Believers and emigrants. 620-680, generations 432-434

This period was world-changing. It saw the appearance of a new idea, a new frequency in human affairs. The effects can be traced through to the leap in learning that happened in Baghdad a century later, to the Medieval enlightenment in Europe a couple of centuries after that, to the Renaissance in Italy, to the Enlightenment, to the industrial revolution and so to today.

And it started with one man – Muhammad.

However, in order to get a sense of what was going on at the time, we need to remove several layers of padding and interpretation. Most of what was written about Muhammad was put to pen over a century later. My experience tells me that old people’s memories are sometimes unreliable, and even more so when we are dealing with memories of memories from a century or more before.

There are two documents from the arabic-speaking world that can be dated to the period in question: the charter of Medina and the Qur’an. They seem a sensible place to start.

The Qur’an is not a historical document. It is a series of revelations, of perceptions, insights about the human situation and its relationship with God. It has very little reference to external events.


Pages from the Qur’an, written during or shortly after Muhammad’s lifetime, recently discovered in Birmingham University. Image taken at Birmingham Museum, UK

The charter of Medina is the treaty document between the the emigrants (referred to as the Quraysh) and the inhabitants of the oasis of Yathrib, henceforth known as Medina. The original has been lost but there are several copies, all similar enough to suggest that they come from one source document.

The first paragraph reads:

“This is a document from Muhammad, the Prophet, governing the relation between the Believers from among the Qurayshites and Yathribites  and those who followed them and joined them and struggled with them. They form one and the same community as against the rest of men.”

Taking these two documents as our main reference brings up some difficult issues. I’ll start with what is for me the most difficult.

There is no mention of Mecca in the charter of Medina. In fact, there is no mention of where the Quraysh emigrated from. In the Qur’an there is one mention of the ‘hollow’ or valley of Mecca, as follows:

“It is He who restrained their hands from you, and your hands from them, in the hollow of Mecca, after that He made you victors over them. God sees the things you do.” (sura 48)

This would suggest that there was a valley of Mecca in which a conflict took place which was won by Muhammad, and whose aftermath was not as violent as it could have been.

Further, there is no mention of Mecca in any other contemporary, non-arabic document. In fact, there is as much evidence that Muhammad lived in Mecca as there is that St Peter lived in Rome six centuries previously. This does not invalidate or diminish the immensity of Muhammad’s achievement. It suggests to me that maybe some later commentators had an interest in locating Muhammad’s origins in the heartlands of the arabian desert, far away from the contaminating influences of Constantinople and Ctesiphon to the north. Almost as if they wanted to emphasise how what Muhammad brought was entirely new.

Which raises a question: where did the Quraysh emigrate from? The Qur’an mentions olives (which only grew in the Mediterranean). It mentions herding of animals and growing of crops, activities more associated with the fertile regions to the north or south of the arabian desert.

Maybe in the end it doesn’t matter where they emigrated from.

A second difficulty is about the term ‘believers’. The word ‘believer’ occurs more than ‘muslim’ in both the charter of Medina and the Qur’an. ‘Believers’ is a much broader term than muslims, encompassing those who believe in God (Allah in arabic) and who adhere to the earlier revelations from God – the old and new Testaments – or the latest one, the Qur’an. The charter of Medina makes it clear that the jews and muslims are distinct, with different religious practices. But they are all part of the community of Believers, the ummah.

This perception is confirmed by archaeological evidence. Several christian churches built in the period in question have been excavated. One in Jerusalem had an altar facing east and a prayer niche, a mihrab, facing south. So the different varieties of believers clearly saw no problem in performing their separate religious practices in the same space. When Damascus was taken over by the arab army, the church of St John was divided into two, so that the muslims could pray in one section and the christians in the other.

Nowadays, we are trained to think in categories: muslim, jew, hindu, buddhist, humanist, and so on. But the seventh century was a time when every valley, each village, each tribe had its own practices. Zorastrianism blended into hinduism and buddhism in the east, towards India. There were jewish christians and christian jews. Diversity was the norm. What Muhammad did with the charter of Medina was reach for an overarching criterion, the ummah that was higher than tribal obligation or religious practice and included all believers under its cover. The Qur’an also contains this view. Diversity of expression is not a problem so long as the core principles are agreed to.

