The Caliphs Expand North, South, East, and West
Ted: Last time we talked about how the religion of Islam got started
and what the prophet Muhammad’s life was like. All that brings us
to our topic for this snapshot: What happened next?
Mona: After Muhammad died, the Islamic Empire had to figure out
who would lead them.
Ted: You said before that Muhammad was the last prophet of all,
Mona: Yes, Muslims believe there won’t be any more prophets after
Muhammad, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t need a leader. After
all, Muhammad founded a nation as well as a religion.
Ted: Did Muhammad say who should take over for him?
Mona: Nope, which is why the Muslims started arguing about
who the next leader should be. Some Muslims thought
Muhammad’s father-in-law, Abu Bakr, should be the next
leader. Abu Bakr was a wise and just man who had faithfully
followed Muhammad from the beginning. Other
Muslims thought the next leader should be a blood
relative of Muhammad. They nominated Muhammad’s
cousin Ali ibn Abi Talib. Ali also had a strong reputation
and had been a loyal follower of Muhammad.
Ted: So who wins?
Mona: Abu Bakr becomes the first caliph. Caliph means
successor of Muhammad. It was like being king of the
Ted: Seems simple enough. Islam has its next ruler, now
Mona: It actually wasn’t that simple, partly because Abu Bakr only
lived two years, then the crisis happened all over again. Muslims
split into two groups based upon who they thought the next ruler
should be. Those who supported Abu Bakr and his successor became
known as Sunni, which means “lawful.” The people who supported
Ali became known as Shiite, which means the “The Party for Ali.”
Ted: Fighting over who the next Caliph would be didn’t stop the
Muslims from expanding their borders A LOT.
Mona: That’s right. By Muhammad’s death, the Muslims controlled
the Arabian Peninsula. Now they’re expanding out even further.
Ted: The Muslim’s success in war had to do with traditional Arab
tactics. The Arabs had perfected the art of living and traveling
through the desert. Arabs rarely engaged in battles on an open field.
Instead, they used hit-and-run raiding tactics. They would use their
skill at traveling in the desert to sneak up on a caravan or town. If
the target was undefended, they would strike, steal the loot, and
disappear back into the desert before reinforcements could arrive.
If the target was defended, they would just melt back into the desert
without any fight. They used the desert to their advantage. No
one dared follow them there, so retreat into the desert offered them
Mona: The Muslims used these tactics to conquer all of Arabia,
and then they started looking at the rich cities that lay outside the
Ted: To the north and west lay the Eastern Roman Empire, also
known as the Byzantine Empire. To the east lay the Persian Empire.
Mona: The Byzantine and Persian Empires are some of the biggest
and most powerful in the world. It’s a pretty bold move to try to
take them on.
Ted: Not as bold as you might think. Conquering those
empires started off as an accident.
Mona: How do you accidentally conquer someone, Ted?
Ted: At first they were just raiding border towns. Then
they discovered those Byzantine and Persian towns
weren’t properly defended—not even close. So what
started as a hit and run raid, turned into full-on conquest.
Mona: The last time we talked about the Byzantines was with
Justinian. Unfortunately, a lot of what Justinian did had already fallen
to pieces. The Byzantines had just finished—another—long war with
Ted: Rome and Persia had been enemies for a long time.
Mona: When the Muslims began expanding, the Byzantines and
Persians had just finished a 30 year war.
Ted: A 30 year war that had left both empires weak, poor, and unable
to fight off another threat. Under the leadership of the Caliph,
the Islamic Empire struck their neighbors and quickly took control
of many surrounding lands. By 651, the Islamic Empire controlled all
of Arabia, Mesopotamia, the Levant, Egypt, and the whole of Persia.
Mona: I’ll admit, I’m a bit confused Ted. How did the Islamic army
conquer so much land so quickly? The Byzantines and Persians had
never managed to defeat each other, why could the Muslims do it?
