Just two decades after the end of hostilities between the Persians and Byzantines, the Persian Empire would be destroyed by the Arabs, while the Byzantines would be substantially over-run. This lecture is the story of how Islam exploded onto the scene following Mohammad’s death.
Seventh-century Arabia was a difficult place to live. The mountainous and sandy terrain made travel and living difficult; cattle raising was, as professor Daileader ruefully remarks, “was almost a national pass-time.” The dominant spiritual view was Pagan Polytheists; Allah, though viewed as more powerful than the other gods, was hardly what we would consider today as ‘the one true God’ as typically imagined in the Abrahamic way. The Muslim prophet Mohammad was born sometime in 570 or 580 A.D. and hailed from Mecca, one of the sizable trading posts situated near an oasis. Orphaned at a young age, Mohammed nonetheless was successful professionally. He is a merchant. During his thirties or forties, however, during one of his customary walks, he started having visions which troubled him greatly; eventually, he decided that these visions were religious in nature and his obligation to share these visions with the inhabitants of Mecca. Though the poorer families embraced the sort of message which Mohammed preached, the richer families did not appreciate such activities.
As a result, Mohammed leaves Mecca and travels to Medina where he was an arbitrator of feuds between various tribes. Mohammed was successful in his efforts to such an extent that he began unifying the tribes, consolidating their unity under the basis of his new religion. In 630 A.D. he began raiding Mecca’s supply and cattle lines, eventually capturing the city. He did two years later.
Mohammed’s legacy was to leave behind a united Arab territory settled under a monotheistic theology. Though Islam has similarities with Judaism and Christianity, Mohammed did not teach Islam was a new religion per se; rather, he saw it as a continuation and a conclusion to the Jewish-Christian tradition. Mohammed accepted Jesus as a human figure but not a divine one, as he considered himself human as well; Islam was, to him, the complete revelation which began with the Old and New Testaments.
Months after Mohammed’s death, Arabs began pouring out of Arabia. Damascus, St. Jerusalem, Egypt, the Persian Empire, and North Africa. All of this within a century.
How did all this success come about? There are a number of factors to consider.
Timing was important as well as luck. After the Byzantine and Persian Empires fought one another to a stand-still, they were exhausted. The Byzantine Empire, still reeling under the bubonic plague, was not in shape for another major war. Additionally, the Arabs had the element of surprise; no one expected the Arabs to unite and challenge the already established empires. Previously, the various Arab tribes were divided into hundreds of groups which raided one another. The Arabs were able to survive in environments which were difficult for the Persians and Byzantines, so they were able to fight in desert climates were the Byzantines had not erected any fortifications. During a military defeat, for instance, the Arabs could simply melt back into the desert and lure the enemy into where they were able to fight best. In fact, Arab expansionism seems to stop once Arab forces encounter landscapes which were inhospitable to their own birth, such as Northern France, where camels were of little use. But perhaps the most important factor was religious zeal—specifically, the confidence and energy which their faith brought them. Prior to Mohammed, the Arabs had internalized a great deal of the animosity which the Persians and Byzantines had directed towards them for not being able to unite into a cohesive entity; once they had been united by Mohammed, however, their confidence skyrocketed.
During the early middle ages, the term “Jihad”, a term coined by religious scholars to denote the successes of the Arabs, meant ‘striving’ or ‘effort’ to refer to both military and personal betterment. The idea of Jihad is worked out after Mohammed’s death and when it looks like that Islam will conquer the whole of the known world. According to the theory of Jihad worked out in the seventh century, there should only be a single Islamic state in the world, in order to better mirror the state of the one god.
The issue with this, however, is that Islam is divided into two parts: one, where Islamic rulers are in control and Islamic law is observed (the so-called ‘House of Islam’), and two, those parts of the world where non-Muslims are ruling following various types of law (the so-called ‘House of War’). Theologically, the idea is for the former to absorb the latter; hence, why Islamic rulers are forbidden from having peace with their non-Muslim neighbors for more than a decade. It is, however, important to note that the unity concerned with this absorption is political unity, not a religious unity. While a victory over non-Muslims is seen as a victory and proof of Allah’s will, the only people who are not tolerated to exist are pagans, who are given a choice of either conversion or death. Jews and Christians, meanwhile, since they were recipients of the first two parts of the divine revelation, are accorded a certain degree of respect. Meaning, they should not be forced to convert to Islam—they should be allowed to practice their religion (allowed to exist). In recompense, non-Muslims were to pay a special tax (in fact, this tax would later cut into the conversation rate since Muslim rulers would often forbid non-Muslims converting to Islam in order to preserve the tax rate).
By the early eighth century, however, Islam burned itself out. The boundaries of this new empire had been flung so far and wide, it was impossible to maintain the kind of dynamism which had existed after Mohammed’s death. By this time, Muslim rulers had maintained regular diplomatic contact with their neighbors and had abandoned the idea of perpetual war with the House of War. Though Islamic codes are no longer strictly followed, they are kept alive for times of dire troubles when leaders need to rally the masses in times of crisis (such as during the crusades).
It is often asked why military conquest was essential to early Islam when it was not essential to early Christianity. It should be remembered that Islam, unlike Christianity, acquired a territorial base almost immediately; Christianity, meanwhile, was an illegal religion for almost three centuries. With Mohammed waging war against Mecca on a religious basis, it is not surprising that warfare factors greatly; Christianity, meanwhile, does not emerge with a military edge until post-Constantine.
The expansion of Islam effects great change. From North Africa, Islam expands into Visigothic Spain and Spain becomes part of the House of Islam for the better part of five centuries. After a brief period where Islamic rulers continued to push northward—Southern Italy and Sicily are eventually captured, along with parts of Southern France in the ninth century, Arab conquests would dwindle but leave a major imprint on Europe. But it is the defeat of a Muslim raiding party, and the emergence of the Carolingians, which would be the true driving force of European politics.