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3.3 Belief Systems of Land-Based Empires

7 min readjanuary 3, 2023

Evan Liddle

Evan Liddle

Riya Patel

Riya Patel


AP World History: Modern 🌍

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One notable feature about these empires is that a number of them were the catalyst, if not outright cause, of several new or modified religious movements. These changes were sometimes used or supported by rulers, often to enhance their prestige.
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There have been many land-based empires throughout history, each with its own set of belief systems and cultural practices. Some examples of belief systems that were held by land-based empires include:
  1. Hinduism: This was the dominant religion in the Indian subcontinent and was the belief system of several land-based empires in India, including the Maurya Empire (321-185 BC) and the Mughal Empire (1526-1857). Hinduism is a polytheistic religion that believes in a cycle of reincarnation and the ultimate goal of achieving moksha, or spiritual liberation.
  2. Buddhism: This belief system originated in ancient India and was the dominant religion in several land-based empires in Asia, including the Maurya Empire (321-185 BC) and the Tibetan Empire (618-841). Buddhism teaches the Four Noble Truths and the Eightfold Path as a means to end suffering and achieve enlightenment.
  3. Islam: This monotheistic religion originated in the Arabian Peninsula and was the belief system of several land-based empires, including the Umayyad Caliphate (661-750) and the Ottoman Empire (1299-1922). Islam teaches the belief in one God and the importance of following the Five Pillars of Islam.
  4. Christianity: This monotheistic religion originated in the Middle East and was the belief system of several land-based empires, including the Byzantine Empire (330-1453) and the Holy Roman Empire (962-1806). Christianity teaches the belief in one God and the importance of following the teachings of Jesus Christ.
  5. Confucianism: This ethical and philosophical system originated in ancient China and was the belief system of the Qing Dynasty (1644-1912), the last imperial dynasty of China. Confucianism emphasizes the importance of social harmony, filial piety, and the respect for authority and tradition.

Religious Movements

The Protestant Reformation

In Europe, the newly created Protestant movement within Christianity, which opposed the Catholic Church in Rome, found strong supporters in Northern Europe and in parts of France. Rulers such as Henry IV in France or Albert Duke of Prussia promoted or tolerated Protestant ideas that might have otherwise been crushed by the Catholic Counter-Reformation and Inquisition, which received support from Catholic monarchs. But like their Catholic counterparts, Protestant monarchs used the newly formed Protestant churches to break away from the church in Rome and seize its property.
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Martin Luther and reformers in other parts of the world often contested the authority of existing religious structures and sometimes sought to build new religious orders. Empires tried to use religion to reinforce authority, but this did not always go smoothly. Image Courtesy of thegospelcoalitio

What Was The Protestant Reformation?

The Protestant Reformation was a major 16th-century European movement that sought to reform the Roman Catholic Church. It was led by Martin Luther, a German monk and theologian, who challenged the authority of the Pope and the teachings of the Roman Catholic Church. Luther's ideas, which were based on the belief that people could be saved through faith alone and not through good works or the Church's sacraments, were controversial and led to a split within the Church. The Protestant Reformation had far-reaching consequences, and it led to the creation of Protestant churches, such as the Lutheran Church, the Calvinist Church, and the Anglican Church. The Protestant Reformation also had a profound impact on European society, and it contributed to the development of the modern nation-state and the democratization of Europe.

Who Was Martin Luther?

Martin Luther was a German monk and theologian who is known for his role in the Protestant Reformation, a 16th-century movement that sought to reform the Roman Catholic Church. In 1517, Luther published the "Ninety-Five Theses," which were a list of criticisms of the Church's practices, particularly the sale of indulgences. The "Ninety-Five Theses" sparked a debate within the Church that eventually led to a split between Protestant and Roman Catholic Christians.
Luther's ideas, which were based on the belief that people could be saved through faith alone and not through good works or the Church's sacraments, were controversial and challenged the authority of the Pope. He translated the Bible into German, making it more widely available to the general public, and he advocated for reforms in the Church, including the use of vernacular languages in worship and the elimination of the sale of indulgences.
The Protestant Reformation had far-reaching consequences, and it led to the creation of Protestant churches, such as the Lutheran Church, the Calvinist Church, and the Anglican Church. The Protestant Reformation also had a profound impact on European society, and it contributed to the development of the modern nation-state and the democratization of Europe.

