What we know of Muhammad is derived from Muslim authors who lived sometime after his death. The Arabia into which he was born about A.D. 570 was inhabited largely by nomadic tribes, each under its own chief. These nomads lived on the meat and milk of their animals and on dates from palm trees. They raided each other’s flocks of camels and sheep and often feuded among themselves.
Byzantium and Islam
Islam (the Arabic word means “submission to God”) is the most recent of the world’s great religions. Its adherents (Muslims, “those who submit” to God) today inhabit the entire North African coast, much of central and west Africa, part of Yugoslavia, and Albania, Egypt, Turkey, the entire Near and Middle East, Pakistan, parts of India, the Malay peninsula, Indonesia, and the Philippine Islands, as well as central Asia and portions of China. Relations with the Muslim world have been crucial to Western civilization since Muhammad founded Islam in the early seventh century.
The Church of Hagia Sophia (Holy Wisdom) in Constantinople, built in the sixth century, was designed to be “a church the like of which has never been seen since Adam nor ever will be.” The dome, says a contemporary, “seems rather to hang by a golden chain from heaven than to be supported by solid masonry.”
Byzantine achievement was varied, distinguished, and of major importance to the West. Byzantine literature may suffer by comparison with the classics, but the appropriate society with which to compare medieval Byzantium is the Europe of the Middle Ages. Both were Christian and both the direct heirs of Rome and Greece. The Byzantines maintained learning on a level much more advanced than did the West, which, indeed, owes a substantial cultural debt to Byzantium.
Scholars have disputed whether agriculture or commerce was economically more important in Kievan Russia; the answer appears to be commerce. In trade, with Byzantium in particular, the Russians sold mostly furs, honey, and wax—products not of agriculture but of hunting and beekeeping. Since the Byzantines paid in cash, Kiev had much more of a money economy than did western Europe. From the economic and social point of view, Kievan Russia in the eleventh century was in some ways more advanced than manorial western Europe.
Beginning in the eighth century, the Scandinavians expanded into Russia. First taking control of the Baltic shore, they moved south along the rivers to the Sea of Azov and the northern Caucasus. Their name was Rus, which has survived in the modern term Russian. Gradually they overcame many of the Slavic, Lithuanian, Finnish, and Magyar peoples who were then living on the steppe. The story told in the Old Russian Primary Chronicle, compiled during the eleventh century, is suggestive of what may have happened among the inhabitants of Russia sometime in the 850s: