The Arab Empire

by Clare McLaughlin and Jana Sivakumar

The year was 661 CE. The first global civilization was about to be established: the Arab Empire. After a long civil war concerning governing rights, the Umayyads had prevailed—and they would found the first global empire. The main elements of the Ancient Arab Empire are geography, culture, economics, military and political system. These five aspects of Arab civilization affect over one billion people today.


Geography played an important role in the expansion of the Arab Empire. The Arabs creatively used their location, the geographical features there, and their unique ideas to expand their civilization. With these three components impacted the entire Mediterranean region for more than 1000 years.

The location of the Arab Empire was the perfect place for the spreading of Arab culture as well as other cultures. At the heart of diversification, the Arab Empire had an advantage which no other civilization had: being the hub of civilization in the Middle East—connecting Africa, Asia and the Mediterranean area. (Beers 231) As culture spread in many directions, people, goods, and ideas also did. This expanded the Arab Empire as well as the Arab Religion. (Arabs)

Arabian Empire 8th Century CE (
Arabian Empire 8th Century CE (

The movement of travelers and traders of many different cultures through the area also resulted in the diversity of the Arabian Peninsula. This diversity still exists today in the region. (Greenblatt 339) Since they interacted with each other, different peoples developed similar if not the same teachings and ideas. The most salient ideas of these have to do with religion. For example Muhammad, God’s last prophet acknowledged the Old and New Testaments as the words of God. (Beers 232)

Even still the Arabian people were unique despite the fact that they shared many religious beliefs with the Jews and Christians, as they had different cultural customs than other peoples. The foremost example of this is that Islamic people celebrate different festivals and holidays than people who follow other religions, even Christianity and Judaism. (Festivals, Religious)

Interaction with Environment
The final factor in the geographical success of the Arabs was their ability to adapt to a dry environment. The heart of the Arab Empire sat on the biggest peninsula on the earth. It was a very dry, hilly area, though it had enough oases to support plant life. Most of the people who lived there lived nomadic lifestyles herding sheep and goats. (Beers 231)

The Arab Empire was based around Islamic religion, which centered around the belief of there being a one and only almighty god, Allah. The people of this empire were brought to believe in Allah by the prophet Muhammad. Before Muhammad, polytheistic religion was worshipped.
Muhammad was a prophet that believed in the one god, Allah. This is the same god that the Jews and Christians believe in. Since the people of this empire at the time worshiped polytheistic religion, Muhammad was thrown out of the city of Mecca for preaching of Allah.
He moved from Mecca to Medina, bringing with him followers of his preachings. People in Medina accepted Muhammad's belief and preachings of Allah. From Medina, missionaries carried this new faith throughout Arabia. Muhammad became famous and respected as a ruler and a religious guide.
In 630, Muhammad finally gathered enough support and followers to travel back to Mecca. Once he arrived, he took control of the city. Muhammad ruled very successfully and brought peace and Islam to Mecca. Sadly, at the top of his career, Muhammad died 2 years later in 632 leaving Mecca without a ruler.

Though Muhammad was a great influence on the spread of Islam, he was not the only one. Islam culture and religion had been an Arab Culture until 750 when the Abbasids seized power and brought a turnabout. Then, Islam became a world religion and it became apart of different nations.

Religion was very important in the Arab empire. The Qur'an was the holy book of Islam. It included Allah's, or the one god's actual words. The people aimed to live by the Qur'an and even memorized it. It included 114 chapters.

There are five fundamental requirements of Islam. They are called the Five Pillars of Islam. The first pillar is to have faith to Allah the one god. The second pillar is to be committed to prayer. A mosque is a prayer building where many would pray. It was also a good place to read and meditate. The third pillar is almsgiving, meaning giving to those who are poor and needy. The fourth pillar is fasting, or avoiding food and drink. And the final fifth pillar is having pilgrimage to Mecca.

