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READ: Dar-al-Islam 1200–1450

In the thirteenth century, the Islamic golden age ended with the political fragmentation of the Abbasid Caliphate. However, Islam as a belief system emerged stronger than ever.
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

Before you read the article, you should skim it first. The skim should be very quick and give you the gist (general idea) of what the article is about. You should be looking at the title, author, headings, pictures, and opening sentences of paragraphs for the gist.

Second read: key ideas and understanding content

Now that you’ve skimmed the article, you should preview the questions you will be answering. These questions will help you get a better understanding of the concepts and arguments that are presented in the article. Keep in mind that when you read the article, it is a good idea to write down any vocab you see in the article that is unfamiliar to you.
By the end of the second close read, you should be able to answer the following questions:
  1. What is Dar al-Islam?
  2. What were some of the innovations of the Islamic Golden Age?
  3. The author argues that Islam experienced a political fragmentation while it also saw a cultural expansion. What does he mean?
  4. What does Ibn Battuta’s experience on his travels have to tell us about Dar al-Islam?

Third read: evaluating and corroborating

Finally, here are some questions that will help you focus on why this article matters and how it connects to other content you’ve studied.
At the end of the third read, you should be able to respond to these questions:
  1. To what extent does this article explain how systems of belief and their practices affected society from c. 1200 to 1450?
  2. This article emphasizes the theme of cultural developments and interactions as well as governance. The author claims that even though the political structure of Dar al-Islam fractured at this time, the religious community expanded and united many people. What evidence does the author give for his claim and do you agree with it? Is there another theme that could be used to examine the changes that occurred in Dar al-Islam at this time?
  3. Does it make sense for historians to define a region based on a shared belief system, rather than a single government? Why or why not?
Now that you know what to look for, it’s time to read! Remember to return to these questions once you’ve finished reading.

Dar al-Islam

Painting of an ancient world map from Al-Idrisi, 1154.
By Bennett Sherry
In the thirteenth century, the Islamic golden age ended with the political fragmentation of the Abbasid Caliphate. However, Islam as a belief system emerged stronger than ever.

Take us to your leader

Historian Marshall Hodgson once wrote, “in the sixteenth century of our era, a visitor from Mars might well have supposed that the world was on the verge of becoming Muslim. He would have based his judgment partly on the strategic and political advantage of the Muslims, but partly also on the vitality of their general culture.” In other words, in 1500, Islam appeared to be the most dominant force on Earth.
To understand what made Islam a powerful political and cultural force, let’s take on the role of Hodgson’s Martians and examine Dar al-Islam in the centuries before 1500. Dar al-Islam—an Arabic phrase meaning, “The House of Islam”—refers to the parts of the world where Muslims are in the majority and the rulers practice Islam. Beginning in the seventh century, with the conquests of the prophet Muhammad and his Arab armies, Dar al-Islam spread quickly out of Arabia to the surrounding regions.
Like Christianity and Buddhism, Islam emerged as a universalist and missionary religion. That is, Muslims believed anyone could become Muslim, and that it was their duty as Muslims to spread the message of Islam. Under first the Umayyad (661–750) and then the Abbasid (750–1258) Caliphates,1 a large Islamic empire spread across Afro-Eurasia, conquering and converting millions. The conquests of the early caliphates spread Islam across an empire stretching from the Atlantic Ocean to India. Likewise, the conquerors also embraced new ideas they encountered, including Greek philosophy, Indian science, and Chinese technological innovations. The early Caliphates owed much of their success to their ability to blend ideas from different places into a diverse but unified cultural world. Though conversion was part of these early empires, many non-Muslims in Dar al-Islam were allowed, and even encouraged, to retain their own religions.
Even after the decline of the Abbasids in the ninth century, Dar al-Islam continued to expand, connecting millions of people with a common language and belief system in far-flung regions of Afro-Eurasia. In Dar al-Islam, religion was entangled with the political project of empires, cultural life, economic prosperity, and intellectual innovations.
Zoomed in map of the Middle East region featuring the Abbasid Caliphate.
A map of the Abbasid Caliphate, c. 800 CE. By WHP, CC BY-NC 4.0. Explore full map here.

A golden age

The conquests and prosperity of the Abbasid Empire started the Golden Age of Islam that would last until the thirteenth century. Many of the foundational ideas and technologies of our modern world are based on the innovations of Islamic scholars of this period. It was these scholars who preserved ancient Greek and Roman texts. We have translations of the work of Socrates and Plato today because they were translated and preserved in Arabic. But inhabitants of the Islamic world in this period did more than preserve past knowledge. They also innovated. The conquests of the Abbasids had connected a network of scholars and merchants, spreading ideas quickly across vast distances.
The conquests of the early Islamic empires brought important changes in agriculture that continued to influence the world after 1200: First, the Abbasids encountered new forms of irrigation technology around their empire. They combined these new methods to improve their agricultural output. Second, the huge territory of the empire and its trade links introduced new species of plants and animals to the empire. Merchants spread sorghum from Africa and rice, cotton, and sugarcane from India. Hundreds of other species were exchanged in all directions, revolutionizing the way people grew and ate food in many regions of Afro-Eurasia.
Diagram depicting water flowing through a pipe system. Arabic writing and symbols provide instructions for the waterway.
A diagram by Ismail al-Jazari, an Arab scholar and inventor. The diagram shows a water pump worked by animal power. © Getty Images.
Detailed black and red drawing of the structures of the human eye. Arabic writing fills the background.
A manuscript in Arabic showing a diagram of a human eye, published around 1200 CE. © Getty Images.
The Islamic Golden Age was centered in Baghdad, the capital of the Abbasid Caliphate, where caliphs built a “House of Wisdom”. It became a leading center of education and research in the sciences. All over Dar al-Islam, scholars exchanged information in schools and houses of learning. Today, we still use Arabic numerals, algebra, and the concept of zero, all of which were pioneered by Islamic scholars. The Persian scholar, Nasir al-Din al Tusi, wrote widely on biology, astronomy, and mathematics, but he is mostly remembered as the inventor of trigonometry (you’re welcome). Muslim scholars revolutionized the way humans understood science for centuries to come. Ibn Sina’s Canon of Medicine was first published in 1025. Over six hundred years later, it was still being taught in European universities.

