Chapter Nine: New Faiths and New States (600-1000)


East Asia | Europe and the Byzantine Empire | Islam

11,000-500 BCE: Jōmon Period in Japan

500 BCE-250 CE: Yayoi Period in Japan

37 BCE-668: Korean Goguryeo Dynasty

250-600: Mounded Tomb Period in Japan

313-668: Three Kingdoms Period in Korea

496:Frankish king Clovis converts to Christianity

c. 570-632: Life of Muhammad

581 – 618: Sui Dynasty

600-800: Asuka-Nara Period in Japan

618 – 907: Tang Dynasty

624: Battle of Badr

627: Battle of the Trench

632-661: Rashidun Caliphs

636: Arab Muslims defeat Byzantine army at the Battle of Yarmouk

661-750: Umayyad Caliphate

668-892: Silla Dynasty

711: Muslims from North Africa conquer Spain, end of the Visigothic kingdom

717-718: Arabs lay siege to Constantinople but are unsuccessful

732: King Charles Martel of the Franks defeats a Muslim invasion of the kingdom at the Battle of Tours

750-1258: Abbasid Caliphate

c. 780- 840: The Carolingian Renaissance

793: Viking raids begin

800: Charlemagne crowned Roman emperor by Pope Leo III

871-899: Alfred the Great is king of England. He defeats Norse raiders and creates a consolidated kingdom.

899: Defeated by the Pechenegs, the Magyars begin moving into Central Europe

909-1171: Fatimid Caliphate

955: Otto the Great, king of East Francia, defeats the Magyars in battle 9

88: Vladimir, Grand Prince of Kiev, converts to Christianity


In Chapter 8, we saw how Christianity (in the west) and Buddhism (in the east) played a role as a unifying force in regions of the world where the political structures had gone into decline. In this chapter, we see the emergence of Islam in the Middle East and its rapid expansion across the Middle East, North Africa, and even into Europe. The Christian worlds of Europe and the Byzantine Empire had to confront the geographical and cultural expansion of Islam as well as the incursion of new groups such as the Magyars and Vikings. New dynasties would arise in China, ending centuries of political fragmentation. During this time, as well, organized states emerged in Japan and on the Korean peninsula.

Questions to Guide Your Reading

  1. How does geography play a role in Islamic history?
  2. What factors led to the rapid expansion of Islam?
  3. Describe the transition from the Umayyads to the ‘Abbasids. Compare and contrast the two caliphates.
  4. How was state development in Korea and Japan differently impacted by China?
  5. What were the foundations of Tang Dynasty power in East Asia?
  6. What was a way that the Byzantine state reorganized itself to face the challenges of seventh- and eighth-century invasions?
  7. How did the Church provide a sense of legitimacy to the kings of the Franks?
  8. How did East Francia and England respond to Viking attacks?

Key Terms

  • Anglo-Saxons
  • Carolingian Renaissance
  • Charlemagne
  • Charles Martel
  • Civil Service Examinations
  • Donation of Constantine
  • Foot binding
  • Goguryeo Kingdom
  • Prince Shōtoku
  • Shinto
  • Sills Dynasty
  • Slavs
  • Tang Law Code
  • Vikings
  • Yayoi Period

The Emergence of Islam

Geography of the Middle East

Academics have not reached a consensus on the geographical boundaries of the Middle East. However, for the purposes of this chapter, this region will encompass the broadly defined areas known as Persia, Mesopotamia, the Levant, Asia Minor, and the Arabian Peninsula. The Middle East straddles three continents, including Asia, Africa, and Europe. The geography of the area promoted cultural diffusion by facilitating the spread of peoples, ideas, and goods along overland and maritime trade routes. In an area generally characterized by its aridity, climate has influenced settlement patterns. Larger settlements are found in river valleys and well-watered areas along the littoral. In these areas, we see the development and spread of productive agriculture.

Middle East

Map of the Middle East

Author: User “TownDown”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Rise of Islam

Legend traces the Arabs back to Isma‘il, the son of Abraham and his Egyptian maid, Haga, a link that would later help to legitimize Islam by connecting it to the Hebrew tradition. In reality, Arabs inhabited the pre-Islamic Arabian Peninsula and shared socio-linguistic commonalities with such other Semitic-speaking peoples in the area as the Hebrews, Assyrians, Arameans, and even the Amhara of Ethiopia. Most of the population of Arabia prior to the rise of Islam resided in the south of the peninsula, in modern day Yemen, where they practiced terraced agriculture and herded ruminants in a relatively small area.



Map of the Hijaz Region of Arabia

Author: User “TUBS”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Farther to the north of Yemen, along the highland spine of western Arabia and up against the littoral of the Red Sea, was the Hijaz, a prominent cultural and economic region. Situated in this remote fastness was the dusty city of Mecca, the holiest place in the peninsula and the location of the Ka‘ba, or “cube,” which contained many of the traditional Arabian religious images, including many Christian icons. So important was the Ka‘ba to the religion of poly- theistic tribes of Arabia that they negotiated a truce lasting one month every year that allowed for safe pilgrimage to the shrine.

The Hijaz was the most arable part of the Arabian Peninsula north of Yemen and distinguished by irrigated agriculture that supported fruit trees and essential grains. Local traders exported a range of Hijazi agricultural products to Syria in the north in return for imperative imports like textiles and olive oil so the region benefited from robust trade. Regional commerce depended on the security of trade, and piracy on the Red Sea threatened to disrupt business. Under these conditions, merchants diverted their trade overland. Many goods journeyed up the Red Sea Rift from Yemen on their way to the eastern Mediterranean. Caravans of camels carried these goods, as well as Hijazi exports, to the Levant. Most of the caravans stopped in Mecca, the halfway point up the spine of the peninsula, thus their commerce brought much needed wealth and tax revenue to the city.

The Arabs first domesticated the camel, probably sometime between 3000 and 1000 BCE. Caravan operators eventually availed themselves of these useful dromedaries because they were so adept at crossing the region’s massive deserts. Capable of drinking 100 liters of water in mere minutes, they could endure days of travel without needing to replenish themselves again. Moreover, camels instinctively remembered the locations of important, life-sustaining oases. So important were these beasts of burden that the tribes that controlled the camels controlled the trade. And the Quraysh Tribe of Mecca commanded many of the camels in the Hijaz region; therefore, they commanded much of the trade.

Life in the Arabian Peninsula centered around the tribe, which usually consisted of a group of relatives who claimed a shared ancestry. Tribal traditions found meaning in the poetic concept of muruwah, which represented the notion of the ideal tribal man. This uniquely Arabian brand of chivalry focused on bravery, patience, persistence in revenge, generosity, hospitality, and protection of the poor and weak. In the absence of formal government, tribes offered physical security to its individual members. Tribes mitigated violence and theft through the shared understanding that retribution for such acts would follow swiftly. Tribes also organized to compete over increasingly scarce resources, as they had a responsibility to provide for the economic needs of their individual members. Nevertheless, tribal traditions had been breaking down prior to the rise of Islam; no longer were the dominant members of society adhering to the principles set forth in muruwah.

Tribes of arabia

The Tribes of Arabia | Notice the Quraysh tribe of Mecca.

Author: User “Slackerlwastudent”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: Public Domain

Into this evolving cultural milieu Muhammad (c.570 – 632) was born in the city of Mecca. Muhammad’s father, ‘Abdallah, was a member of the Hashimite Clan, a less prosperous branch of the Quraysh Tribe. ‘Abdullah died just prior to his son’s birth, and Muhammad’s mother passed away when he was just six years old. Orphaned at such a young age, his tribe intervened to ensure Muhammad’s survival. His uncle, Abu Thalib, the leader of the Hashimite Clan and an important member of the Quraysh Tribe, eventually took custody of the young boy. These early privations influenced Muhammad’s later desire to take care of those who could not care for themselves.

In his youth, Muhammad found employment in the regional caravan trade as a dependable herder and driver of camels. During this period, he cultivated a reputation of an empathetic and honest man, one who earned the respect of many Meccans. His upright character soon attracted the attention of a wealthy merchant known as Khadija who hired Muhammad to manage her caravans. Once Muhammad proved his reliability, Khadija, who was fifteen years older than Muhammad, proposed to him, and they married. This marriage afforded Muhammad a financial security that allowed him to begin meditating on religion in the abstract.

Muhammad had been concerned about the direction society had recently been taking and that the concepts defined by muruwah were no longer being upheld. He believed that some of the most influential members of society, namely the merchant elite of the Quraysh Tribe, were no longer respecting their traditional responsibilities to the weaker members of society because of their own greed. He thought that the People of the Book, specifically, Christians and Jews, might have a better answer for the ills afflicting Meccan society. Muhammad had contact with the Christians and Jews of the peninsula and even traveled to Christian Syria while working in the caravan trade. In this context, the Angel Gabriel appeared to Muhammad at a cave nearby to Mecca in 610, during the holy month of Ramadan. The Angel Gabriel instructed him to “recite,” and then he spoke the divine word of God. His revelations became the Quran.

At first, Muhammad displayed the very human reactions of fear and distrust to the apparition of the Angel Gabriel. He also expressed embarrassment because he did not want to be associated with the pagan diviners of the region. Fortunately, his wife Khadija had a cousin who was a hanif, someone who was neither a Christian nor a Jew, but who believed in a vague concept of a monotheistic god. Her cousin trusted the veracity of Muhammad’s revelations. So with trepidation, Muhammad eventually accepted his role as God’s vehicle. His wife became the first convert to Islam, with Abu Thalib’s son ‘Ali converting soon afterwards.

The Religion of Islam

As a religion of the Abrahamic faith, Islam holds much in common with Judaism and Christianity. Islam grew out of the Judeo-Christian tradition, a link which helped to legitimize the new religion. In fact, Muslims believe in the same God, or Allah in Arabic, as the Jewish and Christian God. Although Muslims trust that the People of the Book had received the word of God, they believe that it had become distorted over time, so God sent the Angel Gabriel to deliver His word to Muhammad, the Seal of the Prophets, or Khatam an-Nabiyyin, for Muslims believe that he represented God’s final word to man. Muhammad never claimed to be founding a new religion, rather he served as the last in a long line of God’s messengers, beginning with the Hebrew prophets, and including Jesus. His revelations, therefore, represent the pure, unadulterated version of God’s message. The Prophet’s followers memorized the revelations and ultimately recorded them in a book called the Quran.



The Birmingham Quran Manuscript | Dated among the oldest in the World.

Author: Anonymous

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: Public Domain


Together with the Quran, the Hadith, traditions of Muhammad used to illustrate a concept, and the Sunna, the teachings of the Prophet not found in the Quran, helped guide and inform Muslims on proper behavior. And with that knowledge came great responsibility, as God held His people to a high standard of behavior, based on their obedience, or submission to His will. In fact, the word Islam means submission in Arabic, and a Muslim is one who submits (to God). Derived from a Hadith, the Five Pillars of Islam are essential, obligatory actions that serve as the foundation of the faith. The first pillar, known as the witness, or shahada, is a profession of faith, in which believers declare that “There is no God but God, and Muhammad is His messenger.” Prayer, also called salat, is the second pillar of Islam. Islam expects faithful Muslims to pray five times a day, kneeling towards Mecca, at dawn, noon, afternoon, sunset, and evening. One should perform ritual ablutions prior to their prayers in order to approach God as being symbolically clean and pure. The third pillar is almsgiving, or zakat in Arabic. Islam requires Muslims to contribute a proportion of their wealth to the upkeep of the Islamic community. This proportion, or tithe, accorded with the size of one’s wealth; therefore, the rich should expect to contribute more than the poor. Fasting, or sawm, is the fourth pillar of Islam and takes place during Ramadan, the ninth month of the Islamic lunar calendar. For the duration of Ramadan, believers consume neither food nor drink from dawn to dusk. This practice is meant to remind them of what it is like to be poor and go hungry. The fifth and final pillar of Islam is pilgrimage, or hajj. Islam expects all able-bodied Muslims to make a journey to Mecca at least once in their lifetime. All five pillars combine to unite the Islamic community.


Pilgrimage to Mecca | Notice the prominently featured Ka‘ba.

Author: User “BotMultichillT”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: CC BY-SA 2.0

The Expansion of Islam

The Prophet Muhammad started publicly preaching his strict brand of monotheism in the year 613, by reciting the Quran, quickly convincing some of the commoners of Mecca to believe in him. Most of his early converts belonged to groups of people who had failed to achieve any significant social mobility, which, of course, included many of the poor. His followers memorized his recitations and message that called for the powerful to take care of the weak, a message that resonated with many of these economically and socially marginalized. Islam served as a binding force, replacing tribal solidarity, or ‘asabiyah.

Muhammad’s message challenged the Umayyad Clan’s leadership of society. The most powerful branch of the Quraysh Tribe, the Umayyads had been enriching themselves from the lucrative caravan trade while, at the same time, ignoring the privations of the needy. Prodding his tribal brethren, Muhammad had also spoken out against the traditional pagan gods. Tribal tradition dictated that the polytheistic Arabs of the peninsula worship their tribal gods; they also believed in jinns, or nature spirits. As custodians of the Ka‘ba, which contained all of these traditional Arabian religious images, the Umayyad Clan augmented their income by collecting revenue from the traditional pilgrimage to Mecca.

The political implications were clear. The Muslims threatened to disrupt a delicate equilibrium. The Prophet’s message jeopardized the social and economic standing of the elite members of society, who accused the Muslims of serving as agents of unwelcome change. Tensions grew, and conflict spilled into the streets of Mecca, dragging the two respective camps into the fray. The more that Muhammad’s followers grew in number, the more opposition they encountered from the Umayyad Clan. To avoid this conflict, some Muslims  ed to the Kingdom of Aksum, located in Ethiopia, at this stage in the early history of Islam, where they received protection from Muhammad’s enemies under the Christian King Armah. Indeed, the first Muslims went by the name of muhajirun, meaning “emigrants,” for they would soon be forced to leave Mecca under pain of severe Umayyad persecution.

During this period, Muhammad’s wife Khadija died in 619. With her death, Muhammad lost his source of emotional support and fell into depression, thus enduring a personal crisis. That same year, the Prophet’s uncle Abu Thalib passed away. Already bereaved, Muhammad further suffered the loss of his personal protector in the Quraysh Tribe. Now cut off from the tribal leadership and accused of stirring sectarian tension, Muhammad was on his own and vulnerable to Umayyad harassment in Mecca.

