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By Esposito, John L., editor
Translated by Ralph Manheim
New York: Dutton Children’s Books, 1997
ISBN: 0-525-45758-5 (hc) 396 pages

Bob Corbett
June 2015

Introductory note:

By early 2015 I was increasingly puzzled by the movement of the so-called “radical Islam” in groups like ISIS and The Islamic State. These groups were widely called not only radical, for obvious reasons of their tactics, but Islamic. I could easily see the “radical” notion, but I was just not sure that these groups were in any serious sense “Islamic.”

I’ve always had a very similar view of the so-called “Crusaders” in Europe’s past some 900 and more years ago. Were these “Crusaders” a Christian organization? I’ve always tended not to demean the notion of “Christian” by call the killing Crusaders to be “Christians.”

When researching what to read THE OXFORD HISTORY OF ISLAM kept coming up as one of the best works for an overview of Islam. Thus I acquired a copy and resolved to read it to learn more about Islam.

I only read a modest portion of the book until two things were clear:

  1. My suspicion that these modern groups are no more “Islamic” than the Crusaders should be described as Christian or Catholic. In both cases the groups seemed like killers masquerading within the banner of religion.
  2. Modern critics should well criticize ISIS and related groups as a horrible force, inhumane, cruel and definitely in need of being stopped. I think back historically to feel the same way about the Crusaders. They should never have been allowed to attack and kill in the manner they did, and especially not in the name of Christ. In the same way, these radical Arab groups should not be accepted as actually “Islamic.”

I have not read the whole of THE OXFORD HISTORY OF ISLAM for which I have some notes below. I read as much as I thought I really needed to know to arrive at what I think is a reasoned assessment. I’m now setting the book onto my book shelf, and if, later on, other issues arise in this area of understanding, I can then pull out this work and read more than I have to date.

Nonetheless, since I made quite a few notes on what I did read I have decided to share those notes with any who may come to look upon them.


By: Fred M. Donner

Muhammad’s career extended from about about 570 to his death in 632. After his death a series of Caliphs were the leaders of Islam.

The central powers in this region in the 6th century were the Byzantines (later the Roman Empire) in the west and the Sasanian Empire in the East (centered in Persia). There was some 500 years of struggle for relative power in the area.

It was Hellenistic vs Iranian and Semitic / Byzantine vs Christian cultures.

The main grouping of the time with the Christian areas were

Iranian faith
Zoroastrianism, a form of Christianity.

Yet during this whole period of the development of Islam Jews and Christians were numerous in the near east.

Byzantine (Greek Orthodox) Christianity was dominant. Zoroastrians were mainly in Armenia and Iran. Several wars of religions occurred.

Arabia at the time was central to trade with the Orient, thus important to the world.

Medina became Muhammad’s adoptive town because he was being rejected in his birth town of Mecca. The black stone, a meteoric stone, had been a pre-Muslim shrine. It is called the Kaaba, House of God. It was first a pagan icon, and is a meteorite which fell from the sky.

It was a complex religious situation. The author introduces Muhammad, but cautions that there is a great difficulty concerning the sources. In any case, he was born about 570. He was soon orphaned. He died in about 610 (thus he died when he was about 40 years old). He had visions, sounds and revelations, and these are collected in the Quran and accepted by Muslims as the “word of God.”

Central to Islam is that there in only 1 God, the creator. There is an afterlife for humans. Also, God demands a righteous life of humans, with prayer, alms giving, charity, modesty and respect for the prophets of the Jews and Christ and the earlier prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures.

Monotheism, the last judgment, heaven, hell, prophecy and revelations are all central to Islam. Muhammad himself exhibited intense piety, preaching from 613- 632.

He had significant struggles with his own family and tribe. In 622 he took refuge in Medina (The Prophet’s city). When he was allowed back into Mecca is when the Hijra was funded (the requirement that every Muslim make a pilgrimage to Mecca at some time in his or her life.

Early Expansion of the Community and State

After the death of Muhammad in 632 leaders chose to remain a single community under Abu Bakr, Muhammad’s father-in-law. The leaders were called “caliphs” (successors or representatives).

By 634 the whole Arabian Peninsula was under Abu Bakr’s command, and soon after a vast empire had developed. The 2nd leader was Umar ibn al-Khattb (634-44), and the 3rd was Uthman ibn Affan.

Even the Byzantine controlled Syria and Palestine fell under Islamic influence. In 642 Muslims took Alexandria. Sasanians also fell (in southern Iraq) and by the mid 650s Islam was a vast empire.

It was both a religious and state movement. Fighters saw this all as jihad – a holy war. But they tended to let the Jews and Christians practice their religions since they too were monotheist.

The Muslims virtually destroyed the Sasanian Empire and occupied important areas of the Byzantine Empire.


The early view was:

  1. There was no successor to the Prophet
  2. But a head of the community was acceptable.

Trouble came with the third caliph. Muawiyah became caliph (661 – 750) in what was called the Umayyad caliphate.

