Brief History of the World Wiki
Rise of Islam
Islam muslims praying.jpg
Period Early Middle Ages
Dates 565-768 AD
Preceded by
Inheritors of the Roman Empire
Followed by
Age of Charlemagne
It was not the sword that won a place for Islam in those days in the scheme of life. It was the rigid simplicity, the utter self-effacement of the Prophet, the scrupulous regard for pledges, his intense devotion to his friends and followers, his intrepidity, his fearlessness, his absolute trust in God and in his own mission. These and not the sword carried everything before them and surmounted every obstacle.

–Mahatma Gandhi

The Rise of Islam lasted from about 565 AD until 768 AD. It began with Rome and Persia rumbling towards a chronic and inevitable war, that left both empires exhausted and vulnerable to a new predatory rival; the armies of Islam. It then ended on the eve of the reign of the towering figure of early medieval Europe; the Frankish Emperor Charlemagne.

In the early 7th-century, Arabia became the cradle of one of the great world religions. There are perhaps three startling things about Islam. The first thing is of course the spiritual genius of the Prophet Muhammad. It is said that while praying in a cave outside Mecca, he was visited for the first time by the voice of God, and for twenty-two years recited the truth revealed to him. The result was one of the great formative books of mankind, the Qur'an. As a spiritual leader Muhammad founded a faith that has shown greater expansive and adaptive power than any other religion except Christianity, appealing to peoples as different and as distant from one another as Nigerians and Indonesians. As a political leader he helped to unite all the disparate tribes of Arabia for the first time in its history. The second startling thing about Islam is the speed and extent of the Arab conquests. The Muslim tide seemed invincible, born as it was on the fire of religious zeal, destined to spread Islam by the sword throughout the world. Circumstances certainly favoured the Arabs; their first victims, the Byzantine and Persian empires, had been left exhausted and vulnerable by the devastating Roman-Persian War (602-628). By the mid-8th-century, just over a century after the Prophet's passing, the results were an empire stretching from Spain on the Atlantic coast, to the Oxus River of Central Asia. That tide did not flowed without interruption. There was a lull during bitter Muslim against Muslim fighting prior to the establishment of the Umayyad Caliphate in 661; a civil war whose consequences are still with us in the schism between the Sunni and Shi'a branches of Islam. Only in one campaign can the Arab armies be said to have definitively failed; the conquest of Constantinople, unsuccessfully besieged in 674 and 717. Whatever brought the Islamic conquests to an end, and sometimes their defeats such as at Tours in 732 showed they had overextended themselves, they remain an extraordinary achievement, comparable in the Middle Ages only with the Mongol conquests of the 13th-century. The third startling thing about Islam is their ability to consolidate their conquests into a cultivated, wealthy, and highly civilised Muslim empire. While the Germanic peoples degraded the Roman civilisation they conquered and ruled, Muslims newly arrived in Byzantine or Persian lands openly embraced existing techniques of administration and the intellectual heritages. If the Byzantine Empire, the Barbarian Kingdoms, and the Christian Church are three of the inheritors of the Roman Empire, then the Muslim world made a fourth. And for a long time it was the most magnificent of them all. Under the Abbasid Caliphate, it would enjoy an effervescence of culture and learning unlike anything that had been seen since Classic Greece.


Early Roman-Persian War (565-602 AD)[]


Justinian the Great had added more territory to the empire than any emperor except Trajan and Augustus, with the treasuries of the Vandals and Ostrogoths covering much of the expense. But rather than the herald of a new and glorious, he was instead the last of an old one. For all his energy and daring, the days of the classical Roman Empire were gone. The Plague of Justinian had seen to that, bequeathing to Justinian's successors an almost unsolvable problem; the new territories increased the frontiers, while the plague was reducing the manpower to defend or pay for them. Few of his successors were able to duplicate the delicate balancing act needed to keep peace with the empire's many enemies; Sassanid Persia in the east rumbling towards an inevitable and chronic war, and new barbarian pressure on the Danube. The Avars were a confederacy of Turkic steppe nomads who had migrated westwards from southern Russia, and settled in the Huns' former territory; the Avar Khaganate (567-822). Sharing a similar way of life, they almost immediately set upon disrupting the weakened imperial defences at the Danube, and Justinian had been obliged to buy peace by paying them an annual tribute. The Avars subjugated or allied with another group which rose to prominence during this period, the Slavs, the peoples of the heavily forested region to the east of original German settlement areas. The Slavs are among the least documented of all the barbarian enemies of Rome. Geography makes for confusion, for Slav Europe covered the area most prone to incursions from Central Asia. Moreover, they tended to be semi-settled, using a primitive form of agriculture involving cutting and burning forests to create fields, exhausting the soil for two or three seasons, and then moving on. This also saw the Slav peoples spread over a vast area, west into what is now Czechia and Slovakia, east into Russia, and, in the 5h-century, south into the Balkans. For the Eastern Roman Empire, the Avars and Slavs were different from their Hunnic predecessors, for they came not only to raid and extort tribute, but to settle on imperial lands. What was needed to preserve Justinian's accomplishments were wise and forceful emperors, and good fortune. Neither would materialise.


Justinian's immediate successor, his nephew Justin II (565-574), opted to preserve the imperial treasury by refusing to pay tribute to the Avars and Sassanid Persia, with predictably disastrous results. In the east, his intransigence provoked a war with Persia that would last almost two decades; the Byzantine–Sasanian War of (572–591). In the west, renewed Avar aggression persuaded a Germanic group called the Lombards that it would be prudent to leave the region north of the Danube. In the spring of 568, their great king Alboin (d. 572) led his people into Byzantine Italy, where they found a green and fertile land, still depopulated from the Gothic War (535–554), and poorly defend. For the most part, the Lombards took city after city with little or no opposition. with the exception of Pavia which took a three-year siege. By 572, they had overran most of the peninsula, establishing the Lombard Kingdom (568-774) with its capital at Pavia. As he was more concerned with conquest and fending off the eastern empire, Alboin left the affairs of government to subordinates or family members, dividing the country into thirty-five territories known as "duchies". The kingdom was thus in a particularly vulnerable state when Alboin was assassinate in mid-572, by conspirators led by his wife. The dukes elected a new king, but he too fell victim to assassination two years later, this time probably in a Byzantine plot. With this, Lombard Italy splintered into semi-independent duchies, that would only occasionally reunite under a forceful king in response to foreign threats; Agilulf (d. 616), Rothari (d. 652), and Liutprand (d. 744). Meanwhile, when a relatively stable peace was made with the Byzantines in 605, they still retained the major cities of Rome, Ravenna, and Naples, as well as the coastal south, which could be secured thanks to the imperial fleet. By the 7th-century, Italy was thus very fragmented indeed, with blocks of Lombard and Byzantine territory divided from each other, as well as the Pope in Rome, who, while nominally subject to Constantinople, set about building an independent state. This situation was to last; Italy would not be unified again until 1861. As Chancellor Metternich (d. 1859) famously put it, "Italy is not a country but a geographical expression". This may seem unimpressive, but in fact the Lombards rapidly became thoroughly Romanized, adopting the native customs, dress, mannerisms, and names for children. Moreover, their duchies were compact, stable and well-governed. When Charlemagne conquered northern Italy in 774, he would see no reason to change any of the Lombard administrative or legal arrangements. Moreover, with each duke naturally wanting the best for his particular capital, we do not see the sharp decline in urbanism and economic complexity that prevailed in the rest of western Europe; the roots of flourishing city-states from the 11th-century.