While Muhammad endured harsh reprisals from the Umayyads for his public preaching, a conflict was boiling in Yathrib, later called Medina, a trade city located a few days to the north of Mecca. Some individuals from Medina had traveled to Mecca in 620, where they heard the Prophet preach and soon adopted Islam. Impressed by his reputation as an honest man, the leaders of Medina invited Muhammad to their city in 622 to act as a mediator of tribal infighting over a shared oasis. As opposition in Mecca had become too intense for Muhammad and his followers to remain there, they migrated to Medina in 622, a seminal event known as the hijra that marks the first year of the Islamic calendar. The Prophet rapidly converted many of the city’s inhabitants to Islam. These new Muslims came to be identified as the ansar, meaning “helpers.” Together with the muhajirun, the ansar helped the Prophet institutionalize the religion of Islam and develop an umma, or community of believers, that would dominate the social and political life of Medina.

Muhammad assumed five different roles in Medina. First and foremost, he was the Prophet of Islam; therefore, he was the religious leader of the community. Second, he acted as the political leader of the umma. Because his followers agreed with him politically, they agreed with him religiously as well. Third, Muhammad served as a judicial leader, using the Quran as the basis of law. Fourth, the Prophet functioned as a legislator, working with the majlis, or council of elders, to enact laws. He therefore governed his capital, Medina, with no separation of church and state. Finally, Muhammad was a military leader who ensured that statehood would prevail for the Muslims.

A major concern of Muhammad’s leadership was to determine how the Muslims could contribute to the Medinan economy. He received a revelation during this period that suggested the Muslims should raid the caravans coming north out of Mecca. (Qur’an 22:39) In 624, the Medinans engaged a caravan of Meccans along a popular trade route bypassing Medina. In the ensuing Battle of Badr, named after a nearby oasis, 300 Muslims defeated nearly 1000 Meccans and seized their caravan. They considered their signal victory a sign from God that he was on their side. Their success enhanced Muhammad’s prestige and that of the Islamic community among the Arab tribes in the peninsula.


The Quba Mosque of Medina | The oldest mosque in Islam. Author: User “Abderlrhman 1990”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Unwilling to cede control of the lucrative caravan trade to the upstart Muslims of Medina, the Umayyads confronted the Muslims in 625 in the Battle of Uhud, which referred to a local mountain. Foot soldiers in the vanguard of the Muslim forces led their defense. Meanwhile, a group of ambitious archers, ignoring the Prophet’s command to remain stationary, joined the battle. Their imprudent action let the Meccan cavalry strike the unprotected flank of Muhammad’s warriors. The Meccans failed to capitalize on their victory, however, and were unable to take Medina, a failure that leads some historians to consider the battle an ultimate success for the Muslims.

Battle of badr

Map of the Battle of Badr

Author: User “Vedantm” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

In 627, the Umayyads of Mecca and the Muslims of Medina met in a final confrontation in what became known as the Battle of the Trench, or khandaq in Arabic; this battle ended in another triumph for the Muslims. In preparation for a foreseeable Umayyad attack, a Persian engineer named Salman had suggested that the Medinans build defensive works around the city. So the Muslims survived the Meccan assault by entrenching themselves behind a near-impregnable barrier. In 628, the Umayyads finally realized that they were unable to vanquish the Muslims so sent a delegation of Meccans to sue for peace. The resulting Treaty of Hudaybiyyah symbolized their desire to extricate themselves from a losing situation, as Mecca ultimately compromised so their merchant elite would not lose any more trade to the Medinans. The treaty provided for an official tolerance of Islam and for the Muslims to return to Mecca the following year, free from persecution.

Battle of uhud

Map of the Battle of Uhud

Author: User “Warda99” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 1.0


Battle of the trench


Map of the Battle of the Trench

Author: User “Bless sins” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

In 630, two years before his death, the Prophet Muhammad advanced on the city of Mecca with an army of some 10,000 Muslims. Encountering only limited resistance, the army of Muslims took control of the city, an act that symbolized the idea of Islamic expansion. Muhammad cleansed the Ka’ba of its purported 360 religious images and dedicated it to God. The prestige of the Muslims extended with their victory over the Meccans. As tribes learned of this triumph, they soon followed the lead of the winners, both politically and religiously, sending delegations to forge alliances with the Prophet. By the time that Muhammad passed away, most of Arabia had converted to Islam. The religion provided the Muslims of the peninsula with a new ‘asabiyah, or social solidarity, endowing the movement with a unity of purpose.

In the absence of the Prophet, Muslim leaders had to develop a body of law to deal with important legal questions. Over time, Sharia law became a legal system in which Islamic principles provided an accepted means to regulate all features of daily life, including, but not limited to, economics, politics, family life, and society. Sharia law is based on the Quran, Hadith, precedent, and interpretation. In fact, the capacity for various interpretations of the law has led to the development of several schools of Islamic jurisprudence.

The Rashidun Caliphs

Muhammad did not formally appoint a successor, or khalifa in Arabic, and no clear replacement arose to lead the Muslim community forward at the time of his death. In fact, the umma divided into three groups, with each willing to appoint their own successor to the Prophet. Emerging as a vocal leader at this critical juncture, ‘Umar, one of Muhammad’s closest companions, convinced the majlis, or elders of the community, to elect Abu Bakr by consensus as a compromise candidate. Abu Bakr had been Muhammad’s closest friend; Muhammad’s marriage of political alliance to ‘A’isha, Abu Bakr’s daughter, further solidi ed their relationship.

The election of Abu Bakr (632 – 634) brought much-needed stability and an almost democratic form of government to Islam. As caliph, Abu Bakr held together the converts to Islam by deploying the forces at his disposal, thus cementing his authority among the Arabian tribes. He prevented any rebellious Muslim tribes from reverting to the worship of their traditional tribal gods, as they were wont to do. Abu Bakr died in 634, two years after the Prophet Muhammad had died.

The majlis chose ‘Umar (634 – 644), a close friend of Abu Bakr, to be the next caliph. ‘Umar had been the military power behind Abu Bakr. A dynamic and uncompromising leader, ‘Umar recognized the necessity of expansion northward to achieve various ends. First, he sought to subdue the security threat of raiding nomads, many of which remained a law unto themselves. Second, in his struggle to contain discontent, he used the cohesive element of jihad to unite the Muslim community against unbelievers and expand God’s dominion. (The Arabic term of jihad actually refers to a “struggle,” usually against spiritual impurity, often known as “greater jihad,” and is associated with fulfilling God’s objectives here on earth. The “lesser jihad,” alternatively, is a physical struggle against the unbelievers of the Dar al-Harb, or Abode of War, until it is absorbed into the Dar al-Islam, or Abode of Islam, where believers were free to practice their faith as members of the predominant faith. Of note is the fact that Muhammad did not consider jihad important enough to make one of the pillars of Islam.) Third, ‘Umar understood the importance of plunder for the nascent caliphate. Troops received four-fifths of the loot from conquest; the remainder of the revenue went to him to be dispersed amongst the neediest members in the Islamic community.

‘Umar directed the full might of Islam northward against the Eastern Roman Empire, sometimes referred to as the Byzantine Empire. In 634, their first encounter took place in southern Palestine. The ensuing Battle of Ajnadayn was a decisive victory for the Muslims and a major loss for Emperor Heraclius. Two years later, an outnumbered Muslim army defeated the Eastern Roman Empire yet again at the Battle of Yarmouk, located on the Yarmouk River, somewhere between Damascus and Jerusalem. In both instances, the Byzantines relied on their slow, heavy cavalry, whereas the Arabs capitalized on their light armor and their superior mobility. The Muslims realized that they could not just charge the East Roman lines; they showed their tactical superiority by flanking the Byzantines and executing a successful rearguard action instead. These victories opened up greater Syria to Muslim conquest. Antioch, Aleppo, and Jerusalem fell to the Muslims not long thereafter. ‘Umar appointed Mu‘awiya, a member of the Meccan Umayyad aristocracy to govern Syria at his behest.

Once he dealt with the increasingly vulnerable Byzantines in the Levant, ‘Umar directed his army to the east against the Sasanian Empire of Persia. In 636, fighting along the banks of the Euphrates River, a smaller Arab force triumphed over the Persians, at the Battle of Qadisiya. After successive days of exhaustive combat, the Muslims took advantage of environmental conditions and their light cavalry’s mobility when they chased a dust storm and took the Sasanids by surprise.

To save their empire, the Persians mounted a failed counterattack. In 642, Umar’s army eventually defeated the forces of the Sasanian Emperor Yazdagird III at the Battle of Nahavand, situated deep in Iran’s Zagros Mountains. Yazdagird fled to the east as a fugitive, and, in 651, met his death at the hands of a local miller who killed the emperor in order to rob him of his belongings.

In 639, General ‘Amr petitioned ‘Umar for permission to invade Egypt and eventually persuaded the caliph that he could easily take Egypt so gained his reluctant consent. In 641, he received a message from ‘Umar recalling his forces. The general ignored the order and seized Egypt with just a few hundred soldiers. With promises of toleration, ‘Amr convinced the Egyptian Coptic majority to side with him against the Greek Orthodox ruling minority, whose Patriarch Cyrus had been actively persecuting the Copts as followers of a Christian heresy that failed to recognize the Holy Trinity.

Clearly outnumbered Muslim armies thus successfully defeated two long-standing empires in the span of just a few decades. Several explanations help us understand the rapid expansion of Islam during this period. One concept, termed the vacuum theory, posits that the Byzantine and Persian empires had been severely weakened from near-continuous fighting, dating back decades prior to the rise of Islam, so they both suffered from the fatigue of war. Islam, therefore, occupied the vacuum of political power resulting from the collapse of these two exhausted empires.

The success of Muslim military strategy offers a second explanation. While Byzantine forces adopted a defensive stance on the battle field, the Arabs employed more aggressive tactics, making use of their mobile light cavalry against their enemies’ heavily armored armies. Once victorious, the Arabs populated garrison cities on the frontier, called amsar, with Muslims. These military settlements provided security, served as logistical loci, and discouraged Muslim troops from mingling with the locals. The caliphs thereby prevented their warriors being assimilated into the communities of the conquered while also preventing soldiers from disturbing the peace. Fustat in Egypt, as well as Kufa and Basra in Iraq, were the largest of the amsar. From bases like these, the Arabs could expand and consolidate their hold over the frontier.

Religion also provided an impetus for the expansion of Islam. Fearing that internal tribal divisions threatened the early Islamic state, ‘Umar united the Muslims through their common Islamic theology and faced them against a common enemy. Dedicated to the expansion of Islam, Muslims used the concept of jihad as a way to unify the umma, or Islamic community, against a foreign foe. Faith motivated the troops, who were zealous and determined to fight.

Simple economics also served as a primary motivating factor in the expansion of Islam. For one, Muslim rulers applied the jizya, an annual tax levied on non-Muslims, to newly-conquered lands. The money derived from conquest functioned as a driving force in the growth of the caliphate. With the expectation of material reward, soldiers could earn money for their service. While the practice of dividing the spoils of war amongst the soldiers continued under ‘Umar, he also started offering salaries to his troops, determining salaries according to the length of service.

The Muslims further exploited the internal divisions of targeted societies, as exemplified in Egypt, where the Coptic Christian majority, together with a large Jewish minority in Alexandria, had suffered under the rule of an oppressive Greek Orthodox Christian minority but gained autonomy and toleration within an Islamic state. And in Syria, another mono- physite Christian minority called the Syrian Orthodox Church, or Jacobites, collaborated with the Muslims and hastened the collapse of the Byzantines. All these factors led the early Islamic state to expand exponentially.

In 644, an Iranian captive from the Persian campaign stabbed ‘Umar to death. His successor, ‘Uthman (644 – 656), was an elderly man from the Umayyad Clan who won a contentious election over ‘Ali. ‘Ali possessed all of the ‘Alid bona  des. ‘Ali was not only son of Muhammad’s early protector, Abu Thalib; he was also the Prophet’s cousin and son-in-law. He had married Muhammad’s daughter Fatima; together, they had two sons, Hasan and Husayn. ‘Ali had also earned a well-deserved reputation as a virtuous Muslim. One of the first converts to Islam, he had journeyed with Muhammad on most of his expeditions and fought against the Meccans. Finally, ‘Ali also served as a valued advisor to the early caliphs on questions of dogma.

Two factions formed in the wake of questions over ‘Uthman’s succession, thus initiating the development of a division within Islam. One faction was a group of ‘Alids who believed that ‘Ali should inherit the mantle of Islam and referred to traditions suggesting that Muhammad had pro- claimed to the faithful that ‘Ali should be his successor. The amsar followed the ‘Alids and later adopted the Shi‘a appellation. The other faction, the Umayyads contended that the method of appointing successors should be by consensus, as was done with the first caliphs. Mostly based in Mecca, they later identified as Sunnis. Over time, these factional differences became increasingly difficult to bridge.

Although ‘Uthman, one of the Prophet’s first converts, was a pious Muslim, he was a corrupt administrator. He displayed nepotistic tendencies that gave precedence to the Meccan elite, a practice that diverged from ‘Umar’s policies of favoring soldiers who had been the first to respond to the call to action. ‘Umar’s beneficiaries had usually originated from lesser tribes, those too weak to constitute a coherent threat to the establishment; by contrast, ‘Uthman’s appointees were members of the Meccan elite who generally pursued policies bene ting the Umayyad merchants of Mecca.

Government also began to disintegrate under ‘Uthman’s rule, as opposition and instability plagued his tenure as caliph. He managed to offend three separate groups of Muslims. The first of these were the older, pious Muslims, who hailed from Medina. They resented how the hated Umayyads had taken over the same umma that they had previously persecuted and had once tried to destroy. Second were the Quran reciters. When ‘Uthman commissioned and authorized a single official version of the holy text, an act for which he received many accolades, the Quran reciters lost the opportunity for gainful employment. Third were a disgruntled contingent of ‘Alids who called for ‘Uthman to resign and advocated the election of ‘Ali. Their discontent culminated in 656, when resentful devotees of ‘Ali from Egypt broke into ‘Uthman’s home in Medina and assassinated him, purportedly while he was reading the Quran. They then hastily arranged for the election of ‘Ali as ‘Uthman’s successor.

