchange for the jizya tax, although they were occasionally subjected to violence and discrimination. Many non-Muslim people moved into the empire as enslaved people, often as prisoners of war or through trade. Enslaved men and woman had many different roles, including as laborers or servants. Enslaved men were often soldiers. Enslaved women were often concubines3, a practice that became more common during Abbasid rule and which affected the structure of family and the status of women. Slavery was not passed through generations, and people could gain freedom and eventually gain considerable power—but hold that thought.
Women's lives were as diverse as the different societies Islam reached—which is pretty diverse. Islam gave women rights, like property, divorce, inheritance rights, and negotiable marriage contracts. But these rights were put into practice differently depending on region and social class. Over time, Islamic sources were often interpreted with a patriarchal spin, especially as they blended with different cultures. In former Byzantine and Persian areas, many upper-class women were secluded, a common Byzantine practice. Women who could afford to not work outside of the home didn't appear in public. When in public, women covered their bodies in loose outer garments.
A painting of a woman, seated in a field next to a large vessel and a tree. She is wearing a long red dress.
Rabi´a al-Basri (717–801 CE), a female Sufi saint who was revered for her intense devotion. Public domain.
But public life wasn't what it is now, and women had their own robust social and economic networks within their private spheres. Women could direct the building of mosques, monasteries, and schools using their own money. And though they didn't attend public schools and universities, they had their own educational communities with other women, especially in Qur'anic and Islamic studies. They also could buy and sell products and services in their homes. Women worked as peddlers, hairstylists, midwives, and nursemaids. And we know women indeed spent time in public places like markets, because there are countless sources condemning them for it. In other places, like coastal East Africa or Southeast Asia, Muslim women were less restricted.

From one empire to many

Though on paper the Abbasids lasted until the thirteenth century when the Mongols sacked Baghdad, in reality, their power declined around the tenth century—for multiple reasons. For one, while more conversions were good for the religious community, they weren't so good for the empire's piggy banks; there were a lot fewer people paying the jizya. The empire also became so big—over 4,000 miles from end to end—that governors on the margins started doing their own thing, like pocketing taxes and revenues for themselves. It didn't help that the Abbasids spent tons of money they didn't really have on an extravagant court.
And remember those mamluks? Yeah, enslaved soldiers aren't all that loyal. They eventually gained the power to influence who became caliph, a situation that repeated itself in later empires, like the Ottoman Empire. Mamluks became "kingmakers" and, eventually, they started their own dynasties in various regions of the caliphate, in particular Egypt.
A gold coin carved with text.
Gold dinar coin from the Berber Muslim Almoravid dynasty (1040-147), Seville, Spain, 1116, CC BY-SA 3.0. By PHGCOM, CC BY-SA 3.0.
Over time, much of the Abbasid territory was actually controlled by multiple independent Muslim dynasties, including mamluk-ruled ones. Many of these were devastated by Mongol invasions, while others survived. But the Mongol invasions didn't end the era of Muslim empires. In fact, some Mongols converted to Islam and started their own Muslim dynasty. As Islam spread to other regions, Muslim states popped up all over Afro-Eurasia, from Mali to the Malacca Sultanate.
With so many different dynasties, you'd think the era of a unified Muslim community was entirely over, but that wasn't really true. Though ideas about the Muslim community have changed historically, several things united Muslims across fragmented political communities. Trade networks crisscrossed the Muslim world, pulling them into shared systems of production and distribution. Islamic beliefs and institutions spanned dynasties and even continents, making people feel like they were part of a single community of religious practice. Whether in west Africa, north India, or Baghdad, many Muslims in this era lived in wealthy, advanced societies and continued to feel like they were at the center of the world.
Author bio
The author of this article is Eman M. Elshaikh. She is a writer, researcher, and teacher who has taught K-12 and undergraduates in the United States and in the Middle East and written for many different audiences. She teaches writing at the University of Chicago, where she also completed her master’s in social sciences and is currently pursuing her PhD. She was previously a World History Fellow at Khan Academy, where she worked closely with the College Board to develop curriculum for AP World History.

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