What we know as Islam today began around 610 when Muhammad began receiving the revelations that would become the Qur'an. Muhammad's message, that there is no God but Allah, was not welcomed in all quarters as Mecca was a great religious center and destination for pilgrims of all sorts; a place where gods, temples and shrines abounded. (Some say that religious pilgrimages were big business in the Mecca of Muhammad's time.) By 622, Muhammad and his followers were forced to move from Mecca to Medina. This event, called the Hegira divides the Muslim calendar into AH and BH much as BC and AD divide the Christian Calendar. Eventually Muhammad and his forces became powerful enough to retake Mecca and cleanse it of idols. Islam expanded under Muhammad's military and spiritual leadership and really flowered after his death although not without some internal struggles. Islam grew to dominate much to the Mediterranean world under a succession of empires and Caliphs.
In addition to being a religious system, Islam is a political system. It is common in the West to say that Islam was spread by the sword. It is equally common for the Muslims to deny that and point to the verse in the Qur'an that says: "Let there be no compulsion in religion: Truth stands out clear from Error: whoever rejects Taghut (evil) and believes in Allah hath grasped the most trust worthy hand-hold, that never breaks. And Allah heareth and knoweth all things (Qur'an 2:256)." That does not settle the argument but neither is that argument the focus of this page. The following map and the time line show how political Islam spread.
This time line pulls together religious and political events many of which overlap. Wars of conquest are seldom neat and tidy which is why this sort of timeline will always be a little confusing, especially if you try to show both sides. Wars of conquest are also the way that empires are built but without much initial dialogue with the vanquished. The subsequent dialog is the way that old cultures intermix and new ones develop.
Decolonization has only been the rule since the end of World War II prior to that time there were many who marched across the world trying do dominate it for various reasons. There were also those who tried to prevent that march as a matter of self defense. This time line represents some of both groups. Rather than focusing solely on Muslim expansion it brings in other forces that acted to thwart it. As with all empires, this one had a time of expansion, a golden age and a time of decline.
(map from Wikicommons 12/6/09)
Though there are still wars an rumors of war but the sort of empire building that characterized the politics of the world prior to the twentieth century appears to be over. The following map shows the distribution of the Muslim population over the world. This expansion has been due largely to migration and missionary activity.
The Crusades were a series of wars waged by Christian Europe against principally the Muslims with the stated goal of freeing Jerusalem from Muslim tyranny. Campaigns were also waged against pagan Slavs, Jews, Russian and Greek Orthodox Christians, Mongols, Cathars, Hussites, Waldensians, Old Prussians, other assorted heretics and political enemies of the popes. This attack on the Orthodox is a bit ironic as some say the crusades originally began as a western response to a call for aid from the west by the remnant of the Christian Byzantine empire. It is also clear that to begin to talk about the crusades without also talking about Muslim expansion is wrong as it provides no historical context for the struggle. (see Crusades).
The Reconquista refers to a period of some 800 years in the Middle Ages during which several Christian kingdoms of the Iberian Peninsula succeeded in retaking (and repopulating) the Iberian Peninsula from the Muslims.
The Islamic conquest of the Christian
Visigothic kingdom in the eighth century (begun 710–12) extended over
almost the entire peninsula. By the thirteenth century all that remained
was the Nasrid Kingdom of Granada, to be conquered in 1492, bringing the
entire peninsula under Christian leadership.
The Mongol empire was the largest contiguous empire in history spanning from eastern Europe across Asia. It stretched from the Danube to the sea of Japan and from the arctic to Cambodia. It began when the Turkic and Mongolian tribes in Mongolia united and Genghis Khan was proclaimed ruler. He spread his empire by conquest. As with all such empires there was a succession of rulers and a rise and fall.
Muslims in the empire had great influence and were part of the government although the Mongol empire is not generally considered Islamic.
The conquest of the former Roman province of Hispania by the Moors (the "Moors" indicating the people from the north-east corner of Africa who carried out the conquest, including both Arabs and the original natives, the Berbers) marked the history and culture of Portugal and particularly Spain profoundly.
In April 711, the Arab governor of Tangiers, Tariq ibn-Ziyad, crossed the strait between what are now Morocco and Spain with an army of nine or ten thousand Berbers (the place where they landed was soon to have a new name, the rock of Tariq, Jabal Tariq — Gibraltar). Goth King Roderick hastily took an army south, but Táreq and his Berber troops defeated it in a battle near the River Guadalete, and the king himself was never seen again except in legend. Tariq ordered that a group of prisoners be cut into pieces and their flesh boiled in cauldrons, then released the rest, telling them to spread the word about Moorish practices. He and his army then followed the old Roman roads north to the Goths' capital city, Toledo, pausing only to take the cities of Éjica and Córdoba. Resistance was slight, whether reduced by Tariq's intimidatory propaganda or not.
How were armies which at no point exceeded a total of forty thousand troops able to conquer a territory with a population estimated at around four million, and in so brief a time? Historians have different answers. To begin with, the Goths were a ruling class which had never mixed with or been accepted by its subjects, and it seems clear that the Hispano-Roman population did nothing to support them and in most cases welcomed the invaders. In addition, they were far from united themselves: the Goths had a tradition of parricide and fratricide which makes Caligula look like the son you always wanted. Roderick himself had been crowned after a civil war, and many of his opponents simply took sides with the Moors (it is not unlikely that one of the initial reasons for the Moorish invasion was an invitation from supporters of Prince Achila, Roderick's rival for the throne. The Achila band, the theory goes, probably thought that the Moors would come, defeat Roderick, grab some booty and go home).
