The Geography Of The Arabian Peninsula

Geography – Physical environment and how it may influence an economy and culture.

The Arabian Peninsula is primarily a desert. Its climate is hot and dry, and there is not much plant or animal life across large portions of the land. Much of the land is not suitable for agriculture. Nomads moved with the season, following their herds and visiting oases. Oases were areas that offered rare access to water, and camels offered both transportation and milk to the nomadic tribes. Settled groups of people built towns in the mountains of the south and west, near oases, or in the coastal areas. Because Arabia is located in between Africa, Europe, and Asia, it was a hub for trade. Towns built markets called souks where nomads, locals, and international trade caravans could come to exchange goods. Everything from animal hides to spices and gold. People from many different cultures intermixed and brought new ideas, languages, and products.

The Economy Of The Early Empire of Islam

Economy – How a civilization makes money through the buying and selling of goods and services.

The economy of the early empire of Islam was largely dependent on trade, mainly because there was little agricultural land available. Many trade routes crisscrossed the Arabian Peninsula. Nomadic people sold their plant and animal products from the desert. Foreign traders brought spices, leather, and precious metals. Goods were bought and sold by bargaining at the souk (market). Traders moved in caravans (groups), usually riding on camels. Camels were the ideal form of transportation across the desert. They require very little water and can also provide milk to feed the traders. Traveling in groups made them safer from bandits who might attack on the route. Towns and cities grew around oases, where these caravans had to stop for water. The boom in trade made many people rich. Merchants in the holy city of Mecca sold idols (small statues) of the gods to travelers. Many of these wealthy merchants were unhappy with Muhammad’s ideas about wealth and that he believed there was only one god that could not be seen. They were not interested in sharing their riches with the poor, and a god that is not visible could not have an idol to sell.


ARABIC and Religion Unify THE EMPIRE!

Religion – A belief system that influences the development of a civilization. 

As Islam spread across North Africa and into Asia, so did the culture and language of the Arabs. Arab traders and conquerors brought Arabic into new lands. Today, Arabic is one of the most commonly spoken languages in the world, with over 400 million speakers. The spread of Arabic made it easier for Muslim leaders to encourage the growth of science, the arts, and universities, as scholars could speak the same language. Beautiful mosques were built in cities from Spain to Cairo. Arab culture mixed with local cultures, taking the best of what each had to offer. Muslims mainly were accepting of other religious beliefs. They did not force people to convert, though many people did. Muslims did have rights and privileges that others did not. However, Jewish and Christian people were considered close religious relatives of Muslims. These “people of the book” – which refers to the old testament, also had rights that others did not.



Achievements Of the Empire of Islam

Achievements – The lasting contributions of a civilization.

As the Islamic Empire grew, so did innovation in science and the arts in the major cities in the empire. Baghdad and Cordoba built a library, a hospital, universities, and an observatory. They attracted artists and scholars who produced many innovations and discoveries. Al-Khwarizmi developed algebra. Muslim scientists recorded detailed information about medicines and built the first school of pharmacy. A better astrolabe (a tool used to measure latitude as well as astronomical movement) was created from earlier Greek versions. It became a key navigational tool. Muslim zoologist al-Jahiz published The Book of Animals. Poetry and short stories flourished. Calligraphy was popular, as was artwork with geometric patterns. Beautiful mosques were constructed, with detailed mosaics and minarets (towers). Muslim scholars also recorded and protected important works by ancient European scholars. Works by people such as Aristotle might have been lost forever if not for these Muslim scholars!


Social Classes Of The Empire of Islam

Social Class – How a civilization is divided into classes that have different roles, responsibilities, and privileges.

Islam brought change to the social status of two main groups: enslaved people and women. Slavery was not new to the Arabian Peninsula. However, Islam made new rules about how enslaved people could be treated and gave them a secure legal status. Muslims were also encouraged to free their slaves. Women also gained new legal rights under the spread of Islam. Women had the right to own and inherit property, and also had some rights to divorce.

