The Middle East and Islam seem inseparable. Islam, through its expansion, unified the Middle East both economically and, at times, politically. The Middle East has been and still is more than just Islam, but it's impossible to deny the substantial influence the religion has had on the region and the fact that Islam has become a convenient way to define the region.
The most significant influence Islam has had on the Middle East has been to define it as a region. In 1902, a navy commanded named Alfred Mahan came up with the expression "Middle East." The term had been earlier designated for military purposes as a strategic region between India and Arabia, but expanded to include North Africa, Turkey and Pakistan, which was part of India during Mahan's time. What these culturally diverse regions and populations have in common is Islam as a religion and as a sense of cultural identity.
The Pre-Islamic Middle East
Prior to Islam, the Middle East was the cradle of civilization. In Mesopotamia, or modern day Iraq, some of the earliest-known civilizations such as the Sumerians and the Babylonians flourished, while another grand empire developed in Ancient Egypt. These were later followed by the Assyrians, the Persians and, during the last centuries B.C., the Romans, all of whom helped define the Middle East prior to the advent of Islam.
Islam, founded in seventh-century Arabia by the prophet Muhammad, altered the Middle East economically. Soon after Muhammad's death, a new Islamic-Arab civilization spread beyond the Arabian Peninsula. Within a century, Muslims had conquered most of the Middle East and parts of Spain, and had created a unified economic sphere. Trade flourished and the Middle East experienced an economic and cultural renaissance.
Even after the early Islamic empires declined, Islam continued to influence the Middle East politically. Many rulers, like the sultans of the Ottoman Empire, established their political legitimacy by claiming to be successors to the leaders of the original Islamic empires. Additionally, many movements that sought to resist European colonization were unified on the basis of Islam, such as those of the Mahdi of Sudan or the Mad Mullah of Somalia, both of which resisted the growing British Empire.
Current Day Influence
The influence of Islam radiates throughout the Middle East. There is no separation of church and state, as seen in the U.S. government. Muslims generally agree that Islam should play a role in sharia law, governance and everyday life. However, there are strong ideological differences between contemporary followers of Islam and the Islamic extremists who espouse violence to enforce their worldview. Growing tensions between the diverse cultures and tribes of this region make the Middle East a volatile region.