The Byzantines and Persians had competed with each other over control of lands in the Middle East. Once the Arabs united, they surprised their neighbors, conquering great portions of the Byzantine empire and defeating the Persians entirely. First, they took the provinces of Syria and Palestine from the Byzantines, including the cities of Damascus and Jerusalem. Then they captured the weakened Persian empire and swept into Byzantine Egypt.

Divisions Split Islam

When Muhammad died, Muslims disagreed about who should be chosen to be the leader of the community. The split between Sunni (SOO nee) and Shiite (SHEE yt) Muslims had a profound impact on later Islamic history.

Photo of a building with tiled gold dome and mosaic facade, with spire of crescent moon at the top.

The Dome of the Rock in Jerusalem is the oldest surviving Islamic building. Construction began soon after Muslims captured the city. According to Muslim teaching, Muhammad ascended to heaven from the rock inside this building.

Differing Ideas About Leaders

One group of Muslims felt that Muhammad had designated his son-in-law, Ali, to be his successor. They were called Shiites, after shi'at Ali, or followers of Ali. Shiites believe that the true successors to Muhammad are the descendants of Ali and Muhammad's daughter, Fatima. They believe that these descendants, called Imams, are divinely inspired religious leaders, who are empowered to interpret the Quran and the actions of Muhammad.

Another group felt that any good Muslim could lead the community, since there could be no prophet after Muhammad. This group soon divided and fought among themselves as well as with others over issues of who could be defined as a “good” Muslim.

The majority of Muslims eventually compromised around the view that the successor to Muhammad should be a pious male Muslim from Muhammad's tribe. This successor is called a caliph and is viewed as a political leader of the religious community, without any divine or prophetic functions.

Members of the compromise group, which forms the majority of Muslims in the world today, are known as Sunnis, since they follow the custom of the community, or sunna. The Sunni believe that inspiration comes from the example of Muhammad as recorded by his early followers.

Photo of a city in the desert with spired towers and beige buildings with tall arches.

Medina is the second holiest site in Islam. Like Mecca, it is an important part of the hijra and Muhammad's journey. Both sites attract many pilgrims.

Sunni and Shiite Beliefs

Like the schism between Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christians, the division between Sunni and Shiite Muslims has survived to the present day.

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Table of Contents

World History Topic 1 Origins of Civilization (Prehistory–300 B.C.) Topic 2 The Ancient Middle East and Egypt (3200 B.C.–500 B.C.) Topic 3 Ancient India and China (2600 B.C.–A.D. 550) Topic 4 The Americas (Prehistory–A.D. 1570) Topic 5 Ancient Greece (1750 B.C.–133 B.C.) Topic 6 Ancient Rome and the Origins of Christianity (509 B.C.-A.D. 476) Topic 7 Medieval Christian Europe (330–1450) Topic 8 The Muslim World and Africa (730 B.C.-A.D. 1500) Topic 9 Civilizations of Asia (500–1650) Topic 10 The Renaissance and Reformation (1300–1650) Topic 11 New Global Connections (1415–1796) Topic 12 Absolutism and Revolution Topic 13 The Industrial Revolution Topic 14 Nationalism and the Spread of Democracy (1790–1914) Topic 15 The Age of Imperialism (1800–1914) Topic 16 World War I and the Russian Revolution (1914–1924) Topic 17 The World Between the Wars (1910–1939) Topic 18 World War II (1930–1945) Topic 19 The Cold War Era (1945–1991) Topic 20 New Nations Emerge (1945–Present) Topic 21 The World Today (1980-Present) United States Constitution Primary Sources 21st Century Skills Atlas Glossary Index Acknowledgments