Muslim dynasties were soon established and subsequent empires such as those of the Abbasids, Almoravids, Seljuk Turks, Mughals in India and Safavids in Persia and Ottomans were among the largest and most powerful in the world. The Islamic world was composed of numerous sophisticated centers of culture and science with far-reaching mercantile networks, travelers, scientists, astronomers, mathematicians, doctors and philosophers, all of whom contributed to the Golden Age of Islam.
The Abbasids were part of the Shi'ite movement that came to power in 750. They were descendants of Muhammad b. `Ali, the great-grandson of Muhammad's uncle `Abbas.
Confederation of 3 Berber tribes (Lamtuna, Gudula, Massufa) of the Sanhaja clan that built an empire in Maghreb and Spain in the 11th and 12th centuries.
The Almoravids were a group of zealous Muslims, originating in southern Mauritania. Their Muslim orientation was one of simple and basic rules. Their theological foundation had been formed by Ahdallah Abdallah bni Yasin.
The Almoravids were a ruling class in the society, and they were easy to spot on the street, as they wore a face muffler called litham.
Seljuk Turks or the great Seljuk Empire was a Persian Sunni Muslim empire. They once controlled a vast area stretching from the Hindu Kush to eastern Anatolia and from Central Asia to the Persian Gulf.
The best known Turkish empire is probably more commonly known as the Ottoman or Ottoman Turk empire. As an empire it lasted from 1299 to November 1, 1922 (as an imperial monarchy) or July 24, 1923 (de jure, as a state). It was succeeded by the Republic of Turkey, which was officially proclaimed on October 29, 1923.
The Ottoman Empire was in many respects an Islamic successor to the eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine) with its capital in Istanbul (Constantinople). At its height it spanned three continents, controlling much of Southeastern Europe, Western Asia and North Africa. The Ottoman Empire contained 29 provinces and numerous vassal states, some of which were later absorbed into the empire, while others gained various types of autonomy during the course of centuries.
Iranian Empire 1501 - 1736
Modern day Iran is probably the largest remaining bit of what was once Persia. The Safavids were a local reaction to the conquests of the Moguls and the Ottomans. They were a native Iranian dynasty from Azarbaijan that ruled from 1501 to 1736, and which established Shi'a Islam as Iran's official religion and united its provinces under a single Iranian sovereignty. This clearly differentiated Iran from the Ottomans, who were Sunnis. It was perhaps to perpetuate the distinction of Persian from Arabic culture that attracted the Iranians towards Shi'a Islam—the heartland and sacred sites of Sunni Islam would always be in the Arabian peninsula. Shi'a's sacred sites were much closer—in Iraq, captured by the Safavids in 1623 (but surrendered again to the Ottomans in 1639). The Safavids generally ruled over a peaceful and prosperous empire. Their demise was followed by a period of unrest. They allied themselves with European powers in order to protect themselves from the Ottomans. The Safavids were one of the most significant dynasties of Iran. They ruled the greatest Iranian empire since the Islamic conquest of Persia.
Indian Empire 1526-1857
The Indian or Mughal (Mogul) Empire was an Islamic imperial power that ruled the Indian subcontinent. It began in 1526 and invaded and ruled most of Hindustan (South Asia) by the late 17th and early 18th centuries, and ended in the mid-19th century. The Mughal Emperors were descendants of the Timurids, and at the height of their power around 1700, they controlled most of the Indian Subcontinent — extending from Bengal in the east to Balochistan in the west, Kashmir in the north to the Kaveri basin in the south.
Following 1725 the empire declined rapidly, weakened by wars of
succession, agrarian crises fueling local revolts, the growth of
religious intolerance, the rise of Maratha Empire as well as Durrani
Empire and Sikh Empire, and finally British colonialism. The last king, Bahadur Zafar Shah II, whose rule was restricted to the city of Delhi,
was imprisoned and exiled by the British after the Indian Rebellion of
The Byzantine Empire or Eastern Roman Empire, was the Roman Empire during the Middle Ages, centered on the capital of Constantinople, and ruled by Emperors. It was called the Roman Empire, and also as Romania by its inhabitants and its neighbors. As the distinction between "Roman Empire" and "Byzantine Empire" is purely a modern convention, it is not possible to assign a date of separation, but one candidate for the beginning is the Emperor Constantine I's transfer in 324 of the capital from Nicomedia (in Anatolia) to Byzantium on the Bosporus, which became Constantinople (alternatively "New Rome").
The Empire remained one of the most powerful economic, cultural, and
military forces in Europe, despite setbacks and territorial losses,
especially during the Roman–Persian and Byzantine–Arab Wars (between the
7th and 12th centuries). The Empire recovered during the Macedonian
dynasty, rising again to become the pre-eminent power in the Eastern
Mediterranean by the late 10th century. After 1071 however, much of Asia
Minor, the Empire's heartland, was lost to the
Seljuk Turks. The Komnenian restoration regained some ground and
briefly re-established dominance in the 12th century, but declined again
under their successors. The Empire received a mortal blow in 1204 by the
Fourth Crusade, when it was dissolved and divided into competing
Byzantine Greek and Latin realms. Despite the eventual recovery of
Constantinople and re-establishment of the Empire in 1261, under the
Palaiologan emperors, successive civil wars in the 14th century further
sapped the Empire's strength. Most of its remaining territory was lost
in the Byzantine–Ottoman Wars, culminating in the Fall of Constantinople
and its remaining territories to the Muslim Ottoman Turks in the 15th