Ted: I think the Muslims had several things going in their favor,
one of which was surprise. Neither the Byzantines nor the Persians
were ready for such a strong, fast invasion from people who just a
few years before had been a bunch of desert merchants. Plus, the
Byzantines and Persians were at a weak point in their empires, while
the Muslims were in a strong position. That’s just simple math.
Mona: But is that really all? It seems too easy.
Ted: There’s also the fact that Muslims were expanding for the sake
of expanding. They weren’t fighting a bitter, sworn enemy or trying
to reconquer a particular place. For example, Justinian was trying
to reconquer Rome. Anything less than conquering Rome was a
Expansion under Muhammad (622–632)
Expansion under Rashidun Caliphate (632–661)
(Abu Bakr through Ali)
Expansion under Umayyad Caliphate (661–750)
failure, so it didn’t matter how hard it was to conquer Rome, he kept
trying. The Muslims didn’t have a set goal like that. If a particular direction
of expansion didn’t work, they’d go conquer somewhere else.
Mona: That approach would make expansion a lot easier than most
Ted: You know, a lot of these areas the Muslims conquered had
been conquered and reconquered by so many different empires
over the years—it’s not like they were really loyal to whoever
ruled them. They just wanted a government that would leave
them alone and not collect tons of taxes. That’s exactly what the
Mona: You know, you’re right Ted. The Muslims didn’t come in with
a big government or lots of rules for the people they conquered. As
long as the new people were willing to acknowledge the Caliph, life
carried on pretty much the same. The Caliph didn’t change the
laws or customs of the new people.
Ted: That’s a pretty big reason why the Muslims were able to expand
so quickly. If they’d taken the time to set up new governments,
enforce new laws, and change daily life, then it would have definitely
slowed down their expansion.
Mona: The Muslims were expanding for two reasons. Reason one
was the same reason any empire expands—more money and power.
Reason two was to spread Muhammad’s message about Allah. Many
people began converting to Islam under the Caliph’s rule.
Ted: Ok, so now it’s my turn to be confused. Why? Did all of those
people honestly want to convert or were they required to?
Mona: The Muslims didn’t force people to convert. Muslims had
lower taxes and a few other perks, but life for non-Muslims was
almost exactly the same as before they were conquered. Islam respected
other monotheists. Christians and Jews were called ‘People
of the Book’ because they believed in many of the same teachings
as Muslims. People of the Book had certain protections in Muslim
Ted: Speaking of Christians and Jews, that reminds me of the most
important place the Muslims conquered: Jerusalem!
Mona: Jerusalem used to be the center of the Jewish religion, and
the city was holy to Christians because it’s where Jesus Christ was
crucified. Jerusalem is also holy to Muslims because it’s the location
of Muhammad’s most important revelation.
Ted: Conquering Jerusalem was super important to Muslims. They
saw it as proof that God was on their side.
Mona: Once they controlled Jerusalem, the Muslims set to work
doing what any proper empire does.
Ted: Building cool things!
Mona: For the Muslims that meant building a mosque.
Ted: A mosque is a church right?
Mona: Yep. The Muslims were impressed with the beautiful
Byzantine churches in Jerusalem and wanted to build something that
would rival them. The site they chose to build their mosque was the
location of Muhammad’s vision where he ascended to heaven. It also
happened to be the location of the former Jewish temple, so that’s
going to cause some issues down the road. The mosque the Muslims
decided to build is called the Dome of the Rock. The Dome of the
Rock is shaped like an octagon and has a massive dome in the center,
which was inspired by Byzantine buildings. The Dome of the
Rock is the most famous mosque in the world. Having a large dome
became a standard feature on mosques after this point.
Ted: The gold on that
dome really makes it pop!
Mona: Actually, the gold
wasn’t added until 1959, but
the dome has always been
impressively large, even
if it wasn’t always golden.
The Dome of the Rock is
covered in a tile mosaic,
which is very common in Islamic art. Colored and painted tiles are
arranged to make larger patterns and designs all around the mosque.