Throughout the Arab empire, most people strived for knowledge, but not all were given the opportunity to learn or be educated at the same levels as others. Boys were sent to institutions for higher education. (Greenblatt, Miriam, Lemmo, 342) The students must memorize the Qur'an. When it was memorized, students would be eligible for higher education. The education in the Arab empire had a religious basis. It included a very wide range of subjects. Three main subjects that were taught were mathmatics, medicine, and natural science. (Wilkinson, 24)

Many contributions were made in the sciences by scientists and scholars of many different faiths and backgrounds. These contributions ranged from Mariner’s Compass to lab equipment. From the empire’s many astronomical observatories, the most famous one in Istanbul, astronomers were able to make numerous observations and discoveries. With the observatories, astronomers studied celestial objects and validated new findings and theories. The astrolabe was also invented by astronomers.

Astrolabe (
Astrolabe (

The Arabs were influenced by the Greeks and Chinese and made corrections and improvements to many Greek scientific ideas and theories. With the help of translators, Arabian scientists were able to correct errors in some of Ptolemy’s theories.

The practice of alchemy was widely popularized to the far reaches of the Arabian Empire. This led to the invention of lab equipment like what chemists use today. The items invented included various beakers and glass dishes. (Beers 237)

The medical scientist Muhammad al-Razi, who is considered Ancient Arabia’s foremost scientist, published an encyclopedia of medicine which was later used widely in Europe. al-Razi was the first to describe the symptoms of diseases such as smallpox and measles.
Diagram of Digestive System (
Diagram of Digestive System (

The field of mathematics also blossomed during this time period—the Golden Age of Islam. Adapted from the Indians, the Arabic numeral system was developed by mathematicians. Many advances in areas of algebra and trigonometry were also made. (236)

Since many cities under Arab rule were cultural melting pots, Arab architecture was a mix of styles from different cultures. Islamic architecture incorporated ideas from Roman, Byzantine and Persian architecture and merged them into one finished product—a building. Roman arches, Byzantine column-supported domed roofs, and detailed designs could all be found in Arab architecture.
Umayyad Mosque in Damascus (
Umayyad Mosque in Damascus (

The city-states’ architecture included a wide range of public and private buildings that together created a workable and comfortable community. One of these structures was a minaret. Usually outside of mosques, minarets were like bell towers and were used to call people to prayers. Many astronomical observatories were also built by the Arabs. (237)

Impact on Daily Life
Many Arab governing principles revolved around equal treatment and opportunities for followers of Islam. Unlike the principles of many other cultures, the Quran gave women many legal and economic rights. In Islamic society, women enjoyed the freedoms of property inherence and property control. Female artists, doctors and religious scholars had a big influence on the society and government of the Arab Empire.

Over time, however, women lost many of their previous freedoms as Islamic ideology began to change. Women were limited to life around home and became dependent on male relatives. (Beers 232) They were endowed with the tasks of caring for their children, managing their households, taking care of their spouses (cooking, cleaning, etc.) Despite these drawbacks on the freedoms of women in Islamic society, women still had access to education and were treated equally for participating in the hajj (233).


A caliph on horse back.

From the lowest farmers to caliphs of the empire, occupations in the Arabian empire differed. One of the highest occupations was a caliph. They were the rulers of the empire. The caliphs honored and respected Muhammad's wish to carry Islam to other people and places. The first caliphs were in a group called the rightly guided caliphs. The caliphs tried to keep in close touch with their people. (Greenblatt, Miriam, Lemmo, 341.) Not only were the Caliphs in charge of leading the people, but also the armies as well. (Wilkinson,20.)

Though the Caliphs were the head of the empire, other people worked as well. Since Medicine was mainly developed in this empire, doctors were occupations that many people studied to be. Medicine was sophisticated and complicated, so the doctors had to know much about their profession, and they did. (Wilkinson, 30.) Another occupation was being a doctor or scholar. (Wilkinson, 24.)

For the less sophisticated, there were the typical farmers who grew crops and either used them or sold them. Also, there were storytellers who would tell stories on the streets and in coffee shops. (Wilkinson, 36-37)

The Arabian empire was located in a convenient place so that their trade routes stretched across Europe, Africa, China, and the Indian Ocean. This was a benefit to the empire
Tea leaves.
since trade was key. (Wilkinson,38.) Since many towns in Arabia had access to trade routes, the balance of power was affected. After a war between the rulers, trade on land declined and people began to sail on long voyages across the Indian Ocean trade routes. (Ancient Arabia.)

