From the Archives: A Short Sketch of Muslim History


This short article was written by Dr. Abdus Salam at the age of 26, when he was a professor of mathematics at Government College, Lahore, in 1951. Professor Salam took the position of Chair of Theoretical Physics at Imperial College, London, in 1957 and was later awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics in 1979, a first for a Muslim and Pakistani. This article was originally serialised in The Muslim Sunrise, an American magazine started by Mufti Muhammad Sadiqra, a companion of the Promised Messiahas; it is being republished in The Review of Religions. As over 60 years have passed since its initial publication, some facts in the article reflect the time when it was written.

In this paper I shall try to sketch an outline of Islam’s political history, and show the glorious faith preached by the Holy Prophetsa spread out of the confines of Arabia to the farthest corners of the world. I shall also try to give an outline of the history of all the present day independent Muslim countries. It shall necessarily be a very short sketch but I hope it shall give some idea of what power Islam once was and God willing, shall once again be through Ahmadiyyat, the true Islam.

This map, published in 1926 in The Historical Atlas by William Shepherd, depicts the expansion of the Muslim world from the time of the Holy Prophetsa, through the Umayyad caliphate in 750 A.D. Courtesy The General Libraries at the University of Texas at Austin

Five Periods

Islamic history may conveniently be divided into five periods.

The first period may be called the Arab period. This comprises the times of (a) the first four Caliphs of Islam; (b) The Umayyads at Damascus; (c) and the Abbasids at Baghdad.

1. The first period runs from 632 A.D. to 950 A.D., approximately. During this period the centralism of Islam was intact and the Caliph was both the spiritual and the temporal head of the Islamic world. It was immediately followed by a hundred years of divided principalities when the Caliph’s temporal power was reduced to naught. It appeared as if Islam’s political power would entirely disintegrate.

2. But about 1050 A.D. a new people appeared on the scene — the Saljuqs. They accepted Islam and under them, for approximately two hundred years more, the centralism of Islam was restored. Thus our second period—that of the Saljuqs—comes to a close round about 1250 A.D.

3. The third period begins with the Mongol onslaught in 1258 when Baghdad was sacked, the Caliph killed, and the lands of Islam entirely ruined. But in 20 years the Mongols themselves had accepted Islam. Their period, including that of Tamerlane, extends till about 1500 A.D.

4. From 1500 we enter the fourth period, that of the Safavids in Persia, Ottoman Turks in Turkey, and the Great Mughals in India—the period of national and regional dynasties.

5. Finally, the period starting from about 1700 A.D. brings us to the present day. In this period European powers began playing their role in the world of Islam.

With this introduction we shall now go on to a detailed consideration of the periods I have mentioned.

Period of the Caliphate

At the death of the Holy Prophetsa of Islam in 632 A. D., practically the whole of Arabia proper had accepted Islam. Under his first duly elected successor, the Caliph Abu Bakrra, the power of Islam was consolidated still further in Arabia.

A view of the Imam Hussain Mosque in the city of Karbala in 1932. In 680 A.D., Hazrat Hussainra, grandson of the Holy Prophetsa, was martyred in the city. Courtesy of the Eric and Edith Matson Photograph Collection.

But it was during the time of the second successor, Hazrat Umarra, that Islam spread outside Arabia and won its most glorious victories. The Byzantines and the Persians both thought Arabia belonged to them and, construing the rise of Islam as a rebellion against them, hastened to march to chastise the Arabs. A handful of Muslims faced numbers, in some cases in the ratio of one man to ten, but the fiery zeal of the faith swept all before it. Damascus fell to the arms of Islam in 635, Yarmuk in 636 and with it Syria. The fate of Persia was decided at Qadisiya in 637 and Egypt was conquered in 640. But the reign of Caliph Umarra was not memorable only on account of its military glory. It was in his reign that for the first time in world history the principle was recognized that the state was responsible for the material welfare of all its citizens. It was recognized that the state had more obligations than rights. The saying with which he began his reign will never be antiquated:

“By Allah, he that is the weakest among you shall be in my sight the strongest for I shall vindicate for him his rights, but him that is the strongest will I treat as the weakest until he complies with the law.”

After Umarra succeeded Usmanra and Alira. After Alira the principle of election of the caliph died out. Mu’awiyah, who succeeded him in 661 as the Caliph, made the Caliphate hereditary and the Umayyad dynasty began.

