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Fragmentation of the Islamic Empire

This map is part of a series of 7 animated maps showing the history of Origins of Islam and the Arabo-Muslim Empire.


 The Arab conquests reached their furthest boundaries by the middle of the 8th century, with the help of Berber forces in the West and Persian armies in the East. The empire emerging from these conquests was the largest known in history but its territorial unity was soon under threat.

The westernmost provinces were the first to secede.  The Great Berber Revolt, which stretched from Tangiers to Tripolitania in the 740s, allowed the area from the Iberian Peninsula to west of the Maghreb to escape from the control of the Omayyad caliphs based in Damascus.

Only the region of Ifriqiya, around Kairouan, was brought back under their control.

In 762, the capital’s transfer from Damascus to Baghdad bears witness to the shift of the empire’s centre of gravity towards the East. Baghdad had been founded by the Abbasids who overthrew the Umayyads.

In the 10th century however, two other aristocratic Arab families sought to take over the caliphate in order to gain total domination of Islam and sovereignty over the empire:

-          The Fatimid dynasty of Ismaili Shi’ites proclaimed their caliphate in Ifriqiya in 909.

-          The Umayyads, descendants of the first Arab dynasty, also declared a caliphate in the Iberian Peninsula in 929.

Nevertheless, the political unity of the empire was not fundamentally threatened since both dynasties sought to take the place of the caliphate in Baghdad.

However, only the Fatimids marched into the Near East: in 969, their conquest of Egypt and the establishment of the city of Cairo gave birth to a unified Mediterranean empire which covered the Maghreb, Sicily, the Nile Valley and the southern part of Syria.

In the East, the Abbasid caliphate remained without rivals but, from the 9th century, had to recognize the autonomy of some provincial governors including the Persian Samanid dynasty, which controlled central Asia and eastern Iran.

By the mid-10th century in Baghdad, the Abbasid caliphs, whose power had diminished considerably, came under the control of Persian Shi’ite warlords, the Buyids, who now governed Iraq and Iran on behalf of the caliph.

Fragmentation of the Islamic Empire changed substantially during the 11th century. Apart from the Fatimids who maintained their position in Egypt, the Arab dynasties dating back to the early years of Islam were overthrown or entirely dispossessed of their authority by new powers.

In the East, the Seljuk Turks, arriving from the Asian steppes leading a strong migration of pastoral peoples, imposed their control over the Caliph in Baghdad. They extended their domination from Central Asia to Northern Syria and sought to take Anatolia from the Byzantine Empire.

In the West, the Almoravids, Berbers who rebelled in the Sahara in favour for a more strict form of Islam, conquered the western regions of the Maghreb and blocked Christian expansion in the Iberian Peninsula.

From the end of the 11th century, Crusaders invaded the Holy Land and, soon after, Egypt.  The struggle against this new adversary was led by Turkish and Kurdish generals and made it possible for Saladin to reunify the Near East under the banner of the Ayyubids.

The Islamic Empire, now definitively broken up, gave birth to three territorial regions that experienced different outcomes:

-          The East, dominated by Turks and now looking towards conquering India;

-          The West, ruled by Berbers who faced the Christian threat from the North;

-          The Near East, where Egypt and Syria are reunited under one banner in order to fight against the Crusaders, now held the centre of the Islamic world.

The survival of the Abbasid caliphate until the Mongols captured Baghdad in 1258 changed nothing in this development.