Byzantine Emperor Maurice, the third successor of Justinian,

Meanwhile, the next Byzantine emperor, Tiberius II Constantine (574-582), opted for a different solution, choosing between his enemies by restoring the annual tribute to the Avars, while taking the fight to the Sassanids. Although he did succeed in stabilising the situation in the east, the denuded western defences proved too tempting for the Avars. In 582, they captured the important fortress of Sirmium on the Danube, a perfect launching-pad for raiding on Byzantine territory. At the same time, various Slavic peoples began to make inroads into the Balkans, that would, within 50 years, take them as far south as central Greece. The Byzantines were finally granted some respite during the reign of Maurice (582-602). He personally led an ambitious campaign in the east; the first emperor to command armies in the field since Theodosius (d. 395). This culminated in a major victory at the Battle of Martyropolis (588), in which the Persian commander was killed, and the Byzantines secured much booty including standards and prisoners. In Persia, Shah Hormizd IV (d. 590) used this defeat as an excuse to dismiss and humiliate an overly ambitious general called Bahram, who subsequently rose in revolt, overthrowing and killing Hormizd. Hormizd son, Khosrow II (d. 628), fled to the Byzantine court, and appealed for help against the usurper. Although his counselors almost unanimously advised against it, Maurice agreed. At the Battle of Blarathon, a combined Byzantine-Persian army defeated and killed Bahram, and Khosrow II was restored to the throne. Subsequently, Khosrow agreed to a new peace with the Bzyantine, including the return of the crucial fortress of Dara on the upper on the upper Euphrates, which had fallen in 573. Wtih the east secure, the energetic emperor was able to concentrate on the Balkans, successfully pushing the Avars and Slavs back across the Danube by 599. Yet years of campaigning had left the imperial treasury on the verge of bankruptcy, prompting Maurice to slash military spending; reducing pay and rations, as well as declining to ransom prisoners. The final straw was an order for the army to overwinter on the north side of the Danube, to live off the land and further cut costs. In 602, mutinous soldiers marched on Constantinople, murdered the emperor, and put one of their own on the throne; the first coup d'état in the Eastern Roman Empire for nearly 250 years, but by no means the last.

Late Roman-Persian War (602-628 AD)[]


The man the army chose was an obscure general called Phocas (602–610), whose reign was one of those disasters all too familiar in Byzantine history. He had problems almost immediately. Several provincial governors and generals refused to recognise him, and his eight years was plagued by revolts and brutal purges of his opponents. Even worse, Persian Shah Khosrow II said he would avenge the murder of his benefactor, Maurice; there is little doubt this was merely a pretext, for the peace treaty of 590 had been unpopular with his own subjects. The ensuing Roman-Persian War (602-628) has been called the "last world war of antiquity", the culmination of a thousand years during which two cultural traditions had hammered away at the one another in the Near East, going all the way back to Classical Greece and Achaemenid Persia; an antagonism that was ultimately fatal to both. Khosrow II began his campaign by systematically subduing the heavily-fortified cities on Byzantine-Persia frontier; Dara fell into Persia hands once again in 605 after a nine-month siege. With Phocas focused on at least two ongoing internal revolts, there was little effective resistance. Having secured control of the frontier, Persian armies poured into Syria and Palestine, capturing Eddessa in 610, Antioch in 611, and Damascus in 613. As Byzantine soldiers were hastily transferred to the east, the Balkans were once again overrun by the the Avars, Slavs and another group, the Bulgars; a Turkic people who had split from the Avars sometime around 600. This time the barbarians would never be turned back. By the 10th-century, with Byzantines fleeing to the coast in large numbers, the Slavs were probably numerically dominant throughout the Balkans, while the Bulgars became thoroughly Slavicized, thus forming the ancestors of modern Bulgarians.

Bust of Byzantine emperor Heraclius. Even Muslim scholars described him as a just ruler of great piety.

This was the blackest moment for Rome in all her long struggle with Persia, but a saviour was at hand. He came from north-west Africa, virtually the only part of the empire not fighting for its life. In 608, the provincial governor, Heraclius the Elder (d. 610), renounced his loyalty to Phocas, and stopped the grain-shipments to Constantinople, adding famine to the city's woes. Then, feeling himself to old to be adventuring, he prepared an expedition under his 36-year-old son, Heraclius (d. 641). In the course of his voyage along the southern shores of the Mediterranean, he secured control of Egypt, adding to his forces, before sailing on to Constantinople. By October 610, his fleet was within sight of the capital, and all order broke-down in the city. A mob seized Phocas, and laid him at Heraclius' feet on the imperial dock; he personally beheaded him on the spot. As emperor, the greatest attribute of Heraclius (610-641) was his ability to inspire others, even in the most desperate situations; the empire would have great need of this. In 614, the Persians conquered Jerusalem, burning the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and bearing away its most precious relic, the True Cross of Christ. Four years later, they seized Egypt, the economic powerhouses of the Eastern Empire; a year later still, a raid into Anatolia reached Chalcedon, only a mile across the Hellespont from Constantinople. During the same period, Avar, Slav, and Bulgar incursions were reaching as far as central Greece, Byzantine Spain was under renewed pressure from the Ostrogoths, and imperial holdings in Italy were barely holding-out against the Lombards. Heraclius was to prove one of the greatest of the soldier-emperors, but these disasters could be turned back at once. In order to get the populous to accept the sacrifices he would demand, he threatened to move the imperial capital to Carthage. Heraclius spent the first 12-years of his reign reorganising the remnants of the empire, and rebuilding the army. His more notable innovation was the introduction of the "theme system". While the imperial treasury was virtually empty, Phocas had executed so many wealthy men during his bloody reign that land was plentiful, especially in Anatolia. The new Byzantine army would once again be based on farmer-soldiers, living on a chain of military estates or "themes". This was not a totally landed army as in the West, for lands were leased from the state, and army pay never ceased to be paid, though it was henceforth usually in kind. These military reforms would form the backbone of the Byzantine army until the system underwent significant changes in the 11th-century. Heraclius also restored solvency to the empire by slashing non-military expenditure, and melting down gold and silver donated (or demanded) from the Church.

