Islamic History, Part 2: The pre-Islamic world

Islamic History Series

There are two contextual parts to understanding the rise and rapid spread of Islam in the 7th century: the Arabian context and the wider world with which Arabia interacted. Students learning the history of Islam are usually taught the wider context first, probably because the Arabian context really flows directly into the origins of Islam while this stuff is more background to that story (although it becomes very relevant very quickly as we’ll see).

The Mediterranean and “Middle Eastern” world (as far east as central Asia to the north and what would be modern Pakistan to the south) was dominated by two superpowers: the Roman Empire in the west and the Persian Empire in the east. At the point in history that concerns us, these are known to scholars as the Byzantine Empire and the Sasanian Empire, respectively, to distinguish them in modern scholarship from their predecessor states, respectively the Roman Empire (before the fall of Rome itself and the western half of the empire) and the successive dynasties/empires of Persia (the Achaemenids, the Seleucids, and the Parthians). While this is a perfectly reasonable distinction within the context of modern scholarship, it is also misleading, in that it suggests that the rulers or peoples of these empires saw themselves as somehow distinct from what came before. In the case of the Sasanians, there is something to the idea that this was a new empire, since it did involve a new line of rulers overthrowing the previous line and establishing a new dynasty, but (and I’m no expert on, well, anything, but certainly not ancient Persia) it doesn’t seem to me that this new line of rulers saw themselves as ruling a new empire. The concept of Iranshahr, or Iran zamin, “the land of Iran,” is one that goes back centuries before the Sasanians and is fairly continuous until the Arab conquests (and crops up again not long after that), regardless of the particular dynasty ruling it.

In the case of the “Byzantines,” the whole concept is really dangerous if it’s not taught properly. The fact of the matter is that at no point in history was there a “Byzantine Empire.” The Roman Emperors who ruled from Constantinople called themselves Roman Emperors. The citizens of the empire that had its capital at Constantinople called themselves Romans. Anatolia (Asia Minor) was known in the Islamic world as Rum, even after Islamic (by then Turkish) armies had conquered it, and the Byzantines (and later the Turks) who controlled it were called Rumiyun. The concept of a “Byzantine Empire” is useful in modern scholarship to distinguish a Greek-speaking, eastern Mediterranean, Christian empire from the Latin(-and-Greek)-speaking, whole Mediterranean, mostly pagan empire out of which it developed, but it must be understood to be entirely ahistorical. I will use “Roman” and “Byzantine” probably interchangeably, which is OK in this case because we shouldn’t be talking about anything having to do with the Roman Empire before it became what is now called the Byzantine Empire, so for our purposes the terms are synonymous.

OK, pedantic history nerd rant over. Let’s get into the empires.

1. The Sasanian Empire


The Sasanian Empire

The Sasanian Empire was established in 224 by Ardashir I (d. 242 CE–all dates in this saga are CE unless otherwise indicated), who amassed a power base in the southern Iranian province of Fars and crushed the Parthians when they attempted to reestablish control over the province, emerging as the new ruler (shahanshah, or “king of kings”) of the Persian Empire (Iranshahr). The Sasanian house claimed descent from the ancient Achaemenid Dynasty and established itself as the restorers of true Persian rule after the intervening Seleucid and Parthian Dynasties. Ancient Persia, as we often collectively think of the various empires that occupied “Greater Iran” in the 11 or so centuries between the founding of the Achaemenid dynasty and the arrival of Arab conquerors, was very much a melting pot civilization, rooted in the Cuneiform traditions of Mesopotamia (the Assyrians, for example, and the Babylonian Empires, all the way back to Sumer) but with a heavy Greek influence after Alexander’s (4th c. BCE) conquests and the Hellenistic Seleucid dynasty that ruled Persia after his death and into the first century CE. Such a large empire necessarily incorporated many languages, but the lingua franca of the Sasanians was clearly the Syriac form of Aramaic, a Semitic language related to Arabic, though “Middle Persian,” or Pahlavi, was the official language of court and religion.

