Interlude: entering the world of Islam

The muslim world carried the beacon of human civilisation for over seven centuries, from the seventh to the fourteenth and beyond. It was at the leading edge of learning in so many disciplines, from mathematics to astronomy, cartography, history, medicine … There was a common language and common culture that stretched across Europe and Asia and into Africa. The western model which picked up the baton and allows me to write this blog and you to read it has been in existence for less than six hundred years. I am embarrassed at my ignorance of muslim history, so here is a brief summary of the official story, which will be expanded as we go further back.

It starts with some revelations brought by a man called Mohammed, who lived in the middle east in the early 600’s. They were written down in a book, the Quran.

What he brought to his world was astounding, breathtaking, completely new. He talked of one God for all people, regardless of their tribe or social status. What he transmitted was powerful enough to override the tribal loyalties that were the sanctuary and worldview of the inhabitants of the desert. Instead of the blood links of the clan and tribes, Mohammed brought the concept of Umma, the community of people who shared a set of values. In other words, a community centred on an idea. For the first time, what went on in each person’s head was more important than the ways things had always been done. More and more people willingly put down their tribal allegiances in favour of this extraordinary new idea. ‘Islam’ means submission or surrender, and a muslim is one to submits to the will of the one God.

After Mohammed died he was succeeded by a man chosen by his community. Within ten years  most of the Arabian peninsula was incorporated in the Umma. This presented its own problems, one of which was that the tribes had traditionally raided and fought one another. Now they were all part of the same community. So they directed their energies outwards, and it just so happened that the two adjoining empires, the Byzantines and the Persians, had recently fought each other to a standstill.

Most areas welcomed the invaders as far less oppressive than their previous overlords. Many cities opened their gates without a fight. The muslim armies moved through the middle east and across north Africa within a couple of generations.

What the muslims brought was so fresh, so new that it must have been irresistible. They did not set out to forcibly convert anyone, but over the generations many adopted the new faith. They had their problems, as we shall see. They also brought immeasurable richness:


from the Alhambra in Granada at the western end of the muslim world (which was still being enlarged and added to during the fourteenth century)


to the Taj Mahal at Agra in India, at the other end of their world, built in 1632, a thousand years after Mohammed died.


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