Citation for The Caliphate as Agent of Political and Cultural Change

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Donner, Fred M. . "Muhammad and the Caliphate." In The Oxford History of Islam. Ed. John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online. Dec 5, 2021. <>.


Donner, Fred M. . "Muhammad and the Caliphate." In The Oxford History of Islam. , edited by John L. Esposito. Oxford Islamic Studies Online, (accessed Dec 5, 2021).

Muhammad and the Caliphate >
The Caliphate as Agent of Political and Cultural Change

The preceding pages have traced the simultaneous spread of the Islamic community from its origins to the thirteenth century and the rise and fall of the caliphate. Muhammad's community in Medina had been at once a small religious community and an embryonic state or political community. The political entity, under caliphal leadership, grew into a vast empire with explosive speed, but the religious community grew much more slowly. The early Believers were at first a small minority in the empire they ruled, but they were politically dominant. The caliphate thus provided the sheltering aegis and a political identity that enabled the small Islamic religious community to survive, along with the political and social conditions within the empire that attracted new converts to the faith. When the caliphs lost real power in the tenth century, moreover, the autonomous or independent states that sprang up in their former territories, from Spain to India, were also self-consciously Muslim regimes. Under these Muslim successor states, Islam continued to put down deep roots throughout the Near East and North Africa.

The caliphate also played another important role. By providing a political and social haven for Muslims, the caliphate also allowed the development of a rich new culture, of which the Islamic religion was the distinguishing element. The rise of Islamic culture was even more important than political and social factors in drawing new people to the Islamic community, which now began to spread beyond the confines of the caliphal empire.

With the political regionalism of the tenth and following centuries came cultural regionalism. Spain, North Africa, Egypt, Syria and Iraq, Iran, Anatolia, Yemen, and other regions developed distinctive variants of a recognizably common Islamic culture, focused particularly in the main cities: Córdoba, Cairo, Damascus, Baghdad, Isfahan, Samarqand, Konya, and others. Changes in demographic patterns and linguistic usage contributed to this cultural regionalism. The rise of the new Persian language in Iran, the flow of Turkish-speaking peoples from Central Asia through Iran into Anatolia, the interplay of Arabic and Berber in North Africa, and many other phenomena all played their part. Needless to say, this process of cultural evolution and diversification continued in the later Islamic centuries, as Islam spread to many new areas and as new cultural developments took place in the Islamic heartlands.

By 1258, when the Mongols executed the last Abbasid caliph, the caliphate had effectively spent itself as a physical symbol of Islam's unity and identity. Several other rulers—including the Fatimids, the Umayyads of Spain, one of the Almohads, and even the Hafsid governor of Ifriqiya—had taken for themselves the once coveted titles of amir al-mu'minin or caliph, and the Shiite development of the rival concept of imam (head of the Islamic community) had also called the caliphate's meaning into question. But by this time the Islamic community was no longer defined merely by political boundaries and hegemony. More important now were a common set of religious beliefs, an elaborate system of religious law and practice, and other elements of Islamic culture, and this identity was firmly enough established to survive even rule by non-Muslims such as the Mongols. Above all, it was this solid cultural basis, first fostered by the imperial caliphate, that made possible Islam's survival over fourteen centuries and its spread to every corner of the globe.

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