Unfortunately there is a stark lack of extant internal sources on Sasanian history, and so we have to rely on contemporary, but hostile, Roman sources and less hostile, but much later, Arabic sources. The Sasanians’ greatest problem was that they faced dire threats on both their western (the Byzantines) and eastern (central Asian nomadic raiders) sides. They were primarily a mercantile state, dominating Indian Ocean trade as the Romans dominated the Mediterranean; this was a period in which global trade routes from China to Europe were very open, and the Sasanians were geographically well-positioned to act as middle men along those routes (and to use their control over them as weapons against the Romans, at least in theory). Ultimately they were weakened after a brutal 7th century war with the Byzantines (see below) and a long period of instability, tribes fought amongst each other to place their own favorites on the throne and the increasingly wealthy merchant class agitated for greater rights and privileges in a society that was still dominated by agrarian elites (i.e., landowners). Administrative reforms that had been made in the 6th century as the empire reached its zenith resulted in some power devolving from the Sasanian capital, Ctesiphon (just south of modern Baghdad), to the provincial governors, which contributed to the eventual decline of the monarchy’s claim to absolute power.

The official Sasanian religion was Zoroastrianism, a native Iranian faith that can be traced back to at least the 6th century BCE and that combined elements of dualism (two equally powerful gods, the good Ahura Mazda and the evil Ahriman, battled for control of humanity) and monotheism (nobody worshiped Ahriman, so the extent of the “dualism” is questionable). The empire was initially tolerant of its relatively large Jewish and Christian communities, but as time went on it seems that religious persecutions increased, though in the sixth century Nestorian Christianity (see below) was officially tolerated, probably as a tactic against the Byzantines. Zoroastrianism seems to have had some influence on the Abrahamic monotheisms, and both faith traditions share a rejection of the idea of reincarnation and a commitment to justice, even though their definitions of “justice” differ (the Abrahamic tradition stresses equal treatment for all under a religious law, while Iranian tradition sees justice as the harmonious cooperation of all the parts of society). Scholars have connected elements of imagery (e.g., the halo), doctrine (the concept of a final judgment and afterlife based on the individual’s duty to choose good over evil), and religious law (rules on ritual purity that may be seen in Islamic prayer ritual today) to the Zoroastrian influence on Judaism. But its most important influence may have been on the concept of codifying religious texts. Zoroastrianism has the Avesta, a collection of sacred texts that may have influenced the Hebrews to compile what would become the Torah (and thus indirectly influenced the compilation of the Christian Bible) and the Talmud, and may have contributed to the Abrahamic faiths a general principle that a major religion should have a basic text or texts from which it develops. Manichaeism (founded in the third century by a prophet named Mani), grew out of Zoroastrianism and retained the Zoroastrian idea of cosmic dualism, but connected the good/evil split to the dichotomy between the spiritual (“good”) realm and the material (“evil”) world; its rejection of the material world as evil would influence mystical-gnostic-ascetic strains of Judaism, Christianity, and Islam right down to the present day.

II. The Byzantine Empire

byzantine empire

The Byzantine Empire at its greatest extent. By the time of the Arab invasions in the 7th century, much of the area in yellow, areas of the western empire that had been reconquered in the 6th century, had been lost again.

Historians may quibble over the point at which “Roman” becomes “Byzantine,” because it is a completely modern, invented distinction and so there isn’t a clear historical point that defines any “shift.” The traditional view, or at least the one I remember from the last time I took an ancient history course, was that the “Byzantine” period begins with the Fall of (the western half of) the Roman Empire in 476, when the last western emperor was overthrown by Odoacer and was never replaced. The problem with the traditional view is it glosses over a century and a half of a divided (East-West) Roman Empire, and the degree to which the Eastern Empire grew apart from, and outstripped, its Western half, over that time. The founding of Constantinople as the empire’s eastern capital in 330 also gets used as the beginning of the “Byzantine” Empire, and I actually prefer this one. The start date doesn’t really matter for Islamic origins, where the two key details are the splintering of the Christian community over doctrinal issues, and the devastating 602-628 war between the Byzantines and the Sasanians.