The question of succession of the Prophetsa raised the greatest political problem that Islam has had to face. The Shias contended that after the Prophetsa, Hazrat Alira should have succeeded the Prophetsa though he never himself laid any claims to caliphate on the score of his blood relationship. Actually, it was the Persians, to whom divine right was more or less a sacred article of faith, who were the greatest champions of Alira‘s family. All through Muslim history this difference between Shias and Sunnis has persisted.

Returning to the Umayyads: during the period of Mu’awiyah’s successor, Yazid, the battle of Karbala happened in 680 A.D. Hazrat Alira‘s son Hazrat Hussainra declined to pay homage to a Caliph who had not been elected in a shura [advisory or electoral council]. He was martyred on the plains of Karbala.

Among the Umayyad Caliphs Walid I was the most glorious. In his reign in 711 A.D., a handful of Muslims under Tariq ibn Ziyad crossed over into Spain. In a few years they had overrun it with irresistible force and for the next 700 years Spain was a Muslim country. During this period Muhammad bin Qasim invaded India and conquered Sindh and Multan.

The Abbasids

The Umayyads fell in 750 A. D. and were succeeded by the Abbasids, who, though Sunnis in faith, came to power with the help of Khurasani Shias. The Abbasids transferred their seat of government from Damascus to Baghdad. The most glorious reign among the Abbasids was doubtless that of Haroon al-Rashid, the hero of the celebrated Arabian Nights, and his son Mamoon. Islamic learning and the prosperity of the Muslim Countries was at a pitch that it had never reached before.

About a hundred years after Haroon’s death, the power of the Abbasid caliphs began to wane. In Khurasan, the Samanids took over power; in Fars, the Buyids; in Mesopotamia the Hamadanis; in Africa the Fatimids
 and in Arabia the Carmathians. All these rulers (except the Fatimids) acknowledged the sovereignty of the Caliph in name but the disintegration was so complete that it appeared as if Islam was politically doomed. The only event of note we may mention in this period occurred when Sultan Mahmud of Ghazni for the first time laid foundation of a permanent Muslim rule in India.

The Saljuqs

During this period when the empire of the Caliphate had vanished, and what had once been a realm united under a sole Muslim ruler was reduced to a collection of scattered dynasties, a new race arose, a new people accepted Islam, and with their fresh zeal poured new blood into the dying veins. The Turkish Saljuqs accepted Islam; they bred a generation of Muslim warriors to whom more than anything else the Crusaders owed their repeated failures.

A manuscript page from Al-Ghazali’s book, Revival of the Sciences of Religion. The Saljuq period saw great progress in learning, especially during the time of Malik Shah, which saw the founding of observatories, the creation of the Jalali calendar, and the founding of Jamia Nizamia, or university. Courtesy of the Tunisian National Library

The first Saljuq sultan was Tughral Tughan Khan, who died in 1063. He was followed by his brilliant son Alp Arslan. This period was of unequalled prosperity and security. It also produced the greatest Muslim statesman of all times, Nizam al-Mulk. The Abbasid Caliph still held sway over Baghdad but he delegated all temporal power to the Saljuq Sultans. The Saljuq kingdom extended from the borders of Afghanistan to the ends of the Arabian peninsula. Except Egypt and Spain alI the Muslim world was united and never after that period has it been united again in the same manner.

Alp Arslan was succeeded by his son Malik Shah. His period was the heyday of learning and original research in the mathematics and sciences. In 1074 the observatory was founded where the celebrated Omar Khayyam worked. The Jalali calendar was instituted which, in the judgment of a modern scholar, is more accurate than our present Gregorian one. The Nizamia University in Baghdad was founded. This university had the honour of having one of its chairs being occupied by the celebrated Muslim dialectician Al-Ghazali.

The Saljuq power began declining towards the end of the twelfth century. But even in its decline it had enough vitality to repulse the Crusaders. The great Saladin of Scott’s novels flourished about 1170. It is curious that the attitude towards the Crusades was entirely different in Christian countries and in the Muslim lands. While in the West they were given the form of a holy war and the whole military might of Europe was behind them, in Muslim countries they were considered as local affairs, local depredations which the governors of the provinces concerned could effectively deal with. In 1171 after the decisive battle of Hattin when Saladin sent several Frank prisoners to the Caliph Al-Nasir at Baghdad, the booty included a bronze iron cross inlaid with the wood of the true cross. It was duly buried near Baghdad.

In the later part of the Saljuq period an ulcer grew in Islamic society. The Nizari Ismailis, also known as the Assassins, gained strength. They held absolute sway over a few forts like Alamut, but the terror they inspired with their secret activities made them a great power in the land.

