History of the Islamic Middle East



Timeline of the Middle East
3500-2000 BC 2000-1000 BC 1000 BC-0 0-1000 1000-present
1 3 4 5 8 9
2 6 7
1 Mesopotamian civilization ca. 3500-550 BC
2 Egyptian civilization ca. 3000-550 BC
3 First Persian Empire ca. 550-330 BC
4 inter-Persian period ca. 330 BC-200 AD
5 Second Persian Empire ca. 200-650
6 Ptolemaic Egypt ca. 330-27 BC
7 Roman > Byzantine Egypt ca. 27 BC-650 AD
8 Caliphate ca. 650-900
9 fractured Islamic world ca. 900-present


The term Middle East typically denotes Southwest and Central Asia; often, North Africa is included as well. The predominant ecosystems of the Middle East are desert and dry grassland (see Climates and Biomes).

Major Regions of the Middle East

Southwest Asia can be divided into six parts: Asia Minor (the Asian part of Turkey), South Caucasia (Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan), Iraq, Iran, Arabia, and the Levant (the region covered by Syria, Lebanon, Palestine, and Jordan). North Africa can be divided into Egypt and the Maghreb (the Mediterranean African nations west of Egypt).

Sub-regions of Southwest Asia and North Africa

The term Caucasia denotes the region between the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. It can be divided into North Caucasia (which lies in Russia) and South Caucasia (which consists of Georgia, Armenia, and Azerbaijan). The region of Caucasia is also known as "the Caucasus".

The historic region of Mesopotamia is roughly equivalent to modern Iraq. Palestine encompasses the region of modern Israel and the Palestinian Territories. Palestine is sometimes referred to as Canaan or "the Holy Land".


Throughout Essential Humanities, the term Central Asia denotes all of the -stan nations except Pakistan (which is grouped with South Asia). One key region of Central Asia is northern Kazakhstan, whose climate is relatively wet (compared with most of the Middle East), giving rise to vast plains of wet grassland. Indeed, northern Kazakhstan forms part of the vast Eurasian Steppe, whose endless grassland set the region on a unique historical path (see History of the Steppe).

Central Asia

Main Article

Age of United Caliphate

ca. 650-900
Summary of the Islamic Middle East
ca. 650-900
(age of the Caliphate)
Islamic world united as Caliphate
ca. 900-present
(fractured Islamic world)
ca. 900-1300 Turkic invasion > Seljuq Empire > Mongol Empire
ca. 1300-WWI Ottoman Empire (superpower of the Middle East)
ca. WWI-present no single dominant Middle East power

Throughout antiquity, the land of Arabia was relatively quiet and isolated. Its inhabitants, the Arabs, spoke the language of Arabic. Though civilization did emerge here (having diffused southward from Mesopotamia), urbanization was light, with much of the Arabian population retaining a nomadic lifestyle of herding and trading.K174-75

While vast empires rose and fell to the north, Arabia remained a patchwork of small kingdoms, whose economies were based largely on the trade of spices and resins produced in southern Arabia.A161 (Resin is a sticky substance secreted by plants; certain resins were extremely valuable as ingredients for perfume and incense.)


In the early seventh century, Muhammad, a merchant who lived in the city of Mecca, founded the religion of Islam. Though he gained many followers, he also met with violent resistance, forcing him to flee to Medina. Seizing this city as his capital, Muhammad founded a theocratic Islamic state and led its expansion across the Arabian peninsula.22

All rulers of this state after Muhammad are called caliphs ("successors"); consequently, the state itself is known as the Caliphate. Thus did Islam have profound political impact, as it united the Arabs (hitherto divided into warring tribes and petty states) into a single empire.A163

The history of the Caliphate can be divided into three parts: Rashidun period, Umayyad dynasty, and Abbasid dynasty.

Phases of the United Caliphate
ca. 650-900
Rashidun Umayyad Abbasid

The Rashidun period consists of the first four caliphs (Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali), who were elected by elders of the Muslim community. This period witnessed the rapid expansion of the Caliphate beyond Arabia, across Southwest Asia and into North Africa. The defeat of the Second Persian Empire (ca. 650) marks the rise of the Caliphate as the new superpower of Southwest Asia.17 The Persians gradually embraced Islam, such that Persia became part of the Islamic world.

Expansion of the Caliphate

The Rashidun caliphs were succeeded by two long hereditary dynasties.