Early Christianity was not the monolithic construct that modern churches would like to claim it was, the unchanging One True Church that was established by Christ’s followers, carried through two millennia, and today still practiced properly by [fill in name of denomination here]. No, early Christian thinkers and communities could be as bitterly divided as today’s Christian churches, if not more so. But their divisions, rather than, say, over who is to be the proper authority in the church or whether the communion bread is Christ’s body or simply represents it, tended to be more foundational, chiefly about the nature of Jesus himself. Scholars had various theories as to how a man, Jesus, could be both fully human and fully divine (while also not being a separate deity from God the Father, which would make Christianity polytheistic). Two early schools of thought addressed this in different ways: the Docetics argued that Jesus only appeared to be human but was actually fully divine, and the Adoptionists argued that Jesus was fully human but was chosen by God (the typical narrative was that this happened at his baptism by John the Baptist) to carry out his mission and become divine. Both of these were rejected by what became orthodox (meaning mainstream, not The Orthodox Church) Christianity.

Other ideas kept cropping up and generating debate in the early Church, particularly as Christian beliefs came into closer and closer contact with earlier Roman and Greek religion, myth, and philosophy. Plato in particular influenced the development of Christian asceticism and gnosticism, based on the notion that the physical/material world was of a lower emanation than the spiritual, and thus of inferior quality. Ascetics, the “holy men” of antiquity, combined the ideas of Plato with the exhortations of Jesus to give away one’s worldly goods and did as much as they could to divest themselves of the material world, so as to focus all their attention on the spiritual one above it. They were often widely revered for their devotion and religiosity. On the other hand, Gnostics, sects of whom may pre-date Christianity, also believed that the material world was impure and should be avoided, but they believed that the path to the spiritual world was through secret knowledge that they possessed but that the official religious hierarchy either didn’t know or was actively suppressing. They would often distinguish between the Old Testament God was Plato’s Demiurge, the being who crafted the physical world, but unlike Plato they held that the Demiurge, and the world he created, were evil. Jesus was thought to have been a spirit merely taking the form of man, since his goodness would have been defiled by entering a lesser physical body. They were seen as a direct threat to the church and often condemned as heretics.

The first major “heresy” (and we should realize that whatever the religious implications, “heresy” is also a political term imposed by the winners of doctrinal disputes upon the losers) along these lines was Arianism, which argued that Christ was created by God the Father and was not co-eternal with him, and which was opposed by the Homoousians, who contended that Christ was equally God and was co-eternal with the Father. This was settled at the Council of Nicaea in 325, called by Constantine specifically to settle this dispute, with the mainstream church adopting the Homoousian position over the Arian; Arianism mostly faded away (except as a sort of general accusatory term for heretical thought), at least until around the time of the Reformation and the Enlightenment.

More relevant to our interests are the heresies called Nestorianism and Miaphysitism, both of which attempted to sort out the gnostic problem described above, namely how the perfectly good Jesus could possibly have been incarnated in an inferior/inherently evil physical form. Nestorianism, founded by the patriarch of Constantinople, Nestorius (d. 450), argued that Jesus had two distinct natures, one divine and one human, contained in two distinct persons that were somehow united in Jesus Christ. This was declared heretical (and Nestorius deposed as Patriarch) by the 431 Council of Ephesus, but unlike Arianism it did not fade away and instead its doctrines became the orthodoxy of most Christians living in the Sasanian Empire. Today it is arguably, I stress arguably, still the theology of the Assyrian Church of the East.

Miaphysitism originally came about as a response to Nestorianism, and held that Christ was both human and divine but that these were united in one single nature. This, too, was rejected as heretical, at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, when the main body of Christianity adopted something in between these two positions: that Christ was two natures (contra the Miaphysites, who believed the two elements were united in a single nature), human and divine, but that these were united in a single person (contra the Nestorians, who believed there were two distinct persons). In being rejected, Miaphysitism was erroneously conflated with Monophysitism, a subset of Miaphysitism closely related Docetism, which holds that Christ was just divine, no human aspects at all (in fact, and this is probably a great historical irony, many Miaphysites aren’t all that distinguishable from Chalcedonians in their beliefs, but for whatever reason they weren’t Chalcedonian enough for the imperial authorities). Miaphysitism, like Nestorianism, didn’t go quietly away either; Miaphysitism was and still is the dominant theology in the Oriental Orthodox Churches, which today include the Coptic Church in Egypt, the Syriac Orthodox Church, and the Armenian Apostolic Church.