The Mongols

In the beginning of the 13th century the Saljuq power had declined. Some other dynasty may have taken their place but about 1220 occurred one of the greatest eruptions in the history of the world. The nomadic tribes of Central Asia, the Mongols, swarmed over the whole civilized world (both Europe and Asia) and under Genghis Khan and Hulagu Khan swept like an avalanche all before them. About 1260 it appeared that Islam’s political power had disappeared for good; Baghdad had been razed to the ground; the Caliphate obliterated; the lands of Islam, Persia, Transoxiana [the area covering parts of modern-day Uzbekistan, Kyryzstan, Kazakhstan, and Tajikistan] and Iraq laid completely waste.

The Mongols proved to be a formidable ghting force, conquering much of Europe and Asia. Yet they too eventually accepted Islam. © Peter Hermes Furian | Shutterstock

But then again the miracle happened. The religion of the conquered itself conquered the conquerors. I shall briefly recount the story of the Mongols here: Why the Mongols rose like that, nobody has ultimately ascertained: “In its suddenness, its devastating destruction, its appalling ferocity, its passionless and purposeless cruelty, its irresistible though shortlived violence, the Mongol onslaught resembles some brute cataclysm of the blind forces of nature rather than a phenomenon of human history.”1

About 1220 they fell on the lands of Islam and Europe. In Europe they sacked Moscow, Rostov, Kiev, and Krakow. Their second wave in 1258, under Hulagu, obliterated Baghdad and the Islamic caliphate. It seemed they came merely to kill and ruin. One by one all the Muslim countries fell before their onslaught. They did not excel in courage—if they spared the inhabitants of a town which surrendered, it was either to profit by their skill or to employ them against their countrymen. “Dozens of wretched captives accompanied the advancing hordes, erected the engines of the besiegers, then were driven to the breaches effected in the walls to fill with their bodies moat and trench, and were finally, if they still escaped death, put to the sword to give place to a new batch of victims drawn from fresh conquests. Their cruelty was calculated, and deliberately designed to strike with a paralysis of terror those whom they proposed next to attack while they left behind them reeking ruins and charnel houses.”2

That nothing might be left to complete the ruin of their victims they retired from a town which they had sacked, sent a detachment to revisit its ruins and kill such wretches as had emerged from their hiding places. The extent of terror they aroused can be judged from the following quotation from Ibn-ulAthir (written in 1230):

“I have heard that one of them took a man captive but had not with him any weapon wherewith to kill him and he said to his prisoner, ‘Lay your head on the ground and do not move’ and he did so and the Tatar went and fetched his sword and slew him therewith.”

They professed no religion but their destruction of the centers of Islamic civilization advanced them so much in favor of the Pope that His Holiness was pleased to write to Ogotai Khan and others letters with his own signature. The Pope only realized their perfidy when their hordes began devastating the Christian lands with equal impartiality.

In the annals of Islam there has been no event with the like import. The destruction of Baghdad as metropolis of Islam, its reduction to the status of a provincial town, and the murder of the Caliph, struck a fatal blow at the semblance of unity which had subsisted among the nations of Islam. The sack of Baghdad lasted a week while 80,000 people were put to death. The loss suffered by Muslim learning which never again regained its pristine level defies description and almost surpasses imagination. Not only were thousands of priceless books annihilated, but also the very tradition of accurate scholarship and original research was almost destroyed. But in spite of all this they could not kill the religion of Islam. They themselves fell victims to it. About 1275 the Mongol rulers had accepted Islam. Thenceforward, those very Mongols were Islam’s greatest champions.


The political history of the next 200 years consists of the rule of Muslim Mongol princes in Persia till about 1350 while Ottoman Turks established themselves in Asia Minor. Egypt was ruled by the descendants of Saladin. After 1350 another Central Asian conqueror arose, Tamerlane. He professed Islam but he had no other motive except world conquest and domination. He swept over Persia, India, Afghanistan, parts of Russia and some parts of China like Genghis Khan before him. His most notable victory was over Bayezid I, the Sultan of Turkey in 1402. It checked for a while the progress of Ottoman Turks to be the most dominant force in Islam but the net effect of his conquests was ephemeral. His successors ruled over Central Asia and Persia for almost a hundred years when they were supplanted by the Safavids. Thus the Mongol period, in which has been included Tamerlane, started roundabout 1250 and came to end about 1500 A.D., except in India where the Mughal rule effectively lasted till about 1750 A.D.

 This image depicts the emperor Tamerlane defeating the Mamluk sultan of Egypt. While his conquests were far-ranging, they lasted no longer than a century.

