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The Rise of Islam

Islam, the last of the three great monotheist religions, began with the teachings of the Prophet Muhammad at the beginning of the 7th century in Mecca and Yathrib (now Medina), both in present-day Saudi Arabia. Over the next century, Arab armies brought the faith as far west as Spain, as far north as the Black Sea, and as far east as the Indus Valley in present-day Pakistan. In the process they defeated the Sassanids of Persia and forced the Byzantines out of eastern Anatolia, the Fertile Crescent, Egypt, and North Africa. In general, this expansion met with little resistance.

After the rule of the first four caliphs, or successors to the prophet, the political center of Islam moved away from the Arabian Peninsula, first to Damascus, Syria, from 661 to 750 under the Umayyad caliphate and then to the new city of Baghdad in Mesopotamia during the early years of the Abbasid caliphate (750-1258). The political unity of the Muslim world gradually disintegrated in the 9th and 10th centuries, but the region retained a considerable degree of cultural unity through a common legal and commercial system and a common language of literature, high culture, and religion. During this period local dynasties in Iran inspired a national cultural revival, keeping alive Persian traditions, including literature and court ceremonies, which influenced the Arab caliphates. Meanwhile the Fatimids, an Ismaili Shia caliphate with origins in North Africa, conquered Egypt and established the city of Cairo, from where they ruled all of North Africa, Palestine, and Syria until the late 12th century. The Seljuks, a Turkish dynasty from Central Asia that converted to Sunni Islam in the 10th century, expanded their control to Anatolia, Iran, Iraq, Palestine, and Syria in the 11th century. They expanded the supremacy of Sunni Islam by founding theological colleges in most of the major cities. Graduates of these colleges staffed the political, religious, educational, and judicial institutions of the state.

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