After the formation of Islam, it took three to four centuries to work out the structures of the religion, and actually establish an empire based on that religion.
One of the things that Muslims did was create law. Islamic law was created based on the religious structures. A new class of religious leaders and scholars emerged, who played an important role in society.
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Because this society was based on religion, these leaders and scholars that knew a lot about the religion were going to be looked upon highly, and relied upon for information. Muslims took elements from surrounding cultures as they developed their empire. So, they did base it on their religion, but some parts of it were going to be based on cultures that existed nearby.
The empire was first ruled by a caliph and a small Arab elite. So, there was one ruler known as the caliph, and then there was a small group that helped him rule. Now, as the empire expanded, this didn’t work out very well, and lands were divided into different political entities. Different groups wanted to rule things differently, they weren’t very good at being united under the one caliph. If the caliph lived way over here, and they lived way over here. So, they ended up saying, “Okay, we’ll have different rulers for our different areas, and we’ll just divide up the lands, but we’ll all still be part of the Islamic empire.
Factions began to form within the Islamic empire. So, these are more political, religious factions, but they all considered themselves Islamic. Most notably are the Sunnis and the Shiites. Now, they originally branched off of being one big group of Islamic empire, to Sunnis and Shiite groups, based on their conflicting opinions over who Muhammad’s true successor was. One group thought the true successor was this person of so many people down the line of successors were recognizable, and the other group disagreed and had a different opinion on who Muhammad’s true successor was, and how far down the line of succession was actually authentic before it became just people being voted on.
So, the split originally happened because of that. There were other things, but that was the primary reason that they split up. And since then, the Sunnis and Shiites have defined themselves a little more, and have some other things that define them as different groups, while still holding to the basic Islamic principles. They’re still going to follow the Five Pillars, they’re still going to believe and read the Qur’an, and they’re still going to have faith in Allah. So, they do still have things in common because they all still belong to the Islamic religion, but they do not share the exact same values. They have some different belief sets.
Now, the Islamic empire became very wealthy because the Muslims used a common system of trade. If your trade system was going to be different, then people around you is going to be harder to trade with them. But because pretty much everyone who converted to being Islamic was using the same system of trade, the Islamic empire grew very wealthy.
Then, between 1000 and 1450, nomadic tribes from the steppes invaded Islamic areas. So, these were nomads. These were people that travelled around, didn’t really have homes. They saw the Islamic empire, they saw it growing, becoming more wealthy, and they invaded. But then, they settled down. They stopped being nomadic, settled down, and became tradesmen. They thought there was a lot of wealth to be made being a tradesmen, trading with other people within the Islamic empire. So, they did that.
Now, many converted to Islam. They were living in Islamic areas, even after they had invaded them, it was still primarily Islam and people living there, and they converted to Islam. One such group was the Seljuk Turks, and they controlled the trade routes for a while, among Asia, Africa, and Europe. So, yes, they converted to Islam, but they still said, “Okay, we’re going to take over this. We’re going to control the trade routes, you’re going to have to pay us money to use our roads and get through, and be able to trade your goods. Don’t worry, you’ll still make a profit because of all your stuff, but you’re going to have to pay us a little money, and we’re going to profit too.” So, they made a lot of money that way, but then, all of the now-settled tradesmen continued to fight amongst themselves. So, the Seljuk Turks fought amongst themselves. Any other smaller groups that had invaded were fighting amongst themselves, and they became targets of new invaders.
So, they still weren’t able to unite themselves under one caliph. There was no one leader to unite all of the Islamic empire, and it still had a lot of fighting amongst the people within the Islamic empire. And an empire that has that kind of civil unrest wasn’t able to unite, have one common goal, and expand further. So, while the religion may have still spread – well, it definitely still spread – the Islamic empire was not able to do so.