Campaign map of Heraclius.PNG

By 622, Heraclius had quietly rebuilt Byzantine strength, and was ready to launch a remarkable and risky counter-offensive. Like Maurice, he led the campaign army himself, which was steeped in the character of a holy war; an image of the Virgin Mary was carried before the army as a standard. His one advantage was Byzantine sea-power, and he used it to great effect. The Persians, expecting him to use the land-route across Anatolia, were taken completely by surprise when Heraclius landed his 40,000 strong army just north of Antioch, near Issus where Alexander the Great defeated Darius almost a thousand years earlier. He then march his army through Armenia into Persia itself, while studiously keeping it as one large force; with the Persians garrisoning so much conquered territories, no single army could stand against him. The next few years saw the Byzantines cut a swath through northern Persia, and a series of morale-boosting victories against Khosrow's generals, including the sack of the great shrine at Takht-i-Suleiman, the centre of Persian Zoroastrian fire-worship; Jerusalem had been avenged. With the Persian war effort disintegrating, Khosrow turned instead to diplomacy. He persuaded the Avars to besiege Constantinople on one side, while a Persian army marched through Anatolia on the other. In their rivalry, the Persian had long allied with the Avars, much as the Byztantines made great efforts to keep the goodwill with the Khazar Khaganate (630–969), another loose nomadic state further east, to the north of the Black Sea and Caspian Sea. Byzantium seem to have tried to convert the Khazars to Christianity, but apparently they had adopted Judaism; what exactly happened is a mystery, but it was probably a conscious act of diplomacy to offend neither their Christian nor Zoroastrian neighbours, while enjoying trade with both. Meanwhile, Heraclius was now faced with the most difficult decision of his reign; returning to Constantinople would undo all the work of the last few years, while not returning could provoke a revolt by a usurper. His solution was to split his army in three parts: the first was sent back to defend Constantinople, the second under his brother was to attack the Persian army in Anatolia, while Heraclius himself would remain in Persia with the third. Though he wasn't present, the emperor had no intention of letting Constantinople feel abandoned, sending an avalanche of letters dealing with every aspect of the defences. It worked and moral in the city remained high, even with an 80,000 strong Avar army beneath the Theodosian Walls. When the news arrived that the Persian army in Anatolia had suffered a crushing defeat at the hands of Heraclius's brother, the unsupported Avars finally abandoned the siege. As soon as he heard of the successful defence of Constantinople, Heraclius launched a winter offensive into the Persian heartland of Iraq. After winning a hard-fought victory at the Battle of Nineveh (627), he south along the Tigris, sacked Khosrow's great palace at Dastagird, and was only prevented from sacking the great city of Ctesiphon by the Persians destoying the bridges. Discredited by these disasters, Khosrow II was assassinated in a coup led by his son, who sued for peace at once. With both empires exhausted, the peace was amicable; the Persians returned all the occupied lands, all captives, and all the looted relics, including the True Cross. The long struggle with Persia was over; never again would they trouble the Byzantine Empire.

When Emperor Heraclius returned to Constantinople, it was to find the entire populous waving olive branches and lit candle, as he march through the city carrying the True Cross to a stirring ceremony at the Hagia Sophia. It seemed the dawn of a new age, but Heraclius is a Byzantine tragic hero. He would live long enough to see virtually all his military achievements undone. The long and crippling war had been to the detriment of both empires, leaving them weak and vulnerable to a new predatory rival. The relic of the True Cross would prove powerless against the armies of Islam.

Life of Muhammad (570-632 AD)[]

In the 7th-century Arabia becomes the cradle of the world's third great monotheistic religion. Islam has shown greater expansive and adaptive power than any other religion except Christianity. It has appealed to peoples as different and as distant from one another as Nigerians and Indians, Egyptians and Indonesians. Yet none of the other great shaping factors of world history was based on fewer initial resources, except perhaps the Jewish religion. The comparisons inevitably suggests itself, for Judaism, Christianity and Islam are the great monotheistic religions.

Arabia 500 ad.jpg

Prior to the coming of Islam, Arabia had always been something of a backwater on the fringes of two great empires, useful for mercenaries at best, but no meaningful threat; preoccupied with one another, Persia and Rome had barely any defences on the largely desert frontier. As for Arabia, it had undergone little sophisticating fertilization from these higher civilizations. Those who lived there were subjected to very testing physical conditions; scorched in its hot season, most of Arabia was desert or rocky mountain. In much of it, even survival was an achievement. The only inviting part of the Arabian Peninsula was around the fringes. All the way back to the 2-millennium BC, there had been were many little ports, the homes to seafarers whose enterprises linked the Indian Ocean trade network to the Mediterranean, bringing spices from India and gums of east Africa up the Red Sea to Egypt. The south (modern-day Yemen and Oman), which enjoyed short but predictable monsoon rains, had been home to a series of prosperous kingdoms from the 7th-century BC. They survived until the 5th-century AD, when, according to both Islamic tradition and modern archeology, the sophisticated irrigation system collapsed for unclear reasons. Arabia declined rapidly into the society of Muhammad’s day; a mixed of sedentary Arabs and nomadic Bedouin pastoralist consisting of many clans. The life of a nomad, without architecture or possessions, other than what can be loaded on a camel, leaves few physical traces. But the richness of pre-Islamic culture was preserved for us by early Muslim scholars, who collected and recorded well-loved stories handed down in long oral tradition. This was a feuding society mired in warfare and mostly illiterate, rather similar with the early Germanic cultures. One notable difference is that in Germanic tradition a chieftain was a war-leader, while for the Bedouin, their leaders were principally arbiters of disputes. At the end of the 6th-century, new changes can be detected. At some cities and oases, the population was growing rapidly. Although the Plague of Justinian had decimated both the Byzantines and Persians, the Arabs, insulated by the desert, had been untroubled. Mecca and Medina (Yathrib) were two such places. Medina was a large flourishing agricultural settlement, while Mecca was an important financial and pilgrimage centre of native polytheism. People had come to Mecca for centuries, from all over Arabia, to venerate at the Kaaba Shrine, a great centre with idols to all the gods; today, of course, it only contains the Black Stone, most commonly assumed to be a meteorite. Arid Arabia could go from population growth to over-population very quickly, and this was beginning to strain traditional social practices; we will see the same phenomenon again in 9th-century Scandinavia. The growing importance of the merchant-classes brought further social strain, as commercial values clashed with the unquestioned loyalties of clan structure. Noble blood and age had long been commensurate with social status and wealth, but this was no longer always the case. Meanwhile, Mecca and Medina were also important junctions on caravan routes from the southern Arabian ports to the Mediterranean, along which came strangers and foreign ideas. As intercourse with the outside world increased, Jewish and Christian communities appeared in the region; there were Christian Arabs before there were Muslims. It seems that these were seen as "foreign" cults, clashing with native beliefs; this is clear from Muhammad's writing, where he speaks of the Jews and Christians as having a book to guide them, while his own people had none.