Trade also helped the spread of Faith of Islam. (Wilkinson,38.) Merchants usually traveled on Camels and horses for crossing land, and they used vessels called Dhows to travel on water. The captains of the Dhows navigated using the stars. (Wilkinson,39.) The merchants from the Arab empire traded anything from a variety of foods like apricots and tea leaves, to foreign items such as African gold or Chinese porcelain. (Wilkinson, 40-41)


People in the empire used animals and boats for transportation of information, mail, and people. Animals that they used for travel of people were camels, horses, and sometimes mules.(Wilkinson, 37.) A specific camel that the people preferred to travel on was the Bactrian camel. They used them because they produced milk and were very powerful.For crossing waters, the people would use a certain kind of boat called a dhow. They used this kind of boat because it was fast and cut through the water easily. (39.)

To send messages, the Arab people used very unique systems. of course camels, horses, and mules were used, but the people also used carrier pigeons to send messages. (Wilkinson, 37.)
Trade Practices

Trade between Arabs and the rest of the world changed significantly as new commercial practices developed in the empire. Arab merchants introduced many ideas that eased the trading process. For the first time letters of credit were used in lieu of cash to exchange goods and services. These non-cash transactions were a big step forward in the ancient world.
Islamic Trade Routes (
Islamic Trade Routes (

As a further development the non-cash system, merchants issued invoices and receipts for payments. Another concept, the bill of lading, which listed the goods in a shipment, facilitated transactions between distant cities.

These trade practices were later adopted by Western European merchants and are still used today. (Beers 235)

The Society and the Wealth

Ancient Islamic Coins (
Ancient Islamic Coins (
The money made by Arabian merchants from trade was used for many different purposes. Most of the profits from trade were used on more enterprises, the building of mansions at the headquarters of political and commercial affairs, and buying property.

A portion of the wealth was donated to charity as required by teachings of the Quran. A major portion of these donations was used to build and maintain grand mosques and other religious schools. In addition, public service facilities such as baths and rest houses for tired travelers were built along trade routes. Arab hospitals and educational institutions which were some of the best in their time and also received a good portion of the donated money. (Stearns 297)


The Arab empire’s armies were victorious in battle and were united by a common goal. The common goal that the armies strived for was that they should fight to carry Islam to other people. This is just one way that Islam was spread across the globe. (Wilkinson, 29.)
Besides being united by a common goal, the armies were always victorious in battle. They were victorious for many reasons, such as their skill. They handled their horses and camels very well. Much of this skill came from training. (Greenblatt, Miriam, Lemmo. 342.)
Their strategy also added to their victories and growth of empire. When the empire would claim war or battle against an empire or city-state, they would let them decide if they would want to fight or not. If the city-state or empire decided not to fight, were forced to pay taxes, but they were protected by the Arab empire. If they decided to fight but lost, the empire or city-state lost their land and had to pay taxes to the Arabs. (344)

Significant Battles and Outcomes

Though most important battles in the Arab empire were conquests, this empire also had some key wars and fights during this time.
~ Umayyads vs. Abbasids ~
This fight was not considered a war because it was really small. It was between the Umayyads and the Abbasids. They were fighting against each other over different beliefs. These series of fights broke out also because the Arab empire was not very united at the time. In 750, the Abbasids won and became the new rulers of the Arab empire. (344)