Thrice rejected by the majlis in favor of the first three caliphs, ‘Ali (656 – 661) reluctantly accepted the position of leader of the Islamic community. His selection represented a victory for the faction of legitimists disappointed in the earlier choice of ‘Uthman. ‘Ali assumed the role of caliph amid high expectations, for he was a pious and generous man. Yet the caliphate suffered under his rule. During this time of instability, he constantly had to suppress revolts. For example, tensions between the supporters of ‘Ali and the family of ‘Uthman eventually erupted into the first civil war in Islam. In 656, at the Battle of the Camel, ‘Ali engaged the combined forces of the Prophet’s favored wife, ‘A’isha, and her associates, Talha and Zubayr, who were both relatives of ‘Uthman. Because ‘Ali had failed to bring the dead caliph’s assassins to justice; these three together demanded satisfaction for his death.

The conspirators challenged ‘Ali near the garrison city of Basra, in southern Iraq, before he had the chance to move the caliphate from Medina to the sympathetic military settlement of Kufa. At first, diplomacy seemed to prevail, as ‘Ali sought to avoid bloodshed by negotiating. He succeeded in convincing the three to lay down their arms; however, a group later known as Kharijis conspired to undermine their reconciliation and set  re to the tents in both camps in the dead of the night. Pandemonium ensued. Because of this single impetuous action, both parties thought the other side had  outed the agreement, committing a violation of trust. During the ensuing battle, ‘A’isha was pushed into the middle of the fray on the back of a camel, as was Arab custom. The supporters who rallied to her side were cut down, and ‘Ali emerged victorious from a very bloody battle. The repercussions of his victory reverberated across the Islamic world, as older Muslim men castigated ‘A’isha for her part in the conflict and suggested that women should not play a role in public life.

This threat was not the only one ‘Ali faced, for he also had to contend with Mu‘awiya, ‘Uthman’s cousin and former governor of Syria. Conspicuously absent from ‘Ali’s new administration, Mu‘awiya refused to pay homage to ‘Ali and asserted his own independence in Syria. He also echoed the accusations of ‘A’isha, Talha, and Zubayr, as members of Mu‘awiya’s Umayyad Clan had expressed dismay about the quick election of ‘Ali, and questions still lingered over the new caliph’s part in ‘Uthman’s death. ‘Ali’s failure to act against ‘Uthman’s assassins proved his culpability, Mu‘awiya and the Umayyads, and Mu‘awiya asserted the traditional Arab custom of exacting revenge on one’s enemies.

His conflict with ‘Ali culminated in 657 when they met at the Battle of Siffin, on the Euphrates River in northern Syria. After months of clashes, ‘Ali agreed to arbitration with Mu‘awiya. Still preferring negotiation over bloodshed, ‘Ali had been of the opinion that Muslims should never take up arms against fellow Muslims. His willingness to negotiate with Mu‘awiya, however, caused some of Ali’s own soldiers to defect and adopt the appellation of Kharijis, from kharaja, meaning “to depart.” The first sect in Islam, they departed from Ali because they believed that “judgement belongs to God alone” (Quran 6:57); they saw ‘Ali’s willingness to negotiate with Mu‘awiya as somehow reducing the role of God in determining a successor. In lieu of arbitration, they thought that God would determine the rightful successor by influencing the outcome on the field of battle.

The Umayyad Caliphate

In 661, ‘Ali suffered the same fate as his predecessor when a Khariji stabbed him to death. And, just like with ‘Uthman, the murder of ‘Ali took place during prayers. ‘Ali’s death represented a deep loss for his followers, who saw him as an advocate of an egalitarian version of Islam and a believer in a just and righteous government. His martyrdom came to be regarded as a sacrifice in the service of God and prompted his supporters to pattern themselves after their champion, who, they insisted, had developed spiritual gifts that remained virtually unattainable for others.

The ‘Alids encouraged ‘Ali’s oldest son, Hasan, to succeed his father; however, Mu‘awiya threatened the Prophet’s grandson with continued warfare and convinced him to renounce his claim to the caliphate. Mu‘awiya promised Hasan that he would not appoint an heir so that election of future caliphs would return to the majlis. Handsomely compensated by Mu‘awiya, Hassan subsequently retired to Mecca and took up religion. He remained there until his death in 669. With this major obstacle removed, Mu‘awiya became the fifth caliph, ending the period of the four rightly guided caliphs, also known as the Rashidun Caliphate.

Mu‘awiya (661 – 680) founded the Umayyad Caliphate; the tribal ‘asabiyah of his Umayyad Clan contributed to their ascendance. And once ensconced in power, the Umayyad Caliphate ended the election of caliphs by consensus and established instead a hereditary principle of succession. Mu‘awiya established the caliphate to Damascus, where he previously served as ‘Uthman’s governor. In Syria, Mu‘awiya reformed the bureaucracy by eventually centralizing it. Unable to rely on the Arab tribal system or peninsula traditions to administer to an ever expanding empire, he depended on related Greek merchant families for administrators and adopted the existing administrative machinery of Byzantines, including their imperial customs and bureaucratic practices.

Mu‘awiya had received much recognition for his unfaltering determination to seek retribution for ‘Uthman’s death; however, he had squandered much of that good will in harassing ‘Ali. As anti-Umayyad sentiment increased, the rift that existed between the Sunnis and Shi‘a continued to expand, for recalcitrant ‘Alids continued to harbor resentment against the Umayyads. They remembered when the ruling aristocracy of Mecca had opposed Muhammad and the Muslim community. In fact, Mu‘awiya himself had fought against Muhammad until the Treaty of Hudaybiyyah, only to reverse course, convert to Islam, and become the Prophet’s secretary.


Map of The Umayyad Caliphate at its Greatest Extent

Author: User “Gabagool” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Unlike the two caliphs who preceded him, Mu‘awiya died peacefully in bed. Prior to his death, he designated his son Yazid (680 – 683) as his successor, thus violating his agreement with Hasan. Most notable for his well-deserved reputation as a fierce fighter, Yazid was also known for generally dissolute behavior that offended the religious sensibilities of many pious Muslims. Once ensconced as caliph, Yazid failed to secure an oath of allegiance from Husayn, brother of Hasan, one of the most important of Muslim leaders. Their rivalry escalated into a full-scale civil war.

A direct descendent of the Prophet Muhammad and the younger son of the Caliph ‘Ali, Husayn rejected the deal that his brother had negotiated, instead pursuing his own claim to the rightful leadership of the Islamic community. His ‘Alid supporters loathed the Umayyads and believed that the caliph must be closely related to the Prophet. Husayn’s refusal to recognize Yazid as the next caliph and their subsequent conflict culminated in 680 at the Battle of Karbala, located to the west of present day Baghdad. Yazid dis- patched a military detachment to Iraq and over-whelmed Husayn’s small band of armed followers so that many of Husayn’s own men deserted him in his hour of need. The Shi‘a perceived this seminal event as a turning point in their history. Much like the loss of ‘Ali, the death of Husayn shocked the incipient Shi‘a community, many of whom suffered from intense guilt for failing to assist his little band. Increasing numbers of Shi‘a became profoundly affected by his martyrdom, interpreting it as a sacrifice in the best interests of their community; over time, a passion narrative developed that commemorated his last hours. Through this commemoration of the Battle of Karbala on Ashura, the tenth day of the month of Muharram, they remember the terrible suffering and his untimely death and strive to experience an existential intimacy with their martyr.

Yazid had inherited an empire punctuated by civil war and rebellion. Another principle figure among those in revolt was ibn Zubayr, grandson of Caliph Abu Bakr. Following the death of Mu‘awiya, Ibn Zubayr had sworn allegiance to Husayn. He remained in Mecca, where he stood in op- position to the Umayyads. The general unpopularity of the Umayyads advanced his cause, and many Muslims considered him the rightful caliph. Indeed, much of his support came from Muslims who rejected the idea of hereditary succession and sought a return to the election of caliphs by consensus.

Yazid invaded the Hijaz in order to put an end to ibn Zubayr’s rebellion, but the caliph’s abrupt death in 683 halted the campaign. Marwan (684 – 685) followed his cousin Yazid but was not universally recognized as caliph, for many considered ibn Zubayr the legitimate successor. To garner support, Marwan exploited latent tribal animosities that existed between his Kalb Tribe, also known as the Yemen, and the Qays Tribe, who supported ibn Zubayr. At the Battle of Marj Rahit in 684, Marwan’s Kalb forces defeated the Qays, allowing him to consolidate Umayyad control over Syria and Egypt, thus shrinking ibn Zubayr’s rule down to Iraq and the Hijaz. Not until 691 did Abdul Malik (685 –705), heir to Marwan, recover Iraq from ibn Zubayr. In the process, he also had to pacify Khariji and Shi’a areas. Abdul Malik then dispatched General Hajjaj to the Hijaz. A brutal military leader, Hajjaj laid siege to the holy city of Mecca in 692 in order to secure the submission of ibn Zubayr’s men. He then beheaded ibn Zubayr and crucified his body. Abdul Malik rewarded the brutal general for his loyal service with the governorship of Iraq, where his ruthless reputation persisted.

Once he had assumed the throne, Abdul Malik promoted the Arabization of the caliphate. He rejected the use of Greek, Persian, Coptic, or Aramaic in government, decreeing that all bureaucracy had to be only in Arabic. Non-Arab administrators had to learn Arabic in order to keep their government jobs. Their integration did not lead to the complete Arabization of Umayyad society that Abdul Malik envisioned, however, and the spread of Arabic was not as great as the spread of Islam.

Many Muslims continued to speak Berber, Turkish, Kurdish, and Persian. Although a separate process, Arabization only accompanied Islamization.

Abdul Malik also sought to Islamize the caliphate. First, he discontinued the earlier Byzantine coinage and created the first Islamic currency. Then he instituted a tax code based on the principles of Islam. Caliphs levied an additional tax on non-Muslims, known as the jizya, as was customary in Islam. Christians and Jews in conquered lands also paid a property tax called kharaj. By converting to Islam, one could avoid paying the jizya and kharaj altogether. Most important for ordinary citizens was the fact that Muslims bore lower tax rates than non-Muslims. As one could imagine, the thrust for conversion became primarily economic. Although the process of Islamization was relatively peaceful and gradual, Islam did become the dominant religion of the region. And the parallel processes of Arabization and Islamization helped to reestablish centralized rule after the second civil war.

Not all of Abdul Malik’s reforms adhered to the egalitarian principles set forth in Islam. Arab tribal elites did not want to recognize the mawali, non-Arab Muslims, as social equals, so did not afford them the same rights as Arab Muslims. However, the emerging power and influence of the mawali was apparent. They had become the intellectual elite of society and were the bureaucrats and commercial leaders of the umma. Nevertheless, they faced social discrimination. For example, Umayyad caliphs taxed the mawali as if they were non-Muslims. This inequitable practice became a social problem for the Umayyads, for it stood in stark relief against the values of justice and equality that had originally compelled them to convert.

An extremely devout and pious man, the Caliph ‘Umar II (r. 717 – 720) upended the Umayyad moral order. He considered it immoral to show prejudice against the mawali and to favor the Arabs, so he attempted to resolve the lingering hostilities of the mawali by advocating the equality of all Muslims. ‘Umar II declared an end to the practice of taxing the mawali like the Christians and Jews. His advisors warned him against this change because it precipitated numerous conversions of non-Muslims, so he decreased military expenditures to compensate for an expected drop in revenue. His reforms might have ended the official discrimination against the mawali, but they alienated the Umayyad privileged class, who paid a servant to poison ‘Umar II to death in 720.

The ‘Abbasid Caliphate

For many Muslims, ‘Umar II’s reforms had come too late. The Umayyads had already managed to alienate three important groups of Muslims, Kharijis, the mawali, and the Shi‘a, whose combined power and influence were coopted by the ‘Abbasids and threatened the internal security of the caliphate. Kharijis eschewed disputes over lineage and advocated a more egalitarian brand of Islam than the Sunni Umayyads. They believed that any Muslim could be the rightful heir to the mantle of the Prophet, so long as that person rigorously adhered to the examples set forth in the Sunna. Kharijis thought that caliphs who diverged from the Prophet’s example should be overthrown, as evidenced by their assassination of the Caliph ‘Ali. Second, Umayyad authorities had enacted punitive measures against the mawali, mostly Persians, but also Kurds and Turks. They treated them like second-class citizens, no different than the People of the Book. Finally, it angered most of the Shi‘a that  the Umayyads could not trace their ancestry to the Prophet Muhammad. They also blamed the Umayyads for the death of their martyr Husayn. The ‘Abbasids collaborated with these disaffected groups to incite unrest and rebellion. They particularly cultivated Shi‘a anti-Umayyad sentiment, emphasizing their own connection to the Prophet; indeed, the ‘Abbasids traced their ancestry to Muhammad’s uncle ‘Abbas and the Hashimite Clan. They also vaguely promised to adopt Shi‘a Islam once in power. Together, these three groups formed a constituency that campaigned on behalf of the ‘Abbasids.


The ‘Abbasid Caliphate at its Greatest Extent, c. 850 CE

Author: User “Gabagool” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY 3.0

A secretive family, ‘Abbasids bided their time until the opportune moment to rebel against the Umayyad Caliphate. In 743, the ‘Abbasids began their revolution in remote Khorasan, a region in eastern Persia, just as the Umayyads were contending with not only revolts but also the inopportune death of the Caliph Hisham. In that moment of Umayyad disorder, the ‘Abbasids dispatched Abu Muslim, a Persian general, to Khorasan to start the revolution. Abu Muslim’s early victories against the Umayyads allowed Abu al-‘Abbas, leader of the ‘Abbasid dynasty, to enter the sympathetic city of Kufa in 748. Together, Abu Muslim and Abu al-‘Abbas, who adopted the honorific of as-Sa ah, or “the generous,” confronted the Umayyad Caliph Marwan II in 750, at the Battle of the Zab, in modern day Iraq. Sensing defeat, Marwan II fled, but his pursuers eventually caught and killed him in Egypt. As-Sa ah captured the Umayyad capital of Damascus shortly thereafter. The ‘Abbasids attempted to eliminate the entire house of the Umayyads so that not one remained  to come forth and rise up against them, but one, ‘Abd al-Rahman, escaped eminent death and fled to Egypt. The only member of the family to abscond from certain demise, ‘Abd al-Rahman fled across North Africa to Spain, where he recreated a Spanish Muslim dynasty in a parallel fashion to the Umayyad dynasty in Syria. Under the Umayyads, Spain became the wealthiest and most developed part of Europe. In fact, it was through Islamic Spain that ancient Greek learning—such as the writings of Aristotle and other philosophers–entered Europe.