If these distinctions all sound a little nit-picky to you, just bear in mind that they definitely were not nit-picky to Christians of the 5th-7th centuries in the Near East. And just to show you that I’m not a hard-hearted man, that it’s not all dollars and cents, let me say that I get why they weren’t nit-picky to those early Christians (and wouldn’t be nit-picky to Christians today if they were still being debated). From the “orthodox” (not capital-O Orthodox, we’re not ready for that yet) Christian perspective, Arian’s argument that Christ was created means that Christ is not God, and if he’s not God then the sacrificial act of the Crucifixion loses a lot of its spiritual power. Likewise, to the Chalcedonians, if the Monophysites are correct, and Christ is purely divine, then that presumably means he was faking all that very human suffering on the cross, again depriving the Crucifixion of a great deal of its potency. If the Nestorians are right, and Christ was two separate persons, then maybe only the divine one was crucified, or only the human one (this isn’t that far off from what Muslims believe about Jesus, to be honest)–either way, again, the Crucifixion loses some of its luster.

On the other hand, the Nestorians and Miaphysites (who, remember, developed their theological ideas in response to Nestorianism) weren’t just out to be contrarian. Both communities believed their ideas about who and what Jesus actually was made the most sense in light of scripture, and both saw Chalcedonian Christianity as an unacceptable compromise with the other side. So these arguments, esoteric as they may be to the non-theologian, got at the very nature of Christ and the importance of the central event in all of Christian worship. That’s why they were a big deal.

Anyway, Chalcedonian theology was now orthodoxy in Constantinople and, thus, for the government of the Empire, and deviation from religious orthodoxy was definitely treated as a political matter as well as a religious one. Miaphysite churches were heavily persecuted by imperial authorities (most Nestorians were out of Constantinople’s reach, in Persia). Patriarchs would be appointed for Miaphysite regions and then tasked with either converting the heretical local populations to Chalcedonian Christianity or executing them as heretics. The loyalty of these non-Chalcedonians was called into question along with their religious beliefs; the toleration (at least initially) of Nestorianism by the Persians made all Nestorians still living in the Byzantine Empire suspect of treason, and it was a small leap from that to suspecting all heretics of crimes against the state. As you might imagine, by the 7th century these non-Chalcedonian Christian communities had no love for the Byzantine Empire and had very little communal feeling for their fellow Christians in Constantinople. The fact that these “heretical” branches of the faith tended to gain strength in parts of the empire that were also outside of the Greek-speaking core (Miaphysitism was popular in Coptic-speaking Egypt and Syriac-speaking Syria, Nestorianism in Syria–though Nestorianism’s epicenter was really within the Persian Empire), meant that faith and language fed into each other as traits that helped to divide the empire.

III. War between the two superpowers

The Romans and Sasanians periodically went to war with each other, usually over control of trade with India and China or over influence in the Caucasus (chiefly Armenia) or control over Syria and Iraq. The Sasanians, styling themselves as heirs to the Achaemenids, naturally wanted to restore the size of the empire under the Achaemenids, which included all of Anatolia and parts of eastern Europe, and the Romans would have none of that. There were several draining clashes between the two powers in the 6th century, but the most far-reaching event of that century was probably the Plague of Justinian in 541-542, an outbreak of the Bubonic Plague that claimed the lives of as many as 25 million people under Byzantine rule. This destabilized the empire in the long run, emptying out cities that never fully recovered, and the resulting weakness may have contributed to increasing Persian boldness as the sixth century wore on.