The Shiites were of the Ali family. They were outside of power and enemies of the Umayyads (eventually the Sunni group), who were the orthodox majority.


From 630-700 “The Believers” established themselves as Muslims. “. . . a monotheist confession following the teachings of Muhammad and the Quran, and for this reason they were distinct from other monotheists such as Jews and Christians.”

In 711 the Muslims moved into Spain and seized 2/3 of the Iberian Peninsula. Some incursion into southern France occurred as well, but the Muslims seldom went beyond the Pyrenees. However, they controlled all of North Africa. Muslims were a huge success in western Asia as well.

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is the 3rd holiest site in Islam. It was built over Solomon’s Temple.

Eventually in 750 came the overthrow of the Umayyad rule. The Abbasids (with help from less powerful Shiites – “the family of Muhammad”) took over power.

By 756 the Abbasid dynasty’s power was secured. They stayed in power from 750 – 1258. After 950 their “real” power was weakened by secular interests. Baghdad became their capitol in 762.


The period of 700-900 is one of important developments. The later Umayyads built a sizable army and in the 9th century developed a new model of professional soldiers.

Starting with the Caliph al-Mutasim (833-42) there were many Turks in the troops. They were mercenaries, pros and even some slaves. It was increasingly a professional army.

At the same time a more professional bureaucracy formed to deal with taxes and financial matters, which included a more lucid style of writing.

Under the Abbasids’ rule more and more people from Iran became prominent.

While the armies had early independence after the 860s, the caliphate had some renewal of power. But much of the area remained relatively autonomous. There were a great number of power struggles going on. However, despite the constant power struggles important gains were made.

“The expansion of the empire created the political haven in which the new faith of Islam established itself among new populations from Spain to India.”

In a revival of urbanization “. . . a new Islamic literary culture in Arabic began to crystalize. . .”

“Poetry, grammar, Quranic studies, history, biography, law, theology, philosophy, geography, the natural sciences – all were elaborated in Arabic and in a form that was distinctively Islamic.”

Baghdad seems to have been close to a million people, a huge size in the preindustrial times.


After 900 it becomes more difficult to trace the history of the Islamic community. Distance and communications led to significant autonomy in more distant regions.

Spain stands out as an example. After the Abbasids overthrew the Umayyad caliphs, it was an Umayyad prince who invaded and became ruler of Spain. By 929 Spain was fully under Umayyad control.

However, internal troubles in Spain led to the overthrow of the Umayyad caliph and a series of city-states developed, each under different leadership. There was a positive outcome – a very diverse Islamic culture developed, but the political instability was difficult.

Much of North Africa also remained in the hands of local leaders who were often fairly independent in their form of Islam.

After 900, led by Ivan, there developed a version of Islam which broke from Arabic and used the Persian language, and later Turkish and Urdu languages flourished in these areas.

In the difficult terrain of the Iranian plateau these areas were beyond caliph control.

The independence also allowed the Shiite population of Iran and southern Iraq to flourish.

The Ismaili Shiism posed a major challenge. They held that the Imam’s leadership was rooted in a direct blood line to the Prophet.

The Fatimind (Shiites) governed Egypt for 2 centuries (969 – 1171). They also had a huge influence in Syria. The Fatimind, from about 975 – 1036 were the most powerful caliphate in the Islamic world. After 1045 their power slipped rapidly.

Crusaders, after 1099, also caused grave problems for Muslims.

By 1171 Sunni were back in control in Egypt and both Christians and Jewish communities were strong. However:

“The so-called Assassins were another offshoot; in the eleventh and twelfth centuries they became the radical terrorists of the Islamic world.”


A revival came in the late 11th to early 13th centuries.

The Maghreb (Islamic west) included North African Sunnis and Muslim Spain. The greatest leader was Yusuf ibn Tashfin (1061 – 1106).

Christian kings, especially Alfonso VII, King of Castile were retaking lands in Spain for Christianity. Eventually only Granada remained at least until 1492.


In the 11th century profound and enduring changes came to Mashriq (Egypt and the Islamic southwest Asia). In the 11th century Turkmen began to settle in Muslim areas. The Seljuks ruled in many areas of Iran, Iraq, Anatolia and Syria. There were serious problems with Turkmen for the Muslims.

The Seljuks defeated Byzantine in 1071. They took Armenia and Anatolia. In the early 12 century there was the Great Seljuk Empire which had more and more independent states.

In 1187 Saladin defeated the Crusaders and recaptured Jerusalem.

New and powerful regimes arose in Egypt, especially the Mamluks (1250 – 1517).

In 1152 there were the last vestiges of Seljuk control of Baghdad.


Mongol Genghis Khan began his conquests early in the 13th century.

“The advent of the Mongols marked a turning point in the history of the Islamic Near East in several ways.”

The Mongol empire extended from Russia to China and was a great challenge to Islam.

Bob Corbett


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Bob Corbett