The change from the Umayyad’s Arab tribal aristocracy to a more egalitarian government, one based on the doctrines of Islam, under the ‘Abbasids, corresponds to Ibn Khaldun’s Cyclical Theory of History. The ‘Abbasids officially advocated Sunni orthodoxy and severed their relationship of convenience with the Shi‘a. They even went so far as to assassinate many Shi‘a leaders, whom they regarded as potential threats to their rule. To escape ‘Abbasid persecution and find safety and security, many Shi‘a scattered to the edges of the empire. While the Shi‘a might have been disappointed with the ‘Abbasids for refusing to advocate Shi‘a Islam, most Muslims welcomed the ‘Abbasid’s arrival. They had justified their revolt against the corrupt Umayyads because the latter had digressed from the core principles of Islam. As standard bearers of the Prophet’s own family, the ‘Abbasids were publicly pious, even digging wells and providing protection along hajj routes.

Caliph al-Mansur (754 – 775) abandoned the Umayyad capital of Damascus and moved the caliphate close to the old Persian capital of Ctesiphon. Construction of the new city of Baghdad began in 762. Situated at the confluence of the Tigris and Diyala rivers, it boasted a prime location that provided access to the sea with enough distance from the coast to offer safety from pirates. Modeled after circular Persian cities, Baghdad rapidly escaped its confines and expanded into its environs. Quickly eclipsing Chang’an, it became the largest city in the world, with over half a million inhabitants. In effect, Baghdad became a public works project, employing 100,000 citizens and stimulating the economy. Al-Mansur’s newly-founded city proudly displayed lavish ‘Abbasid family residences and grandiose public buildings. It even had working sewers, which dumped raw sewage into the nearby canals and rivers.

Prominently featured in One Thousand and One Nights, Harun al-Rashid (789 – 809) represented the climax of ‘Abbasid rulers; as such, he improved upon the work his predecessors had begun. For example, Harun furthered Baghdad’s development into a major economic center by encouraging trade along the Silk Road and through the waters of the Indian Ocean. He also made marginal agricultural land more productive, taking advantage of technological advances in irrigation to cultivate borrowed crops like rice, cotton, and sugar from India, as well as citrus fruits from China.

Harun al-Rashid’s reign coincided with the so-called Golden Age of Islam when Baghdad developed into a preeminent city of scholarship. He began construction of the Bayt al-Hikmah (House of Wisdom), the foremost intellectual center in the Islamic world. The complex boasted of several schools, astronomical observatories, and even a giant library, where scholars translated scientific and philosophical works from neighboring civilizations, including works from Persian, Hindi, Chinese, and Greek.


Map of Baghdad between 767 and 912 CE

Author: William Muir

Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY 3.0

As a result of this move from Damascus to Baghdad, Persia increasingly influenced the Islamic world, with a synthesis of Arab and Persian culture beginning under the ‘Abbasids. For instance, the Persian Sibawayah (d. c. 793) responded to the need for non-Arab Muslims to understand the Quran by systematizing the first Arabic grammar, titled al-Kitab. The greatest poet of the period, Abu Nuwas (d. c. 813), was of mixed parentage, Arab and Iranian. The avant-garde themes of his poems often emphasized dissolute behavior. Although ibn Ishaq (d.768), a historian of sorts, was born in Medina, he relocated to Baghdad, where he too came under the influence of Persian culture. At the behest of Caliph al-Mansur, he composed the first authoritative biography of the Prophet Muhammad. Another important Persian scholar, al-Tabari (d. 923) wrote the History of Prophets and Kings, a great resource on early Islamic history.

Inheritors of Sasanian court traditions that emphasized ceremony, the ‘Abbasids slowly distanced themselves from their subjects. The harem embodied this spatial separation. A forbidden place, the caliph’s family made the harem their personal residence. Caliphs controlled the empire through family, solidifying political alliances by marrying many powerful women.

The harem bestowed power to women, and they played an important role in influencing ‘Abbasid politics, particularly in terms of questions over succession. In the late ‘Abbasid period, various women selected and trained the successors. Young men who were to rule resided in the harem, and much scheming over which son the caliph preferred occurred there. The mother of the caliph, however, dominated internal politics of the space. Harun’s mother played a significant role in his reign, for example. The second most powerful woman in the household was the mother of the heir apparent. She could be any woman, even a concubine, for young, beautiful women were highly sought after at a time when the harem became more important under the ‘Abbasids.

Ripped apart by palace intrigue, the ‘Abbasid Caliphate eventually succumbed to internecine warfare. In fact, Harun al-Rashid himself divided the caliphate when he designated his eldest son, al-Amin, as his heir, for he had already bequeathed the province of Khorasan to his younger son, al-Ma’mun. Upon their father’s death in 809, al-Amin demanded his brother’s territory and obeisance. Of course, al-Ma’mun refused, and a catastrophic civil war ensued. In 812, al- Ma’mun’s army, under the command of his Persian general, Tahir, laid siege to Baghdad. Tahir caught al-Amin attempting to escape from the city and decapitated him. Al-Ma’mun succeeded his brother as caliph, but remained in Merv, his former capital. He ultimately relocated to Baghdad in 819, by which time, years of sporadic violence and lawlessness had severely damaged the city.

Al-Ma’mun (r.813 – 833) continued his father’s tradition of sponsoring scholarship. He completed the Bayt al-Hikmah that his father had begun. He also expressed a love for philosophical and theological debate and encouraged the Islamic doctrine known as the Mu‘tazila, a rationalist formulation of Islam that stressed free will over divine predestination. Influenced by Aristotelian thought, the Mu‘tazila attempted to solve the theological question of evil. It asserted that human reason alone could inform proper behavior. Condemned as a heresy for incorporating extra Islamic patterns of thought into their belief system, many Muslims concluded that the Mu‘tazila’s rationalism exceeded the holy doctrines of Islam.

The ‘Abbasids began their long, slow decline under al-Ma’mun, who was the first caliph to confer greater freedom upon his emirs, or provincial governors, initiating a process of decentralization that eventually unleashed uncontrollable centrifugal forces. This process began when  al-Ma’mun  first awarded his general Tahir with the governorship of Khorasan, where Tahir raised his own revenue and directed his own affairs. The Tahirid dynasty dominated the politics of the region, resisting Abbasid attempts to restrain them. From Khorasan, Tahir’s family represented an existential threat to the caliphate.

Internal problems continued under al-Mu‘tasim (833 – 842), the successor to al-Ma’mun, who replaced undependable tribal armies with mamluks. The mamluks played an increasingly important role in the fate of the caliphate. They were part of an elite slave system that imported young boys from various backgrounds, though usually Turkic, and trained them in the military arts. Because the enslavement of Muslims was not permitted in Islam, caliphs obtained slaves by raiding outside of the Islamic world or by trading for them. Indoctrinated at a young age, mamluks remained loyal to their leaders, serving as their personal bodyguard. Once emancipated, however, they entered into a contractual relationship with their former masters and bene ted from certain property and marriage rights. Although often portrayed as slaves in the popular imagination, mamluks actually formed a proud caste of soldiers who considered themselves superior to the rest of society. As the elite bodyguards to the caliph, they supplanted the traditional ethnic hierarchy of the ‘Abbasids, a shift which led to much class conflict often resulting in unrest and civil disturbances. In order to remove the mamluks from the volatile situation in Baghdad, the caliph moved the capital to Samarra, some 60 miles to the north, a measure that only delayed the inevitable, as subsequent caliphs could not control the rising tensions that resulted in social instability and contributed to the decentralization and fragmentation of the empire.

The transition from tribal armies to mamluks had profound repercussions for the ‘Abbasids. Mamluks like Ahmad ibn Tulun (835 – 884), a slave from Circassia, most exemplified this pattern of decentralization and fragmentation that had disastrous consequences for the ‘Abbasid Caliphate. He had been sent by the ‘Abbasids to Egypt in order to restructure and strengthen it on their behalf. An intellectual and religious person, ibn Tulun founded schools, hospitals, and mosques in Egypt, the most famous being the eponymous ibn Tulun Mosque. However, he saw weakness back in Baghdad, as the ‘Abbasids suffered from instability, including palace intrigue, disorderly mamluks, and revolts like the Zanj Rebellion, a slave rebellion that threatened the fate of the caliphate. The ‘Abbasids could not control ibn Tulun, and, as the caliphate broke down, he managed to secure almost complete autonomy from Baghdad. By the end of his reign, he was so independent that he kept his own tax revenue and raised his own mamluk army, for he, too, depended militarily and politically on his loyal mamluks to stay in power.

Ibn Tulun’s autonomy in Egypt portended the decline of the ‘Abbasids, whose real authority came to an end in 945. The Buyids, an Iranian dynasty, overthrew the ‘Abbasids and relegated them to the status of mere religious figureheads; the caliphate continued in name only. Following the collapse of the Abbasids, the centralization and political unity of the lands formerly under their control broke down; however, economic, cultural, and religious unity remained.

The Fatimid Caliphate

While Egypt grew increasingly independent of Baghdad under the Tulunids, the rule of the ‘Abbasids over their broad empire generally declined. From this vacuum of power, the Fatimids (910 – 1171) emerged. Members of the Isma‘ili sect of Shi‘a Islam, the Fatimids traced their genealogy  to the relationship between Fatima, the Prophet’s daughter, and ‘Ali. Isma‘ilis believe that the divinely ordained spiritual leadership of the Islamic community, or caliphate, descended from ‘Ali down to Isma‘il, the son of Jafar al-Sadiq. They refused to recognize the legitimacy of the ‘Abbasids and sought to convert the masses of Sunnis to their own schismatic brand of Islam. To do so, Isma‘ili missionaries spread out to the far flung fringes of the empire and preached a religious revolution. These emissaries achieved their greatest success in the North African Maghreb.

‘Abd Allah al-Mahdi, founder of the Fatimids, proclaimed himself the mahdi, the precursor to the final judgement, representing an ideology that compelled people to change. Hounded by ‘Abbasid agents of persecution who sought to uphold Sunni orthodoxy, he  ed from his family’s homeland in Syria and, disguised as an ordinary merchant, traveled westward through the Maghreb to Sijilmasa, where he went into hiding. In 909, local Isma‘ili missionaries rescued him from Sijilmasa. By 920, he had consolidated power and made his capital at Mahdiya, located in present day Tunisia. As the mahdi and a catalyst for change, he converted tribal troops and inspired them to fight on his behalf. ‘Abd Allah al-Mahdi endowed the Fatimids with a new ‘asabiyah, providing them with the unity of purpose necessary to defeat the ‘Abbasids in North Africa. Within forty years, ‘Abd Allah al-Mahdi had conquered the whole of Northwest Africa. He aimed his expansion at Egypt but failed to seize it. His grandson, al-Mu‘izz, however, succeeded in this aim.


Map of the Fatimid Caliphate, 969 CE

Author: User “Gabagool” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0


Al-Mu‘izz (953 – 975) used a combination of mamluk and tribal armies to capture Egypt in 969. Rather than contend with older, possibly rebellious cities like Alexandria, al-Mu‘izz founded Cairo, the City of the Conqueror. He developed Cairo into the preeminent cultural and economic center of the Islamic world, taking over from a Baghdad in decline. Al-Mu‘izz established al-Azhar, the largest and most famous mosque in Egypt, which also served as a religious center that focused on the theological development of Shi‘a Islam. Once in power, the Fatimids changed the official state religion of Egypt from Sunni orthodoxy to Shi‘a heterodoxy, though the majority of the population in Egypt remained Sunni Muslims.

Al-Hakim (991 – 1021) ascended to the throne of his father, al-‘Aziz, at the age of eleven. As a young man, he quickly displayed a pattern of unpredictable behavior. Just four years after taking command of the empire, he had his regent, the eunuch Barjawan, murdered. Additionally, al-Hakim earned a place in infamy by targeting Christians and Jews, worsening the generally amiable relations with the People of the Book that the Fatimids had previously enjoyed. For instance, in 1004, al-Hakim prohibited Christians from celebrating Epiphany and Easter. He also forbad the use of wine, a prohibition which caused religious difficulties for Christians and Jews alike. In 1005, al-Hakim decreed the Law of Differentiation, requiring all of the People of the Book to prominently display religious icons indicating their particular religious adherence. In 1009, he became infuriated by some of the Orthodox Church’s religious practices and consequently razed the Church of the Holy Sepulchre in response. A few years later, he ordered the destruction of thousands of churches and synagogues in Palestine. Al-Hakim even made Western pilgrimage to the Holy Land difficult. During this period, pilgrimages to Palestine had been increasing, and many pilgrims returned home complaining of Muslim treatment of Christians in the Holy Land. His behavior towards Christians elicited a strong Western reaction, for Europeans used his conduct as a way to encourage support for the Crusades.

Around the year 1010, Muhammad ad- Darazi, an Isma‘ili preacher, began teaching that al-Hakim was a manifestation of God. Ad-Darazi believed that universal rationality was made incarnate in the person of Adam and then passed down through the prophets to the family of ‘Ali and his descendants, including the Fatimids. His doctrines eventually spread to the Levant, where these ideas found reception amongst the Druze, a cognate of Darazi, although they viewed Ad-Darazi as a heretic. A follower of Isma‘ilism, al-Hakim did not want to be associated with ad-Darazi and his teachings, so he had the preacher executed in 1018.

Al-Hakim continued his tendency to display erratic behavior when he walked out into the desert in 1021 and never returned. While his disappearance has remained a mystery for the ages, those who worshiped the caliph believe that he went into Occultation, later to return as the messianic mahdi.

