Few events in history have had so swift, profound and far-reaching an impact as the arrival of Islam. Within a mere 15 years of the Prophet Muhammad’s death, in A.D. 632, his desert followers had conquered all the centers of ancient Near Eastern civilization. They had erased a great and enduring regional power, Persia; reduced its brilliant rival, Byzantium, to a rump state; and carved from their territories an empire as vast as that of Rome at its height. Within 100 years, Muslim armies were harrying the frontiers of Tang dynasty China in the east, while 5,000 miles to the west, they had charged across Spain to clash with the Merovingian princes of what is now France.
The triumph was not just military. The explosive expansion of Islam severed at a stroke the 1,000-year-old links of commerce, culture, politics and religion that had bound the southern and northern shores of the Mediterranean. It created, for the first and only time, an empire based entirely upon a single faith, bound by its laws and devoted to its propagation. It uprooted long-embedded native religions, like Zoroastrianism in Persia, Buddhism in Central Asia and Hinduism in much of the Indus Valley. It transformed Arabic from a desert dialect into a world language that, for centuries, supplanted Latin and Greek as the main repository of human knowledge.
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