~ Byzantine-Arab Wars ~
Unlike the less important battles between the Umayyads and the Abbasids, the fights between the Byzantine and Arab empires were much larger and altogether were considered a war. These wars were between the Byzantine and Arab empires, but the Byzantine army was composed of Christian forces, Armenians, Slaus, Ghassahids, and the Byzantium soldiers. Though the numbers were on the Byzantine empires' side, they entered these wars weak from a previous war (Roman-Persian wars). (Byzantine-Arab Wars.
These wars occurred for many different reasons. The initial conflict lasted from 634-717. Then, these wars were for different reasons and these problems and battles lasted until the Crusades. In the end, the Byzantine Empire won the war. (Byzantine-Arab Wars.
~ Battle of Syllaeum ~
The Battle of Syllaeum was an important battle in the Byzantine-Arab Wars because it greatly affected the Arab Empires growth. This battle took place in 677 AD and it took place on the Sea of Marmara. The Byzantine Navies engaged the Muslim navies, and most likely because of their size, the Byzantine Navies defeated the Muslim Navies by a very large amount. Therefore, this large victory against the Arab Empire halted their growth for 30 years. (Greenblatt, Miriam, Lemmo. 344)

Since the Arab people were highly skilled in metal craftsmanship, their weapons were superb and worked extremely efficiently in battle. Some of the weapons that the Arab military used were swords, lances, and maces. Not only were the weapons powerful, but they were also very beautiful in their structure and detail. Another weapon that the military used were bows and arrows. Most warriors were very skilled archers as well. (Wilkinson, 41)

Political System

The political system of the Arabs was very similar to those of other civilizations in that time period. An autocracy, the empire had one leader who held absolute power over the people. The actions and decisions of these caliphs led to both good and bad for the society.

The rulers of the Arabian empire after Muhammad’s death were called caliphs. They were both the political and religious leaders. Muhammad was succeeded by the first caliph, Abu Bakr. Four other caliphs followed Abu Bakr the last of which was Ali (Muhammad’s son-in-law). They were followed by the caliphs of the Umayyad Dynasty in 661 CE. The Umayyad Dynasty, started by Muawiyah, a Syrian governer, ruled for over 100 years until 750 CE.

The Umayyads moved capital to Damascus and expanded the empire significantly. The empire reached all of Northern Africa and Spain on the west, and India on the east. Persia was captured in 660 CE, followed by North Africa by 680 CE, and present-day Afghanistan in 700 CE. By 720 CE, much of Iberia (Spain and Portugal) was under Arabian control.

Growth of the Islamic Empire (
Growth of the Islamic Empire (

By the middle of the 8th century CE, succession disagreements split the Arabs into two groups: the Sunni and the Shi’ah. The Sunni majority supported the Umayyad Caliphs while the Shi’ites supported descendents of Muhammad’s son-in-law (Ali). During this conflict, the Abbasids, founded by one of Muhammad’s uncles, took over the Arabian Empire. They moved the capital to Baghdad and made it into a key center of learning, culture, and trade in the Islamic Empire.

The Abbasid Empire eventually split into many smaller regions governed by different rulers outside Abbasid control. The Islamic empire finally ceased to exist in 1258 CE when the Mongols invaded and destroyed Baghdad. (Beers 234)

Government and the Spread of the Empire

The governing system of the Arabs gave the people of the empire many great opportunities. Caliphs influenced the daily lives of the people in many different ways, from the minting of coins to the building of rest houses for tired travelers. The Quran and the Hadith were the basis for ruling the empire.

Battalion towns were built to house members of the Arabian military at first, but when migrations occurred and townspeople moved into these areas, they became important urban areas for trade. Muslims enjoyed many freedoms in Arab city. After they were established as important trade centers, the major reason to move into one of these towns was for money.

If somebody lived in Arab realm but did not follow Islam, they were forced to pay taxes, including conquered peoples. This resulted in many conquered people converting to Islam. Many conquered people also adopted Arabic as their new language because the Quran, the holy book of the Muslims, was written in Arabic. This led to the rapid spread of Islamic culture to large areas of the world. (Arabs)

The Arab Empire was a creative, unique, and puissant civilization which played a crucial role in the history of the world. Religion played the central role in the establishment, growth and spread of the empire. Geography also greatly influenced the destiny of the empire. The military success of the Arabs, supported by a strong political system, led to a very stable kingdom spanning three continents. The Arab Empire made long-lasting contributions in the fields of mathematics, science, and economics which are still in practice throughout the world today. The ability of the Arabs to effectively incorporate different arts, cultures and traditions of the far reaches of their empire strongly influenced their impact on other peoples and on all modern civilizations.

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