The Tang Dynasty and the Emergence of East Asia

The Early Tang Dynasty

The Sui [sway] Dynasty did not last long (581 – 618 CE) and only had two emperors: Emperor Wen and Emperor Yang. Both envisioned recapturing the glory of the Han Dynasty; hence, they engaged in many construction projects and military campaigns. Immense capital cities were built at Chang’an and Luoyang and, in order to supply them with sufficient grain, a canal system was created to connect the Yellow River to the Yangzi River. These emperors also believed that Manchuria and the Korean Peninsula were properly Chinese territory; therefore, they repeatedly launched enormous military expeditions to attack the most powerful Korean kingdom located there. Emperor Yang’s ground and naval campaign in 611 CE, for instance, required enlisting over one million combat troops and hundreds of thousands of additional men just to transport supplies. All of these campaigns met defeat.

What is more, that very same year, the Yellow River flooded, and rebellions broke out along it. Natural disasters combined with these emperors’ heavy demands led to widespread unrest, and the Sui Dynasty unraveled. Bandit leaders, local officials, and local elites took matters into their own hands by organizing their communities for self-defense. After the emperor took flight to the south, General Li Yuan [lee you-an], who was stationed along the northern border to defend against the steppe nomads, marched into Chang’an, where he declared the founding of the Tang Dynasty (618 – 907 CE). Emperor Yang’s life came to an end when he was assassinated by his own men.

Like the Han Dynasty, the Tang was one of the most dynamic and long-lived dynasties in China’s history. That dynamism was made possible by how effectively early Tang rulers consolidated the empire internally and then engaged in military expansion.

Tang map

The Tang Dynasty at its height in 700 CE

Author: Ian Mladjov

Source: Original Work

License: © Ian Mladjov. Used with permission.

Consolidating the empire required first re-establishing solid political, economic, and military institutions. Fortunately, Tang rulers could draw upon nearly a millennium of historical experience going back to the Qin Dynasty, when a centralized monarchical political system governing all of China was first established. At the capital, Tang emperors had at their disposal sophisticated ministries that in turn oversaw a vast provincial and county administrative system. To serve in high office, a man usually had to come from one of a small number of highly prestigious families with illustrious family pedigrees. These families took pride in their superior education and manners and maintained their exclusiveness by intermarrying. Thus, the Tang Dynasty was dominated by an aristocracy. Nevertheless, some men from a larger pool of locally prominent families entered the civil service based on merit, by graduating from colleges located at the capitals or succeeding at civil service examinations.

Tang official

Statue depicting a Tang Dynasty official holding a tablet with a report for his superiors | Author: User “Editor at Large”

Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 2.5

In earlier times, empires rarely flourished without a solid agricultural foundation and revenue base. To ensure sufficient grain and labor service, Tang rulers believed that land must be equitably distributed to farmers. So they implemented the equal fields system. In this system, each family was to receive an equal plot of land (adjusted for terrain and productivity) for life, as well as a smaller plot as a permanent possession. The former was for growing grain, and the latter, for hemp and mulberry trees. In exchange, each farming family had to pay a tax in grain and cloth and provide twenty days of labor service. To make this work, officials carried out censuses and land surveys and periodically redistributed land. Of course, this system was quite onerous and difficult to carry out in practice, but it did function well for about a century.

The Tang also flourished because special attention was paid to molding an orderly society through the promulgation of sophisticated law codes. From ancient times, in China, law was viewed as an expression of the will of the emperor, whose pronouncements de ned illegal conduct and proper punishments for it. Also, law was critically important to maintaining order, not only in the social but also the natural world. Crimes committed both by subjects and the state could disturb the cosmos and lead to natural disasters. Thus, law maintained social and cosmic harmony. That is why codes were so important.

The Tang Code contains twelve sections, one addressing general principles, and the rest, administrative and penal law. Most of the statutes define criminal offenses and the punishment for each of them. The magistrate’s role, then, was primarily to investigate and determine precisely the nature of the crime so that the proper punishment could be assigned. In Tang times, people believed that the severity of punishment should be based on the relative status of the perpetrator and victim. For instance, a crime committed against a family member was more serious than one committed against a stranger, and a crime committed against an official was more serious than one committed against a commoner. Within families, too, the status of members mattered. Whereas a father could flog his son without consequence, a son faced capital punishment should he beat his father. In brief, Tang laws encoded the status hierarchy and values of imperial Confucianism. The most serious crimes were those committed against the emperor, country, senior family members, and social superiors. Nevertheless, those of higher status were held accountable for their actions; a magistrate who failed to justly administer the law faced punishment. In fact, Tang monarchs were so concerned that justice might fail to be upheld that they often proclaimed amnesties, nullifying the sentences of all but the worst criminals.

Lastly, Tang rulers established a formidable military. At first, the army consisted of six hundred militias stationed at headquarters located near the capitals and throughout the countryside, a large standing army located at the capital, and frontier garrisons strung out along the northern border. These forces were largely maintained by drawing men from a military population. That is, Tang rulers relied on a large number of families that maintained military traditions and provided sons for periods of service in lieu of paying taxes and providing labor service. As necessary, these men could be assembled into expeditionary armies consisting of heavy cavalry and marching infantry.

Taizong tomb

Relief of soldier and horse from the tomb of Emperor Taizong Author: Yen Li-pen

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: Public Domain

Having laid these solid institutional foundations, the Tang Dynasty followed with military expansion. Offensives waged to the north divided up and subdued powerful Turkic khans and their confederations of steppe nomads. Tang imperial power was then projected deep into Central Asia, Manchuria, and northern Vietnam, making China the most dominant country in East Asia in the seventh and eighth centuries.

The Emergence of East Asia: The Case of Korea and Japan

East Asia first emerges as an identifiable cultural sphere during the Tang Dynasty. By Tang times, kingdoms had already emerged on the Korean Peninsula and the main islands of Japan, but it was during the Tang that ruling elites in both of these states made extensive efforts to adapt components of the Chinese political, legal, and writing system, as well as of Chinese culture, to their own societies.

Korea’s History from the Fourth Century BCE to 900 CE

We have already learned about China’s history from the Han Dynasty (203 BCE – 220 CE) through the Period of Division (220 – 589 CE) and into the Tang Dynasty. During those same centuries, the first states formed on the Korean Peninsula, and historians generally organize that time into three periods: the early historical period (c. 400 BCE – 313 CE), Three Kingdoms Period (313 – 668 CE), and the Silla Dynasty (668 – 892 CE).

By the fourth century BCE, the peninsula had already long been populated by peoples who had migrated there from northeast Asia and settled into agricultural villages. These peoples were not originally speakers of Chinese; rather, they spoke languages belonging to the Altaic language family, which possibly includes Korean. This point is important because people unfamiliar with East Asia sometimes think that the languages spoken by Chinese, Koreans, Japanese, and Vietnamese are closely related, when in fact they are quite different. However, it is also important to note that in ancient times throughout East Asia, the Chinese writing system was adopted by literate elite for the purpose of writing their spoken languages. Only over time were native scripts developed out of it.

The political picture for the early historical period is complex because the peninsula and neighboring Manchuria looked like a mosaic of chiefdom confederations and petty kingdoms, each governed by elite families living in walled towns. These polities first took shape during these centuries. By the early centuries CE, three kingdoms extending from Manchuria to where Seoul lies today (the capital of South Korea) covered the northern half, while the southern half was divided up by confederations of chiefdoms. The most powerful kingdom was Goguryeo [Ko-goo-ryo] c. 37 BCE – 668 CE).

The Korean peninsula lies very close to China, with only Manchuria and the Yellow Sea dividing the two states. Long before Korea’s early historical period, rulers of Chinese states had taken an interest in controlling both trade routes leading into this region and the peoples living there. In 108 BCE, during the Han Dynasty, Emperor Wu even sent expeditions into Manchuria and Korea. He opened up a corridor leading from China through Manchuria into the peninsula and established four commanderies to control the area.


A map of Korea during the early historical period | After 108 BCE, Han China established commanderies in Korea. Lelang was one of them and was located where the capital of North Korea– Pyongyang–is today. The most powerful neighboring kingdom was Goguryeo. Mahan and Jinhan were southern tribal confederations.

Author: User “Historiographer”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: CC BY-SA 3.0

But Han China by no means colonized the entirety of this northeastern region. Kingdoms and tribal confederations remained to the east and south, most notably Goguryeo. After the Han Dynasty collapsed, northern China was in turmoil and unable to control these frontiers. In 313 CE, King Mich’on of Goguryeo, in an effort to expand the size of his kingdom, seized Chinese territory. That date marked the beginning of a new stage in Korean history referred to as the Three Kingdoms period (313 CE – 668 CE).

The Three Kingdoms were Goguryeo, Baekje [peck-jay], and Silla [she-la].

Korea 2


Map of the Three Kingdoms Period in Korea, c. sixth century CE

Author: User “Chris 73”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Like Goguryeo, the early histories of Baekje and Silla date back to the early historical period, during which time they were consolidated from southern chiefdom confederations.

Each kingdom was dominated by a warrior elite composed of the ruling and aristocratic clans. For most of the Three Kingdoms period, Goguryeo was the dominant military and political power, spreading its control over much of Manchuria and northern Korea. During the fifth century CE, its capital was moved to Pyongyang, site of a former Han Commandery. This move made this city–the capital of North Korea today–important to Korean history. Murals on Goguryeo tombs located in the vicinity show what this kingdom’s elites valued. They are depicted as heavily-clad warriors fighting on horseback with bows and arrows, and swords and halberds. A cosmos depicts guardian spirits and nature gods belonging to a native Korean tradition of shamanism.

Given the geopolitical position of Korea, it is not surprising that all three kingdoms highly valued martial traditions. First of all, they fought with each other for control over territory and resources on the peninsula. Secondly, positioned as Korea is between China and Japan, those states often intruded upon peninsular conflicts. For all these reasons, Silla, Baekje, and Goguryeo monarchs readily borrowed ideas from China that might benefit their realms and give them more power. That borrowing included introducing elements of Chinese political institutions and legal traditions, as well as Buddhism and Confucianism. All of these kingdoms sent students to study in China and patronized Chinese Buddhist monks and learned Confucians who visited their courts. These visitors were knowledgeable in many fields of learning, including science and technology. As we have seen, Buddhism not only promised salvation but also magical powers of healing, and rulers could style themselves as living Buddhas. That is why they sponsored the building of temples and formation of a Buddhist religious order. Confucianism, on the other hand, provided models of civility, courtly etiquette, and bureaucratic governance for ruling elites, and rulers could style themselves in Chinese fashion as sovereign monarchs. Hence, Confucian academies were established to train students of aristocratic families for service.

Towards the end of the Three Kingdoms period, however, it was not the great northeastern power of Goguryeo that unified the Korean Peninsula. This achievement went to the Silla Dynasty and did so for two reasons. First, Silla rulers were particularly effective in using Chinese political practices to centralize their power. They adopted Chinese-style titles, central government agencies, and law codes; made Buddhism a state-sponsored religion; and established an academy for studying Chinese classical texts, law, medicine, and astronomy. Second, Silla monarchs built alliances with Tang emperors that worked to their advantage. As we have seen, the Chinese Sui Dynasty fell because Sui rulers suffered terrible defeats at the hands of the armies of the great kingdom of Goguryeo. Tang Dynasty rulers continued the invasions but also failed. For that reason, they were open to building alliances with Silla and combining their military forces. Together, they defeated Baekje in 660 and Goguryeo in 668. Much to the Tang emperor’s surprise, Silla then drove out Tang forces, preventing any efforts on China’s part to control the Korean peninsula. The Silla Dynasty (668 – 892 CE) thus became the first one to unify the peninsula.

In sum, Goguryeo and the Silla Dynasty were, in succession, two of the most powerful kingdoms in ancient Korea. Their histories were deeply shaped by the intrusion of Chinese states into the region. For that reason, they can be categorized as instances of secondary state formation. Throughout history, some states developed and centralized their control over a territory largely in response to the impact of a powerful neighboring state that had developed before them. As they did so, they also borrowed ideas for how states should be organized from that neighboring power, even as native traditions and language are retained.

Japan from the Yayoi Period to the Seventh Century

Those who follow the history of World War II might know that, during those years, the highest authority in Japan was Emperor Hirohito. Even today, Japan has an emperor and empress, although they no longer have any formal political power in this now democratic nation. Rather, they serve in a cultural and symbolic role. The Japanese monarchy is the oldest continuous one in the history of the world and traces its beginnings to at least the fourth century CE.

Japan’s early historical development presents unique characteristics because of its geography. The island archipelago was close enough to Chinese and Korean states to borrow from them and benefit from migration and yet far enough away so that invasions were never a sudden impetus to change. Therefore, although we can also speak of secondary state formation for Japan, that is largely because of the conscious choice on the part of ruling elites to adopt political ideas and cultural patterns from China and Korea.

But even during the prehistoric period, geography impacted Japan’s development in other ways. The first evidence for Paleolithic hunter-gatherers dates back to c. 30,000 BCE. In the resource-rich environments of mountainous and forested Japan, small bands of mobile, multi-generational families were able to thrive on game, shellfish, fruits, tubers, and nuts. In fact, foraging strategies were so successful that even when sedentary village communities first formed, they thrived without agriculture. This period of time is known as the Jōmon [joe-moan] Period (c. 11,000 – 500 BCE). The archaeological record reveals that, up and down the archipelago, foragers had settled into permanent base camps. These were hamlet communities made up of pit dwellings for homes and raised floor structures for holding community functions. Jōmon, meaning “cord-marked,” refers to the type of pottery they used. This case is one of the few in prehistory where a culture invented and used pottery long before farming.

Jomon pot

An earthenware “flame pot” from the Jmon Period, dating to c. 3000 BCE

Author: User “Morio”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Farming began during the next stage in Japanese history–the Yayoi [ya-yo-ee] Period (500 BCE – 250 CE). The label refers to a site near Tokyo where artifacts were discovered evidencing new developments in Japan. Most importantly, rice-paddy agriculture and dry-field farming were introduced, techniques that supported population growth and the formation of more and larger village communities. The impetus to agriculture was likely earlier experimentation with simple horticulture, a warming climate, and migration from mainland East Asia. Those migrants also brought knowledge of iron- and bronze-working; hence, tools and weapons fashioned from metals became widespread.