This may help to explain another archaeological mystery. The arab conquests are almost invisible in the archaeological record. Usually when there is an invasion there is a layer of burning. Caesarea was burnt and Alexandria didn’t fare too well, but otherwise there is almost nothing. And that would make sense if the inhabitants of the conquered territories were believers, whose belief systems were regarded as legitimate by the invaders. It would have been in their interest to welcome the invaders. The non-orthodox varieties of christianity, such as the Copts in Egypt, were oppressed by Constantinople. The arrival of the arabs, fellow believers, may have been a welcome relief. It also explains why there was no particular push for conversion by the invaders. Why should they? All were believers.

So when did it change? When did islam separate out? When did the community of believers split into distinct religions? The evidence says this was the achievement of the ummayad caliph abd-al Malik.  Abd-al Malik preferred the word ‘muslim’ to ‘believer’. Muhammad’s name was not written down (in anything that has been recovered from the time) from when he died in 632 or thereabouts until abd-al Malik had it put on the coinage fifty years later. When the Dome of the Rock was built in Jerusalem in 691, phrases from the Qur’an were selected to emphasise the distinctness of islam from christianity – that muslims do not accept the idea of the trinity, for example.

And so humanity had another established religion.

Sunni, shia and caliphs: the world from 900-1000AD

By generation 450, 1000 AD, there were three caliphs: one each in Baghdad, Cairo and Cordoba. As the word ‘caliph’ implies one-and-only successor to the prophet, clearly something had gone off-script.

This post gives some broad brush-strokes to the map of the world we are exploring.

After Mohammed died in 632 AD, the official story tells us that the umma, the community, elected his uncle Abu Bakr as their leader. He gave himself the title ‘khalifa’, caliph, successor to the prophet. When he died another companion of the prophet, Omar, was elected. When Omar died, the umma elected another companion of the prophet. Othman was a devout man and also a very successful businessman. His skills were put to use to administer the rapidly-growing world that the muslims were moving into. He appointed other members of his wealthy family, the Umayyads, as governors in Egypt and Damascus.

But then it went wrong. Othman was assassinated when the people began to suspect that his family were getting rich at the expense of the rest of them. Othman’s family refused to accept the legitimacy of the next caliph elected by the umma: the prophet’s son-in-law Ali. The Ummayads defeated Ali in battle and set themselves up as caliphs in Damascus. The caliphate became hereditary.

But there were some in the umma who believed that Ali carried the authority, the spark that had been transmitted through Mohammed. Instead of caliph, they called him ‘imam’, the person who leads them to prayer. The Umayyads hunted down and killed Ali’s two sons, Hassan and Hussein, who in their turn had each been designated imam. When Hussein was killed his followers began to be known as shi’i, partisans. And so there was schism in the muslim world traceable back to thirty years after the death of the prophet.

Under the Umayyads, Damascus prospered. The muslim world continued to expand. Its policy of religious tolerance of other ‘people of the book’, christians and jews, meant that it was welcomed by christians in the Anatolian peninsula who adhered to a different version of their religion than their rulers in Constantinople. This was the start of the golden age. The official language of the empire was arabic. There was craft, trade and learning across the vast new realm.

Everyone flourished, but arabs were more equal than non-arabs, and Damascus and the Umayyads flourished most of all. This inevitably led to questioning of the authority of the Umayyads, whether they were really following the path as stipulated by the prophet. He had folded a blanket to sleep on and now these rulers wore fine silks. The discontent found strongest expression outside the arab world, in Persia, and among the shi’a. The rebels found a figurehead in one Abbas, who claimed descent from an uncle of Mohammed. To cut a very long story short (I’m not interested in politics and bloodshed, I confess) the rebel forces defeated the Umayyad army in 750 and Abbas was proclaimed caliph.

