The Heirs of Rome: Islam, Byzantium, and Europe

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The Caliphs, Muhammad's Successors, 632-750

In the new political community he founded in Arabia, Muhammad reorganized traditional Arab society by cutting across clan allegiances and welcoming converts from every tribe. He forged the Muslims into a formidable military force, and his successors, the caliphs, used this force to take the Byzantine and Persian worlds by storm.

After Muhammad's death, the Muslims moved to the north and west quickly taking Byzantine territory in Syria and Egypt. They invaded the Sasanid empire, conquering the whole of Persia by 651.

During the last half of the seventh century and the beginning of the eighth, Islamic warriors extended their sway westward to Spain and eastward to India.

There were also internal reasons for Islamic success. Arabs had been used to intertribal warfare: now united as a supertribe, inspired by religious fervor and fighting under the banner of jihad, they exercised their skills as warriors against unbelievers. Fully armed and mounted on horseback, using camel convoys to carry supplies and provide protection, they conquered with amazing ease.

Peace and Prosperity in Islamic Lands

The definitive victories of the Muslim warriors in the seventh and early eighth centuries ushered in times of peace. While the conquerors stayed within their fortified cities or built magnificent hunting lodges in the deserts of Syria, the conquered went back to work, to study, to play and to live according to the provisions of the Pact of Umar.

Religion, Politics, and Iconoclasm

The importance of religious learning and piety in the seventh century complemented both the autocratic imperial ideal and the powers of the bishops.

The Islamic world and Western Europe were heirs of the Roman Empire, but they built on its legacies in different ways. Muslims were the newcomers to the Roman world, but their religion, Islam, was influenced by both Jewish and Christian monotheism, each with roots in Roman culture. Under the guidance of Muhammad the Prophet, Islam became both a coherent theology and a tightly structured way of life. Once the Muslim Arabs embarked on military conquests, they became the heirs of Rome in other ways: preserving Byzantine cities, adopting Mediterranean artistic styles. Drawing on Roman and Persian traditions, the Umayyad dynasty created a powerful Islamic state, with a capital city in Syria and a culture that generally tolerated a wide variety of economic, religious, and social institutions so long as the conquered paid taxes to their Muslim overlords.

The changes of the seventh and eighth centuries whittled away at this Roman character. By 750, Byzantium was less Roman than it was new.

Western Europe also inherited and transformed Roman institutions. The Frankish kings built on Roman traditions that had earlier been changed by provincial and Germanic custom.

In Italy and at Rome itself, the traditions of the classical past endured. The roads remained, the cities of Italy survived, and both the popes and the kings ruled according to the traditions of Roman government.

Muslim, Byzantine, and Western European societies all suffered the ravages of war. In each one, the social hierarchy became simpler, with the loss of 'middle' groups. All tied politics to religion more tightly than ever before. In Byzantium, the emperor was a religious force, presiding over the destruction of icons. In the Islamic world, the caliph was the successor to Muhammad, a religious and political leader.

In Western Europe, the kings allied with churchmen in order to rule. Despite their many differences, all these leaders had a common understanding of their place in a divine scheme: they were God's agents on earth, ruling over God's people. In the next century, they would have consolidated their power. Little did they know that soon local elites would be able to assert greater authority than ever before.

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