During the early centuries of Yayoi, small village communities proliferated across the main islands of Japan, but, during the latter half, they evolved into something more substantial. Archaeologists have excavated the foundations of large settlements surrounded by moats and embankments. These fortified bastions were home to up to two thousand residents and contained ceremonial centers, differentiated residences and burials, watchtowers, and palisades. Some  burials contained skeletons evidencing wounds or dismemberment. Combining this evidence with clues from contemporary Chinese historical sources, specialists have concluded that, by the end of the Yayoi period, powerful chiefdoms had emerged in Japan, and they were allying with and battling each other to control trade routes and territory.

In retrospect, the late Yayoi Period clearly was a transitional phase leading to the formation of the first kingdom in Japanese history. That happened in the next stage, the Mounded Tomb Period (250 – 600 CE). Among the warring chiefdoms, one emerged as dominant. Hailing from the Kinai region of Japan, Yamato chieftains expanded their power through force and diplomacy, and eventually forged a kingdom.


Map depicting extent of the Yamato Kingdom c. seventh century CE

Author: User “Morio”

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: CC BY-SA 3.0


The principal evidence for their growing power are the massive, keyhole-shaped tombs giving this period its name.

Daisen tomb


The Daisen Tomb in Osaka, Japan, c. fifth century | At 486 meters in length, this is the largest of the keyhole tombs. It was the burial site for a Yamato king.

Author: Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport Government of Japan

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: © National Land Image Information (Color Aerial Photographs), Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport and Tourism. Used with Permission.


In fact, nearly ten thousand tombs have been identified, but the largest ones belong to the Yamato rulers, the ancestors to the long-lived Japanese imperial line. Although the large royal ones have not yet been excavated, smaller tombs containing an abundance of horse trappings, iron weapons, and armor provide evidence that mounted warfare was introduced from the Korean peninsula, perhaps accelerating the pace of state formation.

As they conquered more territory, Yamato rulers devised strategies for strengthening their monarchy and incorporating leaders of the many powerful chieftain clans dominating local areas up and down the archipelago. For service at their royal court or as provincial officials, they granted them office and noble titles, thereby building a coalition of great clans. In addition, in the sixth century CE, Yamato rulers began to study the great Sui (581 – 618 CE) and Tang (618 – 907 CE) Dynasties in China and to introduce reforms based upon what they learned. The next two centuries in Japanese history, the Asuka-Nara Period (c. 600 – 800 CE), was de ned by these Chinese-style reforms, although the name itself refers to the successive locations of the royal court.

Prince Shōtoku [show-toe-coo] (573 – 621 CE) and Empress Suiko [sue-ee-ko] (r. 593 – 628) led the way by sending several embassies to the capital of China and then remodeling their capital and court. In his “Seventeen Article Constitution,” Shōtoku called for the introduction of Buddhism and Confucian ethics. His articles, for instance, stated that the sovereign’s relation to subjects was like Heaven’s to the earth, and his or her commands should thus be obeyed. Empress Suiko adopted the title “Heavenly Monarch,” thus shifting the character of the monarch from a martial king to a Chinese-style sovereign. In brief, they introduced a Confucian-oriented, emperor-centered state ideology that clearly established a hierarchical system of ranks and norms for court etiquette. For the remainder of this period, other reformers and monarchs would only deepen the reforms by introducing Chinese-style law codes. These laws reshaped the government and land according to a bureaucratic and administrative structure very similar to that of Tang China.

Nevertheless, distinctly Japanese patterns remained throughout this time. First, the royally-recognized great clans of earlier times evolved into an aristocratic class that dominated the court and the upper ranks of officialdom. Secondly, in addition to establishing a council to manage the growing numbers of Buddhist temples and clerics, the court established a Council of Kami Affairs to oversee native Japanese religious traditions. That tradition is known as Shinto [sheen-toe], or the “Way of the Kami.”

Shinto began in prehistoric times as reverence for kami—spirits and deities associated with natural phenomena, such as the sun or moon. Really, anything mysterious might become a kami, including a mountain, charismatic ruler, or serpent. During the Yayoi and Mounded Tomb Periods, these kami became the subjects of myths that explained their origins and powers, and shrines were erected to house sacred objects symbolizing them. By properly purifying oneself, conducting rituals, and praying to a kami, an individual could avert a disaster and ensure his own or the community’s well-being. Also, clans would claim important kami as their guardian spirits and fashion stories about how their ancestors descended from them. In fact, Yamato monarchs claimed they were descended from the Sun Goddess Amaterasu, and constructed a shrine at Ise [ee-say] to house her kami body. Finally, during the Asuka-Nara Period, the Yamato court developed a centralized system to keep track of and regulate Shinto shrines throughout its realm, thereby harnessing higher powers to support its claim to rule the land.

In sum, like Korea, Japan’s history was highly impacted by developments in China, even as native languages, traditions, and creative adaptation remained foundational to the unique identities of each. However, Korea was far more subject to the intrusion of Chinese states in the Korean Peninsula, something that did not happen in Japan. Rather, as the first state formed on the archipelago, ruling elites looked to China for ideas as to how the kingdom might be governed. In the course of doing so, they also introduced the great tradition of Mahayana Buddhism.

The Decline and Collapse of the Tang Dynasty

The Tang Dynasty reached its zenith during the eighth century under the reign of Emperor Xuanzong (r. 712 – 756 CE), but then went into decline. At first, the problem was overexpansion. Tang rulers had expanded the empire’s boundaries in nearly every direction, including far into Central Asia. To defend the northwestern border, a system of regional frontier commands was established, each with its own commander and professional army. The earlier system of militias and garrisons manned by hereditary military families declined.

This decline turned out to be dangerous. After one general, An Lushan, butted heads with the emperor’s chief minister, he marched his frontier army of 100,000 soldiers south to the capital, forcing the court to flee. An was eventually executed by his own men, and a Tang emperor returned to the throne, but the turmoil unleashed by this rebellion rendered the Tang Dynasty ineffective. During the ensuing turmoil, the empire shrank and Central Asia was lost.

Tang 800

The Tang Dynasty in 800 CE | Note how Tang territory had shrunk after the An Lushan rebellion. Central Asia was now controlled by Tibetan and Turkic Uighur Empires

Author: Ian Mladjov

Source: Original Work

License: © Ian Mladjov. Used with permission.

Also, both Tang supporters and pardoned rebels were granted military governorships, giving them control over provinces. Many then chose not to remit tax revenue to the central government, appointed their own subordinates, and designated their successors. They had, in effect, become warlords with their own loyal, regional bases.

Furthermore, as the political system decentralized in this way, the system of equitable land distribution collapsed. Thus, much like during the end of the Han Dynasty, landlords used their power and influence to build great estates. Large numbers of farmers ended up without land and survived only by joining bandit gangs or the ranks of warlord armies. When droughts and famine hit in the late ninth century, a massive rebellion broke out. The last Tang emperor was turned into a puppet by military commanders and eventually, in 907 CE, abdicated. China then entered yet another period of division until the Song Dynasty restored order in 960 CE.

Islam in Central Asia

As we have seen in previous chapters, the trade routes of central Asia were a highway for information and ideas as well as material good. Islam was not the first foreign religion to arrive in Central Asia. In fact, the region had already been exposed to many foreign systems of belief prior to the coming of Islam in the seventh century. Local merchants conducting long-distance trade along the Silk Road came into contact with many different religious doctrines; the trade route served as a conveyor of not only goods but also concepts. Generally, intellectual diffusion is not a one-way street, as western ideas traveled eastward and eastern concepts filtered into the west. In this manner, the Silk Road carried Buddhism, Judaism, Zoroastrianism (an Iranian religion with both monotheistic and dualist elements), Siberian Shamanism, and even Nestorian Christianity to Central Asia. The great number of religions found in the area at the introduction of Islam testified to the great tolerance of the region. By the tenth century, however, all of the non-monotheistic faiths had disappeared from Central Asia in the aftermath of Islamic conquest.

It was Qutayba ibn Muslim (669 – 716) who expanded the presence of Islam in Central Asia during the eighth century, as the general’s forces swept into the area, defeated the Persians, and by 715 CE completed their conquest of Transoxiana, the region located beyond the Oxus River. A decisive Arab Muslim victory over the forces of the Tang Dynasty at the Battle of Talas River in 751 secured Central Asia and repulsed the only major challenge to Islamic rule. The triumph over the Chinese made it possible for Islam to become entrenched in the region. The Persian Samanids (819 – 999) made Islam the official state religion and established a school of theology in Bukhara.

But Islamization did not take place overnight; instead, it took centuries. Transoxiana slowly Islamicized, though it never Arabized. The peoples in the area remained culturally Turkic and Persian. Central Asia retained its Turkic and Persian languages, albeit with a heavy Arabic influence in religious vocabulary.

It took generations for Islam to become fully ingrained in the culture of Central Asia. Unlike other places, where the religion filtered into society from the bottom up, as was the case in Southeast Asia, Islamization in the region occurred from the top down. The process incorporated native peoples, who took part in the process of conversion. Local leaders submitted to the faith in order to maintain their social status and elite position in society. The conquerors offered the Central Asian nobility important positions in the administration so long as they professed Islam, providing the opportunity for the native elite to rule in their own right.

Islam also displayed a remarkable ability to assimilate indigenous Central Asian frontier customs as it advanced through the area, allowing some traditional practices to remain so long as it accelerated conversion. By accepting certain harmless practices in order to Islamicize Central Asia, these Muslims mirrored Christian efforts to Christianize Eastern Europe.


The Islam of Central Asia differed greatly from that which originated in the Arabian Peninsula. This vast region embraced Islam, remaking it into a syncretic faith that was culturally its own. Essentially a sort of mysticism, or folk Islam, Sufism in the area emerged from the fusion of Islamic sedentary civilization and Buddhist nomadic culture. Central Asians were generally receptive and tolerant of foreign beliefs, but in order for the faith to take root in the area, missionaries had to make some concessions to the native, specifically pastoral-nomadic culture. The urban-dwelling and agricultural populations of the region generally accepted Sunni Islam and the law of the Sharia; however, the culture and lifestyle of the itinerant peoples of the steppe did not readily conform to the rigors of Islamic law. Sufism helped convert these tribes to Islam, in part due to its doctrinal flexibility. What arose from the mix of orthodox Islam and Turkic pastoral nomadism was a uniquely Central Asian brand of Sufism.

In this context, Sufis evangelized to groups on the frontier of Central Asia. Actually, Sufi  merchants were largely responsible for bringing Islam to the region. Central Asian Sufi  orders such as the Yasaviyah established themselves along trade routes in order to reach out to travelers. These missionaries also proselytized to the Turkic communities on the steppe. Meanwhile, the Naqshbandi Order, operating in travel lodges, spread Sufism by ministering to Iranian and Tajik peoples. The followers of these Sufi orders believed that they could better disseminate a form of the faith that was more loving and caring.

Byzantium: Crisis and Recovery

Although the Byzantine Empire was a remnant of the Roman state, by the eighth century it was much weaker than the Roman Empire under Augustus or even than the Eastern Empire under Justinian. After their conquest of Egypt, the forces of the Islamic caliphate had built a navy and used it to sail up and lay siege to Constantinople itself in two sieges lasting from 674 to 678 and from 717 to 718. On land, to the northwest, the Empire faced the threat of the Bulgars, Slavs, and Avars. The Avars, a nomadic people, in particular demanded that the Byzantine state pay them a hefty tribute to avoid raids. At the very moment that the Empire was in greatest need of military strength, it was a poorer empire than it had ever been.

The solution was a reorganization of the military. Instead of having a military that was paid out of a central treasury, the emperors divided the Empire up into regions called themes. Each theme would then equip and pay soldiers, using its agricultural resources to do so. Themes in coastal regions were responsible for the navy. In many ways, the theme was similar to the way that other states would raise soldiers in the absence of a strong bureaucratic apparatus. One might liken it to what we call feudalism in Zhou China, Heian Japan, and later Medieval Europe.

The greatest crisis faced by the Byzantine Empire in these years of crisis was the so-called Iconoclast Controversy. From the fourth and fifth centuries, Christians living in the Eastern Mediterranean region had used icons to aid in worship. An icon is a highly stylized painting of Christ, the Virgin Mary (his mother), or the saints. Often icons appeared in churches, with the ceiling painted with a picture of Christ or with an emblem of Christ above the entrance of a church.

Other Christians opposed this use of images. In the Old Testament (the term Christians use to refer to the Hebrew Bible), the Ten Commandments forbid the making of “graven images” and  using them in worship (Exodus 20:4-5).

Mary icon

Icon of the Virgin Mary

Author: User “Myrabella” Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

Certain Christians at the time believed that to make an image even of Jesus Christ and his mother violated that commandment, arguing that to paint such pictures and use them in worship was idolatry, that is, worshiping something other than God. Muslims leveled similar critiques at the Christian use of icons, claiming that it showed Christians had fallen from the correct worship of God into idolatry.

Emperor Leo III (r. 717 – 41) accepted these arguments; consequently, in his reign he began to order icons removed (or painted over) first from churches and then from monasteries as well as other places of public display. His successors took further action, ordering the destruction of icons. These acts by Leo led to nearly a century of controversy over whether the use of icons in worship was permissible to Christians. The iconophiles argued that to use a picture of Christ and the saints in worship was in line with the Christian scriptures so long as the worshiper worshiped God with the icon as a guide, while the icolonoclasts proclaimed that any use of images in Christian worship was forbidden.

In general, monks and civilian elites were iconophiles, while iconoclasm was popular with the army. In Rome, which was slipping out from under the jurisdiction of the Byzantine emperors, the popes strongly rejected iconoclasm. Some historians have argued that Leo and his successors attacked icon worship for reasons other than religious convictions alone, including the fact that monks who venerated icons had built up their own power base; more importantly, in confiscating the wealth of iconophile monasteries, the emperor would be able to better fund his armed forces.

The iconophile empress Irene, ruling on behalf of her infant son Constantine V (r. 780 – 797), convoked a new church council to bring an end to the controversy. At the 787 Second Council of Nicaea, the Church decreed that icons could be used in worship. Final resolution of the Iconoclast Controversy, however, would have to wait until 843, when the empress Theodora at last overturned iconoclastic policies for good upon the death of her husband, the emperor Theophilus (r. 829 – 843). From this point forward, historians usually refer to the Greek-speaking churches of the eastern Mediterranean and those churches following those same patterns of worship as Eastern Orthodox.