The expansionary phase of the Caliphate was completed by the Umayyad dynasty, which moved the Islamic capital from Medina to Damascus.17 Under the Umayyads, the Caliphate expanded both westward (across North Africa and into Iberia) and eastward (across southern Central Asia and Pakistan). Heavy Arab settlement ensued across North Africa, causing much of the region's indigenous people (Berbers in the Maghreb, Egyptians in Egypt) to convert to Islam, adopt the Arabic language, and intermarry. Christianity in North Africa (which had been firmly established by the Roman Empire) was extinguished everywhere except Egypt, where a Christian minority (the Coptic Church) persisted.A258

Following a Caliphate civil war, the Umayyads were supplanted by the Abbasid dynasty, which ruled from Baghdad. Officially, the Abbasids ruled the Caliphate for the period ca. 750-1250. This period is also known as the Islamic golden age, during which art and scholarship flourished with exceptional brilliance throughout Muslim lands (see Islamic Art).

In reality, however, the Caliphate fractured into smaller states long before 1250. The period during which the Caliphate existed as a united empire may be approximated as ca. 650-900.48 The period ca. 900-present may therefore be described as the fractured Islamic world.

Fractured Islamic World

ca. 900-present
Summary of the Islamic Middle East
ca. 650-900
(age of the Caliphate)
Islamic world united as Caliphate
ca. 900-present
(fractured Islamic world)
ca. 900-1300 Turkic invasion > Seljuq Empire > Mongol Empire
ca. 1300-WWI Ottoman Empire (superpower of the Middle East)
ca. WWI-present no single dominant Middle East power

The Islamic world can be divided into two main cultural branches: Arabian and Persianate. The Arabian branch (the original type of Islamic civilization) spread from its homeland of Arabia across much of Southwest Asia and northern Africa. The Persianate branch, which resulted from the melding of Islamic and Persian culture, emerged in Iran and radiated to the west, north, and east.

The Islamic World

As illustrated in the above map, Arabian branch carried Islamic civilization further into the African continent than it did the Arabic language; while most nations of the Arabian branch are Arabic-speaking (plain red), many are not (red with white dots). Likewise, while the core nations of the Persianate branch are Persian-speaking (plain dark green), others are Turkic-speaking (dark green with white dots). When Persianate culture spread beyond the Middle East (light green), it merged with preexisting civilizations (especially Indian civilization, in South and Southeast Asia), such that these regions belong less firmly to the Persianate world.

The Turkic peoples originated in the Eurasian Steppe (see History of the Steppe). They were a minor presence until the Turkic age of the Steppe (ca. 500-1200), when a patchwork of Turkic empires emerged and dominated the region. This period also witnessed a great migration of Turkic peoples into Central Asia.

So long as the Caliphate remained united, the Turkic tribes were halted at its borders, and thus could not advance into southern Central Asia. In the meantime, they absorbed Persianate culture, including the Islamic religion. With the crumbling of the Caliphate ca. 900, the tribes could no longer be checked; a massive invasion ensued, as they swept across southern Central Asia and Iran (and beyond).A173

During the period ca. 900-1300, the destinies of Southwest Asia and North Africa diverged sharply. While Southwest Asia experienced a massive invasion of Turkic tribes, this invasion did not reach North Africa, which continued to be governed by its post-Caliphate patchwork of Arabic states.

In Southwest Asia, the invasion ultimately gave rise to the first Turkic Islamic state: the Seljuq Empire, which lasted over a century. Based in Iran, this empire stretched eastward across Central Asia and westward to Anatolia; indeed, it was the Seljuq Empire that converted Anatolia to Islam.A173 The threat of this empire to the Byzantines was a key factor in sparking the Crusades.

Seljuq Empire

Back at the Steppe, the Turkic age (ca. 500-1200) was succeeded by the Mongol Empire (ca. 1200-1300), which expanded across the entire Steppe and vast regions to the south, including half of the Islamic world. The Seljuq Empire had crumbled by this time, allowing the Mongols to invade Southwest Asia with relative ease. They terminated the tradition of figurehead caliphs, thus bringing the Abbasid dynasty to an official close. The Mongol Empire itself crumbled ca. 1300, leaving behind a patchwork of splinter states.

Mongol Empire

By this time, the Islamic world had achieved tremendous ethnic diversity. The Arabian branch had witnessed the mingling of Arab invaders with various indigenous peoples, while the turmoil of the Persianate branch gave rise to a rich blend of Iranian, Turkic, and Mongolic peoples. Over the ensuing centuries, kingdoms and empires rose and fell among this tapestry, ultimately yielding the modern nations of the Middle East.

One nation to rise from the ashes of the Mongol Empire was Turkey, formed in Anatolia by a Turkic tribe known as the Ottomans. The expansion of this state resulted in the Ottoman Empire (ca. 1300-WWI), which became the superpower of the early modern Middle East. The other leading early modern Islamic powers were Egypt (which the Ottoman Empire conquered for several centuries), Iran (where the Persian language weathered the Turkic and Mongol conquests), and the Mughal Empire (which governed most of South Asia).