"Muhammad the Apostle of God" inscribed on the gates of the Prophet´s Mosque in Medina. Images of the Prophet Muhammad are proscribed by Islam, any icons and images are considered idolatry; "Ye shall make you no idols nor graven image", Leviticus 26:1.

These were some of the formative psychological pressures working on a young Muhammad (d. 632). He was born around 570 into a respectable but not very affluent merchant family in Mecca, belonging to the influential Quraysh clan. Although orphaned at an early age, he never lacked for the protection of his clan. He spent his youth working with his uncle among the Bedouin trading-caravans. Muhammad emerged in adulthood as a merchant with a reputation for honesty, and his situation improved in his 20s when he married Khadija, a wealthy widow 15-years his senior. For the next 15-years or so, he lived the life of a prosperous merchant and had four children who survived into adulthood, all daughters; the most important to history is Fāṭimah, the future wife of Ali, an important figure in Shi'a Islam. Muhammad was a deeply religious and somewhat tormented man, and developed one habit untypical of merchants. From time to time, he would withdraw into the mountains to meditate and pray. During one such period of devotional withdrawal in 610, in a cave now called Hira on Mount Jabal al-Nour, he began having the visions that would change his life; and world history. It is said, the Archangel Gabriel appeared to him in an awe-inspiring encounter, and relayed to him the word of God: “Recite, in the name of your Lord! He who created! He created man from a clot of blood! Recite for your Lord is most generous….” These words are the opening line of the Sūrah chapter of the Qur'an, one of the great formative books of mankind. Although not collected in Muhammad's lifetime, it was taken down by his followers as delivered by him in a series of revelations over the course of 22-years; the definitive text was established around 650. It is a visionary’s book, passionate in its conviction of divine inspiration. Muhammad saw himself as a passive instrument, not the son of God like Jesus, but a mouthpiece of God like Moses; the word "Islam" means submission or surrender. He was sent to confirm the message that there is one God, that He is all-powerful but merciful and will judge all men, who may assure their salvation by following His will in their religious observance and social behaviour. This God had been preached before, for he was the same God of Abraham, of Moses, of Jesus, and of all the other prophets. However, these revelations had been heard by Jews and Christians, but they subsequently strayed from the path of grace. There had been many prophets before him, but Muhammad was sure that his position was special; he was the "final" prophet. Through him, God spoke his last message to mankind.

Muhammad and Abu Bakr flee Mecca for Medina at the stat of the Hijra migration.

Muhammad first converts were his wife Khadija, his step-son Ali, and his close friend Abu Bakr. After some time, traditionally in 613, he began openly preaching the truth that God had revealed to him, and soon gathered a group of loyal follower. At first most Meccans ignored or mocked him, but, as his following grew, he increasingly attracted hostility. Uncompromising monotheism was not a popular creed with those whose livelihood depended the pilgrim business and idol worship. Moreover, Muhammad went on to define a social and personal code that conflicted with traditional ideas; as a social tie, it placed faith first before kinship group or clan. The Islamic community was to be a brotherhood of believers. Persecution of Muhammad grew steadily, and in 622, he fled his home city, having been warned of a plot to assassinate him. He and his followers journeyed 260-miles north to the city of Medina; this Hijra, or emigration, came to mark the beginning of the Islamic calendar. Conditions in Medina greatly favoured Muhammad, for he possessed great leadership and organisational skills, and the city was engulfed in clan civil war. As a neutral outsider, he was invited to serve as chief arbiter to ease the longstanding grievances. In this new role, Muhammad became more than a mere religious teacher, but the political and even military leader of Medina. From the spiritual emphasis of his preaching in Mecca, Muhammad turned to the practical, that of organizing a community, with detailed pronouncements on everything from religious practice to food, marriage to war. The result is now known as the Five Pillars of Islam, the foundations of a Muslim life: the declaration of faith, "there is no god but God, and Muhammad is His messenger"; praying five-times daily at dawn, noon, afternoon, evening, and night; the giving of alms or charity to the poor; observance of fasting during daytime in the holy month of Ramadan; and pilgrimage to Mecca at least once in a lifetime for all able-bodied people. The characteristic flavour of Islam was now being formed: a religion that was also a society; and a theocracy with no internal tension between political and religious authority, no clash of Church and State as was to shape Christian debate for a thousand years and more. It has been said that Muhammad was his own St. Peter and his own Constantine; prophet, first "Pope", and sovereign in one.

Muhammad's entrance in Mecca.

Medina rapidly became a strong city, with standards of justice and unity never before seen in Arabia. From their newfound base, some Muslims wanted revenge on their former oppressors in Mecca, and began raiding their caravans. By 624, there was open war between the two cities, culminating in two Meccan attempts to conquer Medina, in 625 and then 627. However, Muhammad could not be dislodged. Then in 629, Muhammad made a bold move in negotiating a truce that would allow his followers to perform the pilgrimage to Mecca. On this first return to Mecca, the Muslims greatly impressed the local population, both through their show-of-strength and their strict discipline, departing peacefully after the agreed upon three days. The following year, a substantial Muslim army marched on Mecca, and took the city with almost no bloodshed. A crucial element of Mecca's peaceful acceptance of Islam was Muhammad's promise that pilgrimage to city would remain a central feature of his new religion; tradition says that he entered the Kaaba Shrine, and then struck with his staff all the idols that his followers were to wash-out, sparing only the Virgin and Child, and the Black Stone itself. Muhammad had thus united under Islam all the clans of the two most important cities in western Arabia. Mecca became the holy city of Islam, while Medina remained the political centre of the developing Islamic state. He approached to the existing Jewish and Christian communities, but they refused to accept his truth and were thus driven-out, so that only the Muslim community remained. Yet this did not imply any enduring hostility to either religion; doctrinal ties existed in their monotheism and their scriptures, even if Christians were believed to have fallen into polytheism through their concept of the Holy Trinity. Muhammad continued to preach and rule until his death in 632. He was buried at al-Masjid an-Nabawi Mosque ("The Mosque of the Prophet"), one of the first to be built in Medina. And so the world religion of Islam was born.

Muslim Conquests (632-717 AD)[]

A medallion reading “Abu Bakr” in Hagia Sophia, Istanbul. He was Muhammad's closest companion and adviser, and succeeded the Prophet as the first Caliph.