Although the iconoclast emperors had made enemies in the Church, they were often effective military commanders, and they managed to stabilize the frontiers with Arabs, Slavs, and Bulgars. In spite of the fact that the Byzantine armies of the eighth century would have some successes against Arabs and Slavs, it was during the eighth century that Byzantium increasingly lost control of Italy. While a Byzantine exarch, or governor, in Ravenna (in northeastern Italy) would rule the city of Rome, even these Italian territories were gradually lost. Ravenna fell to the Lombards in 751; the duke of Naples ceased to acknowledge the authority of the emperor in Constantinople in the 750s; and the popes in Rome, long the de facto governors of the city, became effectively independent from Byzantium in the 770s. The popes in particular would increasingly look to another power to secure their city: the Franks.

Western Europe

The Rise of the Franks

At the west end of the Mediterranean and in northern Europe, the kingdom of the Franks would become the dominant power of the Christian kingdoms. Justinian’s armies had destroyed the Ostrogothic kingdom in Italy in the sixth-century Gothic War. A century and a half later, in 711, Arab Muslim invaders from North Africa conquered the Visigoth kingdom in Spain and established Muslim rule. From that time on, we refer to Muslim-ruled Spain of the early Middle Ages as al-Andalus. The destruction of these two kingdoms left the Franks as the dominant power of Western Europe. They were already the premier power in northern Gaul, but as the seventh century went on, they established themselves in southern Gaul as well, gradually subordinating other Germanic peoples to their rule.

The first dynasty of Frankish kings was known as the Merovingians, so named for Merovech, a possibly legendary ancestor of Clovis, the first Christian king of the Franks. The Franks’ power grew in Western Europe for several reasons. In the first place, the Frankish monarchy had fewer civil wars than did that of the Visigoths. The Frankish kingdom did face the weakness that it was sometimes divided among a king’s sons at his death (since Germanic peoples often looked at a kingdom as the king’s personal property), with warfare resulting within the divided kingdom. Nevertheless, although the kingdom might be split by inheritance and later reunited, there existed in general a strong sense of legitimate dynastic succession. In addition, the Catholic Church provided the Frankish monarchs with a sense of legitimacy as it had since the days of Clovis.

But as the Frankish kingdom expanded, many elements of what had characterized the Roman state continued to wither. One reason for this decline was that the nature of warfare had changed in Western Europe. Soldiers were no longer paid out of a government treasury; instead, they were rewarded with lands whose surplus they would use to out t themselves with military equipment. The soldiers thus served as a warrior aristocracy. Even those families who had been Roman elites took up a military lifestyle in order to prosper in the new order. In addition, the Frankish kings increasingly made use of a pillage and gift system. In a pillage and gift system, a king or other war leader rewards his loyal soldiers by granting them gifts that came from the plunder of defeated enemies. With armies financed either by pillage and gift or by the wealth of an individual aristocrat’s lands, the Frankish kingdom had little reason for maintaining taxation. Moreover, the kingdom’s great landowners who supported the monarchy had a strong interest in seeing that they were not taxed efficiently; by the 580s, the Frankish government had simply ceased to update the old Roman tax registers.

One particular role that would gain prominence among the Frankish monarchy was that of the Major Domo, or Mayor of the Palace. The Mayor of the Palace was a noble who would grant out lands and gifts on behalf of the king and who would, in many cases, command the army. Gradually, one family of these Mayors of the Palace would rise to prominence above all other noble families in the Frankish kingdom: the Carolingians.

This dominant family’s more prominent members were named Charles, which in Latin is Carolus, hence the name Carolingians. By the mid-seventh century, the Carolingians had come to hold the position of Mayor of the Palace as a hereditary one. Over the early eighth century, the Carolingian Mayors of the Palace had become the actual rulers of the Frankish realm, while the Merovingian kings had little or no actual power. The earliest significant Carolingian major domo to dominate the Carolingian court was Charles Martel (r. 715 – 741). He was an able and effective military commander who—even though he rewarded his troops with lands taken from the Church—was able to show himself a defender of the Christian religion by defeating a Muslim attack on Gaul from al-Andalus in 732 at the Battle of Tours and by defeating the Saxons, who were at this point still largely pagans living in the forests to the northeast of the Frankish kingdom, in 738. These victories over both pagan and Muslim allowed for Martel to present his family as defenders of the Church and of the Christian religion in general.

Martel’s successor, Pepin the Short (r. 741 – 68), would take the final step towards wresting power away from the Merovingians and making his family the kings of the Franks. He followed in Martel’s footsteps in using the Church to shore up his legitimacy. He wrote to Pope Zachary I (r. 741 – 752), asking whether one who exercised the power of a king should have that power, or if instead the person with the name of king should have that power. Pope Zachary answered that kingship should rest with the person exercising its power—because a king ruled the earth on behalf of God, so a king who was not properly ruling was not doing his God-given duty. Thus the last Merovingian king was deposed by the combined powers of the Carolingian Mayors of the Palace and the popes. This close cooperation between Church and crown would go on to be a defining feature of the Frankish monarchy.

The relationship between the papacy and the Carolingians not only involved the popes legitimating Pepin’s coup d’état, but also included the Carolingian monarchs providing military assistance to the popes. Shortly after Zachary’s letter allowing Pepin to seize power, Pepin marched south to Italy to give the pope military assistance against the Lombards. He took control of several cities and their surrounding hinterlands and gave these cities as a gift to the papacy. The popes would thus rule a set of territories in central Italy known as the Papal States from Pepin’s day until the mid-nineteenth century.

The greatest of the Carolingians was the figure we refer to as Charlemagne, whose name means Charles the Great. As king of the Franks, he spent nearly the entirety of his reign leading his army in battle. To the southeast, he destroyed the khanate of the Avars, the nomadic people who had lived by raiding the Byzantine Empire. To the northeast of his realm, he subjugated the Saxons of Central Europe and had them converted to Christianity—a sometimes brutal process. When the Saxons rebelled in 782, he had 4,000 men executed in one day for having returned to their old religion. To the south in Italy, Charlemagne militarily conquered the Lombard kingdom and made himself its king. The only area in which he was less successful was in his invasion of al-Andalus. Although his forces seized control of several cities and fortresses in northeastern Spain (to include places like Barcelona), he was, on the whole, less successful against Spain’s Umayyad emirs. One reason for this lack of success was that, compared to Charlemagne’s other foes, al-Andalus was organized into a sophisticated state, and so better able to resist him.

By the end of the eighth century, Charlemagne ruled nearly all of Western Europe. Indeed, he ruled more of Western Europe than anyone since the Roman emperors of four centuries before. In the winter of 800, a mob expelled Pope Leo III from Rome. Charlemagne took his troops south of the Alps and restored the pope to his position in the Lateran palace, the palace complex to the northeast of Rome where the popes both lived and conducted most of their business.

On Christmas Day in 800, Charlemagne was attending worship at St. Peter’s Church. During that ceremony, the pope placed a crown upon Charlemagne’s head and declared him to be Roman emperor. Historians are not sure whether Charlemagne had planned this coronation or had simply gone up to the pope for a blessing and was surprised by this crown. The question of who had planned this coronation is controversial because the pope’s crowning the emperor could have been interpreted to mean that the crown was the pope’s to confer.


Painting of Charlemagne 

Charlemagne as imagined by Albrecht Dürer in the fifteenth century.

Author: Albrecht Dürer

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: Public Domain

Indeed, it was around this time that a document known as the Donation of Constantine appeared in Western Europe. This document was a forgery—to this day, scholars do not know who forged it—that claimed to have been written by the Roman emperor Constantine (see chapter 8). According to this forged document, the emperor Constantine had been cured of leprosy by Pope Sylvester I and, in thanks, had given the popes authority over all of the Western Empire. Although false, this document would go on to provide the popes with a claim to rule not just central Italy, but Western Europe as a whole.

Charlemagne’s coronation by the pope marked the culmination of the creation of a new society built on the wreck of the Western Roman Empire. This new society would be Christian and based on close cooperation of Church and State—although each would regard the others’ sphere of influence as separate.

Global Context

Although Charlemagne possessed one of the most powerful armies in Europe, the Mediterranean, and the Middle East, his empire was hardly a state compared to Tang China, the Abbasid Caliphate, or the Byzantine Empire. Compared to the armies of the Byzantine Emperors, the Abbasid Caliphs, and above all, the Tang emperors, Charlemagne’s army was merely a very large war band, financed not by a state with a working system of taxation and treasury, but rather by the plunder of defeated enemies. Although he issued decrees known as capitularies through the agencies of Church and state, the realm had little in the way of either bureaucracy or infrastructure, save for the decaying network of the Roman Empire’s roads. Indeed, although Charlemagne had sought to have a canal dug between the Rhine and Danube rivers, this project failed—a fitting illustration of the gap between the ambitions of Charlemagne and the reality.

Carolingian empire 814

Map of Carolingian Europe in 814 CE

Author: Ian Mladjov

Source: Original Work

License: © Ian Mladjov. Used with permission.

The Carolingian Renaissance

In those territories that had been part of the Western Roman Empire, most of the people had spoken Latin, and Latin was the language of literature. By the time of the Carolingians, Latin was starting to change into the languages that would eventually become French, Spanish, Italian, and Portuguese, languages that we call Romance because they are descended from Latin, the language of the Romans. The Bible, the liturgy, and writings of theology and on saints, however, were still in Latin, although the skill in reading and writing Latin possessed by what few people remained literate had decreased, and in a less literate society, there were fewer books of Roman literature available in Western Europe. The copying of books had gradually dwindled with literacy.

The Carolingians were known not only for their conquests and attempted revival of the Roman Empire, but also for their efforts to improve the state of learning in the Carolingian Empire, particularly with respect to the Bible, theology, and literature of Ancient Rome. They also sought to increase the number of schools and books in the realm. Historians refer to this effort as the Carolingian Renaissance. Historians call it the Carolingian Renaissance in order to distinguish it from the later Italian Renaissance, an effort by northern Italian intellectuals of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries to restore teaching and learning of the literature of Ancient Greece and Rome.

Charlemagne and his successors sponsored an increase in learning by the Church in order to promote moral reform. Charlemagne, like his predecessors and successors, considered himself a defender and protector of the Christian religion. As such, he wanted to make sure that the Church was promoting a reform of morality.


The Chapel of Charlemagne’s Palace at Aachen

Author: CEphoto, Uwe Aranas

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Moral reform would need to start with clergy, and these clergy would need to be able to adequately read the text of the Bible and of the writings of other churchmen (and –women).

Charlemagne’s efforts would be centered on schools and centers of book production, what scholars of medieval Europe call scriptoria (singular scriptorium). He had help in that there were already many high quality schools attached to monasteries that had been founded in his empire by English and Irish monks. The main school of his empire was the school in his palace at Aachen. His palace itself was based on Roman and Byzantine architecture, as a demonstration that he possessed the same sort of legitimacy as the Roman Emperors. He then invited some of the best scholars of Western Europe to his court—including Alcuin of York (735 – 804), a monk from England—in order both to supervise his own court school and to direct the Church of the Frankish Empire to improve learning.

This improvement of learning included the establishment of new cathedral schools, schools attached to a cathedral church (i.e., a church where the bishop of a diocese—the basic geographic division of the Church—has his seat). These schools trained not only men and women from the church, but also the children of Frankish aristocrats, and in some cases women as well as men. As a result, an increasing number of Frankish nobles would be literate or at least would sponsor efforts by schools to further train people.

Likewise, under the guidance of Charlemagne and the Frankish church, scriptoria through- out his empire launched on a massive new effort to copy new books. Many of these books were religious in character, although Carolingian monks (and nuns) would also copy books from Ancient Rome that had been written by pagans; many of these ancient books, like the works of Roman poet Virgil, would serve as the basis of the curriculum of Western Europe’s schools as they had since the Roman Empire. A Christian of the eighth century would believe that even works by pagans would nevertheless afford their readers education and, thus, self-improvement.

The Macedonian Renaissance

The Byzantine Empire had been that half of the Roman Empire where the language of life and culture was not Latin, but Greek. At around the same time as the Carolingians’ efforts, the Byzantine Empire also saw close cooperation of Church and State to revive the study of ancient literature and improve learning. The Byzantine Empire had suffered from a collapse of literacy, which, while not as severe as Western Europe’s, had still resulted in a much less literate population. As such, an effort similar to that of the Carolingians was necessary in the Greek-speaking Eastern Mediterranean. We call this effort the Macedonian Renaissance because it reached its fullest expression under a dynasty of Byzantine emperors that we call the Macedonian Dynasty (867 – 1056).


Paris Psaulter 

Picture from a Byzantine Greek manuscript written during the Macedonian Renaissance

Author: User “Neuceu”

Source: Wikimedia Commons License: Public Domain

The efforts of the Macedonian Dynasty, however, had begun earlier. The efforts to improve the availability of books and to increase learning began during the Iconoclast Controversy as both Iconophiles and Iconoclasts had sought to back up their positions by quoting from the Bible and the Church Fathers. Emperor Theophilus (r. 829 – 842), one of the last Iconoclast emperors, had had Leo the Mathematician found a school in the emperor’s palace in Constantinople, a palace known as the Magnaura. Like Charlemagne’s palace at Aachen, this school would go on to serve as the foundation for a revived learning among elites, only this learning was in Greek, rather than Latin.

Following the final triumph of the Iconophiles, these e orts continued with Photius, patriarch of Constantinople from 858 to 867 and then from 877 to 886, as a particular sponsor of monastic schools in the Byzantine Empire and of the copying of books in Ancient Greek, particularly works like those of Plato’s philosophy and the epic poetry of Homer.

Comparisons with the Abbasids

We should also note the global context of both the Carolingian and the Macedonian Renaissance. Carolingian and Macedonian Emperors were not the only ones seeking to increase the availability of ancient texts from the time of the Greeks and Romans. The Abbasid Caliphs under al-Mamun (r. 813 – 883) and his successors also sponsored the work of the House of Wisdom, whose scholars translated the philosophy of the Ancient Greeks into Arabic. Like the Christians of the Carolingian and Byzantine Empires, the Muslims of the Caliphate believed that one could learn from pagan writers even if they had not believed in the one Creator God.

