When Islam first stepped onto the world stage in the seventh century CE, it came as a surprise to the great powers of the day, the Byzantine (or Eastern Roman) Empire and the Sassanian Persian Empire. A powerful religious, political, and social movement sprang up from among the Arabs, the fragmented desert-dwelling peoples who had been pushed back and forth by the wars between Rome and Persia for centuries.
Muslims of the early Islamic period were aware that they were stepping into a world of powerful forces, and some examples of early Islamic art reflect the desire to stake a claim for Islam’s place in the world. For example, a wall painting from an early Islamic palace, in modern-day Jordan, shows how early caliphs positioned themselves in relation to the larger world.
This painting, known as the “Six Kings” painting, is in very poor condition today, partly because of some European travelers who saw it in the early twentieth century and tried to chisel it off the wall and take it with them. (This is why we can’t have nice things.) Working from the painting in its current damaged state and an impressionistic copy made by those travelers, though, we can get a sense of what the original looked like.
Six royal figures stand together, all gesturing toward the caliph’s throne. The six figures were originally labeled in both Arabic and Greek. While not all of them can be identified now, we can tell that they include the Byzantine emperor, the Sassanian Persian emperor, the Visigothic king of Spain, and the king of Axum, a nation in what is today Ethiopia that was a powerful political and commercial state at the time.
This painting comes from the early 700s, a time when Islam was barely a century old but the caliphate had already become a major world power. By placing these figures on the wall, the caliphs were placing themselves among the great powers of the day, even positioning themselves as leaders of a world whose boundaries stretched from Spain to Persia and Constantinople to the horn of Africa. That was no small claim for such a young polity to make. The message was clear: Islam had arrived and was ready to be taken seriously as a world power.
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