An Empire is the domination of a capital city, tribe or nation over others, such that other territories and their inhabitants, are inferior to, or subjugated by, the dominating nation - and are exploited for their resources.
The Islamic Caliphate, however, assimilates all territories as equals to itself. Thus Cordoba rivaled Baghdad and Samarkand rivaled Cairo in terms of wealth, learning and technology. The Islamic lands were all semi-autonomous and prospered as such. The Islamic Caliphate was no more an empire than the European Union is today (however, the EU and a Caliphate are structurally very different, with ultimate political authority residing in the Caliph).
Furthermore, unlike an Empire, the capital cities can change location in a Caliphate - so Constantinople went from being a conquered city, to being the Capital of the Islamic Caliphate itself.
The British occupation of Sri Lanka illustrates this difference significantly. The Sri Lankan people were stripped of the ownership of their lands and reduced to poverty, by the British Empire's Wastelands Ordinance law. The British Empire then instituted industrial scale coffee, tea and rubber cultivation from these lands, using imported Tamil forced laborers, with the resources going to Britain and the profits going to the wealthy British 'landowners' of these lands.
The Muslim rule of Al-Andalus (Iberia) was very different. At first, Muslims were mostly confined to manning frontier barracks. With the exception of new technology, learning and trade, the non-Muslim population was almost completely unaffected. With the rise of wealth, improvements to agriculture, architecture and Muslim migration and conversions to Islam, the populations became more urbanised. Although trade increased along the Mediterranean, Al-Andalus's agriculture wasn't turned into a cash crop for the Caliph of Baghdad, nor were any non-Muslims deprived of their lands, or forced into servitude. Al-Andalus came to rival Islamic Syria, Iraq and Egypt in wealth and development. It should be noted, that all these provinces were previously conquered territories themselves.
The Islamic Caliphate did not feature the domination of one race, tribe, or capital city over others, neither was citizenship conditional on long military service (like the Roman Empire). But rather all were considered as equal citizens, with exceptions made only for non-Muslim males not being obligated to join the Caliphate's military reserves (like Muslim males did) and were merely expected to pay a tax for the military upkeep of the frontiers instead. However, if they were willing to join their fellow Muslim male citizens in the Military reserves, their tax was waived.
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