Muhammad and the First Four Caliphs, 570-661

Muhammad and the First Four Caliphs

The Prophet Muhammad was born in Mecca in around 570. The major caravan routes went through the town, and the Kaaba made it the most important place of pilgrimage on the Arabian Peninsula. This cube-shaped shrine held the images and statues of some of the many gods worshipped by the region’s Arab tribes. This is where Muhammad began to preach Islam, the new religion with only one god.

At first, the Meccans opposed the spread of Islam, and in 622, Muhammad had to flee with his followers to Medina. This emigration (hijra) marks the start of the Islamic calendar. From Medina, Muhammad was able to subjugate local Arab tribes and convert them to Islam within a few years. Mecca was also taken, and the Kaaba was purged of its many idols and given the status of Islam’s most sacred shrine. After Muhammad’s death in 632, the Islamic world was ruled from Medina under the next four caliphs (successors): Abu Bakr, Umar, Uthman, and Ali. All were related to the Prophet by marriage, but only his cousin Ali was his blood relative. These four successors are also called the “rightly guided caliphs,” since all had known the Prophet personally.

Right from the time of Muhammad’s death, there was disagreement between those who wanted an elected successor, regardless of kinship (the Sunni Muslims), and those who felt that only Ali’s descendants could be Muhammad’s legitimate heirs (the Shia Muslims).

The caliphs were both religious and political leaders, and the territory under Islamic dominance expanded with enormous speed under their rule. Within two decades, Syria and grain-rich Egypt were conquered from the Byzantine Empire. In Iraq and Iran, the Sasanian Empire was overrun by the Arab armies, which exploited disputes over succession and internal strife.

The conquered territories were divided into provinces, with an Arab governor and soldiers who lived isolated from the local population in military camps. Completely new garrison towns such as Basra and Kufa in southern Iraq were also built. Among the many different peoples in the great new realm, Jews and Christians were for the most part allowed to keep their religion and way of life. They were considered “People of the Book,” whose holy scriptures had been revealed to them by the same God that the Muslims worshipped. Like other non-Muslims, they were still obliged to pay taxes to the new rulers.

Apart from a few examples of Arabic script, there are almost no physical remains from this period, and nothing that would testify to the start of Islamic art proper.