Islam also taught that everyone, including the rich, had a responsibility to help the poor. In fact, Muslims are supposed to donate money every year to be used for charity. This is one of the five pillars of Islam. However, at first, it did not make Islam popular with the wealthy merchants of the Arabian Peninsula. There was no strict social hierarchy in the Empire of Islam, but generally speaking, Muslims had more rights and privileges than dhimmi (non-Muslims).


Religion: Early Islam

Religion – A belief system that influences the development of a civilization. 

Islam is a monotheistic (belief in one God) religion. It is also an Abrahamic religion. That means that it traces its ancestry back to Abraham. In addition, Muslims believe in the teachings of Judaism and Christianity. They also believe that Muhammad was the final prophet of God. There are five pillars or key beliefs of Islam:

  1. “There is no god but God, and Muhammad is his prophet.” This is the beginning of every prayer.
  2. Muslims should pray five times a day at specific times.
  3. Muslims should donate to charity every year. This is called zakat.
  4. Muslims should fast from sunrise to sundown during the holy month of Ramadan to show their devotion to God.
  5. Muslims should travel to the holy city of Mecca at least once in their lives. This is called the hajj.

These pillars were revealed by Muhammad and recorded in the Qur’an, the holy book of Islam. The Qur’an also outlines specific behaviors that Muslims should or should not do. That includes not eating pork products or drinking anything with alcohol so that they keep their bodies pure.


Religion: Islam Today

Religion – A belief system that influences the development of a civilization. 

Today, Islam is gaining followers faster than any other religion. Almost one-quarter of the world’s population (or 1.3 billion people) is Muslim. Currently, only Christianity has more followers, but that may change in the near future. Muslims can be found all over the world, but especially in Asia and Africa. The country with the most significant number of Muslims is Indonesia, with 175 million. There are several major sects (groups or branches) of Islam today. The two largest are Sunni and Shia (also known as Shiite). Almost 90% of the Muslims around the world are Sunni. Some Sunnis and Shia also follow Sufism, a mystical sect of Islam that is more spiritual and focused on loving God. Only a small fraction of Muslims belong to more fundamentalist groups. Shariah law (a set of rules and consequences governing all aspects of life, based on the teaching of Muhammad) influences the legal systems in many Muslim countries today. However, the amount of influence it has varies from country to country. There are also very different ways of interpreting Shariah law, some of which are stricter than others.


Government Of the Empire of Islam

Leadership/Government – How a civilization creates an organized way of leadership.

During Muhammad’s lifetime (570-632 CE), he united many of the Arab tribes. Muhammad served as both the religious and political leader. After his death, Abu Bakr succeeded him as the political leader of Islam, known as the caliph. He led Muslims to expand their territory through conquest, both across the Arabian Peninsula and beyond. They established an Islamic Empire known as the caliphate. The goal was to base the empire on the laws of God, as understood by Muhammad. The period from Muhammad’s death (632 CE) to about 661 CE is known as the Rashidun Caliphate. During this time, the empire mostly left the local rulers in charge. It was a decentralized empire. The Rashidun Caliphate ended in a civil war and the rise of the first Umayyad caliph. The Shia did not support his leadership, as he had no direct blood relation to Muhammad.

There were two prominent dynasties in the first few centuries of the Empire of Islam: the Umayyads (661-750 CE) and the Abbasids (750-1258 CE, though it continued for a while in Egypt). A dynasty means that each emperor is succeeded (or followed) by a member of their family. Both dynasties mainly focused on expansion and conquest, but they did centralize power and try to unify the empire using Arabic. Toward the end of the Abbasid dynasty, the leaders began to bring more non-Arabs into the government and even encouraged inter-marriages. There was infighting within the empire for a few centuries, and then the Mongols successfully attacked the capital city of Baghdad. Several other Muslim empires arose in the 1200s CE and beyond. However, none of them were considered caliphates in the same way. None of them were Arab-led either. The Ottomans took over in Asia Minor, ruling from 1299 into the 1900s. Persian Muslims established the Safavid Empire from 1500-1736 in Persia and parts of Central Asia, with most of the Shia Muslims. The Mughals set up their own empire in India, ruling from around 1530-1700s.