Enter the Abbasids. Once installed, Abbas forgot his interest in shi’ism and a lot of the promises he had made to his supporters. He rounded up the remaining Umayyads – and had them all killed. The caliphate became hereditary again. He built a new capital city at Baghdad. He invited scholars from all over the known world to work in its libraries, translating books from Greek, Persian and Hindu into arabic. The golden age went up a gear.

abbasid box

This inlaid ivory box comes from early in the Abbasid dynasty, around 800AD. Courtesy of Islamic Arts

But one of the Umayyad family, Abd al-Rahman, managed to escape the Abbasid soldiers and made his way to the far west, to the new province of al-Andalus. There he was welcomed as a member of the imperial family. He mustered enough support to take over the peninsula and defeat the Abbasid army that came from Africa to overthrow him. He established his capital in Cordoba. A couple of hundred years later his successors felt confident enough to designate themselves caliphs once more.


The christian church in Cordoba was converted into a mosque and massively enlarged under Umayyad rule. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

And so there were two caliphates: the Abbasids in Baghdad in the east and the Umayyads in Cordoba in the west.

The third caliphate was halfway between them, in north Africa. The shi’a Fatimids traced their descent through a line of imams from Fatima, Mohammed’s daughter who was married to Ali. In the early tenth century these shi’a teachers gathered enough support to overthrow the local rulers in north Africa. The Fatimid caliphate was established first in Tunisia. Then in 969 they created a new capital at Cairo in Egypt.

rock crystal ewer This drinking jug made from a single piece of rock crystal, hollowed out and carved, is now in the Victoria and Albert Museum. It comes from Fatimid Egypt.

The Fatimids also participated in the exchange of learning and creativity, as the arabic language was shared across the three caliphates. They ruled Palestine (where christian pilgrims were welcomed as fellow people of the book), Sicily and southern Italy and across north Africa.

The stage is set for us to launch into the glory of the islamic golden age.

Going off the edge of the map. 1100 CE

So far in our story there has been a largely agreed-to narrative.

We began in the current generation, generation 500, with its unprecedented level of interconnectedness and availability of information. As we explored back through the twentieth century we saw how technological innovations, initially available only to the rich, eventually empowered so many more of us. Mobile phones, computers, washing machines, air travel, for example.

Then we moved back through the Industrial Revolution of the nineteenth century. This saw technological breakthroughs and also a change in thinking. Areas previously deemed off-limits to the uninitiated were now open to question. Charles Darwin, a country vicar living in the south of England, wrote ‘The Origin of Species’ and sparked a furore which still continues in some places.

The eighteenth century saw the Enlightenment. Some people felt empowered to question established ways of organising society and describing reality. They wrote about it and talked about it in the coffee shops of Paris, London and elsewhere. The Enlightenment also saw the birth of a powerful idea, that no man has the right to own another. (Women were a grey area but the principle was established. It took another century for the same rights to be extended to them.) The same expansive sense sent men around the world. Australia and New Zealand were colonised by Europeans. Clipper ships brought cargoes of tea and spices from the East to London and Rotterdam.

And so we can continue back with a recognisable strand of events, each generation building on the achievements of the previous one. The story has been agreed. Most history books that we read will pick up on a part of this narrative.

But I have reached a break. In the year 1100 the largest city in Europe was Cordoba. I never knew that! This wasn’t covered in any history lesson I remember. In comparison to the Europe we have largely focused on so far, the muslim world of 1100 was vast. A scholar from northern Persia could travel to Baghdad or Damascus (both much bigger cities than Cordoba),  meet someone from Toledo there, and converse in their common language of Arabic to exchange ideas and experiences.

My problem is that I can’t find the map of the world I am about to enter. I have found a lot of sources, but they all tell slightly different stories. The maps don’t quite match each other, and there are a lot of blank spaces. But while the lack of a map makes this world more difficult to explore, it also is much more interesting for me.

I will have to abandon the approach of one generation at a time. Perhaps because the muslim world is so big, ideas and innovations no longer fit into tidy twenty-year slots. So the next entry in the blog will explore the world-changing events that occurred between 1050 and 1100 (or thereabouts).