Islamic world

Arab Empire

A mosque built during the Abbasid eraA mosque built during the Abbasid eraThe Arab Empire was built up in the 7th and 8th centuries AD. Inspired by the Prophet Mohammed, the founder of the Islamic religion, the Arabs conquered vast territories. At its height, the empire stretched from Spain, through North Africa and across Asia as far as India. In the following centuries, the empire experienced a golden age, when Islamic mathematicians, astronomers, inventors and doctors made great breakthroughs. Aboard their ships, known as dhows, Arab merchants traded goods around the Mediterranean Sea and between Africa and Asia.

Rise of the Arab Empire

The growth of the Arab EmpireThe growth of the Arab EmpireFollowing the Prophet Mohammed’s death in AD 632, a series of leaders, known as caliphs (meaning "successors") took control of Arabia. Under their command, Arab armies invaded the countries that bordered Arabia, hoping to spread the word of the Prophet. People were not usually forced to convert to the Islamic faith, but over time many chose to do so. People across the empire also began to speak the language of the caliphs, Arabic. The empire expanded fast. Within 200 years, it stretched from Spain in the west to India in the east.

Arab horsemen, 9th centuryArab horsemen, 9th century

Arab warriors

By the late 7th century the Arab army numbered up to 100,000 men, which was at least ten times larger than the largest European armies of the time. Arab warriors often travelled to the battlefield on horseback. They also used camels to cross dry and inhospitable desert regions where horses would not survive. However, on reaching the battlefield, most warriors dismounted and fought on foot, armed with spears, bows and arrows, and swords. But from the 9th century, horse-mounted soldiers, known as cavalry, became an increasingly important part of the Arab battle plan. These warriors could fire an arrow without stopping their horses, making them particularly dangerous. The Arabs bred highly prized horses for use in battle. 

The Great Mosque of Córdoba, SpainThe Great Mosque of Córdoba, Spain

Umayyads and Abbasids

The first four caliphs after the death of the Prophet Mohammed were known as the Rashidun caliphate. Rashidun comes from the Arabic for "rightly guided", because these caliphs were companions of the Prophet's. In 661, the first caliph of the Umayyad clan came to power as leader of the Islamic world. The Umayyad dynasty greatly expanded the empire and held on to power until 750, when the Abbasid family seized control.

A page from the Book of Ingenious DevicesA page from the Book of Ingenious Devices

Golden Age

It was under the Abbasids and science-loving caliphs like Al-Ma’mun (AD 786–833) that the empire experienced what has become known as the Islamic Golden Age. Al-Ma'mun built up a great library in his capital, Baghdad, called the House of Wisdom (Bayt al-Hikma). By the middle of the 9th century, it contained 400,000 books.

The Abbasid rule came to an end in 1258, when Baghdad was captured by the Mongols (a people from Central Asia) and the last Abbasid caliph, al-Musta’sim, was killed. However, the Islamic faith continued to spread across North and Central Africa, and to Turkey, Central Asia and India.

 Consultant: Philip Parker


  • 570–632
    Life of the Prophet Mohammed
  • 650
    The holy book of Islam, the Koran, is written down.
  • 661–750
    Umayyad dynasty holds power.
  • 711
    Arab armies conquer part of Spain.
  • 750–1258
    Abbasid dynasty holds power.
  • 762
    Baghdad becomes the capital of the Islamic Empire.
  • c.957
    Death of Al-Masudi, geographer and historian.
  • 1115–1166
    Al-Idrisi travels across Europe and the Near East.
  • 1258
    The Mongols seize Baghdad.
  • 1325–1353
    Ibn Battuta travels throughout the Islamic world.

See also in Culture

During Arab rule, there were 3000 mosques in the Spanish city of Córdoba alone, besides the Great Mosque.

At its peak, the Umayyad caliphate (661–750) had a population of around 35 million, making it the largest empire the world had seen, until the establishment of the Mongol Empire of the 13th century.

For several centuries from the 7th century, the Arab Empire could be considered the world’s first welfare state. Money collected from taxes was given as income to the poor, disabled, elderly, widows and orphans.

In 750, after the rapid territorial expansion of the Umayyad caliphate, only around 8% of residents in the empire were Muslims.

Baghdad was once known as the “Round City” because it was built on a circular plan, to the orders of the Caliph Al-Mansur in 762.

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