In 602, the Sasanian ruler Khosrau II (d. 628) attacked the Byzantines, who were dealing with an internal political crisis (Emperor Maurice having just been deposed by the unpopular Phocas) and thus had diverted their attention away from their eastern frontier. By 610 the Sasanians had taken Mesopotamia (Iraq), the Caucasus, and Syria and were moving into Asia Minor (Anatolia), where they defeated in 611 a Roman army under a new emperor, Heraclius (d. 641) and even sacked Chalcedon, just across the Bosphorus from Constantinople (close enough that ancient Chalcedon is now contained in modern Istanbul). By 621 they controlled large chunks of Anatolia and had conquered Palestine and Egypt, and Avars and Slavs in the Balkans took advantage of the opportunity to press the Romans from the west. However, in that intervening decade Heraclius had rebuilt the Byzantine military machine as best he could, and in 622 he began a desperate counteroffensive that took him through Anatolia and in 624 into the Caucasus. In 626 the Avars and Slavs besieged Constantinople with the aid of a Persian army, but the siege was broken and the tide had turned. Heraclius’ armies invaded Mesopotamia in 627 and by 628 had battered the Persians so severely that Khosrau II was overthrown by his own generals, and his son and successor Kavadh II (d. 628) then made peace with Heraclius.

Needless to say that by the end of this conflict these two formerly dominant empires were shells, ripe to be defeated by a new player on the geopolitical scene. The Persians had expended enormous blood and treasure on this enterprise, and were totally beaten by Heraclius. Their armies were decimated, their treasury empty, the people resentful of the heavy taxes that had been levied to pay for an unsuccessful war, and Khosrow II’s deposition brought about a period of huge turmoil around the throne, with various claimants and their backers fighting amongst each other and no political stability whatsoever. For the Byzantines, who had never really recovered from the plague, the war was similarly devastating on manpower and wealth, and much of the Balkans was now under Slavic control. Moreover, the war laid bare an inherent Byzantine instability due to the dual (related) struggles of socio-economic stratification and religious discord; the relative ease with which the Persians pacified Byzantine subjects in the Levant and Egypt demonstrated that big chunks of the Byzantine population (non-Chalcedonian Christians to some extent, but also Jews, who openly aided the Persians and committed atrocities against Christian civilians–and vice versa–during the war) simply didn’t want to be living under Byzantine rule anymore, and these elements were not entirely thrilled to see Heraclius’s successful counterattack.

The upshot is that neither empire would be able to withstand the Arab armies that came pouring out of the Arabian peninsula less than a decade after this war came to an end.

IV. Everywhere else

The Sasanians and the Byzantines were the two heavy hitters in the neighborhood on the eve of Islam’s arrival, but there was a wide world around them as well that we should mention, if only briefly. The most important Someplace Else as far as the people of Arabia were concerned was Ethiopia (and Eritrea), known then as the Kingdom of Axum (or Aksum if you prefer), after its capital (located in what is today northern Ethiopia). Not much is known about Axum’s origins, at least so far as I am aware, but we do know that the region developed around the trade routes running from the Indian Ocean and East Africa up through the Red Sea and on to Egypt and thence Europe. As Rome grew richer, its demand for exotic luxuries from the East (India and China) increased, and as its relations with the successive Persian dynasties worsened the maritime route through the Red Sea began to look a lot better than the alternatives (overland across Asia or by sea through the Persian Gulf and by land from there to the Mediterranean) that had to cross Persian-controlled territory.

Axum was one of a succession of kingdoms in the region around the mouth of the Red Sea, the choke-point for that maritime trade route. It was established sometime in the first century CE, but we don’t hear about it expanding much until reports of Axumite expeditions into Arabia are seen starting in the third century, and then we know that it conquered the long-standing Kushite Kingdom in Sudan in the middle of the fourth century. At its height, in the fifth and (very early) sixth centuries, it controlled modern Ethiopia, Eritrea, Djibouti, northern Sudan, and southern Egypt, and then it invaded Arabia and seized western Yemen and some southern parts of Saudi Arabia. The Axumites were Christian from about the fourth century on, though they had been pagan with a large (and very culturally influential) Jewish minority before that. As fellow Christians and heavy trading partners with Rome, they were generally aligned with the Romans, and the Alexandrian Church was nominally responsible for overseeing Axum’s Christian community, but they remained independent of Rome politically. Axum’s power waned in the mid-sixth century, when an Axumite general established himself as the independent ruler of Yemen, which later may have fallen under Persian suzerainty although this is disputed. However, they were still around when Muhammad’s preaching career kicked off, and were on good terms with the people of Mecca as we will see.

