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Unformatted text preview: across North Africa, South Asia, and
Shi’a Muslims believe that the position of Successor
to the Prophet should pass by inheritance to direct
descendants of Muhammad. Shi’a Islam is the majority
religion only in Iran and Iraq. (It originated in Iraq, and
its most holy places are there). Shi’a Islam thinks of itself
as the purest form of Islam—that it has not been
corrupted by local practices. Spiritual leaders—and not
representatives of the wealthy and powerful—are given
the greatest respect. It is typical that it was not a military
or political leader who led the 1979 Iranian Revolution,
but rather a charismatic imam (prayer leader) Ayatollah
Khomeini. Muslim Empires before 1453
Muhammad taught peace among all members of the
Muslim community, but Muslim Arabs had no
compunction against making war on their neighbors.
Arab armies expanded throughout the Middle East like
many other nomad invaders before them.
The first Muslim Arab (Umayyad) Empire was the
largest land empire up to that time. It included all the
Middle East, North Africa, and what is now Spain. After a century (651-751), the government was overthrown
and replaced by another ruling family, the Abbasids. The
Abbasids controlled the Middle East and North Africa,
while the Umayyads continued to rule Spain until 1492.
The Abbasid Empire (751-1258) was a center of
world trade and a synthesizer of Eurasian civilization.
Abbasid merchants imported silk and porcelain from
China; ivory, gems, and spices from India and Southeast
Asia; gold and ivory from Africa; glass, linen, and
pottery from Byzantium; horses and hides from the
Steppe; and furs, wax, honey, and amber from the
northern Eurasian forests. Arab and Persian artisans
produced textiles, carpets, tiles, and paper.
The Great Silk Road brought ideas as well as goods.
From China came knowledge of astronomy and
historical method, from India came mathematics, and
from Greece came natural science, medicine, and
philosophy. Muslim scholars made original
contributions to all these fields, and they particularly
excelled in algebra, chemistry, and medicine.
The Abbasid Empire had a great impact on Europe.
During the dark ages between the fall of Rome and the
rise of Medieval Europe, Europeans lost knowledge of
the science and philosophy of ancient Greece. Arabs
translated Greek classics into Arabic and then into Latin.
It was only after Europeans gained access to this
knowledge that Medieval Civilization blossomed.
After about 950 the Abbasid Empire began to
decline, and it was unable to keep out migrations of
Turkic nomads from Central Asia. In 1055 a nomadic
federation known as the Seljuk Turks invaded and
conquered the Middle East. However, they only seized
political control, and left the Abbasid Caliph as the head
of the Islamic community. The leader of the Seljuks was
called the Sultan (“holder of power”), supposedly
administering the empire on behalf of the Abbasids.
The Abbasid dynasty and Caliphate was fi...
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