Ottoman Empire

Modern Age

In the Modern age (ca. 1800-present), the politics of the Middle East were dramatically reshaped by the dominant global powers (i.e. the primary European powers and the United States). Most of Central Asia was conquered by Russia, while Britain seized the southern coast of the Arabian Peninsula. North African territory was taken by Britain, France, and Italy.4,6

Global Empires ca. WWI

Since World War II, Middle Eastern politics have been dominated by Islamic fundamentalism, Arab-Israeli conflict, and the region's massive oil reserves. The first two of these issues are discussed below. The oil reserves issue has two major consequences: domestic instability (due to the vastly unequal distribution of wealth that tends to emerge in oil-rich nations) and imperial interference (mostly by Western powers).4

Islamic Fundamentalism

Fundamentalism is the strict application of religious doctrine. Although fundamentalist movements can emerge within any religion, the term usually refers to Christianity or Islam. Such movements have often spurred terrible violence (e.g. the execution of heretics, the waging of "holy" war, terrorism) and given rise to theocracies (states governed by religious figures and institutions, with laws based on religious doctrine).

Fundamentalism has been a common reaction of the modern Islamic world against the global dominance of Western culture. This dominance includes modern technology, popular culture, democracy, and secularism (absence of religion) in government, law, and education. The spread of Western ways across the world is known as Westernization.

Resistance to Westernization is understandable. While the features listed above emerged gradually in the Western world, they have been thrust quite suddenly upon most of humanity, transforming non-Western societies so rapidly that many fear for the survival of their traditional cultures. Moreover, given that these societies have often experienced horrific mistreatment at imperial Western hands, it is unsurprising that Westernization is often perceived as a path to spiritual ruin.K358-59

Two major positions on Westernization emerged in the Islamic world. The moderate view argued that Islam would not be harmed by the separation of religion and state, and thus could coexist with Western ways (including democracy and secularism).K358-59 One of the most influential proponents of this view was the Young Turks, a group of political activists who transformed the crumbling Ottoman Empire into modern Turkey.

The fundamentalist view, on the other hand, argued that Western imperialism (often framed as "Christian imperialism") over Muslim lands had been enabled by insufficiently strict adherence to Islamic doctrine. According to this position, the only path forward is the rigid imposition of fundamentalist society, including theocratic government and Islamic law (aka sharia law). Fundamentalist regimes in the modern Islamic world have typically been oppressive, especially toward women and minority groups.K358-59

As noted earlier, resentment of Westernization often sprang from the violent manner of its arrival. Throughout the modern age, oil-thirsty Western nations (especially the US, Britain, and France) conspired in the overthrow of numerous hostile Islamic governments and the installation of puppet regimes, which were often brutally oppressive. It was therefore politically advantageous for the powerful upper classes of Islamic nations to adopt a modernist, pro-Western stance, which further encouraged fundamentalism among the oppressed lower classes.K442-43

Arab-Israeli Conflict

With the fall of the Ottoman Empire after World War I, several of its former regions were transferred to European control. Specifically, France took control of Syria and Lebanon, while Britain took Iraq and Palestine. Britain was thus responsible for managing the Jewish resettlement of Palestine, which had been ongoing since the late nineteenth century (largely via Jewish emigration from Europe due to persecution).11

The view that Jews ought to have their own state in Palestine is known as Zionism. British attempts to secure Jewish-Arab agreement on the borders of this proposed state proved unsuccessful, however, as did those of the UN (which eventually intervened). The Jewish state of Israel was finally officially established after the Second World War, without Arab recognition.4,33

Postwar Conflicts in the Middle East
Palestine 1
Iran 2
Iraq 4 5
Afghanistan 3 6
1 Arab-Israeli conflict
2 Iran-Iraq War (1980-88)
3 Soviet War in Afghanistan (1979-89)
4 Persian Gulf War (1990-91)
5 Iraq War (2003-11)
6 War in Afghanistan (2001-present)

The Arab-Israeli conflict is a fluctuating level of hostilities between Israel and its neighbours, stretching from shortly after WWII up to the present day. The most significant episode of these hostilities (in terms of creating the present situation) is the Six-Day War, fought in the 1960s between Israel and an alliance of Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. The end result was significant territorial gains for Israel, namely the Sinai Peninsula and Gaza Strip (from Egypt), the West Bank (from Jordan), and the Golan Heights (from Syria).24

Israel and the Occupied Territories

Sinai Peninsula (light green)

Although the eventual return of the Sinai Peninsula to Egypt ended Israeli hostilities with that nation, conflict persists over the other three regions.4 The Gaza Strip and West Bank, both of which are predominantly Arab, are known as the Palestinian Territories. (As noted earlier, the region of Palestine consists of Israel, the Gaza Strip, and the West Bank.)