Political fragmentation and religious expansion

Golden ages do not last forever, and all empires fall. From 900 to 1258, the Abbasid Caliphate slowly declined. The Abbasids lost control of their overlarge empire with such far-flung territories. Foreign invasions, internal revolts, and disputes between Sunni and Shia Islam ate away at the empire. The Abbasid caliphs would remain in Baghdad until 1258, but after the tenth century, they were often merely puppets controlled by some other ruler. Despite the fragmentation of the Abbasid political authority, Dar al-Islam as a cultural system continued to thrive and expand from 1200 to 1450 among diverse lands and peoples across Afro-Eurasia.
For example, during the eleventh and twelfth centuries, tribes of Turkic peoples—pastoralists from the steppes of Eurasia—migrated west into Central and Southwest Asia. Many Turks converted to Islam and conquered huge parts of Dar al-Islam, establishing several large states. The Turkic Seljuk dynasty ruled a huge empire centered in Persia during the eleventh and twelfth centuries. Like other Turkic dynasties, the Seljuks readily adopted the culture of the peoples they conquered, soon seeming more Persian than Turkic.
Painting of soldiers on horseback attempting to lay siege to a walled city. Citizens of the city watch from their windows.
A fifteenth-century depiction of the Mongol siege of Baghdad in 1258. © Bibliothèque nationale de France.
In the thirteenth century, the Mongol armies of Chinggis Khan swept across Eurasia, defeating the armies of Turks, Arabs, and many others. In 1258, a Mongol army reached Baghdad and sacked the city, killing the last Abbasid caliph and destroying the House of Wisdom. But the Mongol conquests actually helped spread Islam further than ever across the vast territory of the Mongol Empire. After the empire collapsed in the fourteenth century, Turkic dynasties again rose to power. Timur, who was of both Turkic and Mongol descent, conquered an empire stretching from India to Anatolia. His descendants later established the Mughal Empire in India. Turkic dynasties launched several other states that would dominate Eurasia well beyond 1450, including the Ottoman Empire in Anatolia, the Safavid Empire in Iran, and the Mamluk sultanate in Egypt.
The central political authority of the early Arab caliphates might have fractured, but a powerful side-effect of the Turkic and Mongol invasions was the spread Islam to even more new places and peoples. In this way, 1200 to 1450 was an extension of Dar al-Islam’s “golden age”, at least culturally and religiously. Between 1000 and 1500, the size of Dar al-Islam nearly doubled, reaching sub-Saharan Africa, the East African coast, India, and the islands of Southeast Asia. The world certainly seemed on the verge of becoming Muslim.
Map of Muslim territories across Europe, Asia, and Africa.
A map of Dar al-Islam, 622–1700 CE. Notice how many territories (in yellow) were incorporated after 750. Despite the decline of the centralized political authority of the Abbasid Empire, Dar al-Islam continued to expand. Explore full map here.

A unified cultural world

To illustrate the effects of the spread of Dar al-Islam, let’s look at two men who traveled across Afro-Eurasia in this period: Marco Polo and Ibn Battuta. Marco Polo was a Christian merchant from Venice. In the late thirteenth century, he traveled across Asia and spent several years in China. He wrote about his travels, though his writings contain many inaccuracies and exaggerations. Everywhere Marco Polo traveled, he was a stranger. Every new place introduced him to foreign concepts and ideas that he often struggled to understand.
Ibn Battuta’s experience was very different. A Muslim scholar from Morocco, his extensive travels took him from Mali in West Africa, along the Mediterranean coast, all over the Indian Ocean, and possibly to China in the early fourteenth century. Unlike Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta found himself at home everywhere he traveled. Moving through the vast, unified cultural world of Dar al-Islam, Ibn Battuta met merchants, scholars, and rulers who could speak the same language (Arabic) and who shared many of the same beliefs and values. Unlike Marco Polo, Ibn Battuta understood the people he encountered. The cultural unity of Dar al-Islam is something he expected. This Moroccan scholar, trained in Islamic law, was so at home in this cultural world that he was able to work as a judge thousands of miles from home, in South and Southeast Asia.
Colorful illustration of a caravan of people traveling on camels and horses. Some of the individuals are depicted holding flags while others are blowing into trumpets.
Caravan of pilgrims traveling to Mecca, fourteenth century. © Getty Images.
Whether you’re Venetian, Moroccan, or Martian, you can’t deny that the expansion of a unified cultural world of Dar al-Islam after 1200 still has relevance today. A great deal of our modern science, math, and medicine rests on foundations pioneered in the Islamic golden age. The spread of Islam across the Indian Ocean shaped the religious, social, and cultural geography of our world. Of the world’s over 1.8 billion Muslims alive today, two-thirds live outside the Middle East.
Author bio
Bennett Sherry holds a PhD in history from the University of Pittsburgh and has undergraduate teaching experience in world history, human rights, and the Middle East at the University of Pittsburgh and the University of Maine at Augusta. Additionally, he is a research associate at Pitt’s World History Center. Bennett writes about refugees and international organizations in the twentieth century.

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