Ted: Building something like that is pretty clear proof your empire
is on the rise. What happens next for the caliph?
Mona: The two caliphs after Abu Bakr were both assassinated,
bringing the empire back into crisis yet again. Guess who
finally becomes Caliph?
Mona: Yep, Ali finally becomes caliph in 656.
Ted: Wow, that’s an eventful 25 years since Muhammad’s death!
Four caliphs and expansion across two continents, including taking
out the entire Persian Empire!
Mona: The eventfulness keeps going. Ali had quite a few problems
on his hands as civil war broke out in the Islamic Empire.
Ted: Why did a civil war start?
Mona: The family of the last caliph demanded that the people
who murdered him be brought to justice. The group who supported
the assassination began fighting back, and Ali was attempting to
wrangle these different groups back into line. The result was a civil
war where Ali was killed, and the family of the previous caliph seized
control of the empire. This new family founded a dynasty called the
Umayyad Caliphate, which would rule the Islamic Empire for nearly
Ted: Wow, that is an impressive amount of drama. What’s even
more impressive is that the Islamic Empire didn’t start to fall apart.
For such a young empire to go through so much instability and not
crumble is amazing.
Mona: They didn’t just not fall apart either, they kept growing! The
Caliph conquered all of North Africa and then began marching on
Ted: In 711 the Islamic forces crossed the Strait of Gibraltar and
landed on the Iberian Peninsula, which is the bit of land where modern-
day Spain and Portugal are located.
Mona: From the Islamic perspective, conquering Europe was the
next logical step. They’d already conquered the Middle East and
all of Africa they could reach without crossing the Sahara Desert.
Europe was the next big chunk of land in front of them. Plus, the
Europeans were so busy fighting each other, the Muslims thought
they’d be an easy target.
Ted: At first they were right. The Visigothic king was killed in an
early battle. Once the king was dead, it was easy for the Muslims to
spread and conquer most of the Iberian Peninsula.
Mona: The Iberian Peninsula is separated from the rest of Europe
by the Pyrenees Mountains, but the Pyrenees didn’t slow the
Muslims down at all.
Ted: What happens next became the stuff of legend in Europe.
This is where Europe became “Europe” and started to see itself as
different than the lands across the Mediterranean Sea.
At first, the Muslims were victorious in conquering
Mona: The battle between the Muslims and the
Franks was more than just a struggle for land. It was
also a battle of religions. The Franks were devout
Christians, and they saw the invasion of the Muslims
as a grave threat to Christianity.
Ted: Duke Odo of Aquitaine tried to stand up to the
Muslims, but ultimately failed. Even though just a
year before Odo has been fighting with other Frankish
territories, he knew that now was the time to unite as
Franks. He retreated to Paris to join with the Frankish
king. Enter my man—Charles Martel.
Mona: Charles wasn’t actually the Frankish king. He was the
Mayor of the Palace.
Ted: That’s the guy who did all the work so the Frankish
king could do whatever he wanted. The Frankish king actually
doesn’t come into this story at all. So Charles raises an army,
and Duke Odo joins him. On the other side, the Muslims are
being led by Abdul Rahman Al Ghafiqi.
Mona: At this point, the Muslims are more focused on raiding
and pillaging than winning strategic battles. They were slowly
marching through Francia burning towns, stealing food, and capturing
as much treasure as they could.
Ted: This gave the Franks time to prepare. It looked like Abdul
Rahman was heading for the city of Tours, so Charles stationed his
army there, hoping to stop the Muslims before they could reach
Paris. Since Charles got there first, he placed his army at the top of a
hill on the edge of a forest.
Mona: That meant the Muslims wouldn’t be able to see how big his
Ted: Exactly. Charles was outnumbered, so he had to outmaneuver
Abdul Rahman if he was going to win.
Mona: So who wins the battle?
