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The location of the great Muslim states in Iberia and Arabia made them ideal areas for the creation of a rich and vibrant culture which would resonate well through Islam and Christianity alike. Throughout the Middle Ages, the kingdoms that flourished in those parts of the world were positioned at highly strategic junctures which merited the homeland of the Arab race to be called the "Middle East": while Baghdad controlled the trade routes into Europe from India, which bore opulent spices and silks to the markets of Venice and Constantinople, the Arab kingdoms in North Africa and Spain like the ancient Carthaginians of yore controlled trade routes from Africa which brought gold, ivory and slaves into Europe.
It was thus at these junctures of trade in the Old World which lent Islamic culture its richly filligreed yet checkered past. Beginning in the 7th Century, Islam would immediately make its mark felt upon the world. Weakened by centuries of protracted war, the Byzantine Roman and Sassanid Persian empires both fell prey to the new emergent power in the Arab peninsula. Motivated by Islam and led by the Caliphs and skilled military commanders such as Khalid ibn al-Walid, the predominantly Arab Muslims reduced Byzantine lands by more than half and overran Iran until halted in Anatolia by the still capable Byzantines with the help of the Bulgars. Nevertheless, Muslim conquerors swept through Byzantine North Africa, ending eight centuries of Roman rule. At its greatest extent, the new Arab Empire was the first empire to control the entire Middle East, as well 75% of the Mediterranean region, the only other empire besides the Roman Empire to control most of the Mediterranean Sea.
The First Islamic Empires
After the death of the Prophet in 632, the first Islamic nation, centred around Mecca and Medina, faced potential extinction at the hands of the Christian Byzantines and the Zoroastrian Persian Empire. The first Caliph, Abu Bakar as-Sidiq "the Rightful", a personal friend of the Prophet, chose instead to invade both empires as pre-emptive measures once negotiations with all sides broke down. Syria and Iran fell to the invaders. Successive caliphs would then extend the sway of Islam further to Roman Palestine and Africa, creating the largest land empire unseen for centuries.
Unfortunately, despite these great feats, the Islamic empire faced great political instability. There were uprisings in southern Arabia, and differences in doctrine and political interests. Although Abu Bakar was lucky to end his reign dying peacefully, his other successors were not so lucky — all of them died at the hands of assasins. The death of the caliph Uthman ibn Affan in 656 resulted in the Battle of Karbala, an earthquake which split the ummah and whose tremors are still felt to this day. One side opined that the post of caliph was to be held only by those who were descendants of the Prophet, and backed Ali ibn Ali Talib as caliph, while another party supported the Prophet's former secretary, Muawiyah ibn Abu Sufyan. Outmatched and outnumbered, Ali was killed at Karbala, and Muawiyah eventually became Muawiyah I, the first ruler of the Umayyad dynasty.
Muslims in Spain...
While not considered greatly pious, the Umayyad dynasty was known to be fascinated with building projects...and building empires. Architectural wonders often followed in the wake of conquests by the Umayyads. In 711, a Muslim army under Jabal Tariq ibn Ziyad (whose name Gibraltar was derived from) crossed into Spain, and killed the king of the Visigoths, who until that time had been ruling Iberia since the day they first arrived there. Ibn Ziyad would return to Morocco eventually, but in the next year Musa ibn Nusair, invaded with a force of 20,000 men. They quickly swept through Spain, aided by the vast Roman road system, and were able to defeat the Visigoth defenders relatively easily due to the political disarray of the nobility. Muslim forces spread northward throughout the Iberian Peninsula and eventually crossed the Pyrenees into the domain of the Franks (in modern day France) to be turned back at Poitiers in 732 by Charles Martel.
...and in Italy
Further expansion occurred in 827 when an Arab armada landed at Mazara; Sicily, on 17 June, and began a rolling campaign culminating in the middle of the 10th century. The Aghlabid sultanate in Ifriqiyya, unable to tolerate Byzantine control of the seaways, and learning that Sicily was torn with internal strife, decided the moment was propitious for a full-scale attack. Unlike Spain, which fell like ripe fruit, the conquest of Sicily, after Mazara fell, took 75 years but immigration and settlement on the land began almost immediately. The Aghlabids were succeeded by the Fatimids, who in turn gave way to the Kalbids. The unique achievements of the period were not political, however, and are hardly mentioned in many works of historians. Under the Muslims, Sicily once more became a granary to the world, as it had been under the Romans, but the Arabs introduced many new exotic crops, such as oranges, and new irrigation techniques to grow them. These innovations, along with breaking up of the large estates and the redistribution of land, meant an end to the long years of economic and social depression of the Dark Ages, and would last even after Sicily was back in Christian hands.