As far as the rest of the world was concerned, the other two places worth mentioning are India and China, the sources of all that Indian Ocean trade that affected everything in and around Arabia at this time. China was entering one of its many “Golden Ages” of rapid development and flourishing scientific and cultural achievement, as the short-lived Sui Dynasty reunited the country after a period of disunity and then gave way to the three century-long Tang Dynasty. China was arguably the most advanced nation in the world at this time, marked by a strong, centralized bureaucracy, monumental cultural and technological achievements, and free and open land and sea trade networks with the rest of Asia and the Indian Ocean basin.

India, on the other hand, was in a bit of chaos, as the “Golden Age” Gupta Empire collapsed in the fifth century under internal stresses and external pressure applied by the Hephthalites, and was succeeded by a number of regional powers. The presence of all those competing courts and official religions (Buddhism, Hinduism, and Jainism were all practiced in various parts of the region, and Buddhism was beginning to break through in China as well) around the sub-continent produced an efflorescence of artistic and philosophical development, but the lack of a central political and military authority left India open to invasion from external forces. One of those external invasions, starting in the early 8th century, would change Indian history fundamentally, but we’re not there yet.

Next time: the pre-Islamic Arabian context.

Further reading:

There are many books on the Roman Empire generally and on the “Byzantine” period in particular. John Julius Norwich is one of the acknowledged experts specifically on the “Byzantine Empire.” His A Short History of Byzantium is quite good, and his massive, three volume series, Byzantium, is really the magnum opus of Byzantine scholarship as far as I know, but it really is massive so be sure before you buy it. Walter Kaegi is another prominent Byzantine scholar, but his work deals more with the Empire and its early conflicts with the Arabs, and we’ll mention it a bit later. His Heraclius, Emperor of Byzantium is worth mentioning here. Michael Grant’s From Rome to Byzantium: The Fifth Century AD deals with the transition from the western empire to the eastern empire.

Two books that I’m familiar with are very helpful for understanding the Mediterranean world in late-antiquity (mostly the period bracketed by the decline of the western Roman Empire and the rise of Islam): Peter Brown’s The World of Late Antiquity: AD 150-750 and Avril Cameron’s The Mediterranean World in Late Antiquity: AD 395-700. You’ll get additional detail in these works about cultural and religious trends of the pre-Islamic Mediterranean, like the increasing prevalence of “holy men,” which we’ll talk about when we come to Sufism.

There is substantially less work out there on Sasanian Persia. Touraj Darayee has written two works, Sasanian Iran (224-651 CE): Portrait of a Late Antique Empire and Sasanian Persia: The Rise and Fall of an Empire; I haven’t read the former but the latter is a decent overview of a little-known Empire. There is also Decline and Fall of the Sasanian Empire: The Sasanian-Parthian Confederacy and the Arab Conquest of Iran by Parvaneh Pourshariati, which I can’t speak to personally but I have heard good things about it.

If you enjoy reading textbook-style works and are looking for a general work on the civilizations of the pre-Islamic Eurasian and Africa context, Ancient Civilizations by Christopher Scarre and Brian M. Fagan is a decent choice. “Ancient” is a bit of a loose term, since it covers everything from ancient Mesopotamia to the pre-Columbian Americas (I guess “modernity” comes at different times to different places), but that’s only a minor complaint.

Hey, thanks for reading! If you come here often, and you like what I do, would you please consider contributing something (sorry, that page is a work in progress) to keeping this place running and me out of debtor’s prison? Thank you!


17 thoughts on “Islamic History, Part 2: The pre-Islamic world

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