Daily Life in Western Europe and the Byzantine Empires

In both Western Europe and Byzantium, the vast majority of the population was made up of farmers. In Western Europe, some of these were what we call dependent farmers, living on the lands of aristocrats and giving over much of their surplus to their landlords. But in many villages, the majority of farmers might live on their own land and even enjoy a form of self-government. Although some slavery existed—especially in zones of conflict like the Mediterranean—compared to the days when vast Roman estates had been worked by unfree labor, the workers on the estates of the Frankish aristocracy or those free and independent farmers enjoyed greater freedom than had their Roman counterparts. But their life was precarious. Crop yields were low, at ratios of around 3:1—meaning only giving back about three times as much as was planted—and the average Carolingian farmer frequently did not get adequate calories.

So too did most of the population of the Byzantine Empire live in small villages, living at a subsistence level, and selling what rare surplus they had. Byzantium, like its Western European counterpart, was fundamentally rural.

The nobles of Western Europe were generally part of a warrior aristocracy. These aristocrats often outfitted and equipped themselves based on the wealth of their lands. Their values were those of service to their king and loyalty and bravery in battle. Nobles would often not live on their lands but follow the royal court, which would itself travel from place to place rather than having a fixed location. Battle may have been frequent, but until Charlemagne, the scale of battle was often small, with armies numbering a few hundred at most.

Along with its warrior aristocracy, gender roles in the Frankish kingdom—like those of the Roman Empire that came before it—reflected a patriarchal society. The Christian religion generally taught that wives were to submit to their husbands, and the men who wrote much of the religious texts often thought of women in terms of weakness and temptations to sexual sin. “You,” an early Christian writer named Tertullian had exclaimed of women, “are the devil’s gateway…you are the first deserter of the divine law…you destroyed so easily God’s image, man…” The warlike values of the aristocracy meant that aristocratic women were relegated to a supporting role, to the management of the household. Both Roman and Germanic law placed women in subordination to their fathers and then, when married, to their husbands.

That said, women did enjoy certain rights. Although legally inferior to men in Roman Law (practiced in the Byzantine Empire and often among those peoples who were subjects of the Germanic aristocracies), a wife maintained the right to any property she brought into a marriage. Women often played a strong economic role in peasant life, and, as with their aristocratic counterparts, peasant women often managed the household even if men performed tasks such as plowing and the like. And the Church gave women a fair degree of autonomy in certain circumstances. We often read of women choosing to become nuns, to take vows of celibacy, against the desires of their families for them to marry. These women, if they framed their choices in terms of Christian devotion, could often count on institutional support in their life choices. Although monasticism was usually limited to noblewomen, women who became nuns often had access to an education. Certain noblewomen who became abbesses could even become powerful political actors in their own right, as did Gertrude of Nivelles (c. 621 – 659), abbess of the monastery of Nivelles in what is today Belgium.

Carolingian Collapse

Charlemagne’s efforts to create a uni ed empire did not long outlast Charlemagne himself. His son, Louis the Pious (r. 814 – 840), succeeded him as emperor. Louis continued Charlemagne’s project of Church reform; unlike Charlemagne, who had had only one son to survive into adulthood, Louis had three. In addition, his eldest, Lothar, had already rebelled against him in the 830s. When Louis died, Lothar went to war with Louis’s other two sons, Charles the Bald and Louis the German. This civil war proved to be inconclusive, and, at the 843 Treaty of Verdun, the Carolingian Empire was divided among the brothers. Charles the Bald took the lands in the west of the Empire, which would go on to be known first as West Francia and then, eventually, France. To the East, the largely German-speaking region of Saxony and Bavaria went to Louis the German. Lothar, although he had received the title of emperor, received only northern Italy and the land between Charles’s and Louis’s kingdoms.

This division of a kingdom was not unusual for the Franks—but it meant that there would be no restoration of a unified Empire in the West, although both the king of Francia and the rulers of Central Europe would each claim to be Charlemagne’s successors.

An Age of Invasions

Norse, Magyar, and Muslim attacks on Europe wrought incredible damage. Thousands died, and tens of thousands more were captured and sold into slavery in the great slave markets of North Africa and the Kievan Rus. These raids furthered the breakdown of public order in Western Europe.

But these raids had effects that also brought long-term benefits. Both Norse and Muslim pirates traded just as much as they raided. Indeed, even the plunder of churches and selling of the gold and silver helped create new trade networks in both the North Sea and Mediterranean. These new trade networks, especially where the Norse had established settlements in places like Ireland, gradually brought about an increase in economic activity. All told, we should remember this “age of invasions” in terms both of its human cost and of the economic growth it brought about.

Vikings Voyages

Viking Voyages and Territory: 8th-10th Centuries: light blue: Sailing routes of the Vikings, light green: main settlement areas, in the first millennium

Author: User:Bogdangiusca

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: CC BY-SA 3.0

In response to the invasions that Europe faced, newer, stronger states came into being in the British Isles and in Central Europe. In England, Norse invasions had destroyed all but one of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms. The only remaining kingdom was Wessex. Its king, Alfred the Great (r. 871 – 899), was able to stop Norse incursions by raising an army and navy financed by a kingdom-wide tax. This tax, known as the geld, was also used to finance the construction of a network of fortresses along the frontier of those parts of England still controlled by the Norse. This new system of tax collection would eventually mean that England, a small island on the periphery, would eventually have the most sophisticated bureaucracy in Western Europe (although we must note that in comparison with a Middle Eastern or East Asian state, this bureaucracy would be considered rudimentary and primitive).

Likewise, in Central Europe, the kings of East Francia, the region made up of those Saxon territories the Carolingians had conquered in the eighth century as well as various peoples to the south and east, gradually built a kingdom capable of dealing with Magyar invaders. Henry the Fowler (r. 919 – 936) took control of East Francia after the end of the Carolingian Dynasty. He was succeeded by Otto the Great (r. 936 – 973), whose creation of a state was partially the result of luck: his territory contained large silver mines that allowed him to finance an army. This army was able to decisively defeat the Magyar raiders and also allow these kings to expand their power to the east, subjugating the Slavic peoples living in the forests of Eastern Europe.


Magyar Raids in the 10th Century

Author: User:Csanády

Source: Wikimedia Commons

License: CC BY-SA 3.0

The Tenth-Century Church

As a result of endemic chaos in Western Europe, the Church suffered as well. The moral and intellectual quality of bishops and abbots declined sharply, as church establishments fell under the domination of warlords. These warlords would often appoint members of their families or personal allies to positions of leadership in the Church, appointments based not on any competence or sense of dedication to duty, but rather on ties of loyalty. This was the case even in Rome, when families of Roman nobles fought over the papacy. Between 872 and 965, twenty-four popes were assassinated in office.

Byzantine Apogee: The Macedonian Empire

For Byzantium, however, the ninth and tenth centuries represented a time of recovery and expansion. In the first place, the height of the Macedonian Renaissance took place in the later ninth and tenth centuries, resulting in a growth of learning among both clergy and lay elites. This growth of learning took place against the backdrop of military success by the emperors of the Macedonian Dynasty (867 – 1056). The first emperor of this dynasty, Basil I (r. 867 – 886), a soldier and servant of the emperor, had come from a peasant background. He seized control of the Empire when he murdered the reigning emperor and took the position for himself.

Basil was an effective emperor. To the east, as the Abbasid Caliphate broke down, he inflicted several defeats on the Arab emirs on the border, pushing the frontiers of the Empire further east. Although unsuccessful in fighting to maintain control of Sicily, he re-established Byzantine control over most of southern Italy.

It was under the Macedonian emperors that the Eastern Orthodox culture of the Byzantines spread north beyond the borders of the Empire. In 864, the Bulgar khan, whose predecessors had been building a state of their own, converted to Christianity and was baptized. This conversion allowed the Bulgar state to be legitimated by the Church in the same manner as had the Byzantine Empire and the kingdoms of Western Europe.

In the ninth century, Cyril and Methodius, missionaries from the city of Thessalonica, preached Orthodox Christianity to the Slavic peoples of Eastern Europe and devised the alphabet that we today call Cyrillic in order to write the Bible and liturgy in their own language, Slavonic. By bringing Orthodox Christianity to the Slavic peoples, the Byzantines brought them into the culture of the Byzantines.

Subsequent emperors maintained this record of successes. John Tzimisces (r. 969 – 976) established Byzantine control over most of Syria. Basil II (r. 976 – 1025) achieved further successes, crushing and annexing the Bulgar state that had grown up in the lands south of the Danube and further subordinating the Armenian kingdoms to the Byzantine emperor. By the end of his reign, the Byzantine territory encompassed about a fourth of what had been the Roman Empire at its height under Augustus.

Byz 1025

Map of the Byzantine Empire at the Death of Basil II in 1025 CE

Author: User “Bigdaddy1204”

Source: Wikimedia Commons License: CC BY-SA 3.0

Basil II had further diplomatic triumphs. He allied with the princes of the Kievan Rus, a state that had grown up in Eastern Europe along the rivers between the Baltic Sea and the Black Sea. The Rus was a people group made up of a largely Slavic population, with rulers who were ethnically Norse and who had established themselves as rulers of both Slavic and Turkic subjects when they sailed down the rivers of Eastern Europe from their Scandinavian homeland. This was a hybrid culture already, combining Norse and Slavic. An alliance with the Byzantine Empire also brought Greek elements into the cultural mix. In 988, Kievan Grand Prince Vladimir (r. 980 – 1015) was baptized into the Christian religion and became a close ally of Basil II, sealing the alliance by marrying Basil’s sister, Anna. The elite culture of the Rus would come to reflect both Greek, Slavic, Norse, and also Turkic elements. Allying with these people had brought Basil II to the height of the Byzantine state’s power.

Despite its successes during the reign of the Macedonian emperors, the Byzantine state faced weaknesses.

The theme system had gradually broken down. Increasingly, soldiers came not from the themes, but from the ranks of professional mercenaries, to include those made up of Norsemen. The soldiers of the themes received less training and served mainly as a militia that would back up the core of a professional army, known as the Tagmata. Whether this smaller tagmata would be up to the task of defending an empire the size of Byzantium would remain to be seen.

Conclusion and Global Perspectives

In many ways, the period between 500 and 1000 was as transitional for Western Europe and Byzantium as it was for East Asia and the Middle East and North Africa. Just as the Han State had fragmented politically in the third century and given rise to smaller states ruled by warrior aristocracies, so too had Rome fragmented into its eastern half and a series of Germanic kingdoms, themselves ruled by warrior aristocracies. Just as Mahayana Buddhism had arrived in post-Han China, so too had Christianity become the dominant faith of the Roman Empire and its successors.

And yet, these similarities in the end are superficial. All of China’s successor states maintained a continuity of bureaucracy and literacy to an extent that Western Europe did not. Moreover, although Mahayana Buddhism would become a key element of East Asian culture, it would never come to enjoy a monopoly of power that Christianity enjoyed in Western Europe and Byzantium and that Islam enjoyed in Spain, the Middle East, and North Africa. The less exclusivist nature of Mahayana Buddhism would mean that it would always be one set of practices among many.

And the greatest difference is that China eventually saw a return to a unified empire under the Sui and then Tang Dynasties. In spite of Charlemagne’s efforts to create a new Empire in the west, the story of Western Europe would be one of competing states rather than an empire claiming universal authority.

Works Consulted and Further Reading


Berkey, Jonathan P., The Formation of Islam: Religion and Society in the Near East 600 – 800. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003.

Donner, Fred, The Early Islamic Conquests. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1981.

Esposito, John L., Islam: The Straight Path. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

Halm, Heinz, The Empire of the Mahdi: The rise of the Fatimids. Leiden: E.J. Brill, 1997.

Lassner, Jacob, The Shaping of Abbasid Rule. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1980.

Kennedy, Hugh, The Prophet and the Age of the Caliphates: The Islamic Near East from the Sixth to the Eleventh Century. London: Longman, 2004.

Lewis, Bernard, The Arabs in History. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1993.

Momen, Moojan, An Introduction to Shi‘I Islam. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1985.

East Asia

Barnes, Gina L. State Formation in Japan: Emergence of a 4th Century Ruling Elite. London and New York: Routledge, 2007.

Benn, Charles. China’s Golden Age: Everyday Life in the Tang Dynasty. Cambridge: Oxford University Press, 2002.

Hwang, Kyung Moon. A History of Korea. Palgrave Macmillan, 2010.

Keally, Charles. “Jōmon Culture.” Keally, Charles. “Kofun Culture.” Keally, Charles. “Yayoi Culture.”

Lee, Ki-baik. A New History of Korea. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1984.

Lewis, Mark Edward. China’s Cosmopolitan Empire: The Tang Dynasty. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2009.

Totman, Conrad. A History of Japan. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2000.

Europe and Byzantium

Backman, Clifford R. The Worlds of Medieval Europe. 2nd ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. Fouracre, Paul, ed. The New Cambridge Medieval History, Volume 1: c.500 – c.700. Cambridge: Cambridge

University Press, 2005.

McKitterick, Rosamond, ed. The New Cambridge Medieval History, Volume 2: c.700 – c.900. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995.

Ostrogorsky, George. History of the Byzantine State. Translated by Joan Hussey. Revised ed. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1969.

Rautman, Marcus. Daily Life in the Byzantine Empire. London: Greenwood Press, 2006.

Reuter, Timothy, ed. The New Cambridge Medieval History, Volume 3: c.900 – c.1024. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000.

Wickham, Chris. The Inheritance of Rome: Illuminating the Dark Ages, 400 – 1000. The Penguin History of Europe 2. New York: Penguin, 2009.

Links to Primary Sources


The Prophet Muhammad: Last Sermon Muhammad Proclaims the Prescriptions of Islam Yakut: Baghdad under the Abbasids, c. 1000 CE East Asia Empress Wu Zetian and women during the Tang Dynasty Prince Shōtoku’s Constitution Europe and Constantinople The Conversion of Clovis The Battle of Tours The Martyrdom of St. Edmund


From Berger, Eugene; Israel, George; Miller, Charlotte; Parkinson, Brian; Reeves, Andrew; and Williams, Nadejda, “World History: Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500″ (2016). History Open Textbooks. Book 2.

World History: Cultures, States, and Societies to 1500 is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 4.0 International License.