The "Golden Age"
A "Golden Age" of Islam did exist, but this was only because of a variety of factors. Firstly, Muslims controlled important trade routes from Asia and Africa into Europe. Baghdad controlled the last Asian stop of the Silk Road, while Andalus on the other end of the great Arabophone empire dominated trade between Africa and Spain. Although it was true that such trade routes existed since time immemorial, it was only when some semblance of organised government, facilitated by the spread of Islam, existed, ensuring the security and predictability of civilised living that could make the great intellectual and architectural feats of the Arabs to take place before being exported into Europe and elsewhere.
Through their contacts with other nations on the peripheries of the Dar-el-Islam, Arab culture was enriched greatly. Learning new processes and ideas from diverse cultures, the Arabs would take advantage of this wealth of influences and develop them further to enrich their own world. From the Chinese, the Arabs learnt the art of manufacturing paper; contact with Egypt and Persia would result in the transmission of the mysteries of alchemy to the Arabs, which spurred the development of chemistry and the foundation of modern science. So while learning in Europe was confined to the cloisters of the monastery, the secular was well alive in the Arab world: the Greek philosophers, long forgotten and buried away in church libraries, continued to be discussed and their ideas kept alive in the Middle East, until the time was right for Europe to reclaim them again. That philosophers on far ends of the Islamic world could remain in long correspondence with one another is a good indication of the sophistication and stability that Muslim societies in the Middle Ages experienced.
The Abbasids: Twilight in the Desert
Despite this Golden Age, the Islamic Middle East remained a politically instable place. While European princes were absorbing rival tribes or factions and centralising power, the age-old institution of the qabila or tribe remained much ingrained in the politics of the Middle East. Thus, insurrections eventually doomed the Umayyad empire (although Umayyad rule of Spain would continue until the close of the 12th century), and soon a new leader, Abbas ibn Abd al-Muttalib, a relative of the Prophet, was appointed as caliph. Abbas' rule now covered the eastern half of the original Umayyad empire but his realm was to soon fall apart. Racked with internal unrest, racial tensions between Arab Muslims, non-Arab Muslims and non-Muslims, this empire broke apart into several ruling houses within the space of a few generations: the Idrisids and Aghlabids arose in Africa, while the Tulunids took Egypt; and the Buyids; Uqaylids; Samanids and Hamdanids took over and fought each other in Iran.
Meanwhile, ominous events were taking place in Asia. Ever since Muslim colonists began making inroads into the heart of the continent, they began to assimilate the fierce horse-riding tribes who haunted the steppes, eventually converting many of them to Islam and recruiting them as mercenaries and then civil servants, much as in the same way the Romans towards the end of their empire tried to employ the Goths in the same fashion. Called by the Arabs "mamluks" or "slaves", this caste of new converts to the Islamic faith were slave to their Arab masters only in name and would eventually eclipse them in power and prestige.
Decline and Fall
Despite the usurpation of power by the newly proselytised Turks, and the depredations of the Crusaders and the Mongols, the Caliphate managed to hold out over the centuries, even if it was more ceremonial in role and purpose. Yet, for all purposes, the Caliphate's days were numbered: by the 1300s, the descendents of these Turkic colonists of the Middle East were carving out for themselves small petty kingdoms throughout the Middle East and Turkey. There then emerged in the sultanate of Rum, in central Turkey, a ruling family known as the Osmanoglu, transliterated in Western circles as the Ottomans. Under their scion Osman I Etogrul, they would unite the other petty rulers of the sultanate under their rule. By 1453, this state had captured Byzantium, ending almost a thousand years of Christian rule in Asia Minor. By 1517, Ottoman forces had reached Egypt. There, the last descendant of Abbas, Mutawakkil III, was deported to Constantinople (now renamed Istanbul) where he surrendered the title of caliph to the Sultan of the Ottoman Turks.
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