While Late Antiquity witnessed the collapse of Sasanian rule and the dismemberment of much of Byzantium, it also saw the birth and spectacular growth of what was unarguably the greatest Near Eastern empire since the Achaemenids, and arguably the greatest empire ever produced in south-west Asia. For the first and only time in history, lands irrigated by the Guadalquivir, Nile and Oxus rivers were producing revenues for a single polity, the Umayyad caliphate, which, by the second decade of the eighth century, stretched from the Atlantic Ocean to Central Asia. The Umayyads had assembled an empire considerably larger than that of the Romans (at its greatest extent) in about a third the time. What is more, seventh- and eighth- century Muslims also produced the last of the great religious and cultural movements of Antiquity. Islam was initially the faith of the caliphate’s Arab rulers, and Arabic was initially the language of the elite; but over the next three or four centuries Islam was transformed into the majority religion of the empire, while Arabic (and then arabicised Persian) became the languages of empire, culture and learning, as well as the lingua franca of the Arab Near and Middle East. Finishing a job first started by Constantine three centuries earlier, Muslims thus fused and transformed religious ideas from a wide variety of religious traditions (especially Jewish, Christian and Manichaean) and cultural backgrounds (Arabian, Byzantine and Sasanian), generating a religion and culture during the seventh, eighth and ninth centuries that were distinctively their own.
The study of Islam as a religious, political and cultural force has a long and distinguished history at Oxford. In addition to time-tested strengths in philology and Islamic thought, which are reflected in the Bodleian Library’s exceptionally large and important collection of manuscripts and printed material, the University is home to the Khalili Research Centre for the Art and Material Culture of the M iddle East, and to the Ashmolean Museum with its extensive Islamic collections. Oxford has teaching and research staff in a wide-range of the disciplines relevant to the study of early Islam, such as history, language, art history, archaeology, and numismatics, and is also strong in research and teaching on the Muslim empire’s neighbours and non-Muslim subjects (who were writing in Greek, Syriac, Armenian and Coptic).