In the immediate aftermath of the Prophet's death, the Islamic community that he had created was in grave danger of division and disintegration. All of Muhammad's children, except four daughters, had died in childhood, and there was no clear successor to his religious and secular authority. The strongest candidates were: Ali ibn Abi Talib (d. 661), Muhammad's cousin and husband of his daughter Fatima; Abu Bakr (d. 634), Muhammad's life-long friend and now father-in-law; and Umar (d. 644), the respected leader of Muhammad's own clan. Ali was Muhammad's closest relative by blood, but the Arabs were no tradition of a dynastic rule; the senior members of a clan elected one of their own. The resulting debate grew heated, until Umar hastily took Abu Bakr's hand and swore his own allegiance. His example was followed by the vast majority of the gathered men, with Abu Bakr took the title Khalifa ("Caliph") which means "successor". Although Caliph Abu Bakr ruled for less than two years, within this time, he overcame all resistance to his authority against a series of rebellion, collectively known as the Ridda Wars (632–633); Ali took no part in the war, nor did he assume any political position. Abu Bakr then went on to conquer the unreconciled clans to the south and east, uniting the entire Arabian Peninsula under Islam. He was the first of four Muslim rulers collectively known as the Rashidun Caliphate (632–661), or "Rightly Guided" Caliphs, both for their close personal associations with Muhammad, and for being statesmen and military leaders of unusual ability. The Rashidun Caliphate would be followed by the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750) and Abbasid Caliphate (750–1258), which would give the Arab peoples three centuries of ascendancy, until fragmentation took root around 946. The most obvious expression of this ascendancy was an astonishing period of conquests in the first century after the Prophet's passing; conquests so extraordinary that only the example of the Mongols in the 13th-century can compare in the Middle Ages. The initial impetus was no doubt to hold the Islamic community together, and preventing old clan affiliations from resurfacing, by turning resistance to the Caliph into a war against external enemies; at least long enough to win their first victories and then become united by common interest as well as common faith. It is important to be clear from the outset that a fanatical zeal to convert was not a major driving force; there would be no forced conversion. Of course, Islam did spread throughout the vast Islamic Empire and beyond, but this occured over centuries, and not under any great pressure to convert. Indeed, conversion was actively discouraged in some periods, because it undermined the tax-base; a per-capita yearly tax called Jizya was levied on all non-Muslim subjects. Subjects accepted the Islamic faith for all manners of reasons: to reduce their taxes, to become members of the ruling elite, or simply because their conquests were seen as God's favour. Nevertheles, Islam probably remained the minority religion of the empire until at least the 10th-century,

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Beyond the Arabian Peninsula lay the great empires of Byzantium and Persia, both militarily and economically hollowed-out from the devastating Roman-Persian War (602-628). What began as simply raids for plunder, rapidly turned into a conquest as success bred success. The Arab-Muslim armies first seized south Iraq below the Tigris River, by taking advantage of a Sassanid civil-war, and then armies turned their attention to Byzantine Palestine and Syria. These regions had been only recently been recovered from the Persians, fatally undermining their defences. The first major city to fall was Damascus in September 634, just two years after the Prophet's death. This prompted Emperor Heraclius (d. 641) to raise a huge army, 80,000 strong, to wrest back control. Faced with this numerically superior force, the Arabs tactically withdrew back into the Syrian desert with the Byzantines in pursuit. At the resulting Battle of Yarmouk (August 636), Heraclius was too old and ill to personally lead the army, and the squabbling Byzantine commanders couldn't agree on a strategy, neither attacking nor withdrawing for days as the desert sun and harrying raids slowly depleted their strength. Then on the sixth day, a sandstorm blew-up from the south, and the Arabs attacked. The Byzantine army, blinded by sand, was slaughtered almost to a man. On the heels of this victories, the Arab armies took Antioch in 637, and the greatest prize of all the next year, Jerusalem. This was a moment of profound significance for the young religion, for Islam saw itself as the successor of both Judaism and Christianity. The Temple Mount, site of both Solomon's and Herod's temples, had remained a ruin ever since the temples' destruction by the Romans in the Great Jewish Revolt of 66 AD. Here the Arab built a mosque; this original would later be replaced by a more magnificent monument in 691, the Dome of the Rock. With Syria and Palestine firmly in Arab hand, the conquest of Egypt began in 640. It was as swift was it was complete. Alexandria was sufficiently well-defended to keep the Arab at bay for fourteen months, but in the end, the Byzantines agreed to surrender in September 642; the Arabs duly allowed them one year in which to settle their affairs and leave peaceful. Thus, one of the richest Byzantine provinces, the "bread basket" and intellectual heart of the empire, had been lost to the Muslim world with barely a fight. According to later Christian tradition, the Muslims are blamed for the destruction of the Great Library of Alexandria, one of the wonders of the ancient world; it had in fact been lost centuries earlier, probably when Emperor Caracalla sacked the city in 215 AD. The Arabs continued steadily westwards along the north African coast, reaching Tripoli by 643, though this remained little more than outposts, until the next thrust three decades later. By the 640s, the Byzantines weren’t even the masters of the Mediterranean. Experienced sailors and ship-builders had been brought from southern Arabia to Alexandria, in order to establish an Arab fleet. The onslaught began as naval raids, which then turned into conquest, beginning with Cyprus in 649. The Arabs won their first major naval victory against the Byzantines at the Battle of the Masts (655).

Arabian horsemen were renowned for their speed and mobility on the battlefield, and for their skill with an ansenal of weapons consisting of javelins, a sword, and bow and arrows.