South Asian Empires

In South Asia, the Mughal Empire represented a much deeper connection between Islam and Hinduism than had previously existed. True, Muslims had been in South Asia since the beginning of Islam, but now a Muslim power controlled almost the entire continent. These deeper interactions between the ruling faith and the majority faith led to, and were a result of, popular religious movements such as Sufism and the Bhakti Movement.

What is the Mughal Empire?

The Mughal Empire was an imperial power in South Asia from the early 16th to the mid-19th century. It was established and ruled by a Muslim dynasty of Chaghatai Turco-Mongol origin, who claimed direct descent from both Timur, the Turco-Mongol conqueror, and Genghis Khan, through his son Chaghatai Khan. The Mughal Empire was marked by a period of economic, cultural, and architectural prosperity, and is considered one of the greatest empires in the history of India. At its peak, the Mughal Empire spanned much of the Indian subcontinent, including modern-day India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and parts of Afghanistan. The Mughal emperors were known for their cultural achievements and their support for the arts, and their rule had a profound and lasting impact on the development of South Asia.

What is Sufism?

Sufism is a mystical Islamic belief system, with its own set of rituals, beliefs, and practices. It seeks to achieve a greater understanding of Islam and a closer relationship with God through prayer, meditation, and the pursuit of spiritual truth. Sufism has a long history, dating back to the early days of Islam, and it has played an important role in the development of the religion. Sufis follow a spiritual leader, or shaikh, and often live and worship in communities called "orders" or "brotherhoods." Sufism emphasizes the importance of personal experience and individual approach to understanding God, rather than relying solely on scriptural study. It has had a significant influence on Islamic culture and has produced many influential scholars and mystics over the centuries.

What is the Bhakti Movement?

The Bhakti movement was a spiritual and social movement that originated in ancient India and spread throughout the Indian subcontinent. It was based on the belief in the power of devotion to a personal god or deity as a means of achieving spiritual liberation. The Bhakti movement emphasized the importance of an emotional and personal relationship with God, and it rejected the more formal, ritualistic aspects of traditional Hinduism. The Bhakti movement was influential in the spread of Hinduism and had a significant impact on the development of Indian music and literature. It also contributed to the development of Hindu-Muslim relations and played a role in the social and cultural changes that occurred in India during this period.
Additionally, a brand new syncretic religion known as Sikhism emerged in northern South Asia, containing many elements of Islam (monotheism) and Hinduism (reincarnation and karma). It is not an accident that Sikhism emerged in northern South Asia where Islamic-Hindu contacts were strongest.

What is Sikhism?

Sikhism is a monotheistic religion founded in the 15th century in the Punjab region of India. It is the fifth-largest religion in the world, with over 27 million followers. The central belief of Sikhism is the existence of one eternal God, who is the same for all people and all religions. Sikhism emphasizes the equality of all people and rejects the caste system that is a part of Hinduism. The core beliefs of Sikhism are contained in the Guru Granth Sahib, the holy scripture of the Sikh religion, which is considered the eternal, living guru of the Sikhs. Sikhism also emphasizes the importance of performing good deeds and living a disciplined, honest, and compassionate life. The faith is known for its strong emphasis on social justice and its commitment to serving the poor and marginalized members of society.
(A note: historians and the AP World Exam use the term syncretic to describe Sikhism as a combination of Islam and Hinduism. However, many Sikhs do not describe their religion as only syncretic; and, all religions are syncretic in some ways) 

Sunni-Shia Split

In the broader Islamic World, the political competition between the Ottomans and Safavids over territory and trade intensified the division between Sunni and Shia Muslims. The Sunni-Shia split occurred around 700 CE, long before either empire, but the conflict between them intensified, especially considering the Ottoman Sultan claimed the title of Caliph, leader of the Muslim world, and the Safavid Shahs also claimed divine connection via the Imams (leaders) of the Shia community. 
In the Americas, both the Aztec and Inca Empires continued earlier religious traditions that had developed in those regions. The Aztec religious pantheon included several Mayan deities and the Aztecs used the Mayan script as well. The Incas continued the religious practices of the Moche who came before them (and the Chavin before them influenced the Moche), specifically that of worshipping the sun and moon, though in the Moche tradition the moon was more powerful. Both the Aztecs and Incas practiced human sacrifice, as did almost every Pre-1492 American Culture before them, though the Aztecs in particular practiced it to a much greater degree.
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