During the first decades of the seventh century, Muhammad, a merchant from Mecca, converted many of his fellow Arabs to a new religion, Islam, which was conceived as the continuation and fulfillment of the Judeo-Christian tradition. By 629 the religious fervor and pressures of an expanding population impelled Muslim Arab tribes to invade lands to the north of the Arabian Peninsula. They called these lands bilad al sham, the country or land of Sham--the name Arabs often used to designate Damascus. The word sham derives from the Arabic word for dignity, indicating the high regard most Arabs have had for Damascus. Arabs, including Syrians, have referred to Syria by this name ever since, and call Syrians Shammis.
In 635 Damascus surrendered to the great Muslim general, Khalid ibn al Walid. Undermined by Persian incursions, religious schisms, and rebellions in the provinces caused by harsh rule, Byzantium could offer little resistance to Islam.
In succeeding centuries, Muslims extended and consolidated their rule in many areas, and by 1200 they controlled lands from the Atlantic to the Bay of Bengal, from central Russia to the Gulf of Aden. Wherever they went, they built mosques, tombs, forts, and beautiful cities. The ruins of such structures are found widely in Greater Syria, a heartland of Islamic and Arab culture.
Muhammad made Medina his first capital, and it was here that he died. Leadership of the faithful fell to Abu Bakr (632-634), Muhammad's father-in-law and the first of the four orthodox caliphs, or temporal leaders of the Muslims. Umar followed him (634-644) and organized the government of captured provinces. The third caliph was Uthman (644-656) under whose administration the compilation of the Quran was accomplished. Among the aspirants to the caliphate was Ali, Muhammad's cousin and son-in-law, whose supporters felt he should be the Prophet's successor. Upon the murder of Uthman, Ali became caliph (656-661). After a civil war with other aspirants to the caliphate, Ali moved his capital to Mesopotamia and was later assassinated at Al Kufah. Ali's early followers established the first of Islam's dissident sects, the Shia (from Shiat Ali, party of Ali). Those who had accepted the before and after Ali successions remained the orthodox of Islam; they are called Sunnis--from the word sunnia meaning orthodox.
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