During the same period, the Arab Muslim armies conquered the Sassanid Empire entirely. After the death of Khosrow II in 628, Persia had descended into four years of civil war that ended with an 8 year-old child on the throne, Yazdegerd III (632-51). The year of his coronation, his empire stretched from the Euphrates to Afghanistan and beyond; thirty years later it no longer existed. In that year the first Arab raiders arrived. The Persians never mounted any effective response until the Battle of al-Qādisiyyah (November 636). Little is known about the battle other than it lasted for four days, and on the last day, a surprise Arab cavalry attack in the centre acheived its goal of killing the Sassanid commander. This sent the exhausted Sassanid forces into a panicked retreat. At al-Qādisiyyah, the Persians lost somewhere in the region of 22,000 of best soldiers. As a result, the Arab-Muslims gained control over the whole of Iraq, the heartland of Persia. Yazdegerd fled his capital of Ctesiphon for the east over the Zagros mountains, but his empire began to fracture. The fate of the Sassanid Empire was sealed at the Battle of Nihawānd (642). A number of provincial governors attempted to combine their forces to throw back the invaders, but lacking effective leadership, were again decisively defeated. One of the great world empires was now utterly helpless. As province after province came to terms with the Arabs, the last Sassanid emperor, Yazdegerd III, fled further and further east, now little more than a fugitive until he was finally killed near Marw in 651; according to tradition, he sought refuge with a miller who murdered him for his jewelry. Thus the Sasanian Empire ended after more than 400 years of rule. A satisfying explanation for the remarkable Arab conquests is elusive; religious zeal is not enough, for armies do not win battles if generals are inexperienced and discipline is weak. Our sources, although voluminous on the Arab side, are mostly late in date. Firstly, there can be no doubt that for a long time circumstances favoured them. Their first victims, Byzantium and Persia, had both been heavily strained by the Roman-Persian War (602-628); the destruction of armies and exhaustion of taxpayers on both sides cannot have helped their resilience. While Sassanid Persia went under, the Byzantines survived but had to contend with enemies in the west as well, fending them off with one hand while grappling with the Arabs with the other. Moreover, Arab rule was often welcomed by people who were already disaffected with their rulers; for instance Byzantine administration had gone a long way to alienating the Monophysite population of Egypt. The Muslim world offered greater religious toleration, lowered taxes, more local autonomy, and peace to peoples demoralised after 40-years of crisis. Secondly, Muslim armies were recruited from hungry fighters, for whom the over-populated Arabian desert had left few alternatives, and with the Prophet's assurance that death on the battlefield against the infidel would be followed by certain removal to paradise. The Islamic social structure, with the rejection of aristocratic privilege, opened up the formula for a career based on talent. Thirdly, Muslim armies were highly mobile, and used to living always on the move. Their mastery of the desert allowed them to pick-and-choose their battles and force their foe to defend multiple cities, as it was never clear where the Arabs would strike; we'll see the same pattern again with the 10th-century Vikings and their mastery of the sea. Initially Muslim armies predominantly fought on foot since Arabia had few horse, but they acquired many horses as booty or tribute from the very early raids; by the Battle of Yarmouk, almost half their forces were composed of mounted cavalry. This was a considerable advantage just on the cusp of the arrival of the stirrup from China, which introduced a revolution in cavalry warfare; from the 8th-century, cavalry would be king on the battlefields, until tactics were developed in the 14th-century to mitigate its effectiveness; most famously the English longbow. And finally, the fundamental explanation for their success must be the movement of large numbers of men by a religious ideal. The Arabs thought they were doing God’s will and generated an excitement in themselves like that of later revolutionaries.

The Mosque of Ali ibn Abi Talib in Najaf, Iraq. Each year millions of pilgrims from the minority Shia Muslims.visit the shrine.

The tide of Arab conquest did not flowed without interruption. The was a lull bitter Muslim against Muslim fighting in the mid-7th-century; the First Fitna (656–661). Tensions began to surface during the tenure of the third Rashidun Caliph, Uthman ibn Affan (644-656). He was a member of Umayyad clan, the very people who had opposed Muhammad at Mecca in 632. Uthman was criticized for his wealth and worldliness, as well as for appointing family-members to nearly every possible position, among them his cousin Mu'awiya (d. 680) as governor of Syria. In 656, Uthman was murdered by rioters in Medina; the first Caliph killed by a member of the faith. Afterwards, Ali ibn Abi Talib (d. 661) was selected as the fourth Caliph. He was Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, and a significant minority of the early Islamic community believed that he should have been the Prophet's rightful successor; that the Muhammad's direct family had been divinely ordained. However, for unclear reasons he had been passed over for the leadership three times. The numerous accounts about Ali's tenure and the resultant civil war are often biased according to sectarian lines, mostly because of his place in Sh'ia ideology. Muawiyya, the able governor of Syria and now head of the Umayya clan, wanted revenge for Uthman's death, but the new caliph failed to punish the murderers; either because he lacked enough force, or accepted the rebels' argument that Uthman had not been a just ruler. This led not only the Ummayad clan but other Muslims to suspect Ali had been complicit in his predecessor's death. The two sides eventually met at the Battle of Siffin (July 657), where after three days of appalling slaughter, Ali agreed to arbitration. While most of Ali's supporters accepted the proposal, an extremist group called the Kharijites objected and left his ranks; some saw arbitration as a failure to assert his right to rule, while others were actually involved in Uthman's murder and feared the outcome. Ali met the same end as Uthman; he was murdered by the Kharijites in 661. Six month later Ali's son Hasan made a peace agreement with Mu'awiya that allowed him to establish himself as the undisputed Caliph; the first of the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750). Yet the First Fitna solved nothing, and marked the beginning of a permanent schism within Islam between the Sunni and Shi'a forms. The Shi'at Ali ("party of Ali") henceforth claimed that the right of interpreting the Koran was confined to Muhammad’s descendants. This premise, among the fact that Mu'awiya rapidly broke the peace agreement with Ali's son, and then captured and executed Ali's grandson at the Battle of Karbala (October 680), galvanized Shi'a Islam as a distinct religious sect with its own collective memory, that would in time develop unique ritual practices and doctrinal beliefs. The Umayyad Caliphs had their own corresponding party of supporters, called Sunnites ("habit" or orthodox practice), who believed that doctrinal authority changed hands with the Caliphate. The first Umayyad Caliph rapidly suppressed resistance to the new regime, and the Shi’a movement was driven underground. For a long time the Shi'ites remained a embattled dissident faction within the Islam, but in the 10th-century developed into a political force in their own right, especially with the establishment of Shi'a Fatimid Egypt. Yet the Sunni-Shi'a schism should not be overstated; it rarely reached the intensity of rifts within Christianity, such as the Latin-Orthodox schism or Protestant-Catholic schism. Even when the Sunni Seljuks fought the Shi'a Fatimids, within each state their co-religionists were for the most part politically marginalized, rather than persecuted, and the two communities usually lived side by side without rancour. It has only been in recent decades that Sunni–Shi'a relations have become characterised by violent conflict.

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Under the Umayyad Caliphate (661–750), with its capital as Damascus, the Muslim Arab conquests rolled on. In north-west Africa, they established a new forward base at Kairouan in 670, about 60-miles from Byzantine Carthage; it would later be home to one of Africa’s greatest mosques. The Byzantines mounted an effective, if short-lived, resistance to the Muslim advance by making an alliance with their traditional regional enemy, the nomadic Moors (Berbers) of the north-west African interior. Arab forces were nevertheless able to capture Carthage in 698; the city was once again destroyed and remained a ruin for the nearly two centuries. By 709 the whole region was firmly in Arab hands and the Moors had begun process of adopting this potent new faith. Many of the ideas of Islam - a heavenly realm, priests with special powers, angels and demons - were similar to religious ideas already present in Moorish society; perhaps further eased by their similar nomadic culture to the Bedouin. Islam rapidly penetrated nearly all segments of Moorish society. The final thrust of expansion in the west began with the short journey across the strait into Visigothic Spain in 711. The conquest is notable for its brevity and the lack of reliable contemporary sources. It seems that after the death of the Visigothic king Wittiza (702-710), Spain descended into civil war between his two son from which a third candidate called Roderic (d. 712) prevailed. This promising opportunity did not go unnoticed by the Arabs of north-west Africa. In 711 the Arab commander Tariq ibn Ziyad crossed the Straits of Gibraltar with an army 15,000 strong, made up of mostly of Moorish mercenaries; Gibraltar is named for him, Jebel Tariq ("mountain of Tariq"). After defeating and killing Roderic at the Battle of Guaddalete, the Arabs advanced quickly, capturing city after city with little resistance. Within as little as two years, the Iberian Peninsula was almost entirely under Muslim control, all except the north where Christian Visigoths clung-on in the Cantabrian Mountains, alongside the ever-independent Basques. This tiny enclave of medieval Christian Spain would be the roots of the eventual Christian Reconquista (711–1492). By 717, Arab raiders were crossing the Pyrenees into the Frankish Realm.