Ted: Abdul Rahman should have. He had more men, and most of
his men were on horses, unlike the Franks. But impressively, the
Frankish soldiers stood their ground against the Muslim horsemen.
Then Odo and his men snuck off the side of the battle and looped
around to the Muslim camp. The camp was where the Muslims had
left all their treasure, and they had A LOT of treasure!!! When the
Muslim soldiers heard their camp was being attacked, they turned
around and ran back to protect their treasure.
Mona: I bet that didn’t make Abdul Rahman happy.
Ted: Not at all! He desperately tried to get his men back into position,
but couldn’t regain control. The Franks began winning the
battle, and Abdul Rahman was killed.
Mona: So the Franks won.
Ted: They’d won the battle, but not the war. The Franks spent the
night preparing for the Muslims to attack again the next day. Yet,
when the sun came up, the Muslims were gone.
Mona: Why’d they give up?
Ted: Apparently without Abdul Rahman’s leadership, they just
weren’t that interested in conquering the Franks. The Frankish army
had turned out to be way stronger than they thought it would be.
Plus, winter was coming. The desert-dwelling Muslims probably
didn’t want to discover what snow was. The Franks didn’t chase the
Muslims down because they thought it was a trap, but it wasn’t. The
Muslims went all the way back to Spain, and an Islamic army would
never invade again.
Mona: Winning the Battle of Tours was a huge confidence boost
to the Franks. In fact, it laid the groundwork for Charles Martel to
found a new dynasty of Frankish kings.
Ted: Did you know, Martel means hammer? His name is Charles the
Hammer. He got that name for the way he “hammered” the Muslims
out of Francia. He became a really big deal after winning the Battle
Mona: The Battle of Tours is where Islamic expansion stopped—on
the western front at least.
Ted: Later they’ll expand east.
Mona: The Battle of Tours marked the Islamic Empire reaching its
largest size. It wasn’t too long after that the caliph was in trouble yet
again. Islam and the Islamic Empire had grown fast—perilously fast.
The empire and religion had a lot of growing pains to go through because
of how quickly it expanded. Discontent was growing in parts
of the Empire, and the question of the rightful heir of Muhammad
was dragged up yet again.
Ted: Does that mean the Umayyad Caliphate is over already?
Mona: Yep. In 100 years the Umayyad Caliphate had seen the
Islamic Empire grow at an astronomical pace, but now they were
overthrown by a new Muslim group called the Abbasid Caliphate.
Ted: Do things change much under the Abbasid Caliphate?
Mona: Oh yes. The Abbasids valued art and learning and help the
empire to flourish. The Abbasid Caliphate was a bit smaller than the
Umayyad Caliphate since not everyone agreed with the new government.
The newly conquered land in Europe and western North
Africa broke away from the Abbasids to form their own caliphates.
Ted: So what’s life like in the Iberian Peninsula now that Muslims
Mona: Since conversion wasn’t required, there were still lots of
Christians living there. Plus the peninsula wasn’t completely conquered,
so there were some Christian kingdoms in the north.
Ted: That’s going to become important later!
Mona: Education might be in a pretty sad state in the rest of
Europe, but it was on the rise in the Islamic world. That means the
Iberian Peninsula had better technology, medicine, and education
than the rest of Europe. The capital of the Iberian Peninsula was
Cordoba. Cordoba would be the largest, cleanest, and most technologically
advanced city in Europe for a couple hundred years.
Ted: All that is sounding pretty good.
Mona: The Muslim rulers developed their own flavor of architecture
and built quite a few impressive palaces and fortresses. The
most famous of which is the Alhambra.
Ted: Sounds like life on the Iberian Peninsula was pretty awesome!
Mona: For some people, absolutely. Maybe for most people at
first. Over time, though, the relationship between Muslims and
Christians is going to get pretty dicey, but it’ll be a while before we
see that play out. Now it’s time to head back to Francia so we can
see what Charles Martel’s grandson gets up to.