After the death of Muhammad, his father-in-law, Abu-Bakr, became caliph of the multitudinous Arabic tribes, subordinated them to the authority of Islam, and spread the influence of Islam northwards, beyond the borders of Arabia into direct contact with the Byzantine and Persian empires. From roughly 636 C.E., Arab victories over foreign armies were almost continuous, and succeeding caliphs were able to secure more territory for the expanding Islamic empire. By the 650’s, Islamic forces had turned westward, and began sweeping over north Africa. They conquered Egypt in 646, and from 661 to 750, the height of the Umayyad dynasty, extended further west all the way to current-day Morocco and all the way up the Spanish mainland until the Pyrenees Mountains.
The Umayyad capital was centered on Damascus, and the economic and military connections made by decades of expansion contributed to the enrichment of this city and the broader empire. The Umayyads were a highly urbanized society, and built longstanding infrastructure in Egypt, Syria, and Persia. Conversion to Islam actually guaranteed an individual access to the markets and trade connections facilitated by this new infrastructure, and thus the Umayyad dynasty was able to encourage many foreigners to its ranks.
Furthermore, Islamic expansion into parts of South Asia brought them into prolonged contact with Chinese traders. This introduced, among many other commodities, the technology of paper to the Arabs. Paper was cheaper than either Egyptian papyrus or European parchment, and allowed an intellectual revolution to occur in the Islamic world. Bureaucratic record keeping, high literacy rates, the authoring of many books, philosophic and theological investigation, and even the cursive Arabic script all proliferated because of the opportunities brought by the introduction of paper.
After the Shi’ite-Sunni Schism, many older European empires could use the Umayyad-Abbasid rivalry to strengthen their own imperial position, as early Umayyad expansion had crippled their position internationally. The Byzantine Empire, for example, allied with the Abbasid caliphate. The Abbasids succeeded in surpassing the Umayyads in the 8th century, relieving military pressure at its southeastern borders. The Frankish king Charlemagne engaged in long-term trade with the Abbasids. In exchange for Abbasid silver, which flowed through Russia, into the Baltic and then down into the Frankish Rhineland, the Franks provided furs, wax, honey, leather, and slaves. In the long-term, the emergence of the Islamic empire provided new points of contact on the north African coast and a new potential trade partner for Europe and Asia’s older empires.