Ending the Muslim Tide in Eastern Europe (717-768)[]


In the Islamic onslaught on the world, only in one campaign were the Arab armies definitively and consistently unsuccessful; the conquest of Constantinople itself. After seizing the island of Rhodes in 670, the Muslims besieged the Byzantine capital for the first time between 674 and '78. By all accounts, this was more accurately a 5-year naval-blockade rather than a proper siege. The Arab fleet was driven-off in the end when the Byzantines unleash a new secret weapon; Greek Fire. Its invention is traditionally credited to a Syrian chemist called Kallinikos, who fled to Constantinople when the province was overrun by the Arabs. This flammable liquid could be sprayed or lobbed at enemy ships with devastating results, almost impossible to extinguish and burning even while floating on water. Greek Fire was considered such a state-secret that even today we don't know it's make-up, though it was almost certainly petroleum-based.

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Four decades later the Arabs were back beneath the mighty Theodosian Walls, this time in earnest, with 80,000 men and as many as 1,800 ships; the Siege of Constantinople (717–718). During the intervening years since Emperor Heraclius (d. 641), the Byzantines had squandered their strength in chaotic squabbles over the throne. Of ten emperors, one died of dysentery, and the rest were overthrown or murdered; one of them, Justinian II (705-11), was overthrown twice. In this desperate hour of need, Leo III (717-741) was elevated to the purple in a bloodless coup; his predecessor was allowed to retire to a monastery. Leo was a man of humble birth who had risen quickly through the imperial ranks to governor of the militarised province of Anatolia. He had successfully resisted Arab attacks on his territory, spoken fluent Arabic, and possessed a keen understanding of Arab mind. Leo would provide the lone bright-spot in the military history of this period, going on to outsmart the besiegers at every turn. The best chance of taking Constantinople was via the significantly lower sea walls of the imperial harbour, rather than the Theodosian Walls. The Arab fleet attempted to sailed-up the Hellespont to encircle the city, before launching an assault on the imperial harour. However, Leo deployed the Byzantine navy and sank over 20 Arab transport-ships with Greek Fire. While the fleet was able to blockade the city, there was no assault. In order to hamper the besieging army outside the Theodosian Walls, Leo then negotiated an alliance with a traditional enemy of Byzantium; the Bulgars now occupying Thrace. In common cause against the Arabs, the Bulgars constantly harassed their supply-lines and foraging parties throughout an exceedingly harsh winter, causing famine and plague in the Arab camp. In the spring, the Umayyad Caliph sent relief-force to reinforce the siege: 700 ships laden with supplies sailed from Egypt, while a fresh army of 20,000 men began marching through Anatolia. Both ended in disaster. With the Arab navy overstretched, this second fleet was mostly crewed by Christians, who began deserting to the Byzantines upon their arrival at Constantinople, bringing valuable information about the disposition of the Arab reinforcements. Leo launched his fleet against the new Arab fleets; crippled by the defections and helpless against Greek fire, the Arab ships were destroyed or captured along with the supplies they carried. On land too the Byzantines were victorious, ambushing the advancing Arab relief-force in the mountainous terrain near Nicomedia. With these disasters, the Arabs were forced to abandon the siege after thirteen months. The retreat was plagued by calamities too: the Buglars fell upon the Arabs as they were making for their ships, killing 20,000 men according to some reports; and most of the fleet was destroyed on the return either by storms or the Byzantine navy. It is said that less than 30,000 men limped back to Islamic lands.

Historians often include this siege to be among the most important battles in European history. Although regular raids on Byzantine territories continued, they were directed at booty, rather than outright conquest, and the frontier between the two empires gradually stabilized along the line of the Taurus and Antitaurus Mountains. The Byzantine capital's survival preserved the Empire as a bulwark against Islamic expansion into Europe until the 15th century, when it fell to the Ottoman Turks. Moreover, without the superiority of the Byzantine navy the Mediterranean would have become an "Arab lake", with incalculable consequences for European trade. Nevertheless, the Byzantines failed to exploit their success by launching a counter-attack of their own against the Arabs. Having just saved Constantinople, Emperor Leo III promptly turned around and unleashed a religious firestorm that would hold-back a Byzantine revival until the mid-9th-century; the Iconoclasm Controversy (726-842).

Ending the Muslim Tide in Western Europe (717-768)[]


The Frankish Realm was by far the strongest power in the post-Roman west. However, for centuries political structures were fragile things, dependent on strong kings; ruling everywhere was a very personal activity. The Merovingian custom of divided inheritance did not help, resulting in endemic internecine fighting. Although there was dynastic continuity after Clovis, power steadily seeped away from the Merovingian kings towards the warrior-aristocracy, upon whom they relied for military support. Aristocratic political maneuvering centred on the four royal courts; Austrasia, Neustria, Burgundy, and Aquitaine. The last Merovingian who was a real protagonist, Childeric II, was murdered in 675. Afterwards, an aristocratic leader of the court, called the Mayor of the Palace, accumulated more and more power. Beginning as chief advisor to the king, they steadily added to their duties, commanding royal armies, tutoring royal princes, and even choosing which Merovingian would succeed to the throne. The Mayors inevitably substituted their own interest for those of their king, who became little more than a legitimising figure; we'll see a similar pattern again in 12th-century Japan, resulting in the rule of the Shoguns. To maintain their position, the Mayors obviously needed strong support among the other Frankish nobles, and this is also the period when we see the clear emergence of lord-vassal relationships so characteristic of the Feudal System. By the late-7th-century, the old internecine fighting between Merovingian kings had transitioned into a struggle for dominance between the Mayors of the four royal courts. Pepin II (d. 714), Mayor of Austrasia won-out in the end, defeating the forces of Neustria and Burgundy at the Battle of Tertry (687). Henceforth, his family came to overshadow the Merovingian royal line. He can be seen with hindsight as the founder of a new Carolingian Dynasty (714-987), though it takes its name from his son, Charles Martel (Latinised as Carolus). Pepin was marched in his power only by Odo the Great (d. 735), Duke of Aquitaine, a formidable operator in both the Frankish and Visigothic politics.

