Islamic Society in the Early Middle Ages

by Sara Powell

The early Middle Ages is the period from the fifth century to the ninth century. Islam did not arise until the seventh century, but expanded quickly after the death of the Prophet Muhammad in 632. The early Muslim Caliphates (632 to 661) presided over the consolidation of the Arabian peninsula under Islam and early expansion of the empire. Under the Umayyads (661 to 750) and the Abbasids (750 to 1258) Islamic society flourished as the empire continued to expand.

The Early Muslim Caliphate

Under the first Muslim Caliphate, Islamic society was in a period of adjustment to the death of the Prophet, consolidation and growth. During this period of rapid expansion, the Islamic Empire incorporated Syria, Persia, Cyprus and Egypt, thus diversifying the population to include Greeks, Persians, Egyptians, Christians, Zoroastrians and Jews. Converts to Islam were welcomed, but not particularly sought, as non-Muslims paid a special tax, the jizya, which was financially important to the young empire. However, local custom was often adopted, and loyalty was materially rewarded, greatly contributing to the success of the empire. One of the most significant achievements of the first Caliphate was the definitive consolidation of the text of the Quran, which ultimately helped to unite Islam. However, it was during this time that the major schism in Islam began, the split between Sunni and Shi'a Islam.

The Umayyad Dynasty

The Alhambra, in Muslim Spain, was built in 889.

Although the Sunni-Shi'a schism still divides Islam somewhat, the civil war at its inception ended with the death of Ali (the rightful successor according to Shi'a Islam) and the Umayyad Dynasty rose. North Africa, Spain and Central Asia were conquered by the Umayyads, further diversifying Islamic culture as new peoples and customs were added to the mix. Non-Arab converts to Islam, mostly Persian, challenged the elite status of Arab Muslims during a civil war. The Arab Umayyads prevailed and under their administration unified the empire into a integrated whole, with its government centered in Damascus and Arabic its official language. However, other non-Arab Muslim groups, discontented with discrimination, continued to challenge the Umayyads. Moreover, the growing wealth of the elite sparked cross-cultural class discontent, and eventually the Umayyad dynasty fell to be replaced by the Abbasid dynasty.

The Abbasid Caliphate

The Abbasid Caliphate differed significantly from that of the Umayyads. Their decision to move the capital from Damascus to Baghdad helped mollify the non-Arab Muslim dissidents, as did their institution of a bureaucracy and vizier. The new government structure curtailed the influence of the Arab elite, further co-opting non-Arab Muslims into the system. In fact, the dominant influence under the Abbasids was Persian. However, despite these changes, the Abbasid dynasty did not retain control over the entire Islamic world. Part of Spain returned to Christian control, and remnants of the Umayyads still held sway in southern Spain. In the Maghreb -- northwest Africa -- the Aghalabids gained independence from the Abbasids.

Abbasid Society

It was during the Abbasid period particularly, that the Golden Age of Islam made significant advances in scholarship and culture. The Dar al-Hikmah, or House of Wisdom, was constructed where many ancient texts were saved by translation into Arabic. Mathematics, astronomy, medicine, geography and philosophy all advanced in the culture of respect for knowledge under Abbasid patronage. Art, architecture and literature in the Abbasid period were also culturally important, and Islamic restrictions on depicting human forms contributed to the rise of the art of calligraphy. The Arab epic "The Thousand and One Nights" was written during this time, and poetry was revered. In addition to scholarship and culture, another defining feature of life under the Abbasids was trade. The merchant class was highly respected, and the size, stability and good ports of the empire allowed for the free movement of goods. Silks and other textiles, furs, spices, perfumes, dyes and exotic fruits formed a thriving luxury trade. The slave trade also flourished with both African and European slaves, although slavery was a somewhat different institution under Islam, and some slaves rose to high position while remaining slaves.

About the Author

Sara Powell began her writing career at the "Washington Report for Middle East Affairs" in 2000 while working on a Ph.D. in Middle East History at Georgetown University. She has also written and edited for San Francisco based bilingual newspaper "El Tecolote" and various online sites.

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