One of the distinctive features of the Islamic tradition is its rapid expansion into a large and diverse civilization, soon becoming divided into several centers of political authority. Although the Prophet’s activities were mostly limited to the Arabian Peninsula and the Levant, after his death the first four “Rightly Guided” caliphs sent armies to conquer Syria, Egypt, Iraq and parts of Persia, which were then within the declining Byzantine and Persian empires. The Umayyad caliphs, ruling from 661–750 CE in Damascus, then further expanded the boundaries of Muslim rule to Spain in the West and to India in the East. Muslim rulers, soldiers, traders, Sufis, scholars, poets and architects all contributed to the shaping of distinctive Islamic cultures in North Africa and Spain, Persia and India.
The Abbasid Dynasty overthrew the Umayyads in 750 CE and ruled from Baghdad until the 13th century. Though its political power declined after the ninth century, the caliphate remained an important symbol of Muslim unity. Classical Islamic civilization—the major ḥadīth collections, legal schools, theological debates, Sufi orders, and traditions of Persian and Arabic poetry—flourished under the Abbasids.
The Fatimids established their dynasty in North Africa in 909 CE, conquering Egypt in 969. From their newly-established capital city of al-Qahira [Cairo], the Isma‘ili-Shi‘a Fatimids, who rivalled the Sunni Abbasids in Baghdad, created educational and cultural institutions, such as al-Azhar, and established themselves in trade. At its peak, Fatimid influence reached from the borderlands of India in the East to the Atlas Mountains in the West.
In 1258 The Mongols from Central Asia swept across the eastern Islamic heartland to Syria, ending the Abbasid khilāfah at Baghdad. Many of the invaders adopted Islam and the Persian language. Their descendants ruled Persia and central Asia for centuries, developing Persian culture and art. In the aftermath of the Mongol invasion, new empires emerged.
The Ottoman Turks, based in Istanbul (formerly Constantinople) after 1453, established a vast empire that lasted from the fourteenth century until World War I. Supporters of Sunni Islam and Sufi orders, they were known for both military and architectural achievements. In the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the Mughals ruled northern India, where the flourishing Indo-Muslim culture produced beautiful architecture, painting, and Sufi poetry. The Safavids championed Shi‘ism in Persia from 1499 to 1722, encouraging Islamic art and philosophy.
Under each of these empires, transregional Islamic culture mixed with local traditions to produce distinctive forms of statecraft, theology, art, architecture, and science. Many scholars argue that the European Renaissance would not have been possible without the creativity and myriad achievements of Muslim scholars, thinkers, and civilizations.
In the course of its history Islam spread beyond the Middle East to other regions of the world, most notably South and Southeast Asia and sub-Saharan Africa through merchant communities and Sufi orders (sing. tariqah), with Muslim empires arising as native rulers converted to Islam and sought to expand their borders. Reform movements that linked together religious and social concerns were particularly instrumental in spreading Islam, which became especially significant in the eighteenth century through the contemporary era.
Sayyida Roqiya Niasse, daughter of the West African Sufi leader Ibrahim Niasse, Joseph Hill, 2009, Flickr Creative Commons