19th century sculpture of Charles Martel at the Palace of Versailles

After Pepin's death, his heir was an 8-year-old grandchild under a regent, which jeopardized the Carolingian hegemony, with rivals using the opportunity to their own advantage; Neustrian nobles sought political independence, Odo of Aquitaine tried to increase his holdings, and the pagan Saxons raided as far west as the Rhine. The situation was rectified by Pippin’s illegitimate son, Charles Martel (718-741), who claimed his father's position as the power behind the throne after a three year civil war. Charles had gained strong support for his usurption among the Austrasians, primarily for his military prowess and ability to keep them well supplied with booty from raids and conquests; his moniker Martel means "the Hammer". Despite this turbulent transition, the Frankish Realm was evidently pretty solid at its base. It is clear from the source, that Charles Martel was active throughout the Frankish realm, intervening a long way from his power-base at the Austrasian court; now the only court. His government was complex and document-based in a very Roman way. Nevertheless, it is hard not to sense obsession, rather than purpose, in record-keeping, for there is little sign that these rolls were regularly consulted. At the same time, Charles was an enthusiastic patron of the Christian Church, actively supporting the missionary work of Bishop Boniface of Mainz on the Germanic frontier, in the hope that conversion would tame the heathens. The solidity of the Frankish realm was at least in part due to the constraints on aristocratic ambitions. Their political manoeuvring, however self-interests, revolved above all around the royal court and twice yearly royal assemblies; those who failed to attend risked being seen as enemies, or worse still, as being nobodies. It was a long time aristocrats developed strong local lordships; territories dominated by a single landowner which could operate as autonomous power-bases. Indeed early Frankish nobles seemed more concern with the amount of land, rather than where it was. This made going-it-alone was inconceivable, so the dice were weighted in favour of central power. Meanwhile, in recent decades, there had emerged a new threat to the Frankish Realm; Muslim Spain. By 718, Arab armies were pushing northward, and a year later had a foothold beyond the Pyrenees at Narbonne on the Mediterranean coast. Their first major incursion into Frankish territory came in 721, when they besieged the Acquitaine capital of Toulouse for three months, until Duke Odo broke the siege and drove them off. This defeat did not stop their raiding, with one party reach as far as Burgundy in 725. The next major incursion came in 732, with the Arabs this time besieging Bordeaux. Duke Odo again tried to fend them off, but was defeated, and the city was sacked and plundered. Odo suffered two subsequent defeats, and was left in the end with no choice but to appeal to Charles Martel for help, which Charles only granted after Odo agreed to submit to his authority. Charles met the Arab army at the Battle of Tours (732), about which there is little we can certain, other than that the Arab commander, Abd al-Raḥmān, was killed, and his army was forced to retreat back to Muslim land. Charles certainly claimed a great victory to bolster his family's position. Tour was heavily mythologised in medieval Europe as the battle that saved Europe from Muslim invasion, and helped end the era of Islamic expansion; historian Edward Gibbon famously made the fanciful claim that if the outcome had been different, "the interpretation of the Qur'an would now be taught in the schools of Oxford". Most modern historians take a more nuanced view of the battle, that this was a major Arab raid for plunder, rather than an invasion, and raiding as far as the Rhône Valley continued for decades afterwards. It was more likely a major revolt by the Moor in Spain in 741 that ultimately convinced the Muslims that their empire had reached its natural limits. Tours was certainly a secondary defeat to the great losses at the Siege of Constantinople of 717.

Pepin III or Pepin the Short, the first of the Carolingians to become King of the Franks.

Charles Martel still ruled on behalf of Merovingian kings, though they had no power at all by now. His son and successor Pepin III (743-769) maintained this fiction at first, but in 751 judged it possible simply to take power himself; he was elected king by an assembly of Frankish nobles, and the last Merovingian king was forced into a monastery. Despite the little power the Merovingians had, the tradition of their rule was 250 years old, and the family had an eminence that was both hard to pinpoint and impossible to dismiss; Pepin was a usurper. His solution was to seek legitimacy through the Christian Church. Pope Stephen II (d. 757) granted his support, famously saying "he who holds the power, should wear the crown", and Bishop Boniface of Mainz anointed him king with sacred oil. Pepin added to his legitimacy three years later, when the pope himself traveled all the way to Paris to anoint him a second time. Such direct involvement in the dynastic politics of Europe was a significant step for the Church, but it benefited both sides; without the support of the Church, the Carolingians were just another aristocratic family, even if by far the most prominent one; while the Papacy was looking for a new secular protectors, as relations with Byzantium were particularly strained over their support of Iconoclasm. Rome drew dividend on its investment almost immediately. The Lombards had conquered Byzantine Ravenna in 751, and were now demanding tribute from Rome. The Pope appealed to Pepin, who invaded Italy in 756, and quickly drove the Lombards from Ravenna. Pepin then granted the Pope temporal power over all the territories encompassed by Rome and Ravenna; the so-called Donations of Pepin (757) has formed the legal basis of the Papal State ever since, albeit today in a much reduced form. An firm alliance between the Carolingians and the Church had been formed. From it stemmed the reform of the Frankish Church, and further conversion in Germany. Although unquestionably one of the most powerful and successful rulers of his age, Pepin's reign has been largely overshadowed by that of his son, the towering figure of early medieval Europe, Carlemagne.

Ending the Muslim Tide in the East (717-768)[]

Folloing the Arab conquest of Sassanid Persia in 651, their generals continued sporadically eastward. In the Caucasus, the Muslims fought a series of wars against the Turkic Khazar Khaganate (650-969), until the frontier gradually settled down around 737. In what is now Afghanistan, they conquered Herat in 652 and Kabul in 664. On the Indian subcontinent, they reached the lower Indus Valley by 711, but this region, separated from the rest of India by desert, proved a poor stepping stone for further conquest, and Islam got no further for three centuries until the Ghaznavids. North of the Himalayas, the frontier of the Islam world gradually settled down along the Oxus River, after a victory over a Tang Chinese army at the Battle of Talas (751) in modern Uzbekistan. For the Arabs, an interesting fringe benefit of Talas was that Chinese prisoners-of-war revealed the secrets of Chinese paper-making and woodblock-printing; or so the story goes. Certainly paper was being manufactured in Baghdad by 794, fueling a book revolution in the Islamic world.

On all fronts, in Western Europe, Central Asia, Anatolia and in the Caucasus, the tide of Arab conquest at last came to an end in the mid-8th-century. Whatever brought it to an end, and sometimes their defeats showed they had overstretched themselves, the Islamic conquest remains an astonishing achievement. And conquest was only the beginning of Islam's impact on the world, for great traditions of Muslim civilization were to be built on its conquests.