The Geography of Muslim Lands

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The Geography of Muslim Lands


Dar al-Islam . From the earliest period the Dar al-Islam (abode of Islam) has encompassed a diverse territory. From the rocky valley of Makkah (Mecca) and the oases of the Arabian Hijaz and the lava fields of Madinah (Medina), where the first Muslim communities arose, to the steppes of Uzbekistan and the tropics of Singapore and the jungles of Africa, where Islam spread in the course of centuries, it is impossible to associate a single climate, terrain, or mode of life with Islam. Contrary to the popular image of nomads on camels sailing across a yellow, endless desert, Islam has primarily been an urban phenomenon, though even that general view has varied depending on location. Furthermore, local weather patterns, land forms, and available building materials have shaped Muslim life. For example, the mud-brick masjids (mosques) found in Djenne, Mali, are quite different from those built on stilts in Burma and other monsoon areas.

Origins . While Islam does not have a single geographic milieu, it does have a single geographic origin. Islam springs from the same region as its sister faiths, Judaism and Christianity. Islam has had a long-standing association with the Near East, both as a faith tradition that believers identify with Adam and most of the biblical prophets and as a religious community established under the leadership of the Prophet Muhammad from the year 610 onward.

Successors . Following the death of the Prophet in 632, after a twenty-three-year mission during which the majority of the inhabitants of the Arabian peninsula embraced Islam, the khalifahs (caliphs) who succeeded him presided over the expansion of Muslim territory. Muslim armies defeated Byzantine and Persian forces and settled in newly conquered territories to the north, intermingling with local inhabitants. The Umayyad dynasty brought Iberia, North Africa, the Middle East, Transoxiana, and the western edge of the Indian subcontinent into the fold of Dar al-Islam. The Abbasids displaced the Umayyads in 750 and inherited the empire. During the early part of their reign, they directed their energies to preserving existing borders with Europe, Central Asia, southern Africa, China, and India, and turned inward to develop a high culture and rich Islamic civilization that could sustain itself. In the tenth century, the Abbasids lost centralized control of the empire, and the Saljuk Turks from Central Asia began ruling on their behalf in Persia, Iraq, Syria, and Arabia, and wrested the lands of Anatolia from the Byzantines. In the west the Fatimids and Almoravids ruled North Africa, while in the east, the Ghaznavids of Afghanistan began expanding the empire into India. Beginning in the late eleventh century, the Muslims began facing serious challenges on their frontiers, resulting in some contraction of Muslim lands. Crusaders attempted to capture the Holy Land in a series of Holy Wars between 1096 and 1270. Muslim rulers in Iberia were gradually defeated by their Christian rivals to the north and left with only the kingdom of Granada in the south after 1248, and during the same century the Mongols, who eventually adopted Islam, devastated much of the eastern Muslim lands, bringing an end to the Abbasid khilafah (caliphate) in 1258. In the sixteenth century the lands of Islam expanded once again. The Ottomans extended their rule into the Balkans, Greece, and parts of eastern Europe. At the same time, the Mughals extended Islamic rule southward in India.

Expansion through Trade . From the thirteenth century onward, Islam was introduced in southeast Asia (Malaysia, Indonesia) by Muslim merchants from Yemen, the Persian Gulf, and India, who were involved in long-distance trade in the Indian Ocean. Small colonies of Muslim merchants gave rise to regional Muslim populations comprising immigrants and indigenous Muslims, with a significant Muslim presence developing by the early 1500s. In northwestern and southwestern China, the Mongols encouraged Muslim settlers, who assimilated to Chinese culture and formed a nucleus around which a Chinese Muslim community grew. Likewise in sub-Saharan Africa, Islam was spread by the migration of Muslim merchants, scholars, and immigrants. Local rulers sometimes adopted Islam and provided momentum for the Islamization of African culture. Ghana in the eleventh century and Mali in the thirteenth through sixteenth centuries were strong Muslim states. Subsequent empires, with their trade networks and scholarly connections to Arab Muslim lands, expanded the practice of Islam in west and central Africa.

Muslims in Europe and America . The spread of Islam did not stop after 1500. Increasing trade and diplomatic relations between Muslims and Europeans, especially following

Napoleon’s expedition in Egypt (1798–1801), led to the establishment of small Muslim student and professional communities in European countries. In the nineteenth century Muslim refugees and immigrants formed communities in the United States, France, England, and other European states. Following the world wars and the decolonization of Muslim lands in the early twentieth century, Muslim communities in western countries increased through further immigration and the birth of Muslim citizens in these countries. Conversion to Islam by westerners has also contributed to the growth and participation of Muslim communities in the West. Advances in transportation, increased communications, and global economic opportunities have stimulated Muslim settlement in countries as diverse as Japan, the Netherlands, and Argentina. Islam is practiced in virtually every country of the world.


Marshall Hodgson, The Venture of Islam, 3 volumes (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1977).

Ira Lapidus, A History of Islamic Societies (Cambridge & New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

Francis Robinson, Atlas of the Islamic World since 1500 (New York: Facts On File, 1982).

Roelof Roolvink, with Saleh A. el Ali, Hussain Mones, and Mohd Salim, Historical Atlas of the Muslim Peoples (Amsterdam: Djambatan, 1957).