It would not be out of place to stop here and take some stock of Muslim learning in this dark period. We come across some of the greatest religious names. The first to mention is that of Shah Shams Tabriz. His disciple Maulana Jalal-ud-Din Rumi wrote his Masnavi near about 1260. The author describes his work in the Masnavi as “The roots of the roots of religion and discovery of the mysteries of reunion and sure knowledge.” The Sufi movement had its heyday in the thirteenth  century. Sheikh Mohyuddin Ibn Arabi, the greatest name in medieval Islam, a native of Andalusia, went to live in Damascus and died there in 1240.

In the literary sphere Hafiz-e-Shirazi and Sa’adi Shirazi belong to this period, while in mathematics and astronomy, Naseeruddin al-Tusi was writing and compiling his table in the 13th century.

In the historical field some of the greatest books were written in this period. Ibnul-Athir, Ibn Arabshah, Ata-ul-Malik Juvayni being a few of the great historians. A short time later in Aleppo Shah Nimatullah (born 1330) was writing his famous prediction of the coming of the Promised Messiah and his promised son.

The Period of National Dynasties

Now we start with the fourth period of our history, starting about 1500 A.D.

In 1500 the Safavids—a Shia dynasty—seized power in Persia. Persia had been Shiite throughout its previous history but it was the first time that a Shia dynasty came to power. This had a profound effect on the course of future history. The Islamic world was divided into two antagonistic camps as it were—the Shiite Persia, parts of Afghanistan and Iraq and the Ottoman Turk Empire comprising Turkey, parts of Iraq, Arabia, Syria, Egypt and Algiers. Spain by now had passed out of Muslim hands. In India ruled the descendants of Tamerlane—the Great Mughals.

The Taj Mahal, built by the Mughal ruler Shah Jahan as a mausoleum for his wife, illustrates the power and wealth wielded by the Mughal rulers in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. © User Asitjain | Wikimedia Commons | Released under CC BY-SA 3.0

From 1500 to 1700 we witness the great kingdoms; that of Great Mughals Akbar, Jahangir, Shah Jahan, and Aurangzeb in India; of the Safavids, Shah Ismail, Tahmasp, and Shah Abbas in Persia; of the Ottoman Turks, Mohammed I, Selim I, and Sulaiman the Magnificent in Turkey. India was the greatest power in the world in the Mughal days. For Persia this was the golden period of her prosperity and well-being. The Turks ruled the biggest empire they had ever had.

Among the Turkish Sultans Selim I conquered Egypt, Syria and Hejaz [parts of modern-day Saudi Arabia] and assumed the title of Caliph. Sulaiman the Magnificent, who ruled from 1510-1566, conquered Belgrade and parts of Poland. Vienna was besieged by Turkish armies while Turkey possessed the strongest fleet in the world. The Turkish empire extended from the frontiers of Germany to the Persian border. Although during this period the centralism of Islam had disappeared, politically the Muslim world was at its zenith. Eastern Europe lay prostrate under Turkish feet and as a contemporary European historian wrote “Except for his war with Persia, there is nothing that can keep the Turk from annihilating us in Europe.”

After 1700 A.D.

Turkish power in Europe held intact till about 1800. But the Mughal Empire in India had begun disintegrating and during the course of next two centuries was gradually supplanted by British supremacy. The Safavids in Persia lost their hold on the country and in 1727 Persia was conquered by the Afghans. The Afghans were Sunnis and bitterly hated the Shiite Persians. This was the first time after Sultan Mahmud (about 1000 A.D.) that the Afghans asserted themselves as an independent entity. They were soon however driven out of Persia by Nadir Shah who, rising from humble beginnings, ultimately seized all power and came to rule over Persia. His career of conquests was as amazing as that of Tamerlane or Napoleon.

To finish with Persian history, Nadir Shah’s family was soon deposed and the Qajars took its place. They tilled over Persia effectively till the revolution of 1906, when the Persians won for themselves the Constitution. The Qajars were followed by Raza Shah Pahlavi in 1925. During the last war Reza Shah abdicated in favor of his son who is the present Shah.

Concerning Turkish history, after 1700 a big element enters it with the coming of Russia. War with Russia started about 1700. Turkish arms were at first victorious. In 1710 Peter the Great’s army was menaced with total destruction. But about 1770 Turkish fortunes began to wane. Crimea got her independence from Turkey in 1788. France, the traditional ally of Turkey, broke her traditional role when Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798.

After that Egypt under Muhammad Ali went out of the Turkish orbit and became quasi-independent for some time. About the same time Algiers was captured by the French.

