Centre for Continuing Education

History Course: The Legacy of Islamic Civilisations 632-1924

History. See the future. It’s in the past.

COVID-19 update: arrangement of our courses

We are now delivering courses online and in-person. Please check the delivery format of each class before enrolling.

Please note that course materials (excluding prescribed texts) are shared electronically within 48 hours of course commencement. Printing is not available.

This course will take you on a journey through the history of Islamic civilisations; beginning with the Dark Ages in the 7th century, through the Renaissance in the 16th century, until the beginning of the 20th century when the Ottoman Caliphate was abolished in 1924. The Dark Ages was a particularly interesting period, with Islamic civilisations flourishing and stretching from China in the East to Spain in the West.

In what ways can medieval and early modern Islam be seen as responsible for making Western civlisation? How much did European cultures borrow from Islamic cultures? The course traces these achievements and contributions to human civilisation. The course also examines changing perceptions of Islamic culture, from respect to enmity.


This course aims to provide you with an understanding of the historical forces that have shaped the rise and fall of Islamic civilisations, from their beginning on the Arabian Peninsula in the seventh century, until the demise of the Ottoman Caliphate in 1924.


By the end of this course, you should be able to:

  • discuss the nature of the rise and fall of empires
  • analyse the rise of Islamic civilisations beginning in the seventh century
  • recognise historical continuity
  • develop and extend your knowledge and understanding of cultural, artistic and political systems of Islamic civilisations
  • appreciate the cross-cultural interactions that shaped world history
  • recognise the cultural contributions of Islamic civilisations to world history.


Pre-Islamic Arabia and the birth of Islam in the 7th century

This lesson briefly focuses on the pre-Islamic period in Arabia before the onset of Islam in the 7th century. We will look at the life of Muhammad before and after his prophethood and his life’s influence on the development of early Muslim communities on the Arabian Peninsula and beyond.

The Islamic Empire: the Umayyads – from Damascus to Cordoba

In this lesson we will look at the rise and fall of the Umayyad Caliphate with its capital in Damascus (632-750). We will also look at the flowering civilisation established in Spain (750-1492) with great cities including Granada, Cordoba and Seville.

The Abbasid Dynasty: From China to North Africa – 750-1258 – Islamic Enlightenment: Glory of medieval Baghdad – Islamic Philosophy, Arts and Sciences, and Sufi Humanism, 8th-12th centuries

Today we focus on the rise of the Abbasids with its capital in Baghdad in 750. The Abbasid Empire spread from China in the East, to North Africa and Anatolia. Baghdad became the center of learning of the medieval world where ancient and classical texts of the Greeks were translated into Arabic with added commentaries. Islamic learning spread to Europe via Muslim Spain and contributed to the making of the Renaissance in Europe. The decline of the Abbasids led to the rise of independent Islamic dynasties, including the Fatimids in Egypt (909-1171). It was a Shi’a Islamic caliphate that spanned a large area of North Africa, from the Red Sea in the east to the Atlantic Ocean in the west. The dynasty of Arab origin ruled across the Mediterranean coast of Africa and ultimately made Egypt the centre of the caliphate, making its contributions to learning and the arts.

The Great Seljuk Empire 1037-1194 & The Seljuk Sultanate of Rum 1077-1308

The rise of the Turks in Central Asia witnessed the establishment of a number of Turkic empires. The Seljuk Empire was founded by Tughrul Beg (1016–1063) and his brother Chaghri Beg (989–1060) in 1037. From their homelands near the Aral Sea, the Seljuks advanced first into Khorasan and then into mainland Persia, before eventually conquering eastern Anatolia. Here the Seljuks won the Battle of Manzikert in 1071 and conquered most of Anatolia from the Byzantine Empire, which became one of the reasons for the first crusade (1095-1099). From their capital in Konya, in central Anatolia, they went on to create a distinct civilisation under the Seljuk Sultanate of Rum (1077-1308) embedded with Islamic and Sufi mysticism, and Central Asian Turkic flavour. The Seljuk dynasty rejuvenated the Islamic civilisation hitherto dominated by Arabs and Persians. The Seljuks founded universities and were also patrons of art and literature. Their reign is characterised by Persian astronomers such as Omar Khayyam, the Persian philosopher al-Ghazali and the Sufi mystic Rumi. Under the Seljuks, New Persian became the language for historical recording, while the centre of Arabic language culture shifted from Baghdad to Cairo. From c. 1150-1250, the Seljuk Empire declined, and was invaded by the Mongols around 1260. The Mongols divided Anatolia into emirates. Eventually one of these, the Ottoman, would conquer the rest.

Islamic dynasties: Mongols, Timurids, Safavids and Mughals

After the decline of Mongol Muslim rule, the region split into autonomous dynasties leading to the rise of other Muslim political entities in Central Asia and India. The Timurids resided in Central Asia, the Safavids in Iran and the Mughals in India. Each went on to create their distinct Islamic civilisations and renaissances.

The Ottoman Empire 1453-1566: From the Conquest of Constantinople to World Empire

After the Ottoman conquest of Constantinople in 1453, renamed Istanbul, the Ottoman State founded by Osman became one of the universal empires of the early modern period, alongside Spain and Venice. The expansionist policies of Sultan Mehmed II and his successors saw the empire expand in the East (against their Shia rivals of Iran and the Mameluks of Egypt) and West (against Venice and the rising Habsburgs in the Balkans).

Perceptions of the Other: Ottomans, Orientalism and the West, 17th-19th centuries

The onset of the long decline of the Ottoman Empire from 1699 onward contributed to the oscillating perceptions of the Muslim East. These European perceptions varied from curiosity to utter contempt. This lesson looks at the changing perceptions of the Ottomans and Islam via primary sources from European travellers and artists of the period.

Decline, fall and legacy of the Ottoman Empire 1878-1924

The Ottoman Empire failed at the end of World War 1 in 1918. This was the result of the rise of nationalism and imperialism in the West, and of Tsarist Russia, combined with economic stagnation. The Allied occupation of Istanbul at the end of the war witnessed the rise and triumph of Mustafa Kemal Atatürk. The Ottoman Empire fell, along with the Caliphate, and was replaced by the Republic of Turkey.

Intended audience

  • Anyone interested in extending their knowledge in Islamic history with a revisionist, inclusive and global approach.
  • Anyone interested in Islamic history, art and culture.

Delivery style

  • Delivered over four weekly, 4-hour sessions
  • Lecture with audio-visual presentation
  • Discussion with interactive Q&A
  • Analysing written and visual sources
  • Research materials and images of art works when required


Please bring a notebook, pen and laptop/tablet for the research tasks and note taking.

Recommended reading

Brockelmann, Carl (ed), 1982, History of the Islamic Peoples, Routledge & Kegan Paul, London.

Grousset, Rene, 1970, The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia, Rutgers University Press, New Brunswick, NJ.

Inalcik, Halil, 1973, The Ottoman Empire: The Classical Age 1300-1600, Phoenix, London.

Lapidus, Ira M, 1990, A History of Islamic Societies, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Lings, Martin, 1986, Muhammad: his life based on the earliest sources, Unwin Paperbacks, London.


  • Expert trainers
  • Central locations
  • Course materials – yours to keep
  • CCE Statement of Completion

We acknowledge the tradition of custodianship and law of the Country on which the University of Sydney campuses stand. We pay our respects to those who have cared and continue to care for the Country.