The 1960s also witnessed the establishment of the Palestine Liberation Organization (PLO), whose original goal was to oust the nation of Israel and unite Palestine as an Islamic state. With the Palestinian Territories as footholds, constant struggle with Israel ensued. Israel and the PLO finally recognized one another as legitimate political powers during the 1990s, following peace talks. These talks, known as the Oslo Accords, succeeded in making the 1990s an era of relative calm in the region.29

Other Postwar Conflicts

Postwar Conflicts in the Middle East
Palestine 1
Iran 2
Iraq 4 5
Afghanistan 3 6
1 Arab-Israeli conflict
2 Iran-Iraq War (1980-88)
3 Soviet War in Afghanistan (1979-89)
4 Persian Gulf War (1990-91)
5 Iraq War (2003-11)
6 War in Afghanistan (2001-present)

During the Cold War (ca. 1945-91), global politics took place in the shadow of two vast superpowers: America and the USSR. Most Islamic nations became politically aligned with one or the other, though some maintained neutrality. One of the foremost shifts of Cold War politics was the 1979 Iranian Revolution, which toppled the US-backed government and converted the nation to an Islamic theocracy (which it remains today).4

Another primary Cold War conflict took place in Afghanistan, which had come to feature a Soviet-backed government. An Afghan rebellion spurred the Russians to invade in support of this government, thus initiating the Soviet War in Afghanistan (1979-89). The war became a prolonged and bloody stalemate, as the Soviets (who controlled the cities) battled with various guerrilla forces (who held the mountainous countryside), which were funded by the US and other anti-Soviet allies.42 Among the guerrillas was the Saudi Osama bin Laden, who later founded the Afghanistan-based international terrorist organization al-Qaeda.38

When the Soviets finally withdrew, Afghanistan collapsed into years of civil strife between regional warlords. From this chaos emerged the Taliban, which united Afghanistan under its rule in the 1990s.42 During that same decade, various acts of terrorism attributed to al-Qaeda were executed, including the bombings of two American embassies in Africa. These acts, combined with the Taliban's oppression of the Afghan population, spurred UN sanctions against Afghanistan and American airstrikes on suspected terrorist camps.43

Following the 9/11 attacks (carried out by al-Qaeda), the US demanded that the Taliban destroy al-Qaeda and extradite bin Laden.37,43 The Taliban's refusal prompted the US-led invasion of Afghanistan, in which the Taliban was swiftly toppled and driven (along with al-Qaeda) into hiding, although they have continued to fight as guerrillas from the countryside. A slow and difficult transition to democracy is ongoing.40 Meanwhile, after nearly a decade on the run, bin Laden was discovered hiding in Pakistan; in 2011, he was killed by American special forces.

Contemporary with the Soviet War in Afghanistan was a major conflict in Southwest Asia. Iraq, under the rule of Saddam Hussein, leapt upon the disorder of the Iranian Revolution as an opportunity to seize some of its neighbour's oil-rich territory. The resulting Iraq-Iran War (1980-88) amounted to yet another endless, bloody stalemate. Infamously, Saddam used poison gas against both Iranian forces and domestic Kurdish rebels.35,41

Having failed in Iran, Saddam tried annexing a much smaller neighbour: Kuwait. In the resulting Persian Gulf War (1990-91), a US-led coalition (which included Arab states) assembled in Saudi Arabia and sent airstrikes against the Iraqis. Saddam responded by firing missiles at Arab coalition members, as well as Israel. The war ended with a brief ground operation that drove the Iraqis from Kuwait.37,41

The Iraqi government, now massively unpopular, remained in power only through extreme brutality. It was also subject to UN embargo, on the grounds that Saddam might be developing weapons of mass destruction (chemical, biological, and/or nuclear). The embargo was only to be lifted if Iraq ceased any weapons development and cooperated fully with UN inspections on the matter. Since Saddam never complied with the latter condition, the embargo remained in place until the fall of his regime.37

As the 1990s drew on, increasing lack of Iraqi cooperation with the UN prompted airstrikes against military sites and oil plants.41 After 9/11, President Bush argued that although Iraq was not directly involved in the attack, the nation posed a major security threat given its suspected weapons programs and support for terrorist networks. While Britain shared the American view, the international community was divided on whether Iraq should be given more time to comply with UN demands. In 2003, the US and UK invaded Iraq and swiftly toppled Saddam's regime.41,44

Although coalition forces secured the nation's major cities, exiles of the old regime (augmented by other militant Islamic groups) continued to fight via guerrilla warfare. While the Iraq War (i.e. the occupation of Iraq) ended in 2011, the nation remains violent and politically fragile.41

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