The Greeks won their independence from the Turks about 1820 with the help of European powers. The Turkish caliphate went on losing ground till power was seized from the Caliph’s hands by the Young Turk Party in 1910. Turkey entered the wrong side in World War I and lost all her European and Asiatic possessions. The Arab countries as they exist today evolved after the first World War. Turkey itself had a political rejuvenation under Kemal Ataturk and is now materially one of the most advanced Muslim countries.

Before I conclude I shall range over all the independent Muslim countries one by one and summarise their histories—each from their national point of view, starting from the extreme East.

Independent Muslim Countries

 The Ottoman empire ruled over much of the Muslim world but eventually dissolved in the 1920s. © Peter Hermes Furian | Shutterstock

Indonesia: Islam began making itself felt in Java and Sumatra through the active missionary work of Arab traders from a very early date. But only in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries did its political power become important. The Arabic script displaced the Kavi (ancient  Javanese) script. Among the various principalities ruled over by Muslim princes may be mentioned the Sultanate of Aceh in Sumatra, not only for its glory in the sixteenth century but also for the resistance which it offered to the Dutch as recently as the nineteenth century. Indonesia has won its independence from the Dutch and is now the most populous Muslim country in the world.

Pakistan: Muslims came to India in the eighth century. But Muslim domination began about the twelfth century. For 300 years India was ruled by various Afghan dynasties. They were succeeded by the Mughals in 1526. The Mughal power passed after 200 years when the English took over. Pakistan—the expression of Indian Islam for freedom—was brought into existence in August, 1947.

Afghanistan: Afghanistan was a part of the Umayyad and Abbasid empires. It first had its separate existence about 1000 A. D. when the Ghaznavi dynasty ruled over it. After that Afghanistan shared the fate of Persia, all through its chequered history. It was no more than a province, sometimes of the Muslim Indian Empire, sometimes that of the Persian.

In 1725, however, the Afghans again rose and gained an independent status. In the 19th century they clashed with Britain. Since then however, Afghanistan has existed as an independent power.

Persia: Persia was a part of the Umayyad and Abbasid empires. It was under the Saljuqs in the eleventh and twelfth centuries. For the next one hundred years Mongol princes ruled over it. From about 1350 till 1500 Tamerlane and his descendants held sway, while from 1500 to 1700 the Safavids ruled over it. After that the Qajar dynasty was founded. The constitution, the expression of Persian democracy, was instituted in 1907, under which the present Shah rules over the country.

Central Asia: Comprising Transoxiana and Russian Turkistan, this area formed part of Persia till the eighteenth century. Russia gradually conquered Bukhara, Tashqand, and Samarqand in the next hundred years. Now one hesitates to call them Muslim countries under the Soviets because they have little contact with rest of Islamic world.

The Arab Countries: Iraq, Syria (including Palestine which throughout Muslim history formed part of Syria) and Saudi Arabia shared the fate of Persia till 1500 A.D. After that they formed part of the Ottoman Turkish empire. They won their independence during World War I with British help. But the British, after the war, defected from their promises and parcelled out Syria to the French, keeping Iraq and Transjordan under themselves,

It is only after this war3 that Syria, Iraq and Transjordan have gained their independence.

Turkey: Turkey was first conquered for Islam by the Abbasids. Ottoman Turks migrated to it about 1288. Constantinople was taken in 1453 by Mohammad I. Turkey rose to great power but its decline started in the 19th century. In the first World War, alliance with Germany cost Turkey all its possessions in Europe, Asia and Africa.

Egypt: Egypt was ruled by. the Umayyads till 750, then by the Fatimids till 1170, then by the Mamluks till around 1500, A.D. when Selim I conquered it and incorporated it in the Turkish empire. It won independence in 19th century but lost it again to the British. The subsequent rise of Egypt in Middle East affairs, and its struggle with Great Britain is all recent history. Now Egypt stands out as the paramount middle eastern power.

This concludes our survey of the map of the Muslim World.

There is one glorious event in the history of Islam which I have reserved for treatment at the end.

I have stated earlier that at the lowest ebb of Islamic political power, Islam’s religious vitality has displayed itself again and again. Islam’s political might reached its nadir towards the end of 19th century and about that time rose Ahmadiyyat. Hazrat Ahmadas, the Promised Messiah and the Mahdi was raised at Qadian in 1889 and through him Islam will be regenerated spiritually and politically.


1. E.G. Brown, A Literary History of Persia (1906), 427. Translated and quoted from D’Ohsson’s Histoire des Mongols, vol. I, p.387.